Streetsblog Interview: Professor Robert Gottlieb

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Robert Gottlieb is the Henry R. Luce Professor of Urban Environmental Studies and Director of the Urban Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College.  The Institute seeks to marry education with action and thus Gottlieb and his students have become a major force for transportation reform in Los Angeles.

In addition to his work on signature projects such as Arroyo Fest and the upcoming Bike Summit Gottlieb has joined the ranks of bloggers.  At UEPI's blog you can read his thoughts and research on the history of bikes in the pre-automobile era and the role of bikes in creating a green economy.

Streetsblog: When you study environmental policy, you focus a lot on transportation issues. When I saw you at the Future Without a Car Conference you were talking about bikes and the history of bikes in America and where we should be going as a country. I guess to start, it would be helpful to get a brief description of your teaching and how you deal with transportation.

GottliebWe see things first from the environmental side. Environmental issues are daily life issues. That’s really the mantra of the environmental justice movement, that the environment is where you live work and play. Any environmental agenda would necessarily address transportation issues and housing, urban space, education and green space. There are a range of things that have both environmental consequence and have to do with the way in which urban life is organized.

So that’s the approach. You can’t really talk about urban space and urban politics without talking about transportation…particularly in Los Angeles which is a focal point of the program.

What we do here at the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute is we don’t separate research and teaching from action and community engagement. We see ourselves as action as well as education and research oriented. The opening line in the catalog for our program is, “…if you want to change the world, come to Urban and Environmental Policy.” Thus, we get students who are passionate around social change.

Transportation factors significantly into all of that.

As an institute we first got deeply involved in transportation when we got involved around issues regarding the Arroyo Corridor, the Pasadena to L.A. stretch that includes the Pasadena Freeway, the Arroyo Seco watershed and the communities along the corridor. Out of that came an idea, first broached by community members, about pulling off a bike ride and a walk ON the freeway.

Getting that took two years of organizing by the community and putting pressure on the transportation agencies. When we approached Caltrans they thought it was a joke, so we organized from the bottom up and the top down. First we got some elected officials on board to argue on our behalf while simultaneously undertaking a community campaign. We eventually did it. One transportation planner called it a “community organizing thriller.” We got them to agree to a Sunday morning closing of the freeway and to have bicyclists and pedestrians spend four hours toolin’ around.

Since then we continue to be strongly involved with transportation. Bike issues represent such a core way to get involved in transportation as well as urban space issues. It’s really become essential to what we are.

And that’s what led us to this Bike Summit discussion.

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Streetsblog: Let’s hold off on the Bike Summit for a second. I’ve heard some talk about bringing back Arroyo Fest. Have you heard anything about that, or was it our one shot at the freeway?

GottliebIt’s not a one time shot, but it’s how and why you do it. When it happened, it took a lot of resources to pull off and a lot of organizing to deal with the agencies. One of the downsides of Arroyo Fest was the limited capacity of the bike movement, as it existed at the time. The bike movement then was weaker; today, there are far more groups engaged in far more activities than there were then. Thus, at the time of ArroyoFest there wasn’t the capacity of the movement to use the event as an organizing tool.

The second thing, in terms of resources, was feedback suggesting that any future ArroyoFest might require commercial sponsorship to turn it into an LA Marathon type of event. We didn’t want to do that. For this to make sense, it had to be a community event, a bicycle event and a livable communities event.

So we didn’t really see the capacity to pull off a repeat of the event of that magnitude at that point in time. When James (Rojas) recently started talking to people at Caltrans saying, “let’s do Arroyo Fest again” and they came to talk to us about the idea, we responded: let’s strengthen the capacity to do events such as Arroyo Fest by strengthening the bike movement and by strengthening the community base for such an event so we’re never dependent on corporate funds to pull it off. We didn’t want to see something like: “Toyota presents Arroyo Fest”

That can happen. It was one of the ideas five years ago to seek out corporate sponsorship, especially in relation to one major sponsor. We didn’t want to do that.

So, yes. It’s possible to do an event like this again. But first you really want to build a constituent base of groups and people and you really want to do it so that closing down the freeway for a bike ride and walk happens every year, every month, indeed every week. Similar to the concept that’s happening in places like Mexico so that you incorporate it into the fabric of the community and it’s not something that just comes along every couple of years.

That kind of thinking is what led to the Bike Summit.

There’s also a group of people that want to pull off a Ciclovia type event which captures the same type of energy that went into ArroyoFest, except it’s not freeway based, it’s surface street based. We are really in favor of that sort of event also. We could see people using the Arroyo Fest model literally everywhere.

