Nona Varnado on Bike Trains
Commuter Rail: Nona Varnado
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.
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.