December 28th, 2012

I received an email out of the blue last week from a childhood friend whom I had not heard from since 8th grade. The year was 1967.  We were mid-century modern kids growing up in suburban South Pasadena, right along the Pasadena Freeway (ostensibly the first freeway in the world). His note to me said: “Will never forget going to the beach with your mom in her Volvo.”

I don’t remember that specific beach trip, but I sure remember my Mom’s car: a 1967 Volvo P1800, a sexy red sports car that hauled ass with a “high tech” flip switch overdrive, an elegant dashboard, and a body shaped like a cute rocket. There were not a lot of Swedish cars on the road then, so it probably stood out like a yellow Tesla or Ferrari would today. My mom was a way-left Irish feminist college teacher, hardly a car buff, and had no interest in design or mechanics. To her, the Volvo was a statement of identity and freedom.

My response to Kent was: “I remember riding on the back of your Dad’s Matchless.”

The Matchless was a classic British motorcycle, and Kent’s Dad was a true car and motorcycle buff.  He was a middle class husband and father – not a collector – but the guy had a Jaguar XJ12, a 52 Ford and his wife drove a 58 Thunderbird. He also had several motorcycles.  I remember riding his Honda 50 on his front lawn, going dirt bike riding and flying down the Pasadena Freeway on the back of his Matchless. I don’t think we had even the concept of a helmet then. He gave Kent a 1962 Austin Mini 850 when he turned fifteen. These vehicles are all beloved classic mid century design on a par with Eames chairs or Schindler architecture.  The modern movement was in its infancy and Southern California was the epicenter. Gas was $0.31 a gallon. It was on.

Back then cars were about sex, freedom, style, and independence. They were also about mobility and access. They were our social networking devices. They provided us with what teenagers and youth of today get from their Smartphones and the Web: connectivity.  But you can travel a lot farther, see more, and meet more people, with digital technology than you can with a car, and for a lot less money.

Fast-forward fifty years. Volvos are now about Safety, not Sex.  And we are faced with the problems and challenges that the car’s usurpation of much of our public space (and co-option of our lifestyle) has created.  In the 50’s suburban sprawl had not yet cast its spell all over America. Parking lots surrounded by chain link fences were not common in the hearts of cities.  Streetcar lines had not yet been ripped up by automobile companies. Regional shopping malls had not yet been created to lure people away from Main Street.  Traffic jams were the exception not the rule. We did not know anything about climate change or that cars would become (and still are) the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 1 and 34 and responsible for more deaths than all of our wars combined. And, to add insult to injury, cars would eventually all look about the same, getting big and boxy in shades of silver and black. We were asleep at the wheel while all this was going on.

It has not all been a one-way slide downwards since the 1960’s. When Kent and I were kids there was so much smog in LA that we were wheezing all through the summer. Lead was later removed from gas and the air quality improved dramatically. The environmental movement took shape.  A few mass transit systems, e.g. BART in the Bay Area, were funded. But it took decades before it occurred to us that we should try to make our cities amenable to us, not our cars.

Today, the “white flight” to the suburbs has been reversed with “bright flight” back to cities. Many Millennials and the youth are choosing to live without a dependence on cars and are exhibiting a true passion and connection for their communities.* Cities all round the world have radically improved their pedestrian infrastructure in the last few decades. Riding a bike has become mainstream in many cities.  The most recent email I’ve received from Kent is very hopeful:  “My daughter lives in downtown LA and rides her bike everywhere she needs to go.”

You are part of this change.  Thanks.

We have not come full circle, but we are making headway in many of our cities. And you are part of this progressive change. You have helped to make our cities more livable. You have also made us (PUBLIC) more livable – you have kept us in business into what is now our third year.  We feel lucky to be in a business that is predicated on positive social change and improved urban living and one that puts smiles on people’s faces. We hope that our bikes will bring you independence, connectivity, and some of the same sexiness and style that cars did half a century ago.



* To learn about this subject in detail from an expert, get Jeff Speck’s latest book Walkable City. Jeff is a leading spokesperson for more enlightened urban planning, the co-author of Suburban Nation, and witty and brilliant. We will have a review of this book next week.