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Sans Car, East Coast Planner Rides Into SoCal

Jul 9, 2007

When I was interviewing for a summer fellowship with Solimar Research Group, I asked the last question that a young professional fresh out of graduate school hoping to relocate to Southern California would be expected to ask. "Can I live in Ventura without a car?"

I received a reassuring "yes" for an answer; however, I didn't realize that I would be up against one of the country's most car-reliant populations apart from my hometown of Atlanta.

Through the eyes of a new resident without four wheels and an engine, two things became apparent about my new surroundings. One was the lack of bike racks downtown and the other was the abundance of (free!) public parking. Whenever I needed a place to lock up my bike, I was faced with scouting out alternatives such as skinny street trees abutting car bumpers and sign posts in the way of pedestrian traffic. But there was never any shortage of places I could have parked my nonexistent car located conveniently within walking distance from any number of retail shops, eateries or bars.

Within a matter of days of my arrival to Southern California I managed to have my bike stolen from a strip mall, partly due to the fact that I locked it to a sign post that was not intended to serve as a secure bike parking location. The shopping center was located in a predominantly low-income neighborhood and was desperately underserved by visible bike parking. Out of sight of the security guards patrolling the stores, my several hundred dollar mountain bike financed by several months of waiting tables during my past life was a sitting duck.

Despite the desperation I felt immediately after realizing that my bike was missing, only ten minutes after leaving it to perform my good deed for the day picking up a Father's Day card in the Rite-Aid I was completely disillusioned by Southern California's slant towards automobile transit. Having my bike stolen among a sea of cars seemed unfair. Losing my only mode of transportation meant that my mobility would be reduced to walking and relying on the public bus to get to distant places that already seemed far by bike.

My efforts to recover the bike proved miraculous in that the city police apprehended the joyriding thief with my bike within blocks of the scene of the crime. Upon arrival at the fairgrounds where the young man was handcuffed, I saw my bike resting against the fence. I found myself unable to look upon the culprit as I suddenly felt guilty. I couldn't determine if I felt guilty for reporting the bike stolen knowing that whoever stole it would have fewer means to ever buy a bike of his own, or if I felt guilty for getting so upset over losing a material possession that could easily be replaced with my new income stream.

After my introductory experience to life in Southern California, I slowly began to understand why my bike was stolen, and the source of my conflicted feelings towards its return. After a life with a car back east, I was finally confronted what it was like not to have access to a reliable mode of transportation. Not only was my shiny bike a profitable target for a carless thief, but also an attractive alternative to the constraints and costs associated with public transit. The public bus in my new town only costs $1.25 per trip, but bus fares for multiple daily trips add up even for an entry level planner. In addition, bus routes and schedules are not as convenient as the freedom of personal mobility enabled by my bike.

Now that I cruise around on two wheels instead of four, I realize that the right to mobility doesn't come without a cost, and may even be worth stealing to attain.

- Jessica Daniels

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