Bike Train News

Code for LA: Lovejoy pitches #LABT app to developers

Former conductor and lead tech super volunteer, Christopher Lovejoy, pitches the L.A. Bike Trains mobile app development to the CODE FOR LA meetup. Code for Los Angeles is the Los Angeles Code for America Brigade, a network of civic-minded technologists who contribute their skills toward using the web as a platform for local government and community service. Check them out or contact us if you want to help us make a mobile app!

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#LABT in the GuardianUK

Los Angeles bike trains – beating the traffic in a car-centric city

Nona Varnado was terrified of lethal LA drivers, but all that changed when she set up safe routes for group commuting

Cycling Venice Beach Los Angeles
Cyclists by Venice Beach in Los Angeles. Much of car-centric LA is much more dangerous for riding. Photograph: Christian Kober/Getty Images/AWL Images RM

However, after overcoming her own fears, Varnado founded LA Bike Trains – free, weekly rides led by proficient cyclists across the city giving would-be bike commuters the routes, the skills and the confidence to ride to work.

So, what it’s really like cycling in LA? Varnado says:

That would depend who you ask. I’ve lived without a car all over the world and I’m definitely in the category of what most people would call fearless.

When I first moved to Los Angeles I almost bought a car because I was so scared. I’ve been a bike messenger, and when I was younger I did fixed gear alleycat races, really crazy stuff, and so that was why I felt I could go anywhere and ride a bike, no problem.

However, Varnado says, LA was a different experience altogether.

I was experiencing anxiety, I stopped leaving the house. I realised I wasn’t doing things because in my mind everything seemed so spread out and the sprawl is so great, and the traffic is of a different nature.

There’s no regularity between how a lane is between one block to another and drivers are going from 30 to 50 miles an hour to get on the freeway. Trying to get anywhere you’re going to have to go past freeway on-ramps and you’re also dealing with cars that don’t expect a cyclist.

To me what is the most scary thing about Southern California is that drivers have this entitlement mentality. That means people don’t care if they kill you. It is as simple as that.

They’re trying to save two seconds, and if you need to die to save them two seconds they will kill you.

Things turned around for her when, working in an LA bike shop, colleagues showed her how to handle the traffic, and find the “secret” routes away from the main roads.

From designing women’s cycle clothes, and talking to women buying those clothes, Varnado saw what she describes as a “huge humanitarian need for activism”, the empowering potential of the bike, financial and otherwise. She also recognised the need for positive one-to-one experiences, like hers at the bike shop, to get people cycling. With protected cycle lanes LA would be a bike paradise, she says, but since she couldn’t build the infrastructure herself, the way to change was a social solution.

Cycling Los Angeles

Nona Varnado holds her bike high above the LA’s busy traffic. Photograph: Hal Bergman

Varnado studied other bike trains – where they worked and where they fell down, treating it like a business model. Through local campaigners such as the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition and Bike Week she found support and a pool of passionate volunteers.

Those volunteers were all very vocal. We just started getting people to try it, and they would talk about it with their co-workers and we got picked up on a lot of local transportation blogs. Once it got out that there was some crazy group of friendly cyclists helping people to navigate the city for free, with an emphasis on safety, it became a novelty and so all these media outlets were asking: how is this possible?

She believes part of its success is accessibility and fun.

There’s no obligation, there’s no pressure, it’s free, it’s not scary, we’re the nicest, most cuddly introduction to biking in LA that you could get. We don’t charge and we’re on schedule every week.

That reliability, she says, is crucial, as it is with any form of transport.

There are now 10 routes, with an online survey to test demand for more. According to Varnado about a third of her bike train commuters are what she calls graduates, people who build up their confidence and skills over two or three weeks and then leave, hopefully to become independent commuters. The rest, she says, are a diverse array of regulars.

This is the big success of LA Bike Trains: We get every shape, age, colour, income. We’ve developed a very flexible model that can go into any community in LA.

In younger communities, such as Silver Lake, the bike train is organised online. The south LA train, meanwhile, is run “almost entirely out of a park”. Some conductors (ride leaders) even put hotel-style door hangers on bikes, that look like love letters, to encourage new riders. There are natural fluctuations in numbers, with anything from two commuters upwards in each train. It’s intensive but clearly worth it for Varnado and her team.

What kind of people get involved?

Our conductors are the nicest, most wonderful people on the planet and they really do care about other people and about their city. They say: “I want it to be safe for my children to ride. I had to be a daredevil but I don’t want my daughter to have to be.”

