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Making it safer and easier to live the bike lifestyle
By Leonie Sherman
If you’ve enjoyed a ride on a bike path, along a designated bikeway or in an urban bike lane somewhere in the Golden State, chances are the California Bicycle Coalition (CalBike) had something to do with getting it there. CalBike, headquartered in Oakland, was founded in 1994 to bring together the growing number of local bicycle organizations to fight for bikes at the state level. In practice that means they advocate in the state capitol and across the state for policy changes that make it easier for all Californians to lead healthier, more joyful lives by riding bikes safely in their communities.
“What communities really need to be bike friendly is a network of streets that connect destinations in a community with safe and attractive bikeways that don’t have stress from auto traffic,” says CalBike’s executive director Dave Snyder. “Creating those involves local decisions. They’re real estate battles. Folks are fighting for a place on the street that’s almost always space that’s been dedicated to cars, either traffic or parked.” Those are the battles Snyder used to fight as founder and executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. Those are not the battles that CalBike fights.
“Our job is to create the environment where local advocates and agencies can be more successful,” explains Snyder. “We work to make money available to create bike lanes, we work to change rules about traffic analysis so safety is more important than auto speed, and we work so that when folks repave a street, they have to do safety improvements for non-auto users.”
In other words, CalBike’s seven dedicated staff members spend a lot of time sending emails, meeting policy makers and staring at computer screens. The nuts and bolts of that work often involve minute changes to obscure legislation. But those changes reduce carbon emissions and impact significant land use decisions.
For example, until recently when a developer planned to put in a new office building or another large structure, the required Environmental Impact Report (EIR) analyzed the effect on congestion in nearby intersections. A proposal for infill construction in the city center will always impact traffic congestion, even if the location is accessible by train, bus or bike. The impact on congestion would effectively torpedo the project. On the other hand, a project on the edge of the suburbs, with very little local traffic to interrupt, would have a minimal impact on congestion, so it could pass an EIR. This ended up incentivizing construction that added to overall carbon emissions.
“Bike projects got caught up in all that,” says Snyder with a sigh. “Environmental regulations put such importance on not causing congestion that if you took out a car lane to put in a bike lane and that slowed down traffic even by a few seconds, that would be a negative significant impact that required additional study.” The same law exempted construction of additional car lanes from environmental review. “So you could take out a bike lane to put in a car lane, but if you took out a car lane to build a bike lane it triggered an EIR. The old rules had perverse incentives against putting in bike lanes and infill development.”
CalBike was among the strongest advocates for creating new rules with the aim of measuring a project’s impact on Vehicle Miles Traveled, not Level of Service. The passage of SB 743 three years ago did just that. Now, instead of an EIR asking “Does this project increase traffic congestion?” it has to ask “Does this project increase the vehicle miles traveled overall?” This might look like legislation that changed a three letter acronym, but when finalized this year it will result in communities with less auto traffic.
CalBike’s holistic policy-level approach means they aim high. Their Complete Streets Campaign hopes to change the way the California Department of Transportation approaches repaving, making it easier to build new bike lanes. Right now, internal policy requires Caltrans to consider bike lanes whenever they repave or rebuild a highway. “In practice that means a Caltrans Director will say they’ve considered a bike lane, but they will prioritize fast moving car traffic over bike safety, even against the desires of the local residents or government,” explains Snyder.
CalBike introduced SB 127 in January to remedy that situation. “Instead of requiring Caltrans to consider the addition of new bike lanes, this bill will require them to conclude that the addition of new bike lanes is a good idea,” explains Snyder. The resolution is not strictly binding — sometimes a bike lane is not appropriate, for example if Caltrans is repaving a country lane with no destinations and very little traffic, or a major artery with a side street that makes for more pleasant bike commuting. But if SB 127 passes, in order for Caltrans to exempt themselves from construction of a new bike lane they will be required to hold a hearing. “This bill will force Caltrans to do the right thing, and if the right thing is debatable, it forces that debate to take place. If they don’t want to build a bike lane they have to hold a community meeting and explain why.” CalBike hopes this will give local governments traction to push for safety improvements that might otherwise be out of reach.
Any successful lobbying effort requires money. Of course CalBike solicits their 30,000 members, and soon you’ll be able to purchase a Bike for a Healthy California plate that CalBike anticipates will raise millions to make communities more bike friendly (see Ear to the Ground on page nine for more information on this project).
But the fundraiser they’re most proud of is an annual Dream Ride. For $2,750, riders get five days of gorgeous scenery, great company, high-quality accommodations and catered meals, plus a water bottle and ride jersey. “We work closely with local advocacy groups in the area; a lot of times they will sponsor a happy hour for us, or we will stop in to a local bike coalition. We get to meet locals, they get to show off what they’re doing in the community, everyone gets to share their love of bikes, it’s just such a good time,” gushes ride director Debbie Brubaker.
She started the ride six years ago with about 15 participants and it’s grown every year. Last year they had 50 riders and she expects about 60 this year. Most of the annual Dream Rides have been along the coast south of San Luis Obispo, but this year’s 290-mile ride will start at Folsom. The group will ride bike paths along the American River all the way to downtown Sacramento, follow quiet country roads in Napa’s wine country, go through redwood forests, along Tomales Bay and end in San Francisco. Thanks to amazing farm-to-fork meals, past participants claim they gain weight while riding 60+ miles a day. Two folks have come back every year since the beginning. “We are the only organization in the country I know of that sponsors bike rides to raise money for better bicycling,” says Brubaker with obvious pride.
CalBike impacts bicycle safety state-wide, but they know that real change begins at home with your daily decisions. “Mostly, I just want people to know that riding a bike in traffic is safer than it looks and they should give it a try,” says Snyder, who gets from his home in Oakland to Sacramento using a bicycle and the Capitol Corridor train. “Relying on your bike for transportation is so empowering. It’s so good I do it even in the rain and wind. It’s like a natural anti-depressant that you can take every single day.”