Safe Route Group Rides Make an Entrance for Bike Month

We pulled up to Alta Coffee right as the staff were preparing to open for the day. After unloading our cargo bikes and setting up our gear, we sought out the comfort and caffeination of their delicious brew. Our first round of Safe Routes rides fell on May Day, coinciding with the start of Bike Month. The marine layer and its familiar chill made our cups of coffee even more enjoyable as we prepared for our first group of riders. We were excited; these would be our first in-person group rides in over a year. Although our rides had booked up within the first few hours, we were also a little nervous as we wondered who would show up—although that might have been partially due to the second cup of coffee.

My colleague Matt Miller dreamed up the idea for these rides a few years ago when an Ecology Action coworker expressed interest in riding to work, but wasn’t sure the safest route to take across town. “Riding alone on a new route can feel intimidating for a lot of people. I offered to meet her one morning before work and ride in together both to show her a safer route and help her feel more confident trying it,” Matt says. “The first ride was a success, and word quickly got out to a few coworkers about our little ride to work. More wanted to join and do the same thing.” As it grew, Matt and the team added new routes, and a dozen or so of our coworkers regularly joined these monthly rides. “We discovered that these welcoming, fun, and informal rides were a great place to recruit and support more regular bike riding among our staff, and it created its own positive feedback loop of more staff riding,” Matt shares.

Fast forward to 2021 and the lead-up to Bike Month 2021. The unprecedented levels of excitement about riding that were sparked during the pandemic combined with recent surveys indicating a lack of safe routes as a significant barrier to riding for residents in Santa Cruz County led us to the conclusion that it was time to test this model at the community level. Matt and the team developed four group ride routes prioritizing low traffic streets at various locations throughout the county. Our May 1st ride explored a route between Alta Coffee on Mission Street Extension on the far Westside of Santa Cruz to Verve Coffee in Seabright. As riders arrived and signed in, I began to relax and allow myself to enjoy the morning. Before leaving, we gathered in a circle for introductions and to preview the route. As each participant shared a few words about their relationship to biking, it became evident that we were all excited to ride bikes with other people who were not part of our immediate families or COVID-19 pods.

“This was my first time riding with a group beyond my family,” shared Jenaro Ordoñez, who attended the May 1st ride with his teenage daughter Camilla. “I love riding with my daughter; it’s our bonding time together.” Jenaro and his two teenage children moved from the Westside while the Rail Trail was still being constructed. Reflecting on the Rail Trail after the ride, Jenaro said, “This was my first time on it. I was really impressed with how they set it up. It’s perfect because I don’t like to ride up hills, I just like to be on flat ground near the coast.” Camilla is a Junior at Soquel High, and we chatted on the ride about her love for theater, what this last year of Zoom High has been like, and the tantalizing prospect of a somewhat normal Senior year. When I spoke with Jenaro after the ride, he shared that he felt safe the entire time, and when the ride ended at Verve in Seabright, he and his daughter opted to take the same route back to Alta on the Westside.

Monica Hernandez works for the County of Santa Cruz and loves to ride her bike. “I grew up near LAX, and there was literally nowhere safe to ride near me at the time,” Monica explains. Monica moved to Santa Cruz when she was 18, and she was baffled by how close everything was. “LA is so spread out. To have all of my major destinations within a 10-mile radius was amazing!” Almost exactly two years ago, her relationship to cycling and bike commuting drastically shifted. “I was biking between my house and the Buttery over Memorial Day Weekend. The trip was less than two miles, but I was hit by a driver from out of town while I was riding in a green lane. I hit the ground and got a concussion, even though I was wearing a helmet.” After recovering from the crash, Monica has been understandably nervous around traffic, especially around drivers from out of the area. “I chose the Westside route because riding by the Boardwalk is a pain point for me,” Monica says. “I didn’t feel nervous at all on that route riding with everyone else. The reality is I don’t always feel safe when I ride, and on the group ride I felt safe the whole time. It was really refreshing to feel that way again.”

