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.