All of that being said, that one time event, which we do hope will become an ongoing event, was truly a magical moment. It’s important to grasp what that meant, to take over a freeway, to hear the sounds of silence, to experience a sense of place you can’t experience driving on a freeway, to understand that the Pasadena Freeway was once designed as a parkway for a very different type of relationship to the environments it intersected..

Also, ArroyoFest did have an impact on helping stimulate new bike movement activity. Take the group C.I.C.L.E. C.I.C.L.E did not emerge directly from ArroyoFest, but Liz and Shay have said to me that Arroyo Fest stimulated their imagination. You can see it then as part of a re-emerging bike movement; one magical moment in a process of movement growth and increased capacity.

Streetsblog: You’ve mentioned the upcoming Bike Summit a couple of times so let’s get into it. I know not everything is set yet and I have some idea personally from talking to a representative from T.A. that’s coming into town and I talk and type with Joe almost constantly, but what do YOU envision it being?

Gottlieb: It’s not a one time shot, but it’s how and why you do it. When it happened, it took a lot of resources to pull off and a lot of organizing to deal with the agencies. One of the downsides of Arroyo Fest was the limited capacity of the bike movement, as it existed at the time. The bike movement then was weaker; today, there are far more groups engaged in far more activities than there were then. Thus, at the time of ArroyoFest there wasn’t the capacity of the movement to use the event as an organizing tool.

The second thing, in terms of resources, was feedback suggesting that any future ArroyoFest might require commercial sponsorship to turn it into an LA Marathon type of event. We didn’t want to do that. For this to make sense, it had to be a community event, a bicycle event and a livable communities event.

So we didn’t really see the capacity to pull off a repeat of the event of that magnitude at that point in time. When James (Rojas) recently started talking to people at Caltrans saying, “let’s do Arroyo Fest again” and they came to talk to us about the idea, we responded: let’s strengthen the capacity to do events such as Arroyo Fest by strengthening the bike movement and by strengthening the community base for such an event so we’re never dependent on corporate funds to pull it off. We didn’t want to see something like: “Toyota presents Arroyo Fest”

That can happen. It was one of the ideas five years ago to seek out corporate sponsorship, especially in relation to one major sponsor. We didn’t want to do that.

So, yes. It’s possible to do an event like this again. But first you really want to build a constituent base of groups and people and you really want to do it so that closing down the freeway for a bike ride and walk happens every year, every month, indeed every week. Similar to the concept that’s happening in places like Mexico so that you incorporate it into the fabric of the community and it’s not something that just comes along every couple of years.

That kind of thinking is what led to the Bike Summit.

There’s also a group of people that want to pull off a Ciclovia type event which captures the same type of energy that went into ArroyoFest, except it’s not freeway based, it’s surface street based. We are really in favor of that sort of event also. We could see people using the Arroyo Fest model literally everywhere.

All of that being said, that one time event, which we do hope will become an ongoing event, was truly a magical moment. It’s important to grasp what that meant, to take over a freeway, to hear the sounds of silence, to experience a sense of place you can’t experience driving on a freeway, to understand that the Pasadena Freeway was once designed as a parkway for a very different type of relationship to the environments it intersected..

Also, ArroyoFest did have an impact on helping stimulate new bike movement activity. Take the group C.I.C.L.E. C.I.C.L.E did not emerge directly from ArroyoFest, but Liz and Shay have said to me that Arroyo Fest stimulated their imagination. You can see it then as part of a re-emerging bike movement; one magical moment in a process of movement growth and increased capacity.

Streetsblog: You’ve mentioned the upcoming Bike Summit a couple of times so let’s get into it. I know not everything is set yet and I have some idea personally from talking to a representative from T.A. that’s coming into town and I talk and type with Joe almost constantly, but what do YOU envision it being?

Gottlieb: Maybe a good way to think of it is first the goals and then what it does. I think we’re hoping to accomplish a number of things.

One is to strengthen capacities. There’s a mushrooming of interest and things are going on. Whether it’s things like the kitchen or the rides. The Summit, by pulling people together will strengthen capacities. By working together we’ll all be stronger.

There’s a group that even Joe Linton hadn’t heard of in South L.A. that wants to do a workshop on biking in South L.A. and the issues they have to confront. There’s a group in Boyle Heights that would do a Boyle Heights bike workshop which would focus on the lack of lanes in Boyle Heights. There’s a lot of riders there that aren’t part of the greater bike movement. Those kind of workshops that we’re planning are then also aimed at another key goal: diversifying and expanding the bike movement.

We need to bring in more people, especially those that use their bikes to get to work or for other necessities but don’t think of themselves as bike advocates. So, that’s another strategy for the Summit, to bring people in to say that it makes sense for people to push for bike needs or pedestrian needs as part of a community plan process; for example, to change the streetscape of Boyle Heights so that people can bike.

