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.
A Wolfe has covered arts, entertainment, and politics for Good, Vice,Flaunt, and other publications.
In Summer 2014 we applied for the LA2050 CONNECT grant to ‘win’ 100K in project funding. We didn’t get it (boo!) but we did learn a lot about what we need to do to better serve more of LA County. The work, adventure and fundraising to develop the mobile app and the number of routes continues! If you want to help us succeed, DONATE!
Proposed collaboration (we want to work with partners!)
Collaboration (partners are signed up and ready to hit the ground running!)
IN ONE SENTENCE, PLEASE DESCRIBE YOUR IDEA OR PROJECT.
L.A. Bike Trains! Led by experienced ‘conductors’ on the best routes across LA – making biking a fun, safe and reliable way to get to work.
IN ONE SENTENCE, PLEASE DESCRIBE WHAT YOUR ORGANIZATION DOES.
The Bicycle Culture Institute is a 501(c)3 non-profit dedicated to connecting people to new (bicycle) ideas.
DOES YOUR PROJECT IMPACT LOS ANGELES COUNTY? CHECK ONLY ONE.
Yes (benefits all of LA County)
Yes (benefits a region of LA County)
Yes (benefits a population of LA County)
PLEASE WRITE A SAMPLE TWEET TO DESCRIBE YOUR SUBMISSION.
@LABikeTrains educating new bicycle riders, developing mellow urban routes & making bikes the BEST way to get around #LA
WHICH AREA(S) OF LA DOES YOUR PROJECT BENEFIT? CHECK ALL THAT APPLY.
San Gabriel Valley
San Fernando Valley
If other, please specify.:
We are working to develop the foundation needed to expand into all areas of LA County, from building capacity to key relationships.
WHAT IS YOUR IDEA/PROJECT IN MORE DETAIL?
The idea: Individuals can create social solutions to hard problems that frequently seem insurmountable or dependent on major infrastructure.
Individuals only change their behavior based on 1:1 positive experiences. = A social/educational program making bicycling feel safe, fun and accessible – in the middle of car-centric Los Angeles!
LA Bike Trains are regular group rides along the safest routes, led by trained ‘conductors.’ But it gets better. We’ve built in education, rider support and are working on a mobile app to become a major transportation alternative and “first mile/last mile” solution. Everyone wants to “beat the traffic” or avoid parking and L.A. Bike Trains is a fun solution that’s easy to talk about or participate in
WHAT WILL YOU DO TO IMPLEMENT THIS IDEA/PROJECT?
#1 Promotion: print materials, signage and traditional media
#2 Develop USA’s first urban (traffic) specific ride leader training program
#3 Create new routes based on need as determined by the Commuter Surveyhttp://labiketrains.com/commuter-survey/
#4 Connect current efforts into a web based (mobile) app that suggests routes at all times and provides real-time tracking of live routes for anyone to “hop on/hop off.”
#5 Connect LA Bike Trains to major educational and employment organizations to help facilitate bicycling to major commuter destinations.
Right now we have the benefit of being almost 2(!) years old. We’ve got a solid team, program and lots of community support – even internationally! Cities from San Francisco to London have asked “how do you do it? We want Bike Trains in our city!” But even in LA few people who would benefit the most have heard of us or know how we can make their commute and their life better.
We also need a huge increase in commuter survey responses. The tactic we’ve taken is that in addition to our own collection, we are working with major transportation and city agencies to get access to their data as well.
Everything is about breaking down barriers – from helping people learn how to safely and comfortably bike commute on their own or with us. No topic is too silly; most are worried about sweating and not looking professional enough, or too serious.. we are always addressing safety and helping people get over real safety concerns. We do that by showing up, running on time and being generous with everything we know.
Being an LA Bike Trains conductor is a big job and only the most kind hearted, energetic and wonderful people can do it. Conductors are unpaid volunteers who spend a lot of time making sure their communication is great, that riders feel safe and have a good time and participate in any number of other development or advocacy work.
That means that even beyond the Bike Trains, we’re developing an incredible volunteer network across Los Angeles. After primary conductors, we have ‘back up’ conductors. We are always looking for volunteer web/mobile developers, event coordinators, community organizers, educators and happy people. Right now our volunteer list is 100+ strong and growing.
We’ve got an unreleased app ‘beta’ but we need funding and specific development talent to get it to the point where we can release it into the wilds of LA city streets safely.
HOW WILL YOUR IDEA/PROJECT HELP MAKE LA THE BEST PLACE TO CONNECT TODAY? IN 2050?
Today, L.A. Bike Trains is a novel approach using a fun social experience to educate Angelinos about bicycles for transportation. We primarily address crude concerns, from safety fears to a total lack of knowledge on how to navigate the city without a car and what stuff is needed. We answer a lot of the same questions again, and again. All of these questions can be found online, but we have discovered that the most important element in creating behavior change is emotional, via 1:1 human experience. We provide that and inspiration for taking the next steps.
