By the time Barry Balmat showed up at the Santa Monica Bike Center, he had already compiled a laundry list of reasons why biking to work might not work.
The Santa Monica resident lived just two miles from his office, but the thought of pedaling just feet from passing cars without a shell of protection was “a little anxiety inducing,” he said. Then there was the question of how exactly to make left turn. And he wasn’t sure whether he’d need to shower.
But the bike center’s offer of a free, well-equipped bike for two weeks was simply too good to pass up. And like so many of the program’s guinea pigs, Balmat said his worries faded after only a few days on the streets.
“I got to the point where I didn’t really worry at all,” Balmat said. Now he’s looking to buy a commuter bike of his own.
That’s the idea behind the Santa Monica Bike Center’s bike-commuter program. With the nation’s largest bike-parking facility in one of the country’s most traffic-clogged areas, Santa Monica officials hope that five loaner bicycles bought for just $3,500 can accelerate a national trend.
Biking in the Los Angeles area has been gaining momentum as evidenced by the estimated 100,000 participants in CicLAvia two weeks ago. Bike-share service provider Bike Nation also plans to launch a $16-million program in Los Angeles during the first quarter of 2013. The firm’s goal is to add up to 400 bike stations and 4,000 bicycles around the city for members to rent and return at any station, a company spokesman said.
Meanwhile, the number of people taking two wheels to work is on the rise across the country. The League of American Bicyclists studied the 38 largest bicycle-friendly communities and found a 77% increase in bike commuters between 2000 and 2010. During the same period, researchers saw a 39% increase in bike commuting across the country.
“It’s absolutely a chain reaction,” said league spokeswoman Carolyn Szczepanski. “People see their neighbors riding, they see their co-workers riding, and it’s the realization that ‘If that person can do it, I can do it too.’”
Biking observers say only a handful of programs similar to Santa Monica’s exist nationwide. Ron Durgin, general manager of the Santa Monica Bike Center, which is owned by the city but operated by Bike and Park, said his program was inspired by a Danish bike-trailer program for children he heard about at a conference in June. With funding from the city’s Planning and Community Development Department, Durgin purchased five bikes and accessories. By August, riders were borrowing wheels for two-week trials with no strings attached.
Although only about a dozen riders have checked out bikes, the Santa Monica program has attracted a variety of clients. Some, like Balmat, commuted to work and loved getting the exercise. Others used the bikes to ride to the library and the grocery store. One experienced rider used the commuter bike for a more comfortable ride at CicLAvia.
Most of the bike borrowers said they are now contemplating buying their own. Brad Edwards, general manager of Helen’s Cycles, which operates a store in Santa Monica, said he’s seen a surge in the sale of commuter bikes, both because of the center’s program and because of a general movement toward cycling in the city over the last three years.
Bike advocates say the push began when riders formed Santa Monica Spoke in 2009, becoming the first local chapter of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. A year later, the city adopted a planning document that called for increased emphasis on bicycling to address traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, among other goals.
Building off that momentum, with funding from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the city of Santa Monica, the $2.5-million bike center opened its doors last winter about the same time Santa Monica released its 294-page Bike Action Plan.
Part of the city plan’s “20-year vision” calls for at least 14% of work commuters to travel by bicycle by about 2030. About 4.4% of the city’s work commuters use bikes now — up about 1% from last year, said Francie Stefan, the city’s strategic and transportation planning manager.
“We believe that cycling is something people enjoy when they feel comfortable doing it and have had their questions answered,” Stefan said. “We think helping remove those barriers will have an exponential effect.”
With new bike programs and facilities popping up across the nation, cycling advocates see increased interest in biking from young people that could help drive a whole generation away from cars.
Two-year-old Zander Franzwa-Moody and his 6-year-old sister, Kaila, could be among them. On a recent Wednesday, they were at the bike center, continuing their informal cycling education.
Zander has been riding his small wooden scooter bike around the house and neighborhood ever since his mother, Devore Franzwa, borrowed a bike and trailer from the center in August to pedal her children to school.
The commute to 5th Street took about 17 minutes, Franzwa said — less than half the time she previously spent battling rush hour in her car. On this afternoon, she was back at the center with her kids, her husband, Sy Moody, and the wooden bike, seeking advice on buying a bike of her own.
“Whoa,” Moody said, as Zander tried to mount a small blue half-bike that attaches to an adult’s bike. “Let me spot you.”
Zander pedaled backward for a few seconds only to conclude, “It’s stuck.” Having lost interest, he made a beeline back to his wooden bike, snapped on his helmet and rolled straight back to his father.
“Come on,” he said poking at his dad’s shoulder. “Let’s ride!”