Making Bike Education Appealing, Accessible, and Enjoyable

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Los Angeles Union Station starting point for CicLAvia to the Sea, a popular open streets event for bicycles, on April 21, 2013. Image by Maria Sipin.

What does it take it to get adults interested in bicycle safety education? How can a 10-hour class provide more than just a foundation for beginners to start biking more on their own? Why educate bicyclists instead of motorists, and shift funding in other bike-related efforts?

These are some questions aimed at bike safety education and the massive rollout of classes offered this summer in Southern California.

A grant awarded to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) by the California's Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) has helped increase the number of bicycle education classes available in the region, making bicycle safety classes accessible to more people.

Filling a class roster is easy, thanks to electronic registration forms and social media networks. Getting the students to show up is the real challenge. Offering incentives and lowering barriers for participation are ways to bring students to a classroom on Saturday mornings, but this doesn’t guarantee 100% attendance.

The classes offered through this program are attractive—no-cost educational workshops available throughout the county provide students with free resources and bike necessities, including helmet and a set of bike lights. Three agencies partnering with Metro to conduct the classes are using the Traffic Skills 101 curriculum developed by the League of American Bicyclists.

The curriculum covers bicycle rights on the road and empowers adult riders to leave the sidewalk—a notorious danger zone which most are unaware of—and ride on the street instead. The class helps to address a bicyclist’s common concerns about biking in traffic among cars by introducing vehicular cycling fundamentals as a starting point for understanding road cycling, although in some circles framing the discussion this way is controversial.

For a productive and enjoyable class that meets the standard goals for Street Cycling Skills, instructors must be efficient in executing the material, support the needs of each student, and make strategic adjustments based on group dynamics. It’s easy to get comfortable standing on a soapbox, but this isn’t the place for that, nor is it a place to intimidate or exclude riders based on their style of riding or income level. 

Since the program launch, I have been involved as an instructor in five Street Cycling Safety classes through the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC). Assisting with these classes has helped me build my case for promoting bicycle safety education and its immeasurable impact on students. Additionally, each teaching opportunity has helped me identify unique concerns for each of the participating cities and the communities within them.

This learning environment has created a valuable space for bicyclists to share their experiences, explore other aspects of biking through people they meet, and increase their skills and confidence levels to ride on the road. The emphasis on educating bicyclists isn’t meant to take away from other efforts being done around increasing bike safety on the road. This class simply gives bicyclists other options for enjoying street cycling when the infrastructure—bike lanes, cycletracks, and other facilities—are not present along the path to their destination.

Here are some highlights from each class:

Pomona, CA—The very first grant-funded Street Cycling Safety class was offered at Cal Poly Pomona University where a student bicyclist was killed in a crash earlier this year. This infamous “commuter school” is more car-centric than bike-friendly, and the participating students and professor from the urban planning department are concerned about bicycle and pedestrian safety. This class was one attempt for advocates to raise awareness about bicycle safety and to start a discussion about bicycle infrastructure deficiencies on campus.

Watts, CA—Merging style and cycling is not just a hobby, it’s a way of life. This was my introduction to cruisers that don’t spend much time on the beach and eye-catching, custom lowrider bicycles meant for casual riding. As an instructor, this meant adapting the emergency maneuver drills for coaster brakes and bicycles without gears and also allocating some time to discuss issues that are invisible to many people in the bike world. Students shared their experiences working with young people of color in the community and common concerns about safety in areas they bike in—treatment from police, prevalence of gang activity, bullying, theft, and many issues not often talked about as barriers to biking.

Culver City, CA—These dedicated students committed to a class during the 4th of July holiday weekend. This smaller group raised a question that isn’t typically asked after a bicycle safety class: how can we give back so that we can keep classes like this going? Not much time is spent talking about advocacy groups and promoting membership despite instructors’ affiliations, but here it was appropriate to talk about getting involved through coalitions to help local programs grow.