Have there been any particular success stories?

There’s so many, it’s like picking bonbons from a jar. One of my favourites is Barbara. She hadn’t biked in many years, she was really out of shape, she didn’t think she could do it, she needed an incredible amount of help and now she’s a committed regular. Not only has her health improved, now she bikes her daughter to school, so that’s impacted positively on both of their lives.

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Bicycling Magazine

ADVOCACY

Nona Varnado on Bike Trains

Commuter Rail: Nona Varnado

Varnado transforms drivers into two-wheeled commuters, one bike train at a time

KALEE THOMPSON

(Photo by Mathew Scott)
To get more people riding to work in car-centric Los Angeles, clothing designer and bicycle activist Varnado founded a series of free citywide bike trains. A bike train is a scheduled ride to predetermined destinations led by a “conductor” who organizes the group and helps newcomers. Here, Varnado explains how she started hers—and lays out her plans for helping to transform American cities. Find more info on Varnado’s initiative at labiketrains.com.

Why bike trains?
I’d never been scared of bike commuting before, but when I moved to Los Angeles it felt like Frogger. I thought Google Maps was going to send me to certain doom. When I realized I needed one-to-one help, it occurred to me that everyone else does, too.

How are they different from regular group commutes?
Our conductors are volunteers who are committed to making people feel comfortable and safe. That human connection is what gets people motivated. When someone goes on vacation, there’s a fill-in. And we’re like a bus network. We run on time. We want people to be able to rely on us.

How big are the groups?
Between five and eight is ideal. That size feels fun, and you’re visible on the road, but it’s not so big that you need a second conductor or you need to worry about it spreading out too much.

Is it the same riders every week?
It fluctuates. For example, somebody who shows up for the first time might not know how to get around, how to clear an intersection. They participate for a few weeks and then disappear. It’s a beautiful thing for the conductor to see. We’ve created a new bike commuter.

What about the routes? Are they expanding?
We initially developed all of these routes without a survey. We didn’t have a lot of data, we just did what we thought was going to work. Since then, we’ve been gathering commuter data and we have three new routes that will be starting soon. Two of the new conductors are women, both of whom will be leading lines to universities. It’s an exciting growth stage.

Do you think this will grow beyond LA?
I’ve been contacted by other cities. It would be great to serve as a model, but we want a set of standards. This has a potentially transformative effect and I don’t want to see it done poorly. We’ve established a nonprofit called the BCI, the Bicycle Culture Institute. Our aim is to create a library of workshops and projects and lesson plans and have it be a real resource, whether it’s for a bike co-op or a local bike coalition or just a local school or individual. We’ll charge a consulting fee, but on a sliding scale.

What’s next?
We’re hoping to launch the BCI website soon. We just produced LA’s first big bike festival focused on commuters. We had 10 workshops. It was very lively and we saw a lot of people we weren’t expecting to see—it was not the usual bicycling crowd. We’re developing a smartphone app that’s basically a NextBus for bike trains—you can hop on and hop off as we build our network. All of it is a way to make bicycling a bigger and better part of everyday life.

Update: You can now visit the BCI website at bicycleculture.org.

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#LABT on Voice of America [video]

Bike Trains Beat Los Angeles Traffic

Published February 03, 2014

Los Angeles is known for its car culture. The city is spread out and public transportation is either slow or limited. As a result, people drive everywhere, causing congestion almost any time of day. A small but growing group of bicycle enthusiasts is trying to change L.A. car culture with what’s called L.A. Bike Trains. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.

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League of American Bicyclists recognize L.A. Bike Trains and founder Nona Varnado

September 30, 2013

ALL ABOARD THE LA BIKE TRAIN

WOMEN BIKE
by Carolyn Szczepanski

As part of our Women on a Roll series last week, we showcased the importance of confidence in getting more women on bikes. In our live webcast, we delved into the impact and influence of educational outreach — providing relevant and welcoming classes and programs that provide women the skills and self-assurance to ride (and wrench!).

But confidence extends beyond the classroom, co-op or the bike shop.

Out in Los Angeles, Nona Varnado is “conducting” a different kind of outreach to encourage hesitant riders to give biking a try.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to catch up with Varnado at Interbike — but she’s certainly not new to the scene. She’s been focused on increasing the number of women on bikes through her fashion line, mentorship, and advocacy for years. Immediately, two of her (new) projects stood out to me as particularly innovative and promising when it comes to increasing confidence and community among women: LA Bike Trains and an art gallery focused on cycling.

