For these two men, living without a car is not only possible, it’s easy
Chico is a bike-friendly town. There’s little doubt about that, at least among the people who ride bikes here. We have bicycle paths, routes and bridges. There are bike racks on every downtown corner and in every shopping center. And there are probably more bike shops in our burg than there are coffee houses.
On East Avenue, just west of the North Valley Plaza shopping center, bicyclists on a bike path have the ability to force automobiles to a halt with a simple push of a button that triggers a traffic light and allows them to cross through the normally bustling traffic on that busy road. That’s some power.
But many drivers also hold a certain resistance bordering on resentment, especially when they find themselves forced to share the road with a two-wheeled pedaler. Earlier this year, a single woman working on a teaching credential penned a guest comment for this paper extolling the virtues and practicalities of raising two children with only a bike for transportation; in response, at least one letter writer assailed her and her anti-auto attitude as proof she is unfit to teach our children.
This is the type of logic that leads people to drive their two-ton, carbon-monoxide-spewing SUVs to the local health club, curse when they can’t find a parking space right next to the front door and then actually pay to sit astride a stationary bicycle and pedal it absolutely nowhere.
With gas prices topping $2 a gallon, consider the following—it is possible to live without a car, especially here in bike-friendly Chico. Here are a couple of people who do so.
Lost in transportation
Kanji Aiso is a 23-year-old Chico State University student from Tokyo who’s never driven an automobile. Tokyo, he says, is much like New York City, in that many of the people there do not drive.
“In Tokyo buses come by every five minutes, so people really don’t need to have a car,” he explained. “Those who have a car find they are very expensive to keep.”
Aiso is a journalism major and News & Review intern who’s lived in Chico for three years. His father and 24-year-old brother both work at the same fish market his grandparents worked at before them. Aiso has rejected that life and says he wants to become a journalist and go back to Japan to write about Japanese-Chinese trade relations. Talk about a specific job goal.
“I’ve never driven,” he said, allowing that “it is inconvenient not to have a car. I definitely wish I had one, but it costs too much for insurance and maintenance.”
But he said he also thinks gas prices are much too cheap here, something Americans take for granted.
“I think gas prices in the U.S. should go up so people would cherish driving more,” said Aiso, for whom English is still very much a foreign language. But his attempts to manipulate the language give keen insight into his interpretation of life in America, and more particularly here in Chico.
Aiso uses a mountain bike to get around Chico. He said he’s had two of them stolen in the last year, one of them right off campus during a late night in the library.
When he shops at the grocery store, he packs his food and other needed goods into his backpack. It’s not easy.
“I have to buy a 20-pound bag of rice, as rice is my diet staple,” he explained. “I push the pedals carrying the bag to my house. I feel like gravity drags me down, and I can’t go fast with the bag.
“Moreover, riding a bicycle jeopardizes my life too. When I ride a bicycle, cars suddenly come out at intersections. There are a lot of signals at intersections in the downtown, but not many in other parts of town. At my house [off Chestnut Street] there are stop signs, but many car drivers seem to concentrate more on talking on cell phones than watching the signs there.”
He says the local bus system leaves much to be desired.
“The Chico buses come, like, every one hour. If you miss one you will wait for another hour. And people who are not used to the bus may be confused about which buses they want to ride. I think the problem is the demand for the buses here is small.
“I can arrive somewhere on my bike faster than I could on the bus. Plus, I can keep in shape by riding a bicycle.”
He’s not given up on someday learning to drive, though the thought is daunting.
“Sometime I’ll drive,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I will. But the other cars [on the road] bother me. I’m afraid I might hit them. There are so many possibilities [of doing so].”
For now he is content to get through town—and life—without a car.
The bicycle advocate
Perhaps more than any other person in Chico, Ed McLaughlin is associated with the local bicycle culture. The longtime head of the cycling club Chico VELO has not owned a car since 1982, giving up his close relationship with internal-combustion transportation—a 1982 Mazda pickup truck—six years after moving to Chico.
