TEDxUCLA 2011: Minding, Mining, Mending, Mapping

My message is bicycle


About Jimmy

Jimmy Lizama has been a bicycle messenger in Los Angeles for over a decade. His vocation has taken him around the world to participate in bike messenger events and locally it has inspired and facilitated several ventures into invoking bicycle culture in the city he holds so dear, chief among them The Bicycle Kitchen/La Bicicocina, a DIY bicycle repair space in East Hollywood that he originated in a small kitchen of the Los Angeles Eco Village, an intentional community in Koreatown.


I am a bicycle messenger. Yup.

Like at least… Action. All right. Yes. Bike messenger. Like, yes, Kevin Bacon in Quicksilver, where Kevin Bacon runs around all over New York City delivering packages, trying to find himself in the process.

But I have a bone to pick with that movie ’cause at the end, Kevin Bacon goes back to the grind. He leaves the thing that made him so happy to begin with.

Success, I think, can be described as something that can connect people. That’s how I define it, at least. I think success can really have a big, huge impact on your quality of life and on your happiness. So when I talk about success, I talk about that.

See, I’ve been a messenger for about 12 years out here in LA, and in my life as a messenger I’ve done lots of things like this. There’s an alley cat race, a messenger race where I send people out into the city and give them something to do, like replicate this movie Blade Runner and have a good time.

I’ve been all over the world: Guatemala, Berlin, Mexico City, New York City, riding my bike and things like this. And through that whole time it’s, it’s made me a pretty hardy person. And I’ll tell ya, I wasn’t always so hardy. I was just a regular biker out there. Not sure what I could do.

Now two weeks into being a rookie messenger, my — Larry, uh, Larry Blue, my dispatcher, calls me up, sitting down at Fifth and Flower, and he’s all, “Hey yo, 670, go pick up a hot district filing out of 865 South Figueroa. Get there by four o’clock.” By four o’clock? It’s 3:52. I’ve got to go eight blocks that way, lock my bike, up a building, see a lawyer, get my document in the bag, back down, unlock, go 20 blocks that way, lock bike, in the courtroom. I can do all that in eight minutes. Oh my God. Well, that was my job. I had to do it.

So bam, there I go. I’m blastin’ lights. I’m going through buses, red lights, all kinds of lights. I was getting there and I do it. Get it done. But that day I learned a lot. That day I learned a lot more than just how to ride my bike.

I learned that fear and imagination have everything to do with mobility and transportation. The fear that you can’t do with the human body, the fear that society says “no, you can’t do it that way,” the fear that you will not be successful, the fear that you won’t fit in. But imagination has everything to do with transportation. The way that we treat our city, the way that we treat each other, transportation. All the reasons that we dump into that, transportation. But your imagination, your human body, that’s what can help you get through it.

And every day you guys get through it. On the freeways, on the streets, your imagination helps you through. Well your imagination helps you through the rest of it as well.

You know what happened to me that day? in those eight minutes, I became a bike messenger Jedi. That’s what happened to me. Fighting the war against car consciousness. Fighting the war against car consciousness. It’s a big battle to have, I’ll tell you, especially in this city. And I am an Angeleno, I’ll tell you.

But I still ride pretty hard, I’ll tell you, after twelve years. Today, I ride from Santa Monica all the way to downtown and back and forth all over the place on my bicycle still. But nothing could quite prepare me for what came next.

About a year and a few months ago, I became a dad. Now, again, being in LA like, the car is the thing to do. And you know, I had pressure from people all around me. Family members and friends going, “Hey, you have a kid now. You have to get a car. You have to get an SUV. You have to get a minivan. You have to get something to get that kid around, to get all these resources to have that kid.”

And I thought wait a minute, no! Do I really have to do that? Do I really have to do… that? Is that what it means to have a baby nowadays? Yeah, I wasn’t sure about that. I wanted happiness. I thought, I thought better of it. And all that fear crept in and I said, “All right, imagination. Imagination. That’s what’s gonna help me through this.”

So I thought about all the things I could do. And my wife, she’s really, really awesome. She helped me out. We didn’t get a car. We we went locally, with a doctor locally. We went on our bicycles. We got a bike that helped us take the kid around. And we just nurtured our life without having to go ten miles to a mall, or even like ten miles to the doctor. Went locally. It changed everything. And again, I felt the glory of my imagination being my transportation.

And I looked around me, and more people were doing the same, in LA and all over the place. Ciclovia. Ciclovia is an event that’s held in Bogota 20 years ago where they closed down a portion of the city for cars not to be there. That’s like roller skates, bicycles, walkers, pogo sticks, anything. No cars, no motor vehicles.

And guess what? It happens here, too. It’s called CicLAvia. Once every few months, it happens here. And what do you see? You see happy people enjoying human space. It’s amazing. You see some congestion, but it’s human congestion, and you see smiles all around. I don’t think you see too many smiles on the 405 freeway, I’ll tell ya. And I’ll tell you, I’ve been on the 405 freeway on my bicycle. Not too many smiles, I’ll tell you.

But all around, I see more, more examples of imagination. Like that. Imagine a place like that. That’s where I want to live, where our human transportation, our human experience, it’s much more important than the means by which we go to have our human experience.

It’s kind of like, kind of backwards, you know? We give so much space for this thing, you know? There is way more parking space than any other kind of space in LA. Think about that. And the park space where you play? Not much of that at all. Our values are kind of backwards. The vehicle sits idle for about 95% of its life. Ninety-five percent of its life, it’s idle. That’s what we dedicate the most land to in LA. I don’t know about that. Humans are about 75% active and we don’t have nearly that much land for that person to have a good time.

So I want to imagine a different LA, and I want to help people do that as well.

