Want to see a Bike Train from the rider’s perspective? Check this out!
What’s better than being on NPR’s “All things Considered?” Being featured 2x and breaking into “Morning Edition”!
You may recall the first story over Thanksgiving 2013. Or the fall out from the atrocious comments made by the driver interviewed in the story, which resulted in a follow up article that is helping advance a positive dialogue on sharing the road. We were pretty stoked and flattered to get that.. so a second feature is beyond sweet. Yeah!
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
A grassroots project in Los Angeles – a city, of course, dominated by cars – is helping those who commute by bicycle but don’t like being out there alone in traffic – called LA Bike Trains. It’s built on the idea of strength in numbers. Alex Schmidt has this encore report.
ALEX SCHMIDT, BYLINE: It’s 6:45 a.m., and Barbara Insua is busy packing a bag.
BARBARA INSUA: I have the pants. Here we go. I have the shirt.
SCHMIDT: Insua will ride seven miles from her home in Pasadena to NASA’s jet propulsion lab where she works as a graphic designer. Insua only started doing this ride a few months ago.
INSUA: It was kind of daunting because, you know, seven miles to the lab. I didn’t know how to do it. You know, I’m not an avid cyclist so…
SCHMIDT: Enter bike trains – basically it’s commuting by bike in groups. Each bike train route has an experienced conductor who guides you. Insua especially likes that these volunteer conductors offer new riders door-to-door service from their homes to the train.
INSUA: He came and picked me up at my house – went way out of his way to get me to bike for, like, two or three weeks. And then I was conditioned.
SCHMIDT: We set out on this chilly morning to meet up with the rest of the bike train nearby. This commuting concept came to long-time cyclist Nona Varnado when she moved to LA from New York. She found that riding here was completely different.
NONA VARNADO: I realized that I needed a one-to-one personal education on how to ride around the city. I needed to be shown, this is how you cross an intersection.
SCHMIDT: Varnado figured others could use the same kind of help. Since launching Bike Trains in May with just a few routes and zero budget, the system has grown to a dozen covering Los Angeles by as much as 20 miles each way – like the route from Silver Lake to Santa Monica. Still bike trains are far from seeing mass adoption.
CHARLES DANDINO: Arm straight out to the left is – indicates a left turn.
SCHMIDT: Back on the Pasadena route, we link up with Charles Dandino, our conductor. All in, we’re five people. The most popular routes see about 10. Dandino gives us the safety rundown.
DANDINO: Your arm bent 90 degrees at the elbow so that your hand is vertical indicates a right turn. And if you flip your elbow over so that your arm is bent 90 degrees with your hand facing downward, that indicates stop. You want to signal these a little bit early. The communication is going to be your best protection.
HERBIE HUFF: I commend them for trying, but it seems tough.
SCHMIDT: Herbie Huff is a policy researcher at UCLA. She says there are lots of obstacles to taking part in bike trains. Huff thinks infrastructure, like bike lanes, would see the biggest win. And a concept like bike share could be an easier entry point.
HUFF: In order to go on the bike train, you need to already have made a bit of a commitment. You need to have already have a bike.
SCHMIDT: And then there’s the issue of safety. In fact, on the morning of the ride, a car cut through the single file of bicycles, missing one by just a couple of feet.
DANDINO: That was a dangerous maneuver.
SCHMIDT: So perhaps the greatest obstacle to bike trains is that drivers don’t like sharing the road.
JACKIE BURKE: It’s like they enjoy taking up the lanes.
SCHMIDT: Jackie Burke has lived in LA her whole life, and bicyclists slowing her down drive her crazy.
BURKE: It’s very frustrating to the point where I want to just run them off the road. And I’ve actually kind of done one of those drive-really-close-to-them kind of things just to scare them to try to intimidate them to kind of get out of my way.
SCHMIDT: With road conditions like those, it’s no wonder our conductor has been playing a mellow soundtrack piped through a small speaker during the ride. Bike trains move at the pace of the slowest rider. So even though there have been some hills and an aggressive driver, all in all, it’s been pretty pleasant. We arrive at Insua’s office about 50 minutes after we started.
SCHMIDT: How was the ride for you?
INSUA: It was hard because I don’t take that route very often. But we made it. We’re here.
SCHMIDT: And with that, one converted cyclist heads into work to start her day. For NPR News, I’m Alex Schmidt in Los Angeles.
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.
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.
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.
Thanksgiving was extra exciting after finding out that the NPR piece for “All Things Considered” called: “Shifting Gears: Commuting Aboard the L.A. Bike Trains” went LIVE the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when basically everyone in the country was listening to the radio! Friends from all over the country contacted us to say, “Is that you? What a great project!”
Sadly the more common response is that while the story begins with a heartwarming story of Conductor Charles Dandino’s success with his rider, Barbara; it ends with a quote from Jackie Burke who loudly exclaims, “It’s very frustrating, to the point where I just want to run them off the road,” Burke says. “I’ve actually done one of those drive-really-close-to-them kind of things to kind of scare them, to try to intimidate them to get out of my way.”
And it kinda hiijacked the whole conversation and scared off a lot of people who might have given L.A. Bike Trains a try without it. So what should have been an epic pro-bike discussion, backfired. But it also gave us the NPR platform to encourage a follow up conversation, that could have a hugely positive impact on improving the national dialogue re: driver/cyclist relationships. Read L.A. Bike Trains founder, Nona Varnado’s response via The Bird Wheel.
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.
Can you say New Favorite Video?
Grist just published this on their youtube channel and it’s blowing up. Why? because it’s the happy fun educational video that we’ve been waiting for: it appeals equally to the new rider testing out the idea as to the experienced urban cyclist tired of things that are too basic, too cheesy. Bravo!
I was pondering which of the many website upgrades, organization spreadsheets I might work on for L.A. Bike Trains, when I noticed our traffic had just FREAKED OUT. Where was it coming from? reddit and it turns out that several comment threads, based out of neighborhoods all over LA had begun with people talking about where they live and commute from, asking other people to join. (psst – don’t forget to add that info to our commuter survey!)
May 22, 2013 by Elizabeth Gallardo
Jump on the train! The bike train that is… A group of enthusiastic bicyclists have organized LA Bike Trains: routes across Los Angeles, encouraging Angelenos to ditch their cars and join a bike train to work.
What is a bike train? It’s a slow and steady bike ride to work taking a regular route in the company of other bicyclists. Bike trains are led by reliable Conductors that monitor the speed and safety of the ride, ensuring all commuters are on board and comfortable. Bike trains encourage safety in numbers and provide a festive morning commute. Bike Train Conductors are dedicated volunteers, experienced urban cyclists who recognize that biking to work can be daunting for an individual, but easy and enjoyable in a group.
Right now the LA Bike Trains have 5 routes:
Route 001 : Silver Lake to Hollywood
Led by Bruce Chan – Meets Wednesdays at 8:00am at Cafe Tropical.
Route 002 : Mid-Wilshire to DTLA
Led by Nona Varnado – Meets Wednesdays 9 am at Cafe Americano .
Route 003 : Sunset Triangle to Santa Monica
Led by Wes High – Meets Tuesday at 7:45am at Sunset Triangle Plaza.
Route 004 : Silver Lake to Downtown
Led by Alex Rixey – Meets Thursdays at 8:00am at Caffe Vita on Sunset and Hillhurst, near the Vista Theater.
Route 005 : Westlake to Long Beach
Led by Christopher Lovejoy – Meets Wednesdays 6:45am at 7-Eleven on 7th Street.
LA Bike Trains is eager to expand! To provide input where you would like to join a bike train, fill out their Commuter Survey.