In this Women Bike Q&A, Varnado shares some insight on how she’s helping to drive the exciting bike scene in the City of Angeles.

1) You fairly recently moved across the country from New York City to Los Angeles — what was that transition like and how would you describe the bike community in LA? 

Even before I set foot in Los Angeles, I was given a call by a fantastic community organizer named Patrick Miller who spent two hours on the phone with a stranger telling me how supportive the local political scene is (coming from the NYC cycling advocacy world I was immediately jealous); that biking in LA was all about big, non-competitive rides based around creative themes; that there are bike co-ops all over the city and the most interesting groups and personalities are headed by women. He then took me on my first Passage Ride, re-introduced me to TJ Flexer at Orange 20 Bikes and several leaders of the LA bike community.

It’s only in the past few years that women have started to equalize or exceed men in advocacy or planning. But in LA you see the Ovarian Psychos, The Bodacious Bike Babes (BBB!) in the community, Ma Bell holding it down at the Bike Kitchen and an overwhelmingly female staff at the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. It creates a different kind of atmosphere that’s more social, welcoming and complex. We all have our place and there’s plenty of space for everyone. Which is not to say there isn’t the usual bike drama. That totally happens. But more relaxed.

2) One really exciting project you’ve launched is LA Bike Trains. Tell us a little bit more about that. What is it and how did it get started?

When I moved to LA I discovered a whole new social bike ride culture. Giant or small groups that would meet up around a theme, usually at night, and ride as a moving party. I had heard of Midnight Ridazz, but it seemed very strange to me that people, even within the city, would drive their bikes to a mellow ride and then drive home. In New York City, and other places I’ve lived in, riding a bike in a city is pure transportation (or sport), so I recognized that as a key cultural difference. At the same time, I almost became a car person because riding around LA seemed so terrifying. I realized that there’s a complicated series of things that a potential bike commuter/city cyclist has to learn in order to ride safely (or at least confidently) and the only way to do that is to ride and learn from other people who have that knowledge and experience. Google maps might help, but only if you’re already there in terms of experience.

From my friendship with Kim Burgas who runs bike trains in NYC, I realized the combination of social rides for transportation could be a serious game changer for a place like Los Angeles. I saw what has traditionally been small friend/co-worker groups as a scalable transportation model that can be flexible enough even for the complexity of a megalopolis. I’m usually opposed to phrases that have become popular business jargon, but in this case it’s completely appropriate: empowering a huge number of people too afraid or uncomfortable to bike, even occasionally, is something that can show the world that sprawl is not something that we as a society have to turn our backs on. And if Los Angeles can do it – anyone – at any time can do it. So far the response has been fantastic. People were waiting for something like this. We’re currently 10+ routes and looking to find a way to raise money in order to expand.

 

3) You’ve gotten a lot of press and interest even in the first few months of the Bike Trains — what have been been some of the challenges and successes?The biggest challenge has been being turned down for fiscal sponsorship. I’ve put in a year of work and it’s emotionally hard to pack it in and keep going without support or a financial path forward. Everything costs money. The success and reward comes constantly from working with a team of volunteers who are the best and brightest in the cycling advocacy community, continually impressing me with their creativity and generosity.

We’ve become a team that several organizations look to in order to advance policy, outreach and community development in just a few months. When one of our conductors got harassed by an uninformed highway patrol officer, it became such a viral issue that we could bring the LAPD into conversation. That’s amazing. On an individual level the conductors all agree that it’s the direct impact we have on specific individuals. For example: When you see someone go from barely able to ride through an intersection without freaking out, to showing up with a brand new bike and telling you about how they ride to work even when there isn’t a bike train. We’ve had conductors fix up bikes, help riders get into better shape, get people educated about bikes and local resources and begin to develop a whole new demographic of confident, happy bike commuters.

A lot of our riders are people that the rest of the bike industry doesn’t want to address: adults who don’t race, don’t understand anything about bikes, don’t identify themselves as cyclists and don’t yet understand why a bike should cost more than $150. By the time they’ve participated even just two times most people start to get it. Our biggest supporter is Orange 20 Bikes, an independent shop in East Hollywood that’s very mission aligned with LA Bike Trains. They’ve supported us financially, provided logistical support as well as being the first shop to offer a package deal for LA Bike Trains. The goal with that is to help get people on a quality geared road bike with a helmet, lock and all the support of a local bike shop for an affordable price. We’d like to work through as many barriers to participation as we possibly can.

