L.A., meet the e-bike

In February, the public radio station KPCC staged a race to determine the fastest way to get across Los Angeles at rush hour.

[RELATED: Los Angeles electric bike resources]

Three people simultaneously left downtown’s Union Station on a Monday morning at 8:30 a.m., headed for the Santa Monica Pier – one by bike, one by car and a third by bus.  The bus took 94 minutes.  The car, 70 minutes. The bicyclist won, narrowly beating the driver of the car, at 65 minutes.

This past Monday, I decided I could beat them all.  What did I have that they didn’t?  A secret weapon, one that I believe could revolutionize Los Angeles traffic.

An electric bicycle.

Let me back up. Los Angeles is facing the following challenge: How do we create a city of strong, sustainable communities easily accessible to one another?  How do we share one another’s ideas, eat at one another’s tables, experience one another’s cultures, if it takes two hours to get across town? 

“City dwellers around the world are beginning to see the potential of their city streets and want to reclaim them,” former New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan writes in her indispensable new book “Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution.”  “They are recognizing an unmet hunger for livable, inviting public space.” 

Though you wouldn’t know it from this city’s lengthening commute times, Los Angeles is ever so slowly finding ways to satisfy that hunger.  There’s the new Metro Expo Line extension to Santa Monica opening next week; there are a few more bike paths, and there’s the Los Angeles Department of City Planning’s visionary Mobility Plan 2035.   

But what all these initiatives lack is a vehicle to fill the gap between the car, the bicycle — which for the average person can mean sweaty or strenuous commutes —and public transportation, which is never able to take you door-to-door.    That’s where e-bikes come in. They top out at speeds around 20 mph, don’t require a special license or insurance, and each year are improving in battery capacity, design and range.

And they’re catching on—everywhere but here. In Europe e-bike sales are up 47 percent since 2008.  In Israel e-bikes have soared in popularity. More than 700,000 were sold in Europe last year, compared to 53,000 in the United States.  In China, 200 million are in use. 

For most consumers in the States – including me—the barrier has been cost — most e-bikes run around $2,000. But not long ago, an eccentric inventor launched an Indiegogo campaign for a $499 e-bike, the Sondors e-bike. It has 350 watts and goes up to 20 miles on a charge, with no pedaling, up to 50 with pedaling. It is bright, fat-tired and zippy —  a Tesla for the 99 percent.  After my old bike was stolen, I bought a Storm.

And so, last Monday, powered up with a full charge and carrying an extra battery, I loaded the bike into my car and drove to Union Station, the starting point of the KPCC commuter challenge.  At 8:30 a.m., off I went. 

Getting out of downtown felt like a game of Escape the Room. The bike lane on Spring Street disappears into a construction zone near Olympic.  Car bumpers zoomed past inches from my calf. Venice Boulevard heading west wasn’t a vast improvement.  Small green-and-white signs announcing “Bike Route” start about three miles west of downtown and are posted every block. Sometimes white painted images of a bike and arrows on the street suggest an actual bike path, though these “sharrow” lanes, as they are called, in reality belong to turning and parking cars.  I didn’t see one other bike on my entire ride. Those “Bike Route” signs might as well say, “Unicorn Crossing.”

Where San Vicente Boulevard merges with Venice Boulevard, the bike lane inexplicably continues into the middle of the street, then vanishes into the intersection. This might be the most dangerous 20 feet of bikeway in the continental United States.  

I decided to take San Vicente to Olympic, then head west – a poor choice, I know, since Olympic Boulevard is basically a wannabe interstate.  Near Century City, westbound traffic was beginning to coagulate, and I cruised by it.  This is when I caught drivers glimpsing me with e-bike envy—which, as I have learned from zooming past traffic on Lincoln Boulevard, is a real thing.

In Santa Monica, the new Expo Line’s dedicated bike lane kicked in, and for a mile I was in nirvana.  I had the path all to myself, separated from traffic.   That short stretch convinced me: With protected bike paths, e-bikes would rule L.A. In a flash, I was at the Pier.

How’d I do? 74 minutes.  Four minutes behind the time it took the KPCC driver to commute by car. Nine minutes behind the bicyclist who, hats off to him, must have kicked butt. 

“The entire time,” the cyclist, KPCC reporter Jacob Margolis reported at the time, “I was completely out of breath. I actually did strain my quad.”  

But unlike the driver, my commute cost me nothing for parking, gas or insurance—just 21 cents worth of electricity.   

And as opposed to Margolis, my quads felt fine. I didn’t break a single bead of sweat. I rode 18.8 miles in 74 minutes, at an average speed of 15.24 mph – and proved that e-bikes are part of the solution to a livable L.A.

