Takin’ it off the streets

Chico is miles ahead on alternative-transportation options

Matt York’s desire to ditch the tons of metal that surround most cars led to his purchase of a low-speed electric vehicle. One of the advantages—or disadvantages—to having such a standout car is, York said, “all your friends know where you are.”

Matt York’s desire to ditch the tons of metal that surround most cars led to his purchase of a low-speed electric vehicle. One of the advantages—or disadvantages—to having such a standout car is, York said, “all your friends know where you are.”

Photo by Tom Angel

Price to pay:In 2001, there were 35 new models of cars--not counting trucks or SUVS--whose purchase required the payment of a “gas guzzler tax” because they get less than 22.5 miles to the gallon. The tax can run as high as $7,700. But the buyers likely can afford it--the tax usually falls on Ferraris, Mercedes-Benzes, Lamborghinis and the like.

Everyone is staring at Matt York. Or, more precisely, they’re staring at his squat little car cruising through downtown Chico, looking, as York himself describes it, like something out of Roger Rabbit’s Toontown.

A girl crossing Main Street grabs her dad’s arm, points and squeals: “Look at that car!”

A woman steps up and pokes her head almost inside the vehicle, where the detachable doors have been zipped off for the summer. “What a cool car. Is this electric?” she asks before walking away, shaking her head. “That’s cute.”

A bunch of frat boys hoot and give York a thumbs-up.

York’s low-speed vehicle emits no pollutants, runs on an electric battery and is a type of car that has prompted the United States government to develop a new category of vehicle for the first time since the 1960s. It is, York believes, the car of the future.

“Everyone who sees you looks at you for a long time,” he said, and 19 out of 20 times it’s an affirmation, like, “Hey, cool.”

The top three questions he gets are: What’s your top speed? How long does it take to recharge? And and how far can it go on a charge? The answers, in order, are: 25 mph, eight hours and 30 miles.

York, looking thoughtful but easy-going in his salt-and-pepper beard and bobbing, black ponytail, answers them gamely for the umpteenth time.

“I’m an ambassador,” he tells me. “It’s kind of like the first person who had a cell phone—it takes a certain type of person to feel comfortable talking on the phone on the street.”

York should know. He is the leader of Chico-based York Publishing, which is known for its cutting edge high-tech magazines VideoMaker and SmartTV. He also has visions of creating a publication called Light Wheels, which would focus on vehicles powered by something other than traditional fuel. But even York—a visionary if ever there was one—knows the world may not be ready for that. “Right now that seems like an obscure little zone,” he said. “I’m an ‘early adopter,’ in the marketing sense.”

For York, the downshift in his approach to transportation came after traditional vehicles didn’t suit his needs.

“I found that I was avoiding my bicycle in the morning. I decided it was due to the fact that I didn’t want to get sweaty,” York said. His motorcycle left him feeling windblown and unprofessional, and even a sheltered, electric bike he built himself didn’t do the trick.

“I really wanted to know why, when I came to the fork in the road at my front door, why do I want to avoid the two-wheeled transportation?” he said.

As more and more people ask themselves those ethical questions—or just get fed up with traffic or the price of gas—alternative transportation becomes less of a hippie soapbox and more of a modern-day reality.

Communities nationwide are adapting to accommodate people who would rather ride their bikes or take the bus than struggle through city streets. Ironically, it was the invention of the automobile that helped lead to urban sprawl.

“This is the car culture and the era of the car,” said Ed McLaughlin, head of the Chico VELO cycling organization. Cars are no longer a tool but a destination in themselves, he said, and “the end result is death by morbidity.”

McLaughlin hasn’t owned a car in 20 years—he rents when he needs to—and is proud of it.

“I think the city is naturally predisposed to be a good bike town,” he said. (Chico, incidentally, was named the most bike-friendly town in the nation by Bicycling Magazine in 1997.) Flat and only five miles from end to end, and with no strict dress code for the most part, it allows pretty much any type of business to be done by bike, McLaughlin said.

Telecommuting and carpooling, too, save resources and money. But another long-term solution may be vehicles like York’s.

The U.S. Department of Energy has classified several fuels as alternatives to gasoline. They range from electricity to hydrogen to ethanol to solar power.

Dallas Lewis, an owner and general manager of Chico Golf Cars, is the main local person to feel out the market for such vehicles. One of the latest is Dynasty’s IT, another make of low-speed vehicle. “The first two I had were sold out of the area,” said Lewis, so, “I haven’t tested the market yet.

But his daughter, who teaches at Chico High School, will be driving one of the little cars next fall—likely making her a popular sight on campus.

“I think Chico is ready for them,” Lewis said of the cars, which he presented at the Chico Chamber of Commerce’s Business Showcase event recently. The Dynasty IT retails for $13,300, but it comes with a 10-percent rebate on the buyer’s federal income tax.

“There are a lot of incentives in the mill,” he added, mentioning bills in the California Legislature.

Barbara Vlamis, general manager of the Butte Environment Center, said the obstacles to a less car-dependent society are more political than technological. “As in all communities, too much money goes into the road infrastructure,” she said. But, “I think Chico’s doing pretty well.

“Regionally, we need to be prepared for more sophisticated transportation,” she said, mentioning Highways 70, 149 and 99 and the state’s hopes for a light rail system. “If we plan in advance for light rail [along those highways] and get the land locked up,” Vlamis said, “we would really facilitate it.”