Azusa, CA—The folding bikes of San Gabriel Valley made themselves known along with a group of students interested in becoming LCIs in the near future. I constantly promote the LCI seminar and the road to becoming an instructor. I usually share my personal story to those who doubt they can leave the comfort of a bike path or pursue teaching. I also enjoy sharing tips about commuting and the joys of a multi-modal commute involving bicycles, trains and buses. If I can do it, they can too (if they want to).

Covina, CA—Though our intention is to attract a city’s residents to participate in these workshops, people travel from polar ends of the county to take the class. This has been common in Street Cycling Skills classes I’ve been a part of thus far, and it shows how interested people are in being one of 12 to register for this course.

The grant period wraps up in September, and in a county estimated to have nearly 10 million residents and hundreds of thousands of bicyclists as we’ve seen at CicLAvia, there are just not enough helmets, lights, and resources to go around during the life of this grant. This is just the beginning and an essential component for increasing bicycle ridership in the region one person at a time. Street Cycling Skills education complements and supports, not deemphasizes, the importance of policy and planning efforts aimed at redesigning Los Angeles County streets.

When Bike Month is Over, What Happens Next?

Maria checks out a possible new ride in San Francisco at Public Bikes

National Bike Month—31 days commemorating bicycle-centric programming to promote community health, local business, and environmentalism—creates opportunities for pedaling to new destinations while peddling the attainable active lifestyle.

Bike Month is now in the homestretch. At this time, people drop out of the bike frenzy as themed events phase out. For many, the workload is intense leading up to May and ongoing, which is why advocates, bike lovers, and neighbors alike experience burnout around this time.

This celebration is invigorating as it is exhausting. Keeping community interest and energy levels high is a year-round task and requires dedication to tackle these general priorities: logging more miles, inviting new riders, striving for inclusivity, addressing a wide-range of needs, and achieving positive health outcomes. 

It is never too early to start thinking about ideas for the following year and creating a game plan to make them happen. Here are some of personal goals and coalition objectives: 

  • Bike more than last week/month/year by joining organized group rides, commuting, and doing more local errands by bicycle
  • Survey the community to compile a list of event ideas and topics of interest
  • Plan events earlier to maximize outreach
  • Expand social media efforts (more tweets, posts, photos, and more meaningful engagement with followers and friends)
  • Diversify and increase participation at all events (volunteers, attendees and community partners) through targeted outreach activities, hosting events at different venues and locations, and involving new collaborators to attract more members of the community
  • Increase participation in every subpopulation by involving members of various groups in event planning (commuters, recreation, sport, and cultural and age groups)
  • Teach more workshops on safety, repairs and riding basics, and include persons who do not own bicycles as potential participants
  • Integrate other transit options in Bike Month activities such as bike rides coupled with train rides
  • Contact at least one local media outlet for pre-event publicity and post-event coverage
  • Have fun, keep a positive attitude, and work as a team to make events more enjoyable and successful (biking is supposed to be fun—don't forget to demonstrate that!)

Before cooling down from Bike Month, make time to discuss, document, and evaluate activities. This information will guide future planning activities and can help overall program sustainability, maintain partnerships, retain the volunteer base and attract new participation. Here are some closing and ongoing activities: 

  • List hits-and-misses of events, including those outside of your community, and observe best practices from successful programs
  • Thank all volunteers, participants and collaborators
  • Follow-up with a survey to solicit feedback from the above group using traditional comment card, informal e-mail, and/or electronic survey
  • Archive photos and videos, and recap activities through a blog and/or Facebook
  • Celebrate and recognize participation of all community members through blogs, tweets, and status updates
  • Discuss next steps, encourage post-Bike Month participation, and share membership opportunities
  • Continue outreach activities and maintain social media updates
  • Engage community on a monthly basis through online meeting spaces, small-scale events, educational opportunities, regular bike rides and meetups
  • Contact local government officials and agencies to recognize Bike Month next year
  • Partner with other agencies to seek funding opportunities from city, county, federal and/or private grants to expand local bicycle activities

The Social Determinants of Biking

Maria goes over the particulars of the bike with her class.

