This week the Santa Monica City Council approved the Bicycle Action Plan by unanimous vote and last week the ribbon was cut on a new high capacity Bike Center facility. Tuesday’s vote finishes the of drafting a visionary document, and marking the beginning of the real work of implementation. I am much more hopeful for the full implementation of this plan than the never quite finished bicycle master plan from 1995.
The momentum has shifted a lot since 1995 and there is a new and largely younger crowd emerging and rallying around bikes. They are carrying the torch from the tireless advocates that fought for years even when it seemed like no one was listening. Rates of bike ownership in Santa Monica now represent a majority of residents. The survey data cited in the plan indicates commuting among employees of major city employers has been inching up recently, despite fairly little change on the street for bicycling in the time I have been living here. The remaining naysayers and critics that oppose bike facility development are looking more out of touch with every passing year.
What I don’t think our society has quite come to terms with yet, is how drastically economic, ecological, and cultural shifts will be shaping our transportation reality. These emerging shifts are demanding more serious consideration for bicycling in urban transportation. Riding a bike will be viewed as an increasingly logical response for people trying to manage our high levels of unemployment, stagnant wages and climbing fuel and food prices.
Private automobiles are simply not economical machines, and for the typical commute in L.A., which is actually less than 5 miles for 60% of commuters, they are not as necessary as we make them out to be. When combined with transit service, the reach by bike can also be extended much further.
For these and other reasons it is my belief that bicycling ridership will continue to grow even if the city were to do nothing to encourage it. For example in San Francisco, significant ridership gains were seen in recent years despite a legal injunction that had delayed the development of any new bicycling facilities.
Cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam are often heralded for being so bicycling and public transit oriented, with travel by car constituting a minority of trips, (despite still high rates of automobile ownership). It is often assumed that such cities in Europe have always had bike cultures and we can never emulate their travel mode shares.
What many don’t realize is that many world cities that we associate with bicycling today were once beginning to follow in the foot steps of American cities. Like us, they began destroying neighborhoods to make way for express highways, paving over public spaces for parking lots, and vehicle miles traveled rapidly increased. Some of the most happening outdoor cafes with adjacent cycle paths in Copenhagen today, were ugly and crowded parking lots in the 1970’s.
It’s an amazing history of transformation to see the bicycle-oriented cities take shape over the past 40 years, but if we want to preserve mobility for our future in a sustainable fashion, we may have to do even better. Those countries and cities had the foresight to view the 1973 oil embargo as a wake up call from the petroleum dream. They got to work addressing the vulnerability of their energy dependencies. We on the other hand abandoned initial efforts at new energy plans and went back to our oil guzzling ways the moment the spigots opened wide again.
However it was inevitable that the spigots could not run smoothly indefinitely, as the Shell Oil Company geologist Marion King Hubbert predicted in the 1950s. Despite massive investments and new technology, the oil extraction rate across the world has flattened out since 2005 (the US peak was in the 70’s), and gains in the past few years are increasingly coming from expensive and environmentally devastating tar sands extraction and deep sea drilling. Compounding this problem, the number of cars on the road in China and India competing for fuel imports is exploding.
Some analysis like that in the Department of Energy published report Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, and Risk Management from 2005, warn of the potential for catastrophic “oil crunches” before even 2015. The oil price spike we already had in 2008 was a factor contributing to our biggest economic crash in half a century. We do not have 40 years to linger in charting a new path toward.
In the debate on peak oil, the point at which the flow of global oil maxes out before beginning to decline, and the unsettled question of “are we there yet?” it is often overlooked that for oil importing nations like ours, what really matters is the oil available for import. Many oil exporters with nationalized oil companies like Saudi Arabia are consuming more of their own oil every year, which will leave less for other nations to import.
Political instability in places like Libya can send the oil futures market into wild price swings as big question marks are thrown on critical oil operations. Excitement about big offshore oil discoveries off the coasts of places such as Brazil, often overlook that growing economies like Brazil are quickly gobbling up much of that new capacity. Oil available for international export is not just stagnant; it has already gone into year over year decline, with the developing world consuming a bigger share of those imports every year . This has enormous implications for what has become of the American way of life.
More than ever the humble, efficient, bicycle will become an important piece of solving our transportation energy dilemma. With modest investment, bicycling can foster mobility and economic development even in the face of uncertain and challenging times. If every able bodied person in America simply rode a bike for every trip 2 miles or less (40% of U.S. trips are under 2 miles and 75% of those trips are made by car), it would accomplish more for our national security than any grand aircraft carrier or implement of war purchased at colossal expense on foreign credit.
The reduced strain of traffic pounding on our transportation infrastructure would save us billions in road and bridge repair. Which is why Republican congressman Rand Paul’s failed attempt to kill the minuscule federal funding support we offer to bicycling and pedestrian projects, an idea touted to shore up funding for bridge repair, made entirely no sense at all.
It is in this context of rather dismal global and national energy uncertainty, that local initiatives like our new Bike Action Plan in Santa Monica give me some hope for our future. As I , I don’t believe given our rate of vehicle turn over, that any kind of automotive innovation coming online this late in the arc of oil depletion will be sufficient to maintain mobility, and “happy motoring”, as we have come to know it in America. We’ll have some shiny new efficient and alternative cars for sure, but not enough of them for everyone, and nothing we know of, or in works, is as energy dense or easily transportable as petroleum based fuels.
I believe there is no greater contribution Santa Monica could make to our national and global security, than to lead the way for Southern California to think beyond the freeway off-ramp. So that one day our region can become known as an enjoyably walkable and bikable metropolis anchored around it’s growing public transportation network. A place where where people don’t feel compelled to desperately bury themselves in debt to get a set of wheels. In the words of Fatih Birol, chief economist for the International Energy Agency, “We have to leave oil before it leaves us”.
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