We’re also at an exciting intersection – helping define what multi-modal transportation looks like. From using our experience to assist with Open Streets events, collaborate with major transportation/urban development projects and the creation of innovative bike friendly routes via a mobile app… there’s no limit to where we can grow in the future.
Right now the biggest need is basic education and advocating for infrastructure developments, while creating an authentic bicycle culture that makes Angelinos more resilient. As infrastructure improves and social acceptance of bicycling for transport gains, we’ll be able to focus on bicycle specific innovation within LA’s ever changing urban transit mix. Having built a massive network of volunteers, participants, collaborators and channels of communication we’ll be able to facilitate an evolution that may bring us to work more closely with mass transit, urban planning, the bicycle industry itself or any number of potential avenues.
What doesn’t change between now and 2050 is our commitment to using the bicycle as the greatest tool we have for connecting individuals and communities in Los Angeles. The bicycle is a great equalizer between rich and poor, languages and backgrounds. Transportation equality and access is one of the greatest projects the city must undertake to allow all of its’ citizens access to educational, recreation and occupational opportunity.
WHOM WILL YOUR PROJECT BENEFIT? PLEASE BE SPECIFIC.
Like most start-up projects, we’ve had to begin in communities that are naturally receptive to what we’re doing. It’s no surprise that we’re popular in the young, affluent and very Caucasian neighborhood of Silverlake, but the real promise is in the Latino communities of East LA and beyond. Reaching diverse and low income populations – the ones who stand to gain the most from this project – requires a lot more effort. From being able to faithfully offer communication, assistance and service in multiple languages. It’s also important to have the resources necessary to reach those populations in meaningful ways.
In more affluent neighborhoods we can simply promote online and begin rides at local cafes. In traditionally poor neighborhoods, the barriers are much higher. That means we need to spend a lot more time and money to bring the same spirit of service; by providing free coffee at a local park and being present at community events. Conductors bear a huge responsibility, not only in taking on the responsibility and potential liability of leading regular rides, but also educating, encouraging and connecting people to a broader community, bicycling resources and providing an empathetic window into what their specific neighborhood requires to become receptive to community adoption of a ‘bike train.’
Too many projects attempt to reach out to Spanish speaking community by simply offering a website in Spanish. We understand that we need to be able to fully support communities that are predominantly Spanish speaking. That means working with existing groups, recruiting existing leaders and research into what is most needed. Having the time, thoughtfulness and creativity to bridge the project into a different framework is how we plan to be successful in positively impacting divers populations in Los Angeles. Incremental, rather than blanket progress. To do that faithfully it has to happen organically and that is extremely difficult to predict.
L.A. Bike Trains is in the position to most positively impact disadvantaged and low-income communities. By making the bicycle (often in combination with public transport) a reliable and desirable transportation option, individuals stand to gain mobility, save a significant percentage of their income and begin to solve some of the most pressing health issues seriously affecting low-income populations. We address this goal through an all-inclusive, holistic approach.
PLEASE IDENTIFY ANY PARTNERS OR COLLABORATORS WHO WILL WORK WITH YOU ON THIS PROJECT.
· Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition
· LADOT Bike Program
· Metro Bike Program
· Los Angeles County’s ‘Bicycle Advisory Committee’*
· Multicultural Communities for Mobility*
· R.O.P.E. (Radical Outreach People Empowered)
· Bodacious Bike Babes
· Sweet Ride USA
· Wolfpack Hustle/Midnight Ridazz
· S.W.A.T. She Wolf Attack Team
· SoCalCX – Prestige Series
· UCLA Sustainability Dept
· UCLA Bike Coalition
· USC Bike Coalition*
· Cyclone Bicycle Supply
· Josh Cohen, Bicycle Attorney
· Alta Planning
· Fehr and Peers*
· Design by Colleen
*Not Yet Confirmed
These organizational collaborators range from organizations that we can rely on to help us promote our work to their audiences, to those that provide more in-depth assistance with knowledge or professional connections to being able to support us financially or with ‘in-kind’ donations. These are the organizations that are our “first tier” whenever we need anything or just want to explore possibilities.
The primary collaborations that we want to develop are with university bicycle coalitions. A successful test run and development of 2 new routes going to UCLA was launched during bike week May 2014. We now want to deepen that relationship so that more staff and students will utilize L.A. Bike Trains as their transportation resource. L.A. Bike Trains would like UCLA to support those routes via funding, promotion and technical assistance – such as data collection and research. With a UCLA collaboration in process, it can serve as a template for additional collaborations with other schools, such as USC, but also large employers from the city of LA to Sony Entertainment.
HOW WILL YOUR PROJECT IMPACT THE LA2050 “CONNECT” METRICS?