Up until now most of my efforts as a bicycle advocate have been focused on encouraging people to ride bicycles again, to ride more, and to ride farther. However, in my work as a health advocate for underserved youth I've realized that what is really needed for this community are classes and programs to promote biking to those who have never owned a bicycle to begin with.

Last month I taught my first in a series of youth-focused workshops titled "License to Ride: Bicycles and Transit" and it brought up some issues I’d like to further explore with you in regards to the factors affecting a person’s likelihood to ride a bicycle. I call these the social determinants of biking, and it’s nothing new.

With the growing discussion about health inequities, bicycles are making their way into public health conversations as an enjoyable way to combat obesity and stress. Unlike walking as a mode of transportation, however, many young people cannot instantly reap benefits of biking per the concerns listed below.

My curriculum for "License to Ride: Bicycles and Transit" was designed to create a dynamic discussion about traffic skills and safety on bikes. Out of 15 participants, all were avid riders of mass transit and only two owned a working bicycle; the experience of riding a bike is almost foreign to the rest. They cited costs, theft concerns, neighborhood safety, storage issues, lack of bike lanes, and fear of riding with cars as reasons for not biking. Thinking on my feet my lesson plan changed quickly from “how to be a confident cyclist” to “how to get your first bike and what to do next.”

Though some of them have thought about biking, "it isn't realistic." Some believe biking could ease their local travel challenges and “make the day more interesting and fun,” but without it they could still get around with the help of buses and rail, especially with local agencies providing bus tokens as incentives when accessing medical or case management services.

These young people rely heavily on Metro to travel between home, school, health-related appointments and everywhere else. Homelessness, unemployment, immigration status, and lack of family support are also common to some of them. Clearly, they have greater concerns in their daily lives than adopting the biking lifestyle to be eco-friendly or as an alternative to the indoor fitness club experience.

The group talked about desired improvements to their current transit options and gave feedback about Metro including customer service concerns and paying the proper fare using a TAP card in a system with unlocked turnstiles.

We identified places to buy their first bike, groups to join for social rides, and classes to take. The group was excited to hear about the Bicycle Kitchen, a local nonprofit bicycle repair educational organization offering services with sliding-scale model for payment and the Earn-a-Bike program. I also covered the benefits of biking and highlights of the evolving bicycle culture in L.A. And though most didn't have biking experience, I introduced the ABC Quick Check, defined vehicular cycling, and identified road hazards anyway.

Although this wasn't a Traffic Skills 101 class (which requires a working bicycle to participate and a much longer day), the group actively asked questions about biking scenarios as if they were going to ride that afternoon and apply this new knowledge.

They expressed interest in free workshops, donations, scholarships, mentorships, and employment related to bicycles—just a few ideas for tackling the social determinants of biking that will require the efforts of communities, local leaders, advocacy groups, government agencies, and educational institutions to fully address. In the meantime, I’ll continue developing workshops and advocating to improve the availability of services (bike-related or not) to support the people who need them most.

For more information, please contact Maria Sipin at A Healthy Design.
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The"License to Ride: Bicycles and Transit"  workshop is part of a monthly series covering topics such as grocery shopping at bargain stores, dressing for job interviews, and opening a checking account. The Life Skills Group housed at the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Children's Hospital Los Angeles creates a forum for young people ages 12-24 to learn basic life skills as a way to support youth beyond providing medical care.

Safety First by Maria Sipin

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Image: Shereef Moustafa

In November 2012, nine women completed the League of American Bicyclists League Cycling (LCI) Instructor seminar in Long Beach, California. With scholarships provided by Women on Bikes SoCal, this is the first time a class was hosted for women only.

This is a significant milestone for women in the bicycling community and those who are interested in taking their bikes on the road. Having more women as instructors will influence more women to ride bikes and create a positive impact on communities and bike culture in general. Apart from advocating for more women on bikes, the nine of us who completed the seminar share the objective of teaching more people about safely and responsibly riding a bike.

