When Can We Expect To Get Wifi on the Train, and Other Questions Raised by the Helms “Mobility” Event

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This past Sunday, more than 500 bicyclists, frustrated car drivers and transportation visionaries came to KCRW’s Reinventing the Wheel at the Helms Bakery District.

Any panel discussion on LA transport which manages to invoke both Reyner Banham and the Batmobile deserves to be taken seriously.” Comment by David Axelrod, documentary filmmaker.

More than 500 people came to KCRW’s Reinventing the Wheel at the Helms Bakery District on Sunday, May 18. 

Informally subtitled “Mobility Becomes Eclectic,” the event brought together a wide cross-section of Angelenos, from bicycle activists (like Orange 20‘s TJ Flexer with JJ Hoffman and Erik Ali from LA County Bicycle Coalition, above) to frustrated car-drivers ready to contemplate alternative transit options. Though far from comprehensive, we hope it got people’s wheels turning about what’s possible in a region shaped by its mobility. What follows is a brief summary of what was seen, said — and left unanswered. . .

FA and Kajon

“Seems you are preaching to the choir here. What to do about the aggressive drivers when you’re on your bike? Oy! And the texting!” (Question from an audience member.)

Transit Toolkit

Despite huge improvements in bicycle infrastructure, the vast majority of Angelenos still commute by car, mostly alone, so the goal of the afternoon was simple: get people out of their transit silos, heed KCRW Traffic Queen Kajon Cermak‘s reminder that “we are all in this together” and consider what guest speaker Michael Lejeune, Creative Director for Metro (below, holding mic), described as the “toolkit” of travel options available to Angelenos that could get them out of gridlock right now. Kajon (above, right) also exhorted drivers in the audience to thank cyclists, not get mad at them, on the grounds that every bike on the road is one less car.

Michael lejeune on stage

“How can you discuss gridlock without discussing density?” (Question from an audience member.)

Shoe Leather The Answer for Mobility

The starting point for the panel discussion was that car-based mobility used to define Los Angeles, its design, architecture, land-use and its much-marketed image of personal freedom. Craig Hodgetts (seated right of Lejeune), an architect who is heading up at UCLA Architecture and Urban Design school “suprastudio” on the Hyperloop, recalled first visiting Los Angeles in the 1960s and driving around a completely horizontal city, in a convertible of course, in which Tiny Naylor’s was a tall building and Rodeo Drive represented a hint at a more pedestrian future.

The desirability of the LA lifestyle has of course spawned the opposite of that freedom: gridlock, an unsustainable urban model and a frustration with the driving that for many was a source of pleasure.  So when the panelists were asked at the end what fantasy modes of transit they would most like to see made real, Craig said simply, “shoe leather.” His point: LA has decentralized and densified into tighter, walking communities and that is a good thing for mobility and for urban life.

Garrett on scooter

“How can we frame public transportation in a manner to edge aside the L.A. mythology of the car and the freedom of individualism it represents?”  (Question from an audience member.)

LA Design Focus

Since the event was also an extension of DnA, it considered transit from the vantage point of design with a specific focus on LA-based companies and individuals, who are building on the region’s legacy of amazing vehicle design; they included Art Center College of Design students David Day Lee, Retro Poblano, Russell Singer, Ravi Patel, Ali Kaldirim, Calvin Ku and Garrett DeBry (on his foldaway scooter, above; see description of other students projects at end of page) and Juicer creator David Twomey, who is literally hand-building electric motorcycles, inspired by the motorcycles of the 1920s, in his downtown garage (below).

Juicer bike

“I wanted to use Metro to come here from the Valley today. However, it would have taken 3 plus hours. So I was discouraged. It took 40 minutes by car. How soon do you think it will be before one can get to the westside/beach from the Valley in say one hour?” (Question from an audience member.) 

eBikes Shone

The exhibits gave a taste of the range of options, from commuter friendly, LA-made bicycles (Linus) and eBikes (Pedego, Juicer, Gabe Wartofsky’s Conscious Commuter prototype and IZIP, displayed by Steve Ryu and founder Larry Pizzi, below) to tomorrow’s vehicles conceived by the students at Art Center College of Design. eBikes, long considered a laughable alternative to regular bikes, were recently declared by Core 20’s TJ Flexer, a dealer in IZIP eBikes and a guest on this DnA, to be the “missing link” in LA transportation, making the region more manageable for would-be cyclists daunted by LA’s distances and steep hills.

