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Car Culture

Car Is Still King at Alt-Car Expo

10:08 AM PDT on October 6, 2009

(editor's note: There are a couple of great videos after the jump.)

Santa Monica's AltCar Expo made it crystal clear, from a distance and in the parking lot, "The Car is King" and all else receives a token gesture and comes in a distant second.

I attended the 4th Annual AltCar Expo misunderstanding the concept and expected to find "Alternatives-to-the-Car" at the Expo, thinking that the promise of "Alternative Fuel and Transportation" would entail some shift in the auto-centric focus but I was wrong.

Attendees to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium event were promised cheap parking and upon arrival were greeted with abundant opportunities to test drive "alternative-cars" including automobiles that ran on electricity, hydrogen, cooking oil, good intentions and high-hopes. People lined up as beautiful men and women plied them with data and promises and assurances that by driving these beautiful "AltCars" they would seriously change the world. Immediately.

Hidden behind a bus and a large truck and at the very back of the parking lot was an area reserved for the "Alternatives-to-the-Car" such as the Segway, the electric bicycles and other options that were obviously secondary and obligatory and not even close to worthy of headliner status. Such was the priority of the Expo.

The LA Greensters, Hollywood's first all pedal powered transpo team, had a "double-wide" booth which Ron "the Sherpa" Durgin and Jeremy Grant turned into Park[ing] Booth, recreating the park that the LOAD[ing] Zone team hauled across LA as part of the Park[ing] Day LA celebration. Park[ing] Booth screened videos including Reel Sustainable, a documentary about sustainable film production, Park[ing] Day LA and the Crenshaw Crush, a Greenster organized discovery bike ride in the Crenshaw District.

We had a great time in "the Annex" and the folks that stopped by Park[ing] Booth were tickled to hear of the LA Greensters, the see the Xtracycles on display and to hang out in the Park[ing] Booth and to watch videos that demonstrated that the bike was a serious option for moving gear, for shopping, and for all of the basic transportation needs that come up in a community.

Our neighbors in "the Annex" ranged from a design team that built a electric assist bicycle capable of 35mph, a woman who conducts weddings on bikes, BikeRoWave bike co-op , the, a Dahon folding bike dealer and other "Alternatives-to-the-Car" folks. Meanwhile, in the main room...

There were cars. Big cars and fast cars. Cars from the major manufacturers and cars from small startups. GM had a booth, Daimler had a booth, Mini had a booth, a guy named Bob had a booth and they all promised motor vehicles with incredible performance but without the petrol.

Bravo! All the congestion but without the pollution.

I took a lap to get the lay of the land and then I took a much slower lap and once I had dispensed with the automobiles, I found several non-vehicle booths tucked into the main room. The Clif Bar booth is always a favorite and although I was a wee bit jealous that they were in the main room while the LA Greensters were in "the Annex", I was happy to take advantage of their wares.

I came across a booth that featured a motor vehicle and I almost slipped right by until I realized they weren't promoting the vehicle but were instead washing it without using water. The Lucky Earth company sells a non-toxic, dye free, cleaning solution that is sprayed on your dirty vehicle and with a "spritz, spritz" and a "wipe, wipe" leaves behind a sparkling clean car with no wasted water. When my mild interest was met with an offer of a bottle, I declined and explained that I had no car to wash. They immediately switched bottles and gave me "Bike Wash" demonstrating very clearly that if these people were hosting the Metro's booth, there would be more people riding mass transit.

Lemonade, the catering company, got in the swing of things and enticed the "green" crowd to pay more for less by positioning a large poster at the beginning of the lounge that dramatized the impact of methane vs. the impact of auto emissions, positioning guilt as the appetizer for the vegan-fare that served as penance for the supplicants.

Lest there be any confusion, let me clarify, Ed Begley Jr. is still the reigning Rock Star of the Green Revolution and there were two booths proudly displaying a life-sized cutout of Ed, demonstrating that there are two kinds of green products on the market. Those that enrich Ed and those that don't. Ed was selling a system that reduced "phantom-power" waste and promised to reduce utility bills by 25% and Ed was selling a water system that promised to provide clean water. It was good to see Ed and I thoroughly enjoyed his water, especially since it was delivered in a cup that appeared to be plastic but was actually made from corn starch and was bio-degradable. I was thirsty so I drank a few glasses of water but I drank quickly, worried that the cup would start to fade on me as I drank. It all worked out and I was again in Ed's debt!

It was quickly apparent that there were three "castes" at the AltCar Expo with the "Alternative Car" in first position, the "Green Products and Services" in second position and the "Alternatives to the Car" in third position. Once I was clear on the lay of the land and on the structure, I settled in and simply invited folks to visit the "Annex" which I rebranded as the "VIP" room and things picked up accordingly at the Park[ing] Booth.

Sometime during the afternoon on Friday, I noticed an increase in the number of "men in suits" making repetitious laps around the facility and it dawned on me that it was time to go into "Guv mode." We tidied up our booth and repositioned our selves, spreading out and putting DJ Chickenleather in a lead position, now very grateful for the Lucky Earth bike wash!

Sure enough, just as the Expo closed to the public and just as the staff for the Metro, the Big Blue Bus and all of the other "clock in an go to work in a booth" folks had left the Expo Hall, a dozen large black vehicles pulled up and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger stepped into the Main Room of the AltCar Expo and the show began. Booth by booth, car by car, the Guv strolled through the Expo, surrounded by an entourage that started off as a group of individuals but within minutes had taken on amorphous qualities and began to move an a singular entity featuring the head of the Guv and then two dozen feet, two dozen hands and a half-dozen cameras flashing at regular intervals.

Governor Schwarzenegger visited every booth featuring a car, a generator, a battery, a cable, and anything else related to moving motor vehicles, demonstrating the traditional commitment to the personal motor vehicle and the complete disconnect from the larger challenge of getting people out of cars and of providing transportation alternatives. The Governor spent close to an hour visiting the booths in the main room and he was methodical, almost Austrian, in his up-down, back and forth, survey of the AltCar Expo. Then the pace quickened and it was apparent that the Governor's visit was ending and the entourage headed toward the exit.

In a demonstration of the disproportionate energy and attention that is dedicated to traditional auto-centric transportation vs. alternative transportation, Governor Swarzenegger spent 55 minutes looking under the hoods of electric and hydrogen vehicles and two minutes talking alternative transportation. Of course, I'm grateful for those two minutes, especially because he spent them talking to the LA Greensters!

As the Yukons outside idled and Santa Monica's air quality dipped, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was introduced to the LA Greensters, Hollywood's first all pedal-powered transportation team, featured in Reel Sustainable, the documentary that asks the hard question, "Can Hollywood produce films sustainably?" The LA Greensters demonstrated that the answer is yes by hauling all grip and electric, camera and audio gear on Xtracycles and with trailers, supporting the full shoot from shopping at farmers markets to all production runs, using only bicycles.

The Governor smiled and nodded, said "Great!" and I'm convinced that for a moment he contemplated ditching the entourage and instead hanging out with the LA Greensters. Maybe next time!

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