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5:44 pm
Sun December 1, 2013

Shifting Gears: Commuting Aboard The L.A. Bike Trains

Originally published on Mon December 2, 2013 10:04 am

One of the largest obstacles in getting people to bike to work is their fear of getting hit by a car. A new grass-roots project in Los Angeles is helping folks navigate the ins and outs of traffic.

It's 6:45 a.m. and Barbara Insua is busy packing a bag. She will ride seven miles from her home in Pasadena to NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, where she works as a graphic designer. She only started doing this ride a few months ago.

"It was kind of daunting," she says, "because seven miles to the lab — I didn't know how to do it. I'm not an avid cyclist."

Enter L.A. Bike Trains — an organization that arranges commutes by bike in groups. Each Bike Train route has an experienced conductor who serves as a guide. Insua especially likes that these volunteer conductors offer new riders door-to-door service from their homes to the train.

"He came and picked me up from my house," Insua says. "[He] went out of his way to get me to bike for two or three weeks. Then I was conditioned. Then I was brainwashed."

Charles Dandino is the conductor for Insua's bike train today. On this particular ride, the group is five people — the most popular routes see about 10. Dandino gives the safety rundown and explains cycling hand signals before they set off.

Cutting A Path For Cyclists In The City

This commuting concept came to longtime cyclist Nona Varnado when she moved to L.A. from New York. She found that riding here was completely different.

"I realized I needed a one-to-one personal education on how to ride around the city," Varnado says. "I needed to be shown this street. This is how you cross an intersection."

Varnado figured others could use the same kind of help. Since launching L.A. Bike Trains in May with just a few routes and no budget, the system has grown to a dozen volunteer leaders, covering Los Angeles by bike by as much as 20 miles per trip each way, like the route from Silver Lake to Santa Monica.

Still, bike trains are far from seeing mass adoption.

Herbie Huff, a policy researcher at UCLA, says there are lots of obstacles to taking part in bike trains. Instead, Huff thinks infrastructure like bike lanes would be a bigger winner, or a concept like bike sharing could be an easier entry point.

"In order to go on the bike train, you need to already have made a commitment," Huff says. "You need to already have a bike."

Riding In Numbers, A Pleasant Battle For The Road

And then there's the issue of safety. In fact, on Insua's ride, a car cut through the single file of bicycles, missing one person by just a couple feet. So perhaps the greatest obstacle to bike trains is that drivers don't like sharing the road.

"It's like they enjoy taking up the lanes," says Jackie Burke, who has lived in Los Angeles her whole life. She says bicyclists drive her crazy when she's in a car and has to slow down for them.

"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."

With road conditions like those, it's no wonder Conductor Dandino plays 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, Insua's commute is pretty pleasant.

Insua arrives at her office about 50 minutes after she started out. The ride was hard, she says, "because I don't take that route very often. But we made it. We're here."

And with that, one converted cyclist heads into work to start her day.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The biggest danger to cyclists in cities like Pittsburgh isn't the punishing inclines. It's getting hit by a car. Now, a new grassroots project in Los Angeles is helping folks navigate the ins and outs of traffic in something called bike trains. Alex Schmidt reports they hope to make the most of traveling in groups.

ALEX SCHMIDT, BYLINE: It's 6:45 a.m., and Barbara Insua is busy packing a bag.

BARBARA INSUA: I've got some (unintelligible). Here we go. That's 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. Then I was brainwashed.

SCHMIDT: We set out on this chilly morning to meet up with the rest of the bike train nearby. This commuting concept came to longtime cyclist Nona Varnado when she moved to L.A. 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 street, 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: Anyway, on the arm straight out to the left is...

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 a safety rundown.

DANDINO: ...with your hand facing downward, that indicates stop. So you want to signal these a little bit early. Give cars as much notice as possible. The communication's 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 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 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 lanes.

SCHMIDT: Jackie Burke has lived in L.A. 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 kind of 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.

How was the ride for you?

INSUA: It was hard because I don't take that route very often. But we made it.

(LAUGHTER)

INSUA: 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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.