Ideal Car-Free Day No Surprise for Car-Free Angelenos

Posted on 05/14/2012

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Detail of the foreground of the illustration for the LA/2B car-free contest

There’s this LA/2B website thing that the city of L.A. Departments of Planning and Transportation are using to get input on the city’s mobility element. There’s even a contest to  “Create an itinerary for your ideal car-free day in LA” where you can win $500. Entries are due by 12 noon this Tuesday, tomorrow, May 15th 2012.

The promotion states that though not using a car “may sound tough…  you’d be surprised how easy it is…” Note that, according the contest rules, your entry has gotta be in English and can’t “challenge… or seek to change current laws” nor “involve political advocacy.”

As a car-free person, shouldn’t I be excited to hear other folks excited about car-free days? 

Well… no. Especially where the underlying assumption is you, dear reader, are a driver;  you’ll be “surprised” at getting around car-free.

Bikas isn’t the first critic to find fault in this contest. Commenter Jennix wisely responded:

This is unbelievably stupid. Thousands of us car-owning Los Angelenos go car-free everyday. While i appreciate that you’re trying to get people to thing of doing something different, to couch it in the context of being something so unusual it requires any planning at all misses the point: YOUR DEPENDENCE ON YOUR AUTOMOBILE IS AN ILLUSION.

Car-Free days targeted toward drivers are, perhaps, not such a bad thing. Stuff like CicLAvia and Bike to Work day can get some people out of their daily car-centric routines. As Jennix points out, though, these car-free days shouldn’t be seen as “so unusual.” They’re common and they’re easy, convenient, cheap, routine, and even ordinary. When I have worked on these car-free events, though, I’ve been very vigilant to make sure that official messaging does not broadly assume that all participants are drivers. It’s off-putting to message these events with statements like “Leave the car at home today…” etc. It’s important that messaging assume that participants will include car-free folks and non-car-free folks.

Every day, there are more than half a million Los Angeles City commuters who don’t drive. That’s more than one in eight L.A. commuters. That statistic is from a decade old census figure for commuter work trips, so it likely underestimates contemporary trends, youth, seniors and non-citizens. In many L.A. neighborhoods, including where I live Koreatown, car-free residents are the majority.

Hosting a contest that fails to acknowledge and legitimize existing car-free folks ends up undermining the contest’s goals – assuming that this contest is designed to encourage folks to not drive so much. I interpret the underlying signals for the contest to be along the lines of: “hey, it’s just all us drivers in here” and “wow, it’s so tough, exotic, and zany to be car-free.” This ends up reinforcing existing city policies that value driving and undervalue bicycling, walking, and transit.

I think that this gentleman participates in car-free days every day

So, who are those “surprising” folks who are “tough” enough to get around car-free. Every day! Wow! Many of them speak Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Bangladeshi, or other non-English tongues. Many of them get around on wheelchairs; some negotiate L.A.’s streets using a white cane. Some are too young to drive; some too old. Somehow I don’t think that this contest was designed to get their input.

So here’s a fictional contest entry: (oops, I broke the English-only rule)

El día ideal sin carro es así: Me despierto temprano. Mi amigo Rogelio y yo nos subimos a nuestras viejas bicis de montaña usadas que amarramos atrás de nuestro apartamento en Koreatown. Supongo que en un día ideal sin carro, el manager nos dejaría meter las bicis adentro del edificio, pero eso es pedir mucho. Idealmente, estas bicis chafas no tienen las llantas ponchadas o cualquier otro problema mecánico. En un día ideal, los carros que van de prisa durante la hora pico de la mañana no nos atropellan o acosan.  Andamos juntos 9 millas al restaurante en el oeste de Los Ángeles donde  somos busboys.

En un día ideal, tenemos un lugar seguro donde estacionar nuestras bicis en el restaurante en vez de ponerlas en el medidor de gas atrás.  Idealmente, no se roban las bicis.  Las propinas son buenas y los meseros y los jefes comparten el monto total con nosotros justamente.  La migra no hace una redada del restaurante ese día.  No tenemos que trabajar tiempo extra y logramos regresar a casa seguros sin que nos acose la policía.

Idealmente, las tarjetas telefónicas funcionan bien y logro hablar con mi esposa e hijas en Oaxaca esa noche.  Las extraño tanto que duele.  Están bien y nos da gusto platicar y anticipo el momento cuando todos podamos estar reunidos otra vez. Eso sería un día ideal.

Here’s the translation into English:

My ideal car-free day goes like this. I wake early. My friend Rogelio and I get on our old used mountain bikes, which we keep chained up out back of our Koreatown apartment building. I guess on an idea car-free day, my landlord would let us keep our bikes inside the building, but that’s asking a lot. Ideally, these crappy bikes we ride don’t have flat tires or any other mechanical problems. On an ideal day, we don’t get hit or harassed by any cars speeding during morning commute hours. We bike together 9 miles to the West Los Angeles restaurant where we’re busboys.

On an ideal day, we have a safe place to park our bikes at the restaurant, instead of chaining them to gas meter in back. Ideally nobody steals the bikes.  The tips are good, and the waiters and bosses actually share the full amount with us fairly.The immigration police don’t raid the restaurant that day. We don’t have to work overtime, and we get to bike home safely, with no harassment by the police.

Ideally, the phone card works well, and I get to talk with my wife and daughters in Oaxaca City that night. I miss her and them so much, it hurts. They’re doing well and we’re happy to talk, and to look forward to when we can all be reunited again soon. That’s my ideal day.

That story points out just one kind of car-free person who’s missing in the city’s contest. Wheelchair users, blind people, and many others are missing from the contest audience. Please, city of Los Angeles, GOOD, LA/2B folks: don’t assume we all drive and, please, if you want people to get out of their cars, show respect to folks already doing it.

At some point soon,  I hope to write more about the overall mobility element update process and what I think its possibilities and limitations are.

(Thanks Aaron and Maria for Spanish translation.)

(One last note: apologies for picking on GOOD lately, with this piece and my earlier defense of bike share. I really do like GOOD. I RSS, read and share their posts, enjoy and agree with a great deal of what they have to say. They’re very much part of the solution… so perhaps that why I find it jarring when they occasionally publish stuff I take issue with.)

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