 

4) Your not just a conductor, but also a curator too. Why did you create R5Y7?

I have been producing a line of women’s urban cycling apparel since 2008 and struggled with connecting to potential customers. I saw that two things were necessary: We need more women riding everyday and I need to be able to interact with the public in an open environment where conversations can happen organically. No woman is going to buy pants on the internet unless the return policy is as free, easy and well known as Zappos. A small brand can’t afford to do that, so you’ve got to be in a spot where people can find their way to you, touch things, try them on and give feedback.

In working on problem #1 (not enough women riding bikes everyday), I saw that the ‘retail’ solution would also be an excellent advocacy tool. No one really knows how to effectively bring in non-cyclist to talk about bikes. But what if we had a really awesome gallery that just happened to revolve around bikes, able to frame the conversation to the art/design community or education and entertainment demographics?R5Y7 is an experimental lab: We can see what works — and what doesn’t. We’ve found new ways to engage a sleepy and disparate local network with informative lifestyle workshops. The gallery installations appeal to other media outlets and visitors. The ability to do fancy product launches for a fraction of the expected cost means more sexy bike brands can access the LA market – and that LA will respond by showing up and doing what other cities have: make cycling desirable.

I love being able to go back to my roots as an artist through curating shows. The workshops are immediately gratifying and much easier, but there’s a transformative power that objects have. It gets boring talking all the time. Visual experiences are key. There’s also the constant sense that it’s impossible and just when I’m afraid that I may have gone too far people respond to artist calls, journalists show up to parties and people some times even buy things. It’s wild.

 

5) How do you think the Bike Trains and R5Y7 tie into your overarching goal with The Bird Wheel — to create a more welcoming bike culture for women?

I think the most important part of reaching out to women is to do so from an authentic and creative voice that acknowledges that things aren’t perfect. But that imperfection, exploration, trying things out is inherently interesting and rewarding. LA Bike Trains is partially a tool for someone to have a non judgemental guide help become knowledgeable without embarrassment (a process many women feel more comfortable with) as much as it is a breakfast club. R5Y7 is similar: We try to provide interesting or beautiful experiences without requiring anything more than showing up – but if it resonates than it can become a lifelong interest or passion.

The Bird Wheel was always intended to bring a female perspective to a wide range of timely subjects. At the same time I try to be transparent that I’m not unbiased. The most rewarding experience that I remember having from writing The Bird Wheel is when the amazing Laura Solis biked from the Bronx to an event I held in Brooklyn (and on a workday!) to thank me for introducing her to all the amazing advocacy and culture groups she’s at the forefront of… through reading the blog. I never knew!

Bookmark The Bird Wheel to stay up-to-date with all of Varnado’s efforts.

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#LABT in Downtown LA News!

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Downtown Bike Commuters Find Safety and Fun in Group Rides

Posted: Tuesday, August 27, 2013 3:00 pm

By Ryan Vaillancourt

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES – When it comes to riding a bicycle, especially on city streets, the rule of safety in numbers applies.

A group of cyclists pedaling at the same pace is simply more visible to car drivers. There’s another plus about riding in a group: It’s more fun.

Those beliefs led cycling advocates Nona Varnado and Bruce Chan to form L.A. Bike Trains, an upstart organization that hosts weekly morning rides between various residential neighborhoods and employment hubs.

By creating a group setting to ride to work, Bike Trains hopes to inspire people to ditch their cars and take to the streets on two wheels. It seems to be getting some traction: After launching in May with four routes, Bike Trains is now up to nine routes, four of which culminate in Downtown (other destinations include Long Beach and Santa Monica).

“Our number one target audience is the people who basically don’t feel comfortable riding by themselves,” Varnado said. “They might not have any experience or might not know how to get there.”

Here’s how it works: Would-be participants pick a route that corresponds with their commute (most rides start in the Silver Lake/Los Feliz area). Riders convene at a starting point and roll out by 8 a.m. Downtown destinations include Fifth and Olive streets and Seventh Street and Grand Avenue. Some routes pick up regular riders along the way

Each ride is led by a “conductor,” an experienced cyclist with safety training for riding in the street.

