Bike Dynasty vs. Kingdom of Cars
From my Chinese Green Car column.
©2009 Isaac Hernández
I’ve just returned from Portland, Oregon, and I have seen the future of transportation: a place where cars and bicycles live together in harmony. Before Portland, I had only witnessed this in Amsterdam and Xi’an City.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the automobile. There’s something meditative about driving a well-built car on a well-built road, being present; being one with the road. But I also love bicycling. I can get the same feeling of power and peace at the handlebars of a mountain bike zooming past trees on a single track, or on a bike lane through city streets.
I thought that a world of bicycles and cars living together could be possible after going to China in 1998. I was there to document world bicycle Trials Champion Hans Rey. We rode around Xi’an, including a visit to the Terracotta Army, and all the way to the Sea of Bamboo and Emei Tan, in Sichuan Province; both by van and by bicycle. Xi’an at the time had impressive bicycle boulevards as wide as the car boulevards.
Amir Moghaddass Esfehani reports that China sent officials to Europe in 1866 to learn the latest technological developments of the Western world. Binchun came back with this report: “On the avenues people ride on a vehicle with only two wheels, which is held together by a pipe. They sit above this pipe and push forward with movements of their feet, thus keeping the vehicle moving. There’s yet another kind of construction which is propelled by foot pedaling. They dash along like galloping horses.” (Binchun, Chengcha Biji, 1866/68).
Since then, China went on to become the “kingdom of bicycles”, as Qiu Baoxing, a vice-minister with the Ministry of Construction, said in 2006, when he announced, according to the British newspaper, The Guardian, “that any bike lanes that have been narrowed or destroyed to make way for cars in recent years must be returned to their original glory.”
Los Angeles, California, was considered a “kingdom of cars” during the same time period. The first cars here were railway streetcars, pulled by horses and mules, starting in 1873, not long after China’s discovery of the bicycle.
By 1887 there were 43 rail car franchises in LA. And in 1881 the first successful electric rail system was completed. By 1911, many rail car companies had merged. In 1944, Los Angeles had two railway companies, Los Angeles Railway, with 1042 yellow streetcars, and Pacific Electric, with 437 red electric cars. The Pacific Electric Railway covered four counties, with 1,150 miles of track and over 109 million passengers that year.
But Los Angeles was becoming the car capital of the world; combustion engines paved the future. Trolley transportation was slow, moving at an average of 11 miles per hour, according to Scott L. Bottles (Los Angeles and the Automobile). But car transportation was slow as well, with automobiles spending 30% of the time stopped at intersections.
In 1937, The Automobile Club of Southern California suggested “a network of traffic routes for the exclusive use of motor vehicles over which there shall be no crossing at grade and along which there shall be no interference from land use activities.” January 1st, 1940, the first “express highway” was born. The term evolved to expressways and parkways, and then freeways, as in “free from congestion”.
But a rapid railway system still was part of the plan. Stone and Webster reported in 1939 to the Transportation Engineering Board of the city of Los Angeles that freeways should be designed to include rail tracks, necessary as densities increased. They even called for a subway system under Wilshire Boulevard. One freeway, over the Cahuenga Pass, did include tracks for Pacific Electric in its median.
The fate of the yellow cars may have been decided in 1943, when General Motors invested in American City Lines, a bus company, which in turn bought stock in Los Angeles Railway (up to 59% in May of 1945), and started dismantling the system. A similar fate awaited Pacific Electric in 1953, purchased by Metropolitan Coach Lines. By 1959 only one trolley line still existed, from Los Angeles to Long Beach. It closed two years later.
General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, Mack, and the Federal Engineering Corporation invested in National and American City Lines, which bought more than 100 electric systems in 45 US cities, replacing them with GM buses. The streetcars were burned, with the exception of a few placed in museums. It was after all, the time for “autopia”; rail lines were seen as a way of transportation for the poor.