“It was in the shop a lot,” he said, “and I started getting pretty adept at getting around without having a car.”
He was not a bicycle enthusiast at the time.
“I had a bike when I moved here, but I wasn’t really a bike rider,” he said. “I had started running because I was going through a life change, quitting smoking and such. But running started getting to my knees.”
His girlfriend, he said, received some money from her parents, and they bought a couple of bicycles.
“They were nice Peugeots,” he remembered, “and I just fell in love with it. I got good at getting around on my bike while my truck was in the shop all the time.”
One day, he said, his Mazda broke down on I-5 near Dunnigan when he was on his way to the Bay Area for a bike tour.
“It was over Christmas break, and I just handed the pink slip to the mechanic and I thought, ‘Look, this thing is costing me a lot of money and I don’t need it. I’m getting around fine on a bike, and when I want a car I’ll just rent one.'”
While he didn’t want to sound like an advertisement for Enterprise car rental, he couldn’t help but note that $9.99 a day for a three-day weekend rental is hard to beat.
“You have to ask for that, but you’ll get Friday through Monday.”
McLaughlin said he uses the rental car whenever he leaves town for meetings, vacations or bike tours.
What about transporting groceries or other needed supplies?
“Yeah that’s the great question,” he said. “I have baskets on my bike. And I shop more often so I get smaller things on more-frequent time schedules. I don’t have a whole family to worry about. And for really big stuff I have a bike trailer. I can carry four cases of beer.”
McLaughlin lives about two miles from work; the VELO office is in downtown Chico on Third Street between Broadway and Main. It takes him 10 to 15 minutes to get to work, “depending on the wind.”
Signs posted along Chico streets designate certain paths as bike routes, giving the impression that those streets are somehow safer or sanctioned for bikes. But that is not necessarily the case.
Bike routes, McLaughlin said jokingly, means “you are on the way to Fred Davis’ house.” Davis is the former Chico city manager, in office when the bike routes were established.
Generally, he said, the destination points of the bike routes do make some sense. But it is wrong to assume that one street is safer, because that suggests the streets not posted are somehow less safe than those that are.
“The new movement among cyclists now is called ‘complete streets,'” he said, meaning that the street will accommodate all uses, bikes, cars and sidewalks.
Also, cyclists can legally ride on all sidewalks except those in the central business district, and there are no directional requirements.
“You can’t ride the wrong way on a sidewalk.”
One would think that the currently exorbitant gas prices would allow bikers like McLaughlin some sense of satisfaction, but that is not necessarily the case.
“I feel sorry for people who don’t have any other choices and who have to get around by their cars,” he said. “But I also feel we’ve really been underpaying for gas for years and years. Environmentalists have been saying for years that the price of gas has to go up. Well, here it is.”
Regardless, he said, Americans are basically addicted to their automobiles.
“There’s a much, much deeper psychology at work, I think, with our relationship with cars. You put on your coat, you put on your hat, you put on your car. So much of our identity is attached to our cars. Look at automobile advertising. They are selling it as our freedom, and we’ve swallowed it. Hop into your rolling padded cell, strap on your strait-jacket and call it your freedom.”
McLaughlin said he resists preaching the superiority of his mode of transportation to others.
“I’ve kind of given up on that,” he said. “I was losing a lot of friends because I was offering my opinion. You go to a party, show up in a group, and it was like soap on oily water. So I guess I learned my lesson. Things are going to go the way things are going to go. I try to help as many people as I can to make that decision and try to lead by example.”
He said Chico VELO and a related group called American Bicyclists used to offer bike riding lessons. “I haven’t offered it in a while but I still have the materials. I’ve learned I’m not a teacher.”
Still, anyone interested in becoming a serious bicycle user can call Chico VELO at 343-8356 or visit Chicovelo.org.
Negotiating with drivers, he said, is the key to safe street biking. And at the top of the list is making eye contact.
“They know that you know they are there, and they will say, ‘I don’t know what this guy is going to do,' but they will watch."