Many commuters today prefer to leave behind public transportation and gas guzzling vehicles to bike to work instead, especially in Los Angeles. And while LA’s bicycle commuters face challenges on the road, one group is truly practicing the idea of safety in numbers.
The grassroots project is known as LA Bike Trains.The group helps bike riders who don’t feel safe competing for road space with cars by giving them others to ride with.
One of these travelers is Barbara Insua, a graphic designer with NASA’s jet propulsion lab. She has been riding with the group for the past few months on the seven-mile trek to the lab.
Insua leaves by about 6:45 a.m. to follow the rest of the bike train, which is led by an experienced volunteer conductor. Although the group travels at the pace of the slowest rider, she is able to make it to work just 50 minutes later.
The conductor also offers door-to-door service for new riders, something Insua, who says she isn’t an avid rider, appreciated. After a couple of weeks, however, she was able to join the group on her own.
Nona Varnado was the one who conceived the Bike Trains project after moving from New York to LA. Varnado said she saw a need for one-on-one lessons to teach others how to ride a bike in a car-dominated city like LA.
Today, Bike Trains has grown from just a few routes back in May to a dozen today, some as long as 20 miles, like the one between Silver Lake and Santa Monica.
Thanks to green initiatives, the number of Americans traveling by bicycle has more than double since 2000. Employers frequently encourage this habit by providing bike racks for their employees.
But the Bike Trains groups aren’t seeing high numbers just yet. The more popular routes have about 10 cyclists each; the Pasadena route, which Insua takes, has five.
The riders face other obstacles on the road besides the low numbers. Some parts of LA lack bike lanes, which could make the roads easier to navigate for many of the riders.
It may also keep them safer. One driver, Jackie Burke, was interviewed by NPR and complained of the bikers “taking up the lanes.”
“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,” Burke said, admitting that she’d like to run the cyclists off the road.
But as long as more drivers learn to share the roadways, and perhaps if more cities install bike lane on their streets, riders could see enormous benefits, both in health and in cost savings.
The average person can lose 13 pounds by biking to work for a year and reduce the risk of heart disease by about 50 percent if riding at least three hours per week.
And AAA reported that the average cost of owning a car in 2012 was almost $9,000 per year; keeping a bicycle in good condition only costs about $308.