Why I, creek freak, like bike!

August 23, 2009 § 8 Comments

Bicyclist riding along the L.A. River - from cicle.org

Bicyclist riding along the L.A. River – from cicle.org

I’ve mentioned this on some previous posts and in my book, but I want to go into excruciating detail telling the tale of why I choose to ride a bicycle, and how this connects to improving the health of rivers and creeks. There are a lot of good reasons to bicycle, related to health, community, global warming, peace, and joy… but I am going to focus herein on connections to waterways.

Bicycling, more than driving and I suspect perhaps even more than walking, gives the rider a sense of the contours of a place. When I bike east from my home at Los Angeles Eco-Village, I immediately notice that First Street dips. Most of us creek freaks out there know that these dips are L.A.’s historic creeks – in this case, I am riding across Arroyo de la Sacatela as it enters the Bimini Slough.

I find that many very useful streets for bicycling are those that follow the course of a creek; these tend to be low-lying and have a nice gradual grade. In my neighborhood, a few of these include Silver Lake Boulevard , Myra Avenue and Glendale Boulevard – which correspond respectively to an eastern branch of Sacatela, Sacatela and Arroyo de los Reyes.

Bike paths are often the way that the public gets introduced to Southern California waterways. Growing up in Tustin, I biked along the Santa Ana River to get to the beach. It was pretty much as concrete as L.A.’s rivers, and only much later did I learn how that river had been straightened; it had formerly flowed through Tustin (an area that the early Spaniards had called Rancho La Cienega de las Ranas – the swamp of the frogs.) When I lived in Long Beach, before I knew it was the Los Angeles River, I rode the river bikeway and began to notice the bird life in the estuary below Willow Street.

Bicycling contributes to river health largely because getting around by bike impacts our environment much less than driving does. We mostly think of cars as a major source of air pollution, but driving also has very serious direct and indirect contributions to water pollution. Many pollutants from cars settle onto our roadways and, when it rains, are swept into our storm drains, creeks, rivers and ocean. Every time a driver presses her/his foot on the brake, brake pads shed a small amount of copper. This copper (and copper from some other sources) finds its way into our local rivers which are officially impaired by copper – meaning there’s a little too much copper to be healthy for aquatic life. Similar water pollution attributable to automobiles includes oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, antifreeze, etc. It’s basically all the gunk that makes those spots on ground in parking spaces… the rain carries those spots into our rivers.

Comparison of Runoff from Various Types of Surfaces - from Upper Parramatta River [Australia] Catchment Education Resource Kit

Comparison of Runoff from Various Types of Surfaces – from Upper Parramatta River (New South Wales, Australia) Catchment Education Resource Kit

And then there are the huge indirect automotive impacts on watersheds – those impacts that are a result of all those roads, driveways, and parking spaces. The health of our streams is largely a reflection of the health of the watersheds that drain into them.

Hardscape in our neighborhoods contributes to rainwater rushing out into our waterways very rapidly. This is represented on the hydrograph below.  A hydrograph shows how stream flows change over time; the peak represents what flows follow after a rain storm. The red line shows a natural hydrograph; the blue line shows an urbanized one – basically the chart says that, where there are a lot of impermeable surfaces, when it rains, we get higher peak flows sooner.

Natural Flow vs. Urbanized Flow Hydrograph - from Upper Parra

Natural Flow vs. Urbanized Flow Hydrograph – from Upper Parramatta River (New South Wales, Australia) Catchment Education Resource Kit

Our urbanized impermeable surfaces rapidly shunt water out into our creeks and streams, causing scouring and flooding. This flooding danger leads to interventions including armoring the levee walls with concrete. Before we can remove a lot of concrete on our river banks, we’re probably going to have to remove some concrete from our neighborhoods.

Urban development that is pedestrian-centric or transit-oriented can be very compact, where car-centric development sprawls across our landscape, extending impermeable surfaces more broadly. One big culprit in this vicious cycle is parking requirements. For every car, whether a prius or a hummer, we build at least 3 parking spaces. (In L.A. I’ve heard the number is more like 6 or 7, but I couldn’t find a  reference for this.) For a lot of interesting work on how parking impacts cities and the environment check out the work of UCLA professor Don Shoup; I recommend starting with this short interview.

There are also some reports that indicate that driving consumes a great deal of water – in the manufacture of cars, the refinement of oil, and other aspects. There are more impacts… but I think I’ve already made my point.

At this point, you’ve probably stopped reading… tired of Joe’s zealous anti-car rant. Perhaps you’re thinking “I live in Los Angeles, it’s too dangerous to bike and I can’t possibly give up my car.” I would agree with you to some extent – bicycling isn’t the right choice for every single trip. I am in a car now and then, and certainly on the bus and train more and more often.

I would suggest that change – for our rivers, for our lifestyles – doesn’t happen all at once. Bigger changes are the sum of many small changes. Bicycling (walking, or taking transit) now and then is great – every trip counts. It can also give us confidence to bike further and more often. One strategy is to identify shorter trips and take those by bike. For example you might visit a local friend, restaurant, video store, etc. Forty percent of trips are two miles or less, an ideal distance for easy bicycling. There are a number of local groups (including one that I work for – called C.I.C.L.E. – Cyclists Inciting Change thru Live Exchange) that teach workshops to help inexperienced cyclists gain skills and confidence.

As you get out of a car and up onto a bike, your local waterways will thank you.


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