Russ Roca: Eco-friendly Bicycling Photographer

Eco-friendly Bicycling Photographer

By Richard Masoner

A guide for foreign travellers visiting California warns tourists, “You won’t survive for long without a car in California – California was designed for cars.” But when Russ Roca’s truck died eight years ago, he decided to see how he could get along without a car in Los Angeles, the epicentre of car culture. His decision led to an entirely new way of life and a new vocation for him as the “Eco-Friendly Bicycling Photographer.”

“I was telecommuting doing graphic design, so my only trips were to go out and do groceries,” says Russ of his transition to a car-free life. “At first, it was difficult. I felt a bit alienated. I had never ridden in the street before as an adult.”

Today, Russ bikes 20 miles or more for his photo assigments, hauling up to 50 pounds of gear on his Bilenky cargo bike and trailer at an average speed of 12 mph. It wasn’t always like this for him, though. “Losing the truck wasn’t easy,” Russ recalls. “I realized it really is an addiction. When you’re in its throes, you can’t imagine an alternative.”

After a few months living without his truck, Russ realized he felt liberated — no parking tickets, no repairs, no gas, no insurance, and no hunting for parking in the middle of the night. “My girlfriend and I hated to go out because when we came home we had to circle for half an hour just to find a parking spot!”

Soon after his decision to dump his truck, Russ started his business as a photographer. “I realized how much I liked being outside and moving, more than sitting at a desk pushing a mouse around” as a graphic designer. Because he no longer had to support a car habit, “I had quite a bit of spare dough, so I could afford to get into photography!”

Russ started freelancing for a local newspaper to hone his skills. When he spoke with Will Swaim, the publisher of The (Long Beach) District Weekly newspaper, about a job, Russ didn’t disclose his mode of transportation. “I didn’t bring it up at first because I needed the gig,” Russ admits. “I started getting assignments farther away and that’s when I told them that I couldn’t take an assignment that was 70 miles away.”

Swaim recalls that he was skeptical of Russ’s mode of transportation. “But I figured he knew his own limits better than I did,” says Swaim, “so if he accepted an assignment, I assumed he’d handle it; and he always has.” Russ’s transportation mode benefits the Weekly, in Swaim’s eyes. “On the photo side, the bike is a total icebreaker. Our subjects have frequently reacted with a curiosity that really humanizes the whole experience. And Russ’s bike choice makes us look good.”

In Southern California, utilitarian cyclists are often seen as criminals. “The first question people ask when I lock up in front of their house is, ‘Did you get a DUI?’” says Russ. “A few years ago when I first started advertising myself as the Eco-Friendly Bicycling Photographer, people thought I was crazy. With gas inching ever upwards, I’m slowly becoming less crazy and more of an early adopter.”

In spite of his eco-friendly message and rising gas prices, Russ continues to get harassed by Southern California motorists. Although his area of California has perfect cycling weather and mostly flat terrain, Russ and his girlfriend plan to move to Portland, Oregon, next spring. “Everything is such a battle here in Long Beach,” says Russ. When he cycles in Portland, though, “You don’t have to be a warrior like you do in California. They have their issues in Portland, but it’s vastly more appealing than here. The environment is much more accepting of cycling.”

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