Different Spokes: Year of the Bike

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Maxwell Ijams pedals a GREENbike in Downtown Salt Lake, near the 200 S. 300 W. station. Photo: Esther Meroño

As spring weather wafts across the Salt Lake valley, more cyclists are coming out of the woodwork. An ample array of road bikes, fixies, mountain trudgers and your occasional tricycle have flooded the streets of downtown, affixing a semi-control over lanes stretching from the U to Rose Park. More than anything, I’ve enjoyed zipping around without fear of skidding my too-thin tires into a rogue snowbank. 2013 has been coined “Year of the Bike” by the City, in appreciation of its most sustainable form of transportation, and I was lucky enough to speak with four of the masterminds behind the most recent programs.   

Bike Share, a 501c(3) non-profit, is a network of 10 solar-powered kiosks recently installed downtown, where you can pay to ride a commuter bicycle for a day, as long as you check back in every 30 minutes. From Guadalajara to Paris, Bike Share programs have claimed territory on city streets, providing an alternate transportation option for urbanites with or without bicycles. First, I sat down with Ben Bolte, director of GREENbike, the Salt Lake City Bike Share program. He explained that Bike Share is a system where you pay for access as opposed to renting a bike. “Instead of being responsible for one specific bike, you’re paying to be able to use any of the bikes, whenever you want, riding from station to station. Ideally, it’s used for short trips,” he says. This is convenient because you don’t have to worry about dropping off a bike at the same place you picked it up.  
According to Bolte, one of Salt Lake’s biggest issues when it comes to deciding whether to cycle instead of drive is the convenience factor. “[With Bike Share,] more people can move downtown because they don’t need a car, which can cut 15-20 percent off your budget … We’d like 15 percent of the 70,000 people who work downtown every day to make one or two less trips in their car,” says Bolte.   

The Salty City is one of many locations across the U.S. that have adopted a Bike Share program. Boulder, Colo., Madison, Wis. and Chicago, Ill. currently have an active sharing community. There is another dream level that connects many cities together, allowing you to use a yearly pass purchased in Utah with any Bike Share program set up through the same vendor. “There are two major Bike Share vendors in the country, which are always described as the ‘Coke and Pepsi’ of bike equipment. We’re Coke, that’s B-cycle, which is a subsidiary of Trek. If you go to greenbikeslc.org, you can find a list of cities featuring B-cycle,” Bolte says.  

One of my reasons for cycling is its beneficial, or at least static, effect on the  smoggy rain shadow we call home. