LA Streetsblog Chat with Author and Cyclist Erik Knutzen

coversmall.jpg Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne write the blog Homegrown Evolution, chronicling their adventures as urban gardeners and farmers. Kelly and Erik recently released their first book The Urban Homestead from Process Media.  Last Friday, Erik, who is also a board member of the Los Angeles County Bike Coalition, sat down with me in their garden to talk about their new book and sustainable transportation.  The part of the interview about transportation appears here.  The part about urban gardening is at Emerald City.  If you’re interested in getting your own copy of Urban Homestead make sure to order it at Homegrown Evolution.

DN: There’s a chapter in the book on transportation.

EK: Indeed.  There is a chapter in the book on transportation.  I’m biased...I’m very biased.  Here’s a little ax grinding.

Transportation for me is riding a bike...maybe about riding a bus...but really about riding a bike.  Because, well, just because it’s riding a bike.

DN: Uh-huh

EK: It’s a challenge.  I love a challenge and that’s what it’s all about.  I just like being in traffic riding a bike, and it just happens to have these nice side effects. 

It's like permaculture, you get a good feed back loop.  You get somewhere and you get exercise.  It's not just physical exercise, it's mental exercise because it's a challenge to do it.   We're not talking about a relaxed brain state, we're not having a margarita at the pool, we're talking about a highly focused brain state--the kind of focus you get gliding through heavy traffic. Brain wave studies of Tibetan monks have shown that when they are meditating they are in a focused state--not a relaxed state--I imagine somewhat like what it's like to ride a bike in Los Angeles. Riding a bike for me is a kind of meditation--really the only way I can stop the constant restlessness and chatter in my mind and focus intently--riding balances mind, body and soul.

DN: What would you say to someone who’s maybe thinking about getting back on his bike but doesn’t think it’s the best thing to do in Los Angeles.  I did very little urban cycling before I got to Los Angeles, and my first trip in LA was going from Hel-Mel to home after the Bike Kitchen helped me put my new bike-in-a-box together.  By the time I got home, I think I had aged three years from when I started.  Did I mention I did the trip at night?

EK: (laughs) Yeah.

My advice first of all is route choice.  Plan ahead of time how you get from point A to point B.  Don’t plan on going the same way you would drive.  More than likely you’re going to want different routes.  Look for quiet streets with names you’ve never heard of that just happen to get you to the right place.  This advice can be found in a book called The Art of Cycling by Robert Hurst.  Do you know that book?

DN: I’ve been working on it over the last several months.  You recommended it to me when I first met you last October.

EK: Good, good.  That’s his first piece of advice.  Route choice.  Route choice.  Route choice.  That’s really important.

So choose a route, that's number 1.  Number 2 is read Hursts' book.  Hurst's book lays out nicely what you have to do to ride a bike in traffic.  It's an art.  He's really right about that.  Your position on the street should be different at different times of the day, different times of the year.  Even different moods of the traffic.  Going down a street you can start to feel other people's mood.  Are people mellow, are they angry?  You need to sense that and roll with it.

That takes some practice.

So, in addition to route choice don't try to ride all the way across town without taking some smaller steps first.  Go to the post office or grocery store and get used to doing that.  Then you can extend your trip further and further afield until you're used to riding in traffic.

LACBC does bicycle safety training--we have an excellent League of American Cyclists certified instructor named Chris Ziegler. I took his class and it helped immensely.

homegrown__s_SUV.jpg
When Erik or Kelly Go Shopping, They Take the Family SUV

DN: Yeah, I wrote about a You Tube video the League did a couple of months ago.  They made it in Long Beach.

EK: Probably Chris Quint and Dan Gutierrez.

People think, "I already know how to ride a bike."  Well, yes and no.  It takes some time and training.  Classes can really help and Hurst's book can really help.

Lastly...persistence.  You're going to have some bad experiences.  We all do.  You're going to have people yell at you.  You're going to get into arguments, we all do.  We all make mistakes.  But being persistent is really important.  It's worth it. 

Urban biking can be like climbing a mountain, you just have to work at it until you get it.  But once you got it, it's so much fun to go out there and have that experience. 

DN: But isn’t the culture changing a little?  Last night I met my brother and Mom at a four-star restaurant.  I pulled up on my bike, asked the valet where to park it and nobody looked at me funny.

EK: Well, odds are good the valet is riding the bike himself.  Surely the kitchen staff does.

DN: We’re certainly seeing more people biking and busing and scootering.  Sorry, I’ve been reading articles about scooters flying off the shelf now it’s stuck in my head.  What do you think, is the city doing enough to get where it needs to be?  Some say it’s getting better, but is better good enough?

EK: No, LA isn’t doing near enough.  We need leadership from the top.  We need a mayor that’s going to get a commitment to doing it.  Instead we have a mayor that can’t pronounce the worked ‘bicycle.’  I think he’s afraid of it. 

DN: Literally?

EK: Quite literally.  Stephen Box likes to say that he thinks that the mayor has the word "bicycle" and "bisexual" mixed up.  I think he's right.

Mayor Daley in Chicago said, ‘we’re going to build bike infrastructure’ and we’re seeing a lot more people riding bikes there.  Mayor Bloomberg, you know more about this than I do, he’s made a commitment to promoting moving around without cars.

DN: He was always a big transit rider, but it wasn’t really reflected in policy until just over a year ago they threw everyone out at DOT and brought in all the reformers.  My old boss at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign is the Senior Policy Advisor to NYDOT.  The new commissioner sat on our board.  It would be like replacing Rita Robinson and John Fisher with you and Jennifer Klausner.

EK: Well, the culture of DOT needs to change.  We’re starting to see that at an elected level.  Eric Garcetti is pretty progressive.  Tom LaBonge thinks of himself as the biking councilman.  Certainly Councilman Reyes has been great about pushing bike stuff through.

But we need to get the Mayor on board.  Certainly right now the tail wags the dog.  That needs to change.

DN: Yeah.  Nobody from the Mayor’s office returned my call when I asked for his route on bike to work day.  Nobody from the vice mayor’s office either.

EK: Is de la Vega still riding his hummer?

DN: I don’t know.  Ya know, I even offered to provide the bikes. 

EK: The hummer thing was pretty scandalous

DN: Don’t worry, LAist brings it up at least once a month somehow.

EK: Yeah, our mayor’s not interested in this stuff.  That needs to change.  But there are positive things.  LACBC has a new beginning going on.  We have a new executive director.  We have a new board.  There’s a lot of exciting things on the horizon.

EK:  Ya know, it's funny.  On that question of are more people biking, I'm not so sure they are.  Pessimistically thinking.  There are more people on motor scooters, but that isn't necessarily a good thing.  There are a lot of people on scooters and motorcycles that just don't belong on them.  They don't know what they're doing.  If you look at the sales statistics, sales are flat or decreasing for bicycles and the population is increasing.  Maybe that's starting to turn around a little with $4 gasoline...but I think gasoline is going to need to be a lot more expensive before that's a motivating factor.

People are hopping on motorcycles, they are hopping on scooters.  I saw someone the other day driving a three-wheeled Pushman Cart--in the bike lane, by the way.  I don't get it.  There's this hundred year old proven technology called a bicycle that also gives you exercise, but people are willing to use these strange vehicles that are actually more dangerous.  Riding a scooter or motorcycling is 30 times as dangerous as riding a bike because of the speed involved.

When cycling does come up, people seem most interested in riding an electric bike.  Have you noticed that?  In the mainstream media, it's all about scooters, Segways and electric bikes.

DN: Clarence from Streetfilms wrote in his Speed Racer review that you can tell when someone’s making a movie about the future because the first thing they get rid of is people walking. 

EK: (laughs).  Yeah.  The walking is gone and replaced by gimmicks.

DN: Ok, if you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about LA, what would you do?

EK: I’d make the streets canals. So it’d be like Venice.

DN: (laughing) Aren’t we in a desert?

EK: That's a good point.  I guess that puts the kibosh on that idea.

Anyway, if I could wave a magic wand...I'd have a mayor that cares about equality.  That cares about making our streets equal for everyone.  That means poor people, old people and children.  So that you can walk, you can ride a bicycle, you can take public transportation.  And yes, you can drive, I'm not a complete zealot (though my wife disagrees).  All of these modes of transport need to be promoted equally.