For anyone interested in teaching, read on.

The seminar prepares LCI candidates who have experience with road cycling to become effective teachers on the subject. For many of us, teaching biking basics or road rules was unfamiliar territory. The course, taught by LCI trainer Jennifer Laurita of New Jersey, led us through an instructor’s boot camp. She covered everything from public speaking tips to mastering the Traffic Skills curriculum and incorporating teaching aides for various learning styles.

The LCI training is intense, but not impossible.

I never thought I would be teaching people to ride bikes. I don’t consider myself a hardcore cyclist, but I have a passion for biking and influencing others to do the same. After taking a free class in Traffic Skills 101 in Long Beach and Santa Monica, I wanted to take the next step. I pursued the LCI seminar thanks to a scholarship from Women on Bikes SoCal, and I now have my sights set on offering Traffic Skills 101 in my area of Los Angeles County where classes are rare.

This journey wasn’t easy. I doubted myself during the process, and it started with challenges signing up for the Traffic Skills 101 pre-requisite class, completing the written pre-test before the deadline two weeks before the seminar, and collaborating with one of the other women on a teaching assignment to present to the group a week before. With a short time frame to complete these tasks (in between something I like to call “life” and everything else is going on), it was a little stressful.

Thankfully, the other women could relate, and we talked it out, rode it out, and gained a lot from this somewhat grueling experience. When the classroom lessons got heavy, the road exercises balanced things out. We were students for a weekend with different strengths and needs and we’ll need to keep this in mind as we have students of our own.

My story is just one of nine. Hear from my LCI seminar classmates about their plans as LCIs and advice for people interested in the seminar:

Krista Leaders, Long Beach resident, plans to teach Street Savvy Bicycling with Charlie Gandy, California Bicycle Coalition board member. Leaders would like to be able to work with kids who participate in the monthly Kidical Mass Bixby Knolls.

Leaders says, “The most valuable thing I learned was to take apart what I do intuitively as a cyclist in traffic and break it down into manageable elements that can be taught.”

“The best way someone can prepare for the LCI certification is to be devoted to riding your bike. Having many opportunities to practice what it means to be a vehicular cyclist will make the information understandable.”

Bernadette McKeever, who has experience running a successful bicycling advocacy organization in Long Beach, will co-teach Traffic Skills 101 at Cal State Long Beach and volunteer with Sustainable Streets in Santa Monica. She would like to teach her own classes soon.

McKeever says, “If you are interested in participating in LCI training with the League, I would recommend you ride A LOT prior to joining the seminar, and ride with other confident rule abiding riders. The class consists of many on-the-road riding skills. If you are not confident riding in traffic, like a motorist, then I recommend waiting until you are.”

“The most valuable element I took away from the LCI training was how to become a better instructor. Aside from the technical elements of what we are to teach students as LCI's, we were taught how to be a good instructor. A big thanks to Jennifer Laurita, our LCI coach, for giving me invaluable tools for becoming a better teacher!”

Elizabeth Williams, Cali Bike Tours president, wants to help more people receive the benefits of biking.

Williams said in her interview on KPFK’s Bike Talk, “I talk about bike riding all the time and I’ve noticed over the years that there’s this huge gap in biking with underserved communities. So one of my missions is to close that gap, to build a bridge to biking in underserved communities.”

Jessica Alexander, Long Beach resident, will also be teaching Street Savvy Bicycling with Leaders and Gandy, and Traffic Skills 101 with McKeever at Cal State Long Beach.

About Maria Sipin

Maria Sipin an advocate for walking, biking, and transit. She is a longtime resident of San Gabriel Valley and Cal Poly Pomona alum. As a League Cycling Instructor and health communications specialist, she promotes active living and is dedicated to educating youth in underserved communities. She collaborates with the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Children's Hospital Los Angeles to develop life skills workshops supporting youth interests. In her spare time, she works as a transit tour guide in Downtown Los Angeles.