And Chico may look to other California cities as an example. In Palo Alto, city workers are reimbursed 7 cents a mile for using bikes for business. Bike lockers are becoming de rigueur in many towns. (Chico has several, including at the Park and Ride at Highways 32 and 99, and Enloe Health Systems installed some for its workers.)

In 1998, Butte County submitted a Countywide Bicycle Plan to the state, qualifying it for bike lane construction funding. Top priorities are connecting commuters to Chico, Oroville and Paradise, along with lanes on Oro-Chico Highway, Durham-Pentz Road, Clark Road, Highway 70 and Table Mountain Boulevard, and in Chico, recreational lanes on River Road. Also priorities are bike “paths,” which, unlike lanes, are separate from roadways. The city of Chico also has an extensive bike plan that has led to projects all over town.

In just the last couple of years, the state has made it easier for communities to pay for bikeway improvements, said Jim Peplow, an associate planner for the Butte County Association of Governments. “The state has really been increasing the bicycling account. People are recognizing the validity of bicycles as a form of transportation.”

“I think it’s terrific,” said Peplow, a bicyclist himself, who remembers that for years the Bicycling Transit Account for the entire state was only $360,000, while now a series of Legislative bills have boosted it to $7.2 million a year.

There are the “transit-dependent” who don’t own cars and must build their schedules around buses or try other means of transportation. And there are also those who prefer to use alternative transportation, when convenient, to save money or resources.

After the 1990 census, McLaughlin mentioned, it was revealed that the Chico-Paradise area was No. 1 in the nation for commuter bike ridership per 1,000 residents. “It really puts us in a favorable light,” he said.

Peplow also said that the county aggressively pursues its share of money provided by the state Transportation Development Act—money that this year should pay for the addition of an earlier and later Saturday bus run between Paradise and Chico, plus a longer trip down one of The Esplanade routes.

Those services fell under the category of “unmet needs"—in transit-speak, services that are determined to be top priorities after information is gathered from committees, user surveys and annual workshops.

“Each year we’ve been really listening to the people,” Peplow said. “If you think it’s going to make it, you put the service in place.”

The goal, Peplow pointed out, is rarely a financial one: Transit is never self-supporting.

By most accounts, the bus systems serve Chico and outlying areas well. The Chico Area Transit System offers rides for 35 to 75 cents—Chico State students are free—and travels through most of Chico.

Randy Larsen, a Chico environmental journalist who finally bought a car last year, tries to ride his bike everywhere and knows by heart, for example, how long it takes him to get to Butte College with the wind at his back (37 minutes).

Larsen, though pleased with the Chico-area infrastructure for alternative transportation, said it would be even better if it were expanded. For example, making bike paths go all the way—not just almost—to the Chico Municipal Airport and the Hegan Lane Business Park.

And businesses could help, too, by doing things like staggering workers’ start times to cut down on traffic jams, or installing showers so bicyclists could de-sweat when they got to work. (The city of Chico and Sierra Nevada Brewery currently offer showers, McLaughlin relayed.)

“The town is so flat it’s super-accessible,” Larsen said. “I’ll drive [only] if I have somewhere to go that’s a long way.”

To Larsen, driving everywhere when you don’t have to do so makes little sense. “You see one little person in [the vehicle], and then you see tons and tons of metal and plastic that has to go everywhere this person goes,” he said. “For what it costs to put in a tank of gas, you can go out and buy a new gadget for your bike.”

Plus, he said, it’s quicker and easier to stash a bike downtown than troll for a parking space.

Larsen tries not to feel moralistic about the whole issue. One of his motivations, he admits, is purely selfish: “It’s really fun to ride a bike.”

Back at forward-thinking York Publishing, where a surrey and popcorn machine are parked in the lobby, one of the business’ “corporate values” is, “Strive to conserve the company’s and the earth’s resources with the same vigilance that we use to guard and conserve our own personal resources.”

York figures that he can run his low-speed vehicle at about one-third the cost of owning a regular car. “The weekly or daily cost is insignificant,” he said, although he’ll have to kick down $1,000 for a new battery every four years.

“It’s kind of like a glorified golf cart,” explains York, who picked up the car two years ago, used, in Sacramento, for about $6,000. Indeed, the car has four settings: R for reverse, N for neutral, D for drive and G for golf.

But, like change in general, York’s little car takes a little getting used to. After fumbling around for the seatbelt, I decide it must not have one (wrong). And I was sure he was going to bang into the back of a Bronco. He zips in and out of parking spaces with ease. He can scoot across three lanes almost horizontally.

“It’s like a miniature normal car. It has everything you want. Electric mirrors, electric door locks…”

There’s no shifting involved, so the vehicle can take off quicker than another car, York demonstrates as he races an unsuspecting Camaro from a stoplight. “We can beat the Camaro because he has to shift,” York explains.

What would make it better, he says, is if government agencies were more understanding and the public at large more accepting of alternative transportation. In countries like Italy and Switzerland, bikes are a predominant method of transportation, and cars like York’s line the streets with plugs streaming from them to nearby outlets. But in Chico, there’s no tax breaks for having an efficient car, and he’s gotten parking tickets for parking sideways and been ticketed twice for rolling through stop signs. “If it was a regular car, I don’t believe they would have given me a second look,” he says.

But York sees it as a challenge to use as few resources as possible. “It’s about moving less metal around. I think it’s all about moving your groceries and yourself around with as little metal as possible.”

But for the rest of the country to catch on, even in a town as progressive as Chico, he says, “I think that the incentives need to be there.

“We’re not in enough pain yet."