Positively 4th Street

Posted by on October 31, 2017

My teenage years growing up in Malibu were spent hiking in the mountains and lazing at the beach. Still, because I was a teenager, I also wanted the stimulation of the city, and to my great frustration there was no bus service and I couldn’t go anywhere without a car.

So when I got my brother’s hand-me-down Dodge Dart, it was freedom itself. The car allowed me to hang out with friends in Westwood and Venice. The Pacific Coast Highway was an escape route and I took it often.

In the decades that followed, the car transformed from a vehicle of freedom to the vehicle that carried groceries and ferried children to school. The car became an essential part of the family.

And, yet, this mini-essay is not intended to praise the automobile — but to bury it.

The automobile is the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Tailpipe emissions, once added to refinery emissions, account for half of California’s climate pollution — the biggest source by a mile.

Here’s the bottom line. If we want this thing called human civilization to continue, we must come to terms with the automobile and its gases. What do these “terms” materially look like? It looks a lot like Europe: more public transit, more bike lanes, and more electric and hydrogen-powered cars. And coming to terms requires acting at the personal level.

For me, I regularly ride my bicycle to work, as do other Climate Resolve staff members. Let me tell you, I didn’t say this was easy. Riding a bike in downtown LA is crazy-dangerous. Drivers are oftentimes distracted. Nor are Angelenos accustomed to sharing the road with bicycles. And those Uber drivers seem to always drop off passengers in the bike lanes.

Yes, biking can be crazy and dangerous — but it remains the best way to get around. (Positively, 4th Street is the best way to bike from downtown to the Arts District.) Study after study tells of the physical and mental health benefits of biking . . . let alone the traffic and environmental benefits.

Which brings me to the Mayor’s Great Streets and Vision Zero programs. There’s been a lot of venting-of-spleen over the test bike lanes along Venice Boulevard on the westside. It’s a new thing — an experiment to help Angelenos feel safe about bicycling in the city.

Yet some traditionalists, like the old me, think the sole purpose of a street is to convey cars quickly. I get it. I still love zipping around on freeways — when that’s still possible. And when I’m stuck in traffic, I hate my life.

But the street is not just made for cars. It’s public space. In fact, our city streets are cumulatively the most public space we have.

As public space, the street must be a function of the public good. As such, streets should be used to reduce pollution, not promote it. The street should be designed to encourage non-polluting forms of commuting. The street should help keep LA cool, not bake it with sun-absorbing asphalt. The street should add to our connectedness, as CicLAvia does. But let’s make it happen everyday.

This is what Councilmember Mike Bonin was experimenting with in Mar Vista — testing ways to make our city a better place. Mike should be lauded for his effort, not attacked. Is it perfect? No, no first attempt is ever perfect. But that’s our job as members of society: to refine the vision, not backslide into a redo version of the old days.

The joy I feel when I’m on my bike — wind on my face, my legs working, feeling an endorphin high — is a foretaste of a better city.