Besides, when I want real exercise, I can always e-bike to spin class. 

Rob Eshman is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TRIBE Media Corp/The Jewish Journal. Follow Rob at @RobEshman.

After the Iran vote, now what?

Is it over?

Recently, during a KPCC radio talk show about the Iran deal, the host, Patt Morrison, asked me whether, now that President Barack Obama has the 34 votes he needs to support the Iran nuclear agreement, the rancor and vitriol within the Jewish community that marked the debate over it would subside. 

Honestly, I wish I knew the answer.

The truth is, the debate has opened up some wounds that are going to take some time to heal, assuming they will heal. We knew this day of reckoning would come, and the vote would go down one way or the other, but we acted as if the only thing that mattered was winning the fight, not how we’d live together after it ended.

“We were so busy fighting about days one through 60,” Rabbi Aaron Panken, the head of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion told me — referring to the number of days before the congressional vote — “we haven’t really thought about what happens on day 61.”

I suggest that on day 61, in the spirit of the Jewish New Year, we take a breath and take stock. This, it seems to me, is where we are:

First, we are divided. Right after the deal was announced in July, Jewish leaders, here and in Israel, proclaimed that the Jewish world stood united against it. This moment, they said, was a rare instance of 13 million Jews, one opinion. But shortly after that pronouncement, the Jewish Journal conducted a national poll that revealed a majority of American Jews favored congressional support for the deal by a wide margin — 53 percent to 35 percent. That revelation changed the conversation. It showed a significant political and ideological rift among American Jewry.

Second, it is now clear no single voice represents the Jews. As the debate intensified, mainstream American-Jewish organizations lined up against the deal in concert with the Israeli government. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee led the charge. The Anti-Defamation League also said no, albeit with a slightly more nuanced approach, as did the American Jewish Committee, and numerous local Jewish Federations all weighed in against it. Dueling petitions from hundreds of rabbis, competing op-eds and those pesky scientific polls showed there is a disconnect between the organized and, for lack of a better word, the disorganized Jewish worlds.

Third, a critical aspect of this schism is age. The Jewish Journal poll reported that Jewish adults under 40 supported congressional approval of the deal 59 to 25 percent. This next generation is going to take a long, hard look at organizations and leaders that speak in their name, and spend their donations, but don’t share their views.

Fourth, it is important to be clear who crossed the lines of civility and who didn’t. On Aug. 28, The New York Times ran a misleading article headlined, “Iran Deal Opens a Vitriolic Divide Among American Jews.” The reporters listed numerous examples of vitriol from those who oppose the deal. They wrote that longtime Israel supporter Rep. Jerrold Nadler had been called a “kapo” for siding with the president. The deal’s opponents, they wrote, also held rallies denouncing the pro-deal lobbying group J Street as traitors, and Obama as a terrorist. 

As for the other side, the reporters found that they … appealed for civility. There has been no equivalence to the meanness of tone and foulness of language expressed by what is, to be sure, a minority of the deal’s Jewish opponents. We have a vitriol problem, but the name-calling comes largely from one side. 

Fifth, our divisions are nothing new. Let’s not treat this like it’s the beginning of the end of Jewish unity. It is more like the continuing expression of historic Jewish disunity. We fought bitter internecine fights over how to react to the Holocaust as it was happening, over the formation of the State of Israel and over the Oslo accords. Those ideological divisions have transferred neatly to Iran. Once this debate is over, we won’t leave the ring, we’ll just go to our corners.  

Sixth, here’s the good news: We tend to fight with our mouths. There have been some anguished exceptions throughout history, but, most of the time, we seem to understand that words may hurt us, but sticks and stones are a lot worse.

Seventh, another thing The New York Times misunderstood is that the debate did not create two sides, but three — and that is a crucial point going forward. Some Jews hate the deal and oppose it. Some like the deal and support it. The third group doesn’t like the deal, but thinks it’s the best of all realistic options. In the Jewish Journal poll, even though a majority of Jews interviewed supported the deal, only 42 percent said they believe it would prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon over the next 10 years. This group views the deal with low expectations, raised suspicions and eyes wide open. 

If there is a way to go forward with some kind of unity, this third group, I believe, holds the key. Those who oppose the deal can stop fighting the reality of it and start pushing, pragmatically, for arrangements to improve security in America, Israel and among our other Mideast allies in the face of it. We need to learn from the Obamacare debate that, at some point, the fight’s just over. 

Or, at least, I hope it is. 

Shanah Tovah.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.