Rates of volunteerism
Adults getting sufficient social & emotional support
Median travel time to work
Attendance at cultural events
Number of public transit riders
Participation in neighborhood councils
Percentage of Angelenos that volunteer informally (Dream Metric)
Total number of social media friends (Dream Metric)
Attendance at public/open street gatherings (Dream Metric)
Residential segregation (Dream Metric)
Please elaborate on how your project will impact the above metrics.:
One of the strongest reasons that people choose to commute by bike is the mental and physical well-being that it creates. LA Bike Trains makes that even better by providing a positive social network to reinforce and support individuals.
It’s inspiring enough that people want to help. And ride. And get active in their communities when they realize all the silly barriers keeping Angelinos from having the kind of healthy accessible transportation network we deserve.
New and sometimes scared participants are comforted by the fact that most of our routes run in parallel to bus or train transport options. LA Bike Trains is at an exciting place to bridge the “first mile – last mile” question of how to transition a population used to auto transport to a multi-modal approach.
PLEASE SELECT WHICH OTHER LA2050 GOALS ARE RELEVANT TO YOUR PROJECT OR ORGANIZATION (CHECK ALL THAT APPLY):
LA is the best place to LEARN
LA is the healthiest place to LIVE
LA is the best place to PLAY
PLEASE EXPLAIN HOW YOU WILL EVALUATE YOUR PROJECT.
#1 Are the trains running? On time & on schedule? Benchmark service reliability.
#2 Are we serving more people by the end of the year? (participation numbers/metrics)
#3 Are we making progress into new communities? (Geographic and population surveys)
Right now we are already keeping track of participation and internet traffic. From that we can extract a lot of basic information. The general website traffic includes commuter survey responses, sign ups by route and general volunteer responses. We can see what parts of the city are responding most frequently and what communities seem to be conspicuously absent from online interaction. Because we use MailChimp to communicate with anyone that signs up for a specific route, we can also track the engagement of who is reading emails and further measure that by counting who is showing up and participating each week.
We divide participation into three groups:
Butterflies: these are the folks who love us on social media or just think the idea is great. They might volunteer at an event, or get inspired to ride more often on their own, but don’t sign up and participate in specific routes. Butterflies can become Regulars or Graduates.
Regulars: The people who sign up and ride with us regularly.
Graduates: They show up not knowing very much and require a lot of education, help and encouragement. After 1-3 rides they disappear. Why? Because now they’re fully capable bike commuters and can bike commute whenever or however they want!
In order to accurately measure the impact of receiving the LA2050 Connect Grant, we need to benchmark our current operations and develop more sensitive ways of measuring community impact. One of the initiatives that this proposal would develop is what we are calling “Visual Surveys.”
WHAT TWO LESSONS HAVE INFORMED YOUR SOLUTION OR PROJECT?
#1 Money is required.
Without educated, experienced and dedicated leadership building out the foundations of this project it cannot scale or develop beyond occasional group rides organized within a friend/work network. Without a small army of well-organized volunteers, there’s no way rides will be consistent or reliable over time. That means that although conductors and volunteers are unpaid, that there is a need for paid leadership and consultants to help the organization develop. At a minimum, websites, fliers and extra bike tubes add up. Finding money from outside sources to keep from needing volunteers work for free and also pay for organizational costs is not sustainable.
We need ‘start up’ funds to help us develop the app, new routes and education programs, while paying for specific management roles that can help L.A. Bike Trains grow to a comprehensive city level outreach and full program capacity. Even as we work on those goals, we’ll need to investigate options for on-going fiscal sustainability.
#2 Always Be Hollerin’ (ABH!)
As a grassroots project, it’s hard to get the word out. Then, once people know who you are, you’ve got to keep them engaged and reminded how exactly you can help them and other people. Right Now.
People are busy. When co-founder Bruce Chan left L.A. Bike Trains to focus on grad school and other advocacy projects – the facebook page suddenly became less exciting and many people thought we had “quit.” Even as we picked up major press and the social media feeds picked up, Nona regularly had people in the bike community ask “are you still doing L.A. Bike Trains?”
While that’s frustrating (and a lot of work that isn’t the direct effort of leading actual routes) it is the #1 reason why bike train projects – all over the world – have quietly failed after brief attempts. The biggest challenge in any bike train is getting participation and continually infusing fresh sign ups into the system so that it stays vibrant. The natural tendency is to assume that people will discover the route, sign up and show up every week with no prompting. In truth, nothing could be a better recipe for conductor burnout and lack of participation.
*Credit: Always Be Hollerin’ ABH! Is the battle cry of good friend and fellow bike-entrepreneur Iggy Cortez, owner of Far West Courier based in Santa Monica. That guy defines awesome.