Mike Pizzi and Steve Ryu

“Hollywood films during the 1960’s displayed an almost utopian mobility within the future metropolis including flying cars and monorails. Where do you think Los Angeles lost sight of the vision of the future and are there ways we will succeed in producing this utopian model? (Question from an audience member.)

Vintage Clean Energy Cars

Also on show, yesterday’s hybrid and electric cars, loaned by The Petersen Automotive Museum as evidence of the cleaner-energy thinking that was going on even at a time when guzzling diesel fuels was not yet a no-no (below, the 1960 Taylor-Dunn Trident, a battery electric car built by a California farmer).

Taylor Dunn 1960 electric car

“The mobility culture in L.A. seems to be changing quickly. Has ridership on Metro been increasing as the service is better advertised and the network expands?”  (Question from an audience member.)

Is Automation the Future?

The panel also considered the future use of the roadways; fantasy vehicle designer Harald Belker (Minority Report, Anki video game) talked about how automated cars will change LA’s traffic flow as well as our relationship to vehicles, due to their data collection and artificial intelligence. Belker and DnA’s Frances Anderton, both commuter cyclists who live near bike-unfriendly Lincoln Boulevard, discussed whether dedicated bike lanes like those planned for Figueroa Blvd in downtown, generally agreed by the panel to be the safest routes for bicycles, would in the future be integrated into automated car traffic. They wouldn’t, said Harald.

Aaron Byrd

“Personal computers, servers, smartphones all fail on a regular basis and are vulnerable, especially if connected to other devices. What happens when your self-driving car or bus fails at 70 mph?” (Question from an audience member.)

Even Car Companies Rethinking “Mobility”

Geoff Wardle, longtime car designer who directs Advanced Mobility Research at Art Center College of Design, talked about the massive change in “mobility” thinking. Even car companies, he said, are considering transit as a total system of vehicles and related infrastructure, that considers the journey of a person from when they leave the house in the morning to arriving at their destination, using a mixture of transit “modes.” As evidence of the auto industry’s burgeoning embrace of both energy efficiency and other modes of transit, Ford has created the new solar-powered Solar C-Max car, displayed at Helms, and has also backed the Ford-Pedego eBike.

Toyota iQev car

“Walking, riding a bike and taking public transit is a better social experience than driving. It’s also healthier for our bodies and the planet. Why is less money invested in active transportation than in car infrastructure and freeways? – Meghan Sahli Wells Culver City Mayor 

Cars On Steroids Not The Answer

Wardle pointed out that one of the biggest problems with the way people use cars is driving ones that are far too heavy and large for a solo commute, guzzling energy and space. Why does a lone person drive to work in a car built for a family, or for moving heavy goods? Illustrative of smaller alternatives, Toyota’s iQev car, an electric car so tiny that it cannot be sold yet in the US, was displayed — in the corridor of the Helms garage to emphasize its petiteness (above). Wardle also spoke about an integral cog in the wheel of future transportation: the burgeoning car and bike sharing services, that he sees evolving and becoming more automated in the future.

Couple look at LADOT cards

 “It is not ‘freedom’ to be clogged in traffic.”  (Statement from an audience member.)

Boldface Transit Folks

We were thrilled to have present in the audience passionate bicyclists as well as many Angelenos who live, dream and breathe transportation: Kati Rubinyi, editor of the book Car 2035Dezso Molnar, inventor of flying machines; the visionary “Urban Mobility” designer Dan SturgesRachel Kesting with the High Speed Rail Authority, Leslie Kendall, curator at the Petersen Automotive MuseumTony Jusay with MetroJohn Gobis and Melissa Pattavina with LADOT and Marissa Spinella of the LA County Bicycle Coalition, sharing information, transit and bicycle maps.

LADOT also created a wall of designs for TAP cards (above), that resulted from a recent competition and are part of ongoing efforts to entice people to try, just try, taking public transit. And keeping the place jumping, KCRW’s very own Aaron Byrd, above. All this took place in a space decked out for the occasion by our hosts Angela Anthony and Wally Marks of the Helms Bakery District, and managed by KCRW’s events team that included Abbey Londer, Taryn Olsen and Pam Buchignani, shown from left, below.

