Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Different Kind of Southern California Commute


It often seems that the places I know the least are the ones in which I spent the most time. I grew up in Southern California, but spent most of the eighteen years I lived there planning and scheming how to escape. Its mild weather, shopping malls, plentiful produce and easy living were lost on someone who yearned for something more, somewhere different. I left the minute I could and have never regretted leaving; At the same time, I recently have started to enjoy learning more about the place where I grew up when I return annually for family visits.

I remember, vividly, the Southern Californian car culture. I remember growing up that one's wheels (four of them) were one's identity, and to ride a bike, for transportation or for pleasure was passe after the age of twelve.

I also remember smog alerts, periods of time during which the Department of Public Health mandated that all children, elderly, and pets stay inside because of poor air quality. On those days the skies were grey with a layer of brown suspended low above our upward-gazing heads.

But this was not always so; skies were not always brown and cars not always so ubiquitous. As early as the 1870's, Los Angeles had a mass transit rail system that thrived, so much so that it was strategically and systematically bought out and dismantled by General Motors, Firestone Tires, and Standard Oil in the early 1940's. (The three companies were later held liable in Federal Court for doing so in L.A. and numerous other cities; but the systems remained inoperative.) By the 1950's, the stage in Los Angeles was set for an era of cars and car culture.

This phenomenon, combined with its position as one of the world's the largest shipping ports, and its geographic position downwind of a number of oil refineries, has left Long Beach polluted. Long Beach suffers from air quality two to three times worse than contiguous cities, and on windless days, this fact is visible.

In response, the City of Long Beach is spinning its wheels to reform itself as "The Most Bike Friendly City in America" (as touted on a recently-unveiled bike sculpture in front of its City Hall). Raising $17 million in federal funds to improve and expand its existing bike trail system, Long Beach boasts five bike paths separated from street traffic comprising 60 miles in length; already 20 of a contemplated 100 miles of streets will be resurfaced to include bike lanes and sharrow lanes. Plans include replacement of entire street lanes with separated bikeways. It is even considering the eradication of parallel parking in certain areas to make way for bikes.

The timing of my annual family visit could not have been better. Just weeks before a planned ride through the Florida Keys, I am in need of serious training rides. Already familiar with the four-mile coastal trail, I was happy to see the bike improvements unveiled since my visit last year. I decided to hit both familiar and unfamiliar pavement.

My ride starts by riding from my parents' house to the pier in a stone's throw away and in perfect site of the historic Queen Mary cruise ship; then up to the lighthouse scenic point. It is a favorite ride and one I've completed with my parents, sisters, nieces and nephews dozens of times.

At the end of the eight miles roudtrip, I meander through Los Alamitos harbor, gazing at expensive yachts, and hit another route, which leads me to the San Gabriel River Trail.

Like many rivers that historically served the area as a natural resource, the San Gabriel River meanders through a multitude of sectors of representing different facets of local life and economy. It is early afternoon and there are dozens of bike enthusiasts, many of whom are clad in techie microfiber gear as they perch on streamline frames with tiny tires. In their good company, I first take the trail to Seal Beach, where I stop to stand above the ocean waves, observing surfers and beach bums in their natural habitat. Turning in the other direction, I pass by stretches of nurseries, oil refineries active chimneys, homes, oil wells assiduously digging, and factories delivering their effluent into the river. I weave past groves, and underneath highway overpasses. Where the trail meets the LA River trail, I ride for only minutes when I pass by dozens of homeless encampments, before I turn back around.

Later in the evening, I hop back on the trail with my parents and we stop at the pier, gazing at the Queen Mary. There are dozens of families cruising the trail, and a local restaurant has erected a large, inflatable screen on the beach for a free viewing of a Harry Potter movie. The trail is busier than a shopping mall and far more amusing.

Much to my parents' chagrin, for a number of solid, legitimate reasons, I have no plans to return to California to live. But I have come to enjoy observing the evolution of the state over time, much as I enjoy watching my nieces and nephews age and mature through the years. I have seen this state's legislature enact laws that restricted water use for lawn watering in times of drought, that created a curbside recycling program, that required payment for paper grocery bags, and that prohibited the use of plastic ones. And while the river trails existed even in my teenage years before cycling was on my radar, never before has it been so easy to ride there from my parents' house. With a growing bike culture weaving its paths through California's automotive history, its smoggy skies, its, prolific industry, Long Beach is almost like a tableau of what our society does to stave off armageddon. It is a lesson of what happens and what can be done after extreme spurts of growth.

I now live in New Orleans. For better or worse, short of a miracle, Louisiana will never experience a California-esque increase in population or economic growth; Even the worse day of downtown traffic pales in comparison to a Los Angelino rush hour, and Louisiana skies are not yet brown enough to mandate smog alerts. But, like California of 20 years ago, there is no curbside recycling in Louisiana. And like California of 70 years ago, oil companies continue to adopt lawless practices for the sake of profit maximization (read--Deepwater Horizon oil spill). Even in this sleepy swamp state I now call home, I say there are lessons to be learned from California.

I say let's all go for a bike ride.



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