EXPLAIN HOW IMPLEMENTING YOUR PROJECT IN THE NEXT TWELVE MONTHS IS AN ACHIEVABLE GOAL.
L.A. Bike Trains is already successfully in operation. We need to grow and develop in order to become sustainable within Los Angeles and part of that is also becoming a model for similar projects in other cities, within LA County and beyond. A team of 7+ developers has floundered in making progress on the mobile app because there isn’t money to pay for project development, service costs and other requirements. By funding this position, the already developed specs and project can finally move forward. App development timeline to Beta and Alpha launch is under 10 months.
Development is based on ‘open source’ collaborative process, managed through GitHub. Lead developer, Christopher Lovejoy has presented numerous times at ‘Hack for LA, Code for America’ and other community minded coding events. In combination with larger educational partners, like UCLA, we have access to a significant talent pool that wants to work on social benefit/biking related projects while building up their skills and ‘GitHub’ resume of accomplishments. While this is already in place; the people and project management is critical. It’s easier and faster to work with a senior team of experienced developers, designers and managers – however the scope of that budget is far beyond what is reasonable at this time. We understand that there is strength in the collaborative process and working with younger developers allows us the possibility to develop a world class solution with a village budget.
We’ve already begun initial relationships, routes and projects with UCLA, (Bike) METRO, USC, the Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition, Multicultural Communities for Mobility, Southern California Association of Governments and others but have been unable to complete or move forward on this progress because no one can dedicate additional unpaid time to these efforts. There is a tremendous amount of potential and desire, but so far the big missing piece is paid development time. By funding enough development time to follow through on grant and award requests, we can not only find additional funding, but begin to become sustainable beyond 2015, ensuring that L.A. Bike Trains not only serves as an inspirational idea, but a true transportation resource for Los Angeles.
A new Route takes about $1500 to develop; conductor training, conductor kit, public promotion, system materials revised (online, print), program ‘onboarding,’ back up volunteer development and administrative efforts.
PLEASE LIST AT LEAST TWO MAJOR BARRIERS/CHALLENGES YOU ANTICIPATE. WHAT IS YOUR STRATEGY FOR ENSURING A SUCCESSFUL IMPLEMENTATION?
#1 Access to a bicycle, helmet, lights and security locks.
D.I.Y. If an individual is low income and can afford to pay a small amount, or simply wants to learn how to be completely self-sufficient we can refer them to the Bicycle Kitchen where they will be able to learn to build their own bike with recycled or low cost parts. Additional co-ops in other areas of the city also make this option accessible in the valley, east and west sides of the city. The East Side Riders Bicycle Club has also launched a new location in South LA and we are hopeful that they will also offer a similar program that we can refer people to.
Low-Cost: If an individual can afford a new bike, we are working with local bike shops to curate a “package deal” of a quality geared bike (must be approved by L.A. Bike Trains to carry our logo or receive endorsement), helmet and lock at an affordable price point, ideally $550 or around $600. This is an approachable price point when viewed as an alternative to automobile ownership and maintenance, even in low income communities.
Lights: L.A. Bike Trains supports the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition’s ‘Operation Firefly.’ It’s an annual campaign to purchase front/rear bicycle lights and distribute them for free to bicycle riders throughout LA County that are riding without. This is a huge safety concern and the cost of bike lights is prohibitive for many low income cyclists. We can help fundraise for the purchase of additional lights, provide distribution to communities along our routes and promote ‘Operation Firefly’ to individuals who would be otherwise unaware that such a resource exists.
Helmets: L.A. Bike Trains encourages all cyclists to wear bike specific helmets whenever they are riding a bike. We refer low income individuals to friendly local bike shops that we know carry affordable options and offer discounts. We also encourage people to take advantage of online deals and educational giveaways that occasionally happen.
Locks: Unfortunately bike theft is a huge problem in Los Angeles. It is an extra devastating event in low income communities where there is no means to replace a bike that may be the sole transportation option.
Time – Money – Patience; we need to expand into neighborhoods that do not primarily speak English or spend all their time online.
At the same time we’re working on relationships with large organizations that have many of the same hurdles: complexity and long timeframes. Beer me.
WHAT RESOURCES DOES YOUR PROJECT NEED? (CHECK ALL THAT APPLY)
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.
Los Angeles is one of the world’s most car-centric cities, and when self-professed fearless cyclist Nona Varnado moved there from New York, she faced very real anxiety when trying to share the road with drivers who, she says, would kill you to save two seconds.
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.
Varnado transforms drivers into two-wheeled commuters, one bike train at a time
(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.
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.
This film documents an LA bike train and the ways in which it addresses issues of gender and safety for UCLA commuters biking from Koreatown to Westwood. By Andrew Brown, Seol Cho, Michael Moses, Natalie Nava, Bryan Ochoa, Libin Toh, and Katie Zalog.
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.
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.
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!