After the ride, Monica and I discussed her commute from the Westside to the Emeline campus, how to encourage more people to ride, and the joy of riding with other cyclists who understand the “harder aspects” of sharing the road and navigating traffic. “It was nice to be able to talk about that and for other people to share their experience about what bike commuting is like for them,” Monica reflected. “There are a lot of misconceptions about cyclists. People like to make blanket statements about us. It was great to be with fellow conscientious bikers who follow the rules.” When I followed up with them at the end of May, both Monica and Jenaro reflected that the Santa Cruz Bike Challenge had encouraged them to ride more and engage with other cyclists within their organizations. Toward the end of our conversation, Monica asked playfully, “Can it be Bike Month every month?”

Anirban Sanyal is a Ph.D. student in Economics at UCSC who also joined us for the May 1st ride. At the beginning of the spring academic quarter, Anirban applied for a bike loan from the UCSC Bike Library. “As a child in India, I loved riding my bike, but then stopped because I did not have safe places to do it. When I first came to Santa Cruz, I purchased a bike, but it was stolen before I could ride it,” Anriban says. “The loan from the Bike Library has allowed me to ride some around the campus, but joining the ride was the first time I started to explore more of Santa Cruz; the Safe Routes ride gave me the confidence to do that.” Now, Anirban prefers biking to other modes of transportation: “Instead of waiting for the Metro bus, I will just ride up the hill to campus. I love riding to Westcliff, Soquel, or Capitola.” Regarding his plans for biking once he returns his Bike Library bike, Anirban says he plans to get bikes for himself and his wife.

In a follow-up survey, 57% percent of the participants said that riding with other people motivated them to join the rides. “There is a real sense of safety in numbers on these kinds of rides,” says Matt Miller. “One or two cyclists don’t necessarily register to other road users, but a medium sized group of cyclists, approximately 5 to 12 people, becomes something of a spectacle.” The power of this was evident on the Safe Routes rides; other participants also reported feeling safe and less anxious within the group, even those with young children in tow. Moshe Vilozny attended the second Safe Routes ride from Seabright to Soquel and brought his three-year-old daughter Isla along on a bike seat. “We loved it so much that I wanted to bring my wife Kai and our eight-year-old son Zev to the next one.” When a few spots opened for the Soquel to Aptos ride, Moshe signed his family up. “At around five miles, this was Zev’s longest ride, and the group did a great job of supporting him,” Moshe said when I chatted with him on the phone in late May. “It is wonderful to feel safe the whole time when riding as a family.” The rides also inspired Moshe and Kai to explore e-cargo bikes as a way to ride as a family with more ease and safety. “We borrowed Matt Miller’s cargo bike for a week after the ride, and we took it everywhere: school, groceries, to the beach, etc. Isla and Zev love riding on it. We felt more relaxed not worrying about them on their own bikes, and we stopped and talked with numerous other families who had questions about the bike.” When I last spoke with Moshe, they had just purchased a Packa, a “longtail” electric cargo e-bike from Santa Cruz-based Blix Electric Bikes.

Each ride culminated with a local café or grocery store destination. Riders received a gift card for the businesses and were encouraged to grab a bite to eat or a beverage to refuel. Verve in Seabright, the Ugly Mug in Soquel, New Leaf in Aptos, and El Valle Produce in Watsonville all served as our final gathering points and a delicious end to the ride. Before we parted ways, we circled with riders at each destination, celebrating our youngest participants and those older riders who were getting reacquainted with cycling. Matt and I shared our feedback, reflected on the power of using hand signals in traffic, and encouraged participants to utilize these low-traffic corridors in their own lives. Groups of riders then clustered with snacks and beverages, and participants and leaders chatted about their lives, reflected on the journey, and shared bike tips before we all parted ways.

After the rides, we invited participants to share their feedback. The call for more safe routes rides more often was nearly unanimous, and 96% of participants said that they would attend another ride. Of the riders, 65% said that participating in the ride helped them become a little to a lot more confident in riding safely. Participants also suggested that we offer longer rides and rides targeted for various skill levels. While the slow pace of the rides was enjoyable for some, a number of people requested rides at a faster pace.

“These rides were an excellent test concept, and we’re thrilled about how they went,” says Matt Miller. “The big question now is, what’s next? Do we try to make these a monthly offering? Do we train folks at local workplaces to facilitate their own coworker rides? What about at our local schools?” While Matt and our team at Ecology Action reflect on Bike Month and the Safe Routes rides, we’re not sure exactly what form they will take moving forward. However, we have been shown that there is a need for more opportunities like this. Stay tuned to find out what will happen next.