Abbey, Taryn, Pam

“When can we expect to get Wifi on the train?”  (Question from an audience member.)

Transportation Taster

Our event took place in a thematically apt but baking hot and resonant garage; we touched the mere surface of many topics and transit designs that could each have warranted an entire panel or a more extensive exhibit. We asked for questions from the audience and received many great ones that we did not have time to ask the panelists (some are printed on this page, in italics).

Attendees asked about the safety of automated cars, they commented on the inherent lack of freedom of a car; they asked about the status of high speed rail and biking infrastructure; they pinned the gridlock on density, questioned the safety of bicycle riding and asked about laws and logistics relating to the different modes of transit.

people on cushions

“I particularly liked Michael Lejeune’s suggestion that one really needs a whole bag of tricks to navigate Los Angeles, the simple realization that the new BMW in your driveway may not be the best way to get to Disney Hall on a Friday afternoon when the Red Line station is just down the street.” Comment by David Axelrod, documentary filmmaker who attended the event. 

Making a Tiny Dent in Car Culture?

So while we only scratched the surface of transportation, displeasing some transit experts and those who had hoped the event would be more aggressively anti-car, we came away with the sense that “Mobility” had started a conversation, or at minimum brought divergent commuters under one roof for a taster of ways in which they might regain a sense of personal mobility.

If even one attendee gets out of his or her car and tries the light-rail or tests an eBike as a result of the Helms event, DnA will feel it made a tiny dent in the region’s gridlock.

Find interviews with Michael Lejeune, Harald Belker, Craig Hodgetts, TJ Flexer, the founders of Pedego as well as our ongoing series on Becoming A Biker, in our Mobility programming, here.
All photographs on this page are by Jon McKenzie; if you see yourself in any of them, send us your name. The italicized questions and statements came from audience members; if any came from you, please write us so we can add the credit.

E Flat carWhat’s in the Pipeline?

Following are descriptions of the “Mobility” Projects by Art Center College Transportation Design students:

David Day Lee

Project 1: E-Flat, a new eco-system for local mobility using emerging technologies which encourage socialized manufacturing (above). An electric, vertical substructure (rather than the usual horizontal floor platform), the vehicle can be configured according to user preferences, region and sequentially as financing permits.

Project 2: An automated, local shuttle system, which provides on-demand transport along general urban corridors rather than specific street routes. The vehicle maneuvers on four robo-wheels, allowing it to negotiate other vehicles and always deliver its passengers to the curb.

Raul-David “Retro” Poblano

Automated shuttle-bus; a pilot project intended to link the South and Hillside campuses of Art Center College of Design. Based on a battery-electric platform, the vehicle’s body can be built locally from flat sheets of material, which are then folded into shape by a technique known as Industrial Origami. The project aims to provide a ubiquitous form of transport without the enormous tooling investments normally associated with shuttle buses.

Garrett foldaway, lady lookingGarrett DeBry

A Personal Transit Vehicle Concept, an electric folding leaning cargo trike (above, folded; near top of page, unfolded.) A three-wheel, battery- electric, personal mobility device, which allows the high-energy efficiency and exhilaration of a motorcycle without the danger. It folds when parked so that it takes up less space when not in use and provides two riding positions; a low rider for the open road and a higher seat position for urban traffic situations.

Ali Kaldirim

A shared transit system adapted to Los Angeles from the Dolmus system favored in his home country of Turkey and many other middle-eastern and African countries. Using a typical shuttle bus, drivers of the vehicles are able to personalize pick-up and drop-off points while keeping the vehicle busy at a low cost. An alternative future for the L.A. taxi industry.

Ali Kaldirim/Cody Casale/Tejesh Goregaonkar

A taxi specifically designed for New York but appropriate as well for L.A. Inclusively designed to allow easy access for users of wheelchairs, passengers sit in the front of the vehicle behind a panoramic, heat-filtering windshield, which allows a spectacular view of Manhattan’s vertical sky-line. The driver sits behind and above the passengers resulting in a commanding view of the road ahead.

Calvin Ku/Di Bao/Ravi Patel

Multi-autonomous car project supported by a mobile application created by Ravi Patel.

Tejesh Goregoankar 

Motorcycle designed to increase safety.

Art Center projects