Charles Komanoff


Ride With Us: A Letter to Jerry Brown

November 21, 1996

Jerry Brown
c/o We The People
200 Harrison Street
Oakland, CA 94607

Dear Jerry:

I love your radio program (and here's a $20 check made out to We The People to back that up). As I said when I wrote you around the beginning of the year, I'm impressed and moved no end by the way you bridge the individual and the collective, corporate culpability and individual responsibility-initiative, the political and the spiritual. And I marvel at how you make great, compelling radio five nights a week.

I've been meaning to tell you that for awhile. What provoked me to write, finally, was Monday's program (Nov. 18), on global climate change. And specifically your statements on cars, sprawl and bikes.

In the interest of constructive criticism, I want to add a further preface: your stance on transport, cars, etc. is far more “progressive” and insightful than that of any “major” public figure I know of. You are miles ahead of Al Gore, any prominent Democrat, and just about any prominent enviro I know. I value what you have to say on this subject, and I also appreciate that you seem to place transport at the heart of many environmental concerns. It's significant and helpful that you immediately tie greenhouse issues to cars, for example. Thank you, and keep it up.

I want you to go further, particularly regarding bikes. I see bicycles as one of four pillars, if you will, of sustainable transport, the others being center-oriented development (or anti-sprawl), transit and road-pricing. (I'll concede that fuel-efficiency also matters, but as Kash, your caller from San Francisco pointed out, “efficient” cars and electric cars are just as complicit in sprawl, crashes, etc., as are 20 mpg cars. To be blunt, a fuel-efficient car wouldn't have saved Wilson Clark from the car wreck that killed him in the 1970s.)

Look at the enclosed graphic of China from the Economist. In a typical Chinese city, up to half of travel is by bike (the other half that's counted is by bus; walking doesn't get counted, and cars are still just a few percent). On a btu basis, those bikes are getting one to two thousand miles per gallon. Instead of trying to make sure that the cars that usurp them get 60 mpg instead of 20, we should be working to help the Chinese people to keep rding bikes, at 2,000 mpg. And the most effective way to do that — the only way, really — is to transform American cities and towns and culture and attitudes and incentives so that a large share of trips are by bike (and not just the token trip to the store that John Harte or the guy from UCS talked about).

I know that's a stretch for you. (We could have a great program on the true potential for bicycling in the U.S., and what could unlock it.) But I don't think you gave Kash full respect (though you did give him some). His point about linking bikes with mass transit was right-on. Indeed, those four pillars of mine — bikes, compact development, transit and road-pricing — go hand-in-hand. They're synergistic, Jerry, that's part of the beauty of it. Our pal Amory could have a field day with it, if he hadn't fallen for the supercar seductress (which even he admits will do nothing for sprawl, dysfunctional communities and climate if China chooses that path, which of course they will unless we change, quickly).

Kash invited you to the next Critical Mass (Mass #51), Friday, Nov. 29, 5:30 p.m. at Justin Hermann Plaza at the foot of Market St. Remember, I invited you to join me at Critical Mass #42, back in February (when I was in town), but you politely declined. Come on, Jerry, there've been 50 mass rides in San Francisco, one each month since Sept. '92, 500 or more cyclists each time. It's the closest we come in this country to a popular, positive expression of sustainable travel married with radical, direct, non-violent action, a true inheritor of everything positive from the '60s — and you still haven't joined in? A joyous parade is passing under your nose each month, ready to inspire you! Please — call Dave Snyder of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition 415-431-BIKE, he'll set you up with a bike.

The thing about Kash, and the Mass riders, and the people in the Economist photo, and my family with our 5 bikes and no car in NYC, is that we're saving the planet NOW. We're bypassing the highway-auto-oil-death complex. We're proving that locomotion and transport don't require complicity in corporate-consumer bullshit. We're a living, breathing rebuke to the infantilism that, at bottom, is what car-dependence fosters. Bikes aren't an afterthought, they're the heart of a transport revolution. Yes, bikes alone won't save the planet, but we won't save the planet without celebrating and expanding and extending bikes.

So how about it, Jerry. Come to the next Mass. Get Dave Snyder, or Kash, or me, or all three of us on the program. Open your exceptional mind and your magnificent heart to bikes.

Holy shit, Jerry Brown after a liberating bike experience. That would really be something.


Charles Komanoff

2023 Addendum: Wilson Clark (see 4th paragraph), author of the seminal 1974 book, "Energy for Survival," a founder of the Environmental Policy Center, and an advisor to Gov. Brown during his first term, died in 1983 when he crashed his car near Leesburg, VA. He was 36. (The reference in the letter to Clark as perishing in the 1970s was incorrect.) "Amory" (see 6th paragraph) is the renowned energy visionary-scholar Amory Lovins.)