The third component Is to cohere and expand the visibility around the role of bikes so that people don’t see biking as an alternative only when the price of gas is high. First of all, it’s still unclear whether we are in fact seeing a longer term increase in bike use independent of the price of gas. The Summit has been organized to look at bike issues as part of a deeper transformation of transportation and the built environment.

That’s reflected by bringing in speakers from Mexico City to say that in that very city, the pollution headquarters of North America, thanks to effective bike advocacy, a reform mayor, and the potential for a more comprehensive transportation alternative approach, that bikes have an important role in that transformation.

We’re bringing in Noah Budnick from New York to talk about some of the dynamic things going on in that city and other parts of the country. We’re adding a speaker from Portland to do the same thing.

Yet L.A. has in some respects the greatest capacity, in the face of car and freeway dominance, to be at the leading edge of elevating bikes as a key alternative. We have a twelve month bikes season. We have relatively flat surface streets. Also bikes are particularly conducive to short trips. That’s where we can focus on reducing automobile usage and converting streetscapes rather than the exclusive focus of Bike to Work.

Bike to Work isn’t a bad thing but very often you get those responses from people that bike or transit is too far, or takes too long…But what about going that first half a mile? So much of our car use in L.A. are short trips as well.

There are lots of opportunities, even in a “spread out region,” where bikes can play a really substantial part in re-thinking landscape, and transportation and bikes in a community environment.

The LA Bike Summit gives a chance to say that bikes in L.A. really make a lot of sense.

To be a real success it has to be part of a process. It’s clearly designed to develop more networking and more visibility, education and diversity of bike advocates.

By saying we’re not just a niche thing for a group of people that ride around at midnight but for people that want to get around as well for any number of purposes. Not that I have anything against riding around at midnight. That’s great too.

Streetsblog: When you look at L.A. as we are now, do you see anything that makes you think we’re beginning to move in the right direction?

Gottlieb: Yes and No.

We’re moving in the right direction in that it’s a little bit more on the radar screen, not ve12_25_08_Gotlieb_book.jpgry much but a little more at the city, county, state and national scene. It’s also very clear that we can now make the argument that if you’re talking green economy, alternative transportation or other big-ticket item that is going to be on the agenda that you’re going to have to talk about bikes. Yes, I see it a little bit happening and the opportunity for a lot more.

“No” in the sense that there’s an element of green-washing that goes on when there’s a Bike Master Plan or you do other things that tap what you have accomplished from planning that aren’t thinking outside the box and aren’t moving an agenda forward in a way we need.

Transportation. Air Quality. Global Warming. Sense of Place.

These are all things on public policy agendas, yet bikes are still at best at the margins of policymaking.

There are opportunities and things are moving forward but we have to think a lot more expansively.

Streetsblog: Now the last question. You have a genie that is willing to grant a wish, but it has to be about transportation in Los Angeles, what would be that one thing.

GottliebIn a short-term it would be easy to accomplish, from government, the way they’re dedicating spaces in Mexico City that take large spaces and dedicate them as public spaces at least periodically, if not a daily basis.

On streets, on freeways, on parks…in Griffith Park, having bike and pedestrian environments and car-free environments. That way people can visualize what it means to move in that direction even if it means we have to change the streetscape and even if it’s just every Sunday.

In the long-term we really need to enter into a post-automobile era. There’s a saying in the environmental world that you need to create a hierarchy of goals. When dealing with waste issues, for example, the hierarchy is reduce-reuse-recycle.

In transportation we have it all wrong. The focus is make cars more efficient at the top, then rail, then bus, then bikes and pedestrians. That has to be reversed at all levels. When you start doing that it changes the notion of what it means to be involved in transportation planning.

One of the things I do is edit a series for M.I.T. press called Urban and Industrial Environments. We just got a new manuscript called Traffic which was done by this really creative planner and advocate from Italy who’s core thesis is that transportation planning is being done by people who construct it as an engineering paradigm. How do you get people from place to place the quickest. Everything flows from that.

That worldview permeates how we think about urban life.

But what if you had Caltrans run by a group of philosophers who would be thinking of transportation with a different conceptual framework regarding transportation planning and urban life. From that would flow how we build our transportation system. It’s similar to what James Rojas is trying to get at with his modeling streetscape exercises. This book might be published by M.I.T. press. We have to reorient the ways we think about place and “getting there.” Today, that thinking about transportation is placed within that engineering paradigm, about getting there fastest instead of how one experiences the place that one passes through.

When you look at it that way, bikes rise to the top. Transportation planning would then be place-based and the urban planning framework, in its various dimensions, that is, the notion of what it means to live, and work, and play in the city, would also reflect that change to a city where place truly matters

Photo: UEPI/Flickr, MIT Press