So I feel like LA is a really wonderful ad campaign for the world. You know, if we made James Dean cool by driving off some cliff in a convertible car smoking, I’m sure we can do a lot of cool stuff out there for other people as well, and for ourselves in the process.

I say let’s imagine something else that’s cool, let’s imagine that looks cool. She’s cool. She’s hanging out, she’s comfortable, she’s not going to go like, to be a plumber somewhere. She’s going to go hang out somewhere, maybe go to an art gallery. We need to make people like that and people like us feel safe in our cities, in our human experience. That’s where I want to go with this.

Give me a second.

Yo soy el dureno. Mi abuelito, Adrian Lizama, es Honduras. Es trabajaba en las plantaciones de Honduras.

So my grandfather was a worker in Honduras. And in the ’50s, banana companies infiltrated his country and set up industry. And like a bunch of other workers in the world, he was exploited for his land and his labor in the process. The companies, they profited. And they gained a whole bunch of economic and political clout in the process. It’s pretty intense.

In 1954, the workers had a strike and they shut down the plantation and they asked for what our workers asked for: dignity and respect in their process and being workers. Well, the banana is like the car. It’s a product that we receive here. The banana, we eat it, it’s sweet, it’s nice, and the byproduct is a banana peel. But still, land to this day is used for that, and people used for that. And they come from far away, places like Ecuador now and Peru.

The car, on the other hand, is different in the sense that the resources that it takes to get the car here insane for everybody here. I saw five bikes outside. That means a lot of cars here today. And think about that.

I mean, from the ores that are mined elsewhere to get those cars built, from the interiors and the petroleum and the petrochemicals that are made for the inside, for the hoses, for the bumpers, to the sediment for all the cement that’s used in parking lots and freeways and streets, to all the houses built far away — 30, 40, 60, 100 miles away from where you live and work and play — to get there. All that wood, all that cement, all those resources. That’s what the car brings. That’s our life.

Let me walk you through a metaphor real quick here that I use in my life to remind me of the past, the present, and the future, how I connect them. That’s my boy, Joaquin Lizama. He was born at home in a tub with a midwife. That was a Roman tub I built, and that tub is connected to a system of gray water pipes. The gray water pipes go outside to a garden. In that garden, banana trees grow. Now in that act, the metaphor is clear. I am connecting my grandfather to my son. The first batch of water that went to those banana plants was that of my son being born.

And I honor the past and all the works the Honduran people did to make that happen then and to get me here. And I honor my son by showing them examples of how we can imagine different ways of being, responsible ways of being in our daily life. And I respect and celebrate the future because I want to leave them something much better. Something like an organic banana that comes locally, doesn’t take a whole bunch of resources to get to us like the car, like the mall, like the school, like the job. It’s our responsibility. Yeah, he’s a cute guy.

I wonder about you guys. I wonder where your metaphors are. You know, we’re all educated people, y’know, we all live here in LA. We’re all exposed to a lot. We know a lot. And we’re resourceful, we have imagination, and we have the movies. We have a bunch of things that can help us along the way. I wonder where your metaphors lie to help you, in your everyday, experience what it is you’re consuming. How are you getting around? How you can be a better Angeleno?

And like I said earlier, I am an Angeleno. I was born here. Thirty-seven years without a car. And you know what? I’m happy, and I’m successful. You know why I’m successful? Because everything I do helps my Angelenos out because I don’t have a car. That’s why I’m happy.

And so, when we think about how we can live in this city, we have to use our imagination. We have to use the ways in which we can overcome our fears of how we’re gonna fit in to get there.

I started a thing called the Bicycle Kitchen about six years ago. It came out of a need for myself to have a place where I can learn about bikes, fix bikes, and learn how to ride them in the city. It started at the eco village where I live, and one day a couple of friends came by and they’re like, “Hey, Jimmy, why don’t you get the space and like, provide it for everybody else?” I’m like, “Sure, let’s do it!”

So Tuesday nights I started making pizza and folks started coming by. And we all showed them how to do what I did, which is learn about bikes, learn about the city, and just kind of take power over your transportation. And all of a sudden, oh my God, lots of people on bikes, and lots of awareness-raising happened in that process.

And today, when we think about what, it’s just like, instead of having one big ride a month, there’s like several rides a night. That’s right, bicycle rides every night in LA, in car-centric LA. It’s pretty amazing.

But again, we have to use our imagination to get past the hurdles, you know? And I walked you through how I became a messenger and the empowerment that I found. You know, I talk a little bit about, you know, our societal pressures, the ones that we create for ourselves here in the city and abroad. I talked about how we affect other people just to get our resources.

But I want to talk about you. I want to talk about what you can do. You know? How in the world are you going to do what these folks are doing here, all over the place? Little by little. Everybody. Examples: kids, people having a good time, riding their bicycles. That’s a pretty good picture right there of a kid having a good time on a bicycle.

Your homework for the next time you want some coffee or you want some tea, do this: go get the bike. Ride the bicycle to your local place, the most local place you can find. Go inside, order your drink, and have your beverage. Relax, enjoy it, and then meditate. Meditate on all you’ve done in that one act. You have not polluted, that’s something you’ve not done.

You haven’t maimed anybody in the process, or threatened to maim anybody in the process. You haven’t been an asshole or had to deal with an asshole in another car. You’ve been healthy because you rode your bike to it. You exercised. You’re helping local economy in the process because you’re going local, you know, five miles away maybe, to get your coffee.

And most importantly, I think you have spent some time with your community. You’re outside, they know you now. They know you, and you’re out there.

Meditate about that. Meditate about all the good you do through your transportation then, and then meditate on something else. Imagine something else. What can you do that’s like that even more in your life? What else can you do in your life that can knock out so many good things in your life?

So I leave you with that homework. And you know what? I’ll see you on the road. Thank you.