Making Bike Education Appealing, Accessible, and Enjoyable

License to Ride image July 13.JPG

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.