For the past two years, cycling advocate Nona Varnado and a handful of overworked, enthusiastic volunteers have been building the social infrastructure and training for every Angeleno to bicycle to work and school.
Yes, bicycle—in traffic-plagued Southern California, no less, where drive-through restaurants were invented because apparently, cars were so beloved that Angelenos wanted to eat meals in them.
Despite her past as a bicycle messenger in New York City, Varnado found that if she wanted to cycle safely in Los Angeles, she’d need a friend to personally show her the routes, show her that it was possible to get around the city without the protective metal cage of a vehicle.
“I get it. Cycling can be terrifying. There’s freeways coming up to the streets, and all my friends in L.A. live 20 miles away,” Varnado said. “I know that if I didn’t have the experience I did with a friend showing me around, even I, an experienced cyclist, wouldn’t have taken the chance. The only way to get people to change their heart is to have these one-to-one experiences.”
L.A. Bike Trains is an extension of that experience, the friend who shows you it’s possible. One morning every workweek, 10 volunteer “conductors” meet to safely shepherd newbie commuter cyclists across the city to work for the a.m. commute. If your quitting times align, you can join the train again for the ride home or just ride back the same way you came.
Varnado calls her riders her “ducks,” and the program is free for anyone with a bike (and presumably a helmet), and for your first few rides, your conductor will personally pick you up at your house and show you the best route to get to your meeting spot. Conductors carefully select their routes to be the optimal experience for a cyclist of any experience level, figuring in hill grades, bike lanes, and even scenic beauty. Routes run from Pasadena to downtown and from Silver Lake to Santa Monica, a daunting 15-mile, cross-city route made accessible by expert conductor Wesley High.
High even records his Silver Lake to Santa Monica ride every day with a helmet-mounted GoPro to catalog how safe his routes are and adjust accordingly. Sometimes drivers cut him off and screech to a stop. Sometimes drivers angrily accuse him of taking the lane to personally ruin their day. The insults hurled can be mind-boggling, but High takes every possible measure to ensure his riders’ safety, going as slowly as needed and making sure every person feels comfortable enough to take the lane when necessary.
“Every rider is going to process angry drivers differently,” Varnado said. “But there’s safety in numbers, and we’ve had no serious injuries on our routes.”
The safety-in-numbers concept has pushed like-minded cyclists in other U.S. cities, such as New York City; Portland, Oregon; and New Orleans, to implement bike trains. The notion extends beyond commuters through the national organization Safe Routes, which uses parent-led bike trains to get children safely to school on bikes.
According to a 2014 report, bike ridership in Los Angeles has gone up 7.5 percent since 2011, with a preliminary count of 18,000 riders across the city.
That’s paltry compared with the half-a-million bikers in New York City. But the promising news is that L.A. Bike Trains has more permanent routes—and more on the way—than any other city’s bike train program, suggesting that Angelenos are interested in better cycling infrastructure.
L.A. Councilmember Mike Bonin used the report as an impetus to ask for more city transportation funds to be allocated to increase bicycle ridership. In New York City, the Department of Transportation implemented this type of plan in 2009 with a goal of doubling ridership by 2012 but reached the goal a year early.
For Varnado, who also works part-time with the nonprofit advocacy and education group L.A. County Bicycle Coalition, the L.A. Bike Trains program is already a success, because she’s able to see her ducks growing up and “graduating” to ride on their own. Some of these graduated riders have developed their own routes or institute programs in their workplaces.
The UCLA Bicycle Coalition, for instance, reached out to Varnado for a one-day bike-to-school event; it was such a success that the UCLA Sustainability department allocated resources and work hours for a permanent route to UCLA.
“I get emails all the time from people wanting to grow this project, thinking it’s already funded,” Varnado said. “It’s not. It’s me not fixing my teeth for two years.”
Varnado said LABT has collected hundreds of commuter surveys from former and current riders, and when it’s ready, it can use the data to help implement change and possibly get these programs funded. Right now, it relies on donations from people who can see the benefits without the hard data, and it’s hoping Los Angeles is a viable contender for a community grant from PeopleForBikes, a privately funded organization.
“If politicians don’t start realizing that young people, families, want safe communities that are not just bike accessible but walking too, then everything else will just be biding our time,” Varnado said.
And we’ll be biding that time in traffic.