The Seventh Circuit Court of California tried the companies involved and summarized the case: “On April 9, 1947, nine corporations and seven individuals, constituting officers and directors of certain of the corporate defendants, were indicted on two counts, the second of which charged them with conspiring to monopolize certain portions of interstate commerce…. The American City Lines having been dismissed, the remaining corporate and individual defendants were found guilty upon this count.”
In 1948, the United States Supreme Court (in United States v. National City Lines Inc.) reversed lower court rulings and the case was moved to Illinois. At the end, each company was fined $5,000, and each director was fined one dollar. It was a slap on the wrist for cutting transportation possibilities for millions of people.
From 1963 to 1990, when the Blue Line opened, there were no trains in operation in Los Angeles. Building new lines has proven difficult. If you are elderly or can’t drive for any reason, it’s tough to get around. Today we look back at the one thousand miles of rail that were dismantled and see an asset thrown away. We’re trying to back pedal and have a feasible public transportation system in LA. If only we hadn’t get rid of them 50 years ago!
In the meantime, China thrived on bicycles. Back in 1978, there were less than two million passenger cars in China… and 148 million in the USA. By 2006, the number of cars in China had increased to 27 million, and to 251 million in the USA.
It’s predicted that by 2021 the number of motor vehicles in China could reach 130 million, or one car for every 10 people. In the US there’s at this time one car per inhabitant. In California, due to the number of people with classic car collections, there are 10 cars per person!
Many people in the USA fear the consequences of continuous car ownership growth in China, and its effects on the environment and the economy due to the expected increase in demand of oil. But it’s a selfish approach to think that we in the US can enjoy our cars, but the Chinese can’t. I say let people enjoy cars, but let’s all do it responsibly. Which brings me back to Portland, Oregon.
That city has been fighting for years to increase bicycle traffic, by making it easier for people to ride, with miles of bicycle lanes, and boulevards (for exclusive bike use, away from car traffic). More and more businesses have showers so that employees can freshen up before starting the work day, and priority is given to bikes in many intersections, with the inclusion of green boxes painted on the street at stop lights. Cars must stop behind the green zone, allowing bicycles to go first when the light turns green.
The more people that ride bicycles, and the better public transportation, the more automobile drivers can enjoy their driving without traffic jams. Perhaps that’s why driver are so courteous to bike riders there, because they appreciate that it’s a bicycle in front of them, and not another car. After all, where is the freedom that the car is supposed to provide when you’re stuck in a traffic jam?
As I said, I love automobiles, but I love them under the right conditions. I work at home whenever I can. I couldn’t stand driving a car everyday to go to work and back, especially not in stop-and-go traffic. Whenever I can I walk or bike to the store. When I take classes at the university, I go by bicycle; it keeps me in good shape and saves money. Yes, I use the car when I need to go to Los Angeles, 100 miles south of my home in Santa Barbara. If time permits I’ll take the train; because of our culture of automobiles in Southern California, unfortunately our trains are not very fast, and not well connected.
So while Portland is trying to be more like China, increasing bicycle friendliness, I fear that China is trying to be more like Los Angeles. Believe me, you don’t want to “go” there. The city of movie stars is very unfriendly to communal life. It’s difficult to do anything without a car, so you become a slave to your car, instead of the automobile being at your service when you need it. You need to drive to get anywhere, and the rush hours are longer and longer. And only 0.6% of its population commutes by bicycle. Which reminds me of the sticker I saw on a bike in Portland, “you’d be happy to if you were riding your bicycle”
In the future, cities will be friendly to bicycle traffic and easy to get around by train and bus. In the future you will enjoy the car on a racetrack during the weekend.
In the future, cities will be more like some places in China, where the bicycle is still king. If China wants to look to the USA for ideas in the year 2009, just like Binchum looked to Europe in 1886, turn your eyes to Portland, Oregon, not Los Angeles, California. Don’t buy the streetcar companies and burn down the trolleys. Don’t set your bicycles on fire just yet. In fifty years you may wish you had those bicycle lanes and those train tracks back, just like LA. Cars, trams and bicycles can live together. Just look at Portland.