READ MORE

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a very stylish bike commute

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Is your fear of getting sweaty and not looking professional keeping you from taking cycling more seriously as a commuting option?Alternative Route004 co-conductors Kelly & Kelli (you read that correctly) keep it classy and stylish as they ride from Silver Lake -> Downtown LA! And they’re both members of the Bodacious Bike Babes. With Morning Edition blasting from their speakers, get a work out AND get informed!

WEDNESDAYS
Depart 8AM @ Cafe Vita, Silver Lake.
End @ 7th & Grand, Downtown LA.

More info @ http://labiketrains.com/routes/

— with Kelli Bachmann and Kelly Majewski.

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LA Bike Trains in Santa Monica Daily Press!

Bike Trains offer alternative commute

A cyclist makes his way down Main Street on Monday during the evening commute. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)

A cyclist makes his way down Main Street on Monday during the evening commute. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)

 

COUNTYWIDE — A collective of cyclists from across Los Angeles County is coming together to offer a fun and eco-friendly commuting alternative: bike trains.

While work is underway to gain nonprofit status, for the past two months the volunteer group LA Bike Trains has directed cyclists to meet up or join others riding to work along pre-designated routes — including one into Santa Monica — following a leader, or conductor, said Nona Varnado, co-founder of the group and staffer at the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.

Varnado explained that bike trains are a global phenomenon, often as an activity amongst friends. LA Bike Trains, on the other hand, hopes to transform the concept into a more inclusive and strategic enterprise including creating a smartphone app that will facilitate coordination.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who’s done this as a business,” Varnado said.

Traffic congestion continues to be a problem in the county with bicycles providing a solution, Varnado said. In Santa Monica, a city that boasts having the largest bike center in the nation with lockers and showers for commuters, bicycles have been embraced as an alternative form of transportation with bike lanes and parking spaces all across the city.

As the group of bike train volunteers completes the legal proceedings for nonprofit status, Varnado said that they have already successfully brokered a deal with the bike shop Orange 20 Bikes in Hollywood to offer a discount package for LA Bike Trains participants that includes a bike, lock and helmet for $550 before tax.

She added that the Los Angeles Department of Transportation has expressed interest in supporting the group after writing a piece about them on the LADOT Bike Blog.

One of the motivations behind running a structured network of bike trains across the county was the lack consideration for those who use bicycles as their main form of transportation such as fewer bike-friendly forms of infrastructure than needed, Varnado said.

“Los Angeles does not think of bicycling as transportation but as recreation,” Varnado said.

Wesley “Wes” High, conductor of the bike train from Sunset Triangle Plaza in Silver Lake to about Ninth Street and Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, said that he joined LA Bike Trains because he wanted to play a role in supporting the bicycle community beyond his work for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition’s Neighborhood Bike Ambassador Program.

“I don’t think there’s enough done to make Los Angeles a bike-friendly place,” High said.

High, who works for the local advertising agency Phelps, said that the part of his bike train route that goes through Santa Monica is a pleasant difference from other areas, including Beverly Hills, where bike lanes have only recently been added.

Peter Dzewaltowski, transportation planner for Santa Monica, noted that partly due to the city’s efforts to enact an award-winning bike plan in the last few years, it comes as no surprise that the city’s rankings in the National Bike Challenge showed 76 percent of Santa Monicans use bicycles for utilitarian purposes.

“It’s an everybody wins kind of circumstance when we get someone to forgo an automobile for an alternative form of transportation,” Dzewaltowski said.

Beyond a bike train’s logistical benefits, High said that the social element of riding with others is something worthwhile.

“Usually when driving to work you have thousands of cars around you but you don’t interact with others,” High said.

Varnado remembered that during one of her bike trains a rider got a flat tire. The whole train moved aside to help and in about five minutes the bicycle was repaired and they were all on their way. She added that the trains are considerate of everyone with the slowest and fanciest dressed setting the pace for the whole train to ensure no one gets too exhausted or messy on their way to work.

While participation numbers have been low, Varnado has hopes for the group’s future and its expansion.

“If you can do this in Los Angeles, you can do it elsewhere,” Varnado said.

For now there are only eight set routes available but Varnado said those interested may fill out a commuter survey on the group’s website at http://www.labiketrains.com as the conductors are crowdsourcing for potential new ones. She added that the website and survey link will be updated soon.

– See more at: http://smdp.com/bike-trains-offer-alternative-commute/124660#sthash.WQCHElYP.dpuf

Originally published July 16, 2013 9:24 PM

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