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Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “Caltech Bike Lab”

New Bike Co-Op in El Monte

Ribbon cutting at the new bike co-op

Ribbon cutting at the new bike co-op

A new bike co-op opened its doors yesterday at the Seymour Family Center (formerly Mulhall elementary school) in El Monte.  Sponsored by BikeSGV, the local bike advocacy organization, the “Bike Education Center” (BEC) provides the members of the community a space (for a nominal fee) to work on their own bikes, learn bike repair, and even rent bikes.  There will also be regular bike safety classes taught by local LCIs (League Certified Instructors).  I’ve been calling for more bike co-ops for years, and it is especially gratifying to see this one finally come to fruition.  Aside from the CalTech Bike Lab (open only to students, faculty and staff at CalTech), it is only the second bike co-op in the San Gabriel Valley.  Bike co-ops can be great spaces not only for wrenching and education, but for bike community organizing, advocacy, and activism.

Wrenching at the new BEC

Wrenching at the new BEC

The BEC fills a very great need in El Monte, a working-class community that has a large proportion of people who depend on bikes for transportation.  Riding the bus or my bike in and around El Monte, I’m constantly struck by the fact that it really is “bike city USA” if you look at all of the people riding utilitarian bikes for transportation, carrying their groceries or work gear with them.  Many of these individuals are immigrants or people of color and their bikes are their means of transport.  Further, with El Monte’s main transit hub, the El Monte bus station, nearby, the bike/transit transportation connection is very strong in this city.  Sadly, El Monte has very few (read: almost none) streets with bike lanes.  As a result, you’ll see a lot of people sidewalk riding.  I sometimes do likewise for a stressful portion of my commute on Lower Azusa Ave. near the Rio Hondo bike path.

I hope the BEC becomes a place where this often “invisible” segment of the bicycling community can begin to make its voice heard in City Hall to demand better bike infrastructure in and around El Monte.   I think BikeSGV is doing a great job of outreach to youth and families in the area.  In addition, I expect to see some bike wrenching workshops and safety classes offered in Spanish, and I’d love to see them offered (and run) by women, too.  Perhaps BikeSGV can set up a monthly wrenching event run by its WoW (Women on Wheels) group.  Bike repair and maintenance in most bike shops is too male-dominated, but the bike itself  can be a tool of empowerment for women.  Making the BEC a place where women feel comfortable working on their own bikes can be a very liberating function.  With outreach efforts in these directions, the BEC could become a place of community engagement and empowerment.

There was fairly good media coverage of the BEC grand opening on the local ABC news and the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.  And, while it may be petty to quibble about media coverage, I was disappointed that the editors at the Tribune filed Brian Day’s story under “Sports.”  This isn’t the first time Tribune editors have been tone deaf when it comes to transportational bicycling.  It’s ill-conceived “summer of cycling” series a couple of years ago seemed designed to highlight the editors’ assumptions that bikes weren’t a viable mode of transportation more than anything else.  Ironically, this very same weekend, the California Bicycle Coalition is holding its annual statewide bike summit, where the theme is “equity” in the bike movement.  The connection between bicycling and social and environmental justice are now coming to the forefront for many of us who advocate for bikes as transportation.

A question for Tribune editors: why wasn’t this categorized as local news or transportation?  Categorizing a story about a community bike co-op as a “sports” story reflects the middle-class bias of the paper’s editors and misses one of the main reasons for the bike co-op.  Look at the location of the event, in El Monte, less than a mile from the El Monte bus station, where the overwhelming majority of people on bikes on a daily basis are not lycra-clad racers.  There were a few folks in lycra at the grand opening, but overwhelmingly these were just regular folks who want to ride their bikes for a variety of reasons.  Categorizing the story as “sports” ignores the fact that speakers at the event referenced the need for more bike lanes in the area, and more riparian bike paths for, as Bike SGV’s Wes Reutimann put it, “getting around the San Gabriel Valley by bike.”  Indeed, one of the main sponsors of the BEC is Dahon Bikes, a company that specializes in folding bicycles, particularly useful in conjunction with transit (a point explicitly made by the Dahon representative at the event).  It ignores the fact that the vast majority of old bikes donated to the BEC are utilitarian bikes, not racing bikes.

I hate it when the media’s myopic view of cycling pushes us all into the “recreation/sports” stereotype.  The Tribune should know better.  Cities all over the SGV are gradually waking up to the importance of connecting people to the Gold Line by bike.  Pasadena itself will soon be getting new bike infrastructure as part of its updated MOBILITY plan (not, “sports” plan).

Yours truly with a trailer full of donated bike parts. As you can see, I'm all lycra'd out, riding purely for "sport."

Yours truly donating a trailer full of bike parts. As you can see, I’m all lycra’d out, riding purely for “sport.” (photo: W. Reutimann)

Wake up, Tribune.  The bicycle is much more than just a recreational toy.  Quit treating it like it’s no different than a surfboard or a pair of skis.  It is a means of transportation, one that, especially in conjunction with transit, can replace a lot of car trips, reduce congestion, air pollution, society’s carbon footprint, and make our cities more livable and people healthier.  It’s cheap, equitable, healthy, sustainable, liberating, and empowering.

That’s the real beauty of bikes—and of El Monte’s new Bike Education Center.

 

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A Sea Change

Sometimes it is easy to forget the power of people to bring about change.  But yesterday, the Pasadena Municipal Services Committee responded to pressure brought by the city’s new Complete Streets Coalition and brought the Crown city a step closer to real substantive change in its infrastructure.  The committee rejected the DOT’s current proposed bike plan and called on the city’s DOT to come back with a “more ambitious” plan that relies more on protected bike lanes and cycle tracks than the current plan.  As Council member Terry Tornek put it, “We need to grab a hold of this and not be timid.”

According to Wes Reutimann of the Downtown Pasadena Neighborhood Association (DPNA), Mayor Bogaard and City Council members Tornak and Margaret McAustin, who serve on the Municipal Services Committee were unanimous in support of a bolder plan that would put Pasadena at the forefront of bike-friendliness in Southern California.  They also expressed a willingness to devote resources to getting a new bike plan implemented.  This exciting news comes just a week after a complete streets forum in the city sharply critiqued the lack of safe bike infrastructure in Pasadena and the city’s relatively weak proposed bike plan, and represents, as Reutimann emailed the Complete Streets Coalition listserv, “a literal sea change insofar as bicycling planning/policy in Pasadena is concerned.”

This sea change is good news, and it may be due in part to the formation of the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition (PasCSC), and certainly is a result of the advocates who showed up at the committee meeting and raised awareness about the need for better bike infrastructure in the city.  Finally, credit is due to Mayor Bogaard and Council members Tornak and McAustin who recognized the shortcomings of the old plan and all of whom spoke strongly in favor of a bold step toward bike-friendliness.

It will be especially important for the CSC to remain vigilant and continue to organize, develop a clear set of priorities, outreach to the community, and develop a long-term communication strategy.  Make no mistake, there will be push-back from some car-dependent sectors of the community, so the CSC will have to be prepared to mobilize people to continue to make the case when the revised plan comes before the City Council in the future.  We’ll have to see the actual revised plan before judging how serious the city is about its commitment to bike-friendliness.  The CSC must make sure the city’s revised plan does not overlook the less glamorous areas of the city, such as Northwest Pasadena and East Pasadena; it must make sure any network of bike lanes provides connectivity to transit nodes, business districts, shopping, parks, and schools; and it must be vigilant that the city is in fact providing sufficient resources to make the entire plan a reality over a reasonable amount of time.

With these caveats in mind, this development is a most welcome bit of news.  I have renewed hope for Pasadena as a city that can take a leadership role in the region’s transportation revolution, in which living beyond the automobile is one step closer to reality for more people.

Something Happening Here

Pasadena Complete Streets Forum discusses Pasadena's Bike Plan.  Photo courtesy DPNA

Pasadena Complete Streets Forum discusses Pasadena’s Bike Plan. Photo courtesy DPNA

When Phillip O’Neill was struck by a motorist and killed while riding his bicycle on Del Mar two weeks ago, a cry of grief went up from Pasadena’s cycling community.  But unlike last year when two cyclists were killed by automobiles in Pasadena, there is a chance that this tragedy has galvanized the community in a way that may bring about change.  In response to the tragedy, a “Complete Streets Forum” attended by upwards of 50 people was held last night at Pasadena Presbyterian Church on Colorado Blvd, and that meeting may be the genesis of a new organization that will push Pasadena officials to move faster to create safe streets for all road users (I say may be, for reasons I’ll explain below).  Participants included many from the DPNA, as well as Caltech and PCC students, quite a few bicycle commuters and recreational riders from the area.

The Forum emerged from an email conversation initiated by Margaret Ho of the Caltech Bike Lab and Wes Reutimann of the Pasadena Downtown Neighborhood Association.  Margaret was the first to call for a meeting to discuss the need for more bike-friendly streets, and Wes worked with the DPNA to host the event at Pasadena Presbyterian Church.  The DPNA, active in livability issues in Downtown Pasadena, brought Rich Dilluvio, chief administrator for the Pasadena DOT, to give an overview of Pasadena’s proposed Bike Plan, which will be voted on by the City Council on July 15.

I have my own critiques of Pasadena’s bike plan, which I’ve written about here, here and here, so I won’t rehash them on this post, but it was clear from the questions to the DOT plan that many in the audience were unsatisfied with the slow pace and unambitious scope of the city’s plan and want improvement to the city’s bike infrastructure beyond the current proposal.  After the Q and A, Dr. Mark Smutny, pastor of PPC and a board member of DPNA, facilitated a strategy session in which attendees broke into small groups and shared ideas.  There were three “rounds” of small group discussion, followed by a sharing of ideas as a whole group.  The small groups allowed everyone a chance to share their views and the whole group discussion distilled the major themes that emerged, providing the group with a vision for where we go from here.

As each group shared its findings, several larger themes became apparent.  First, people are afraid to ride on many of Pasadena’s streets.  They want to ride to school, work, socialize, exercise or run errands, but they’re afraid because of a lack of separated bicycle infrastructure on city streets.  While the city’s proposal relies heavily on “bike routes” and “sharrows,” most people in the group said they wanted cycle tracks, buffered bike lanes, or at the very least clearly marked bike lanes, not class III bike routes.  Second, they are frustrated that the city currently has no dedicated funding for bike infrastructure.  Related to this is the fact that the city currently has no implementation goals aside from a vague goal in the current plan of 10 years or longer if funding is not available.  So the group consensus was that the city has to put its money where its mouth is and fund infrastructure change sooner rather than later, with shorter-term goals and timetables that can be measured.

Finally, there was a consensus that the group needs to organize to make its voice heard by those in power.  Several suggested the formation of a bike/pedestrian safety task force to work with the city’s Police Department on enforcement of traffic safety.  But it is clear to many in the room there is a desperate need to push the city to improve its infrastructure, and that change will not come by itself.  There seemed to be a feeling (that I strongly share)  that we need to organize some sort of group to this end.  It was suggested that the group call itself the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition, but one participant thought that sounded “too political,” so it was decided that the name of the group would be decided later.

Nevertheless, the tide seems to have turned in Pasadena.  With or without an official title, there is a new organization in Pasadena with energy and with a sense of purpose advocating complete streets as part of a livable, sustainable city.  The group’s next mission is to develop a series of talking points and make our voices heard at the July 15 City Council meeting.  But if real change is going to happen, the group will need to mobilize a wide range of grass roots constituencies in and around the city, develop an effective communication strategy, and organize to put sustained pressure on elected officials.  If the group does these things, Pasadena could be poised to be the next great walkable, bikeable city in Southern California.

To put your name on the email list for the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition, please go to the DPNA website here.

Caltech Bike Lab

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I finally got the chance to visit the Caltech Bike Lab last Saturday when I attended their free bike repair workshop.  The Bike Lab is a small bike workspace tucked away on the Caltech campus, run mostly by students, and membership is open to anyone affiliated with Cal Tech or JPL.  I’ve been aware of the Bike Lab for about a year, since I saw them sponsor an online petition in 2012 urging the City of Pasadena to make the streets around Caltech more bike friendly.  Hey, anybody who’s pushing cities to make their streets more bike-friendly gets an “A+” in my book.  When I recently saw they were hosting a free bike repair workshop open to the public, I jumped at the chance learn a little more about bike repair and meet this great group of people.

When I arrived on campus, I had a little trouble finding the lab.  It’s not on any campus map, and several students were not aware of it, but I finally found a student who directed me to it.  (Note to Caltech administrators: the Bike Lab is a great resource, and bikes are a “green” technology that can combat climate change and a whole host of other problems.  Put the Bike Lab on your campus map—literally.)  The Lab itself is located in a modest utility room, but the members (who help fund the shop’s operation with their dues) have access to an array of tools, bike stands, and space to work on their bikes.  Students or faculty who pay the small membership dues can come in and use the shop at any time.  Non-members may work on their bikes at the shop during certain hours when the shop is staffed by a volunteer (hours are listed on the Lab’s web page), but during such hours, understandably, priority is given to Caltech students and faculty.

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At the workshop, I was among the seven or so “students” who got some hands-on experience working on their bikes.  Three friendly Bike Lab members (Davin, Jeff, and John) led the workshop, which consisted of lessons on fixing flats, adjusting brakes, replacing brake cables, and chain maintenance.  Workshop leaders patiently answered questions, and there was a feeling of collaboration that made it comfortable to ask questions.  It made me feel like I was wrenching with friends in a welcoming atmosphere where no one judged you if your bike knowledge was rudimentary (or non-existent).  While I have plenty of experience changing flats, as a result of the workshop, I now have more confidence to try adjusting my own brakes and derailleurs in the future.  It also whetted my appetite to try bigger wrenching projects on my bikes.

Later that afternoon, the Lab hosted a more advanced workshop on wheel hubs, and I think I have enough knowledge to try an advanced workshop in the future.  I hope the Lab will host more such public workshops in the future that focus on specific repair jobs.  As important, perhaps, I had fun learning about bike repair and I’ve been introduced to this bike space with its vibrant group of students.

While the Bike Lab is a great place for the campus community to work on their bikes, it’s membership is understandably limited to members of the Caltech/JPL community.  I must admit, I was a bit disappointed to learn that I could not join the Bike Lab.  There are similar bike clubs and groups on other college campuses, such as CSUN’s Bike Collective or Cal Poly Pomona’s “Bike Shop,” but insofar as campus-based co-ops and clubs are primarily run for their respective institutions, the access to such venues is somewhat limited.  I’d love to have a place close by where I could work on my bikes, hang out, and meet other bike-minded people.

I’ve become increasingly convinced that there really is a need for a community bike co-op in the San Gabriel Valley in general, and the Pasadena area in particular.  There are two excellent community bike co-ops I’m aware of in Los Angeles (Bicycle Kitchen and Bike Oven), and others in the San Fernando Valley and Long Beach, but there are none that I am aware of in the Pasadena/west San Gabriel Valley area.

Community bike co-ops are usually located in a small commercial space, run primarily by volunteers, and are open to the public.  They usually charge a small fee to use the space to work on one’s own bike under the supervision of the volunteer mechanics.  These spaces become a resource for bicyclists and bicycle activists and often do outreach to underserved members of the local bicycling community.  By teaching people to fix their own bikes and providing a safe space to do so, bike co-ops of all kinds enhance bicycling as an economical, self-sufficient mode of transportation.  Equally as important, by creating a space for advocacy and activism, they help expand the movement for bicycle transportation.

The Caltech Bike Lab does a wonderful job of serving the Caltech/JPL community and I look forward to watching it grow and attending more of their workshops, but we need a thousand more flowers to bloom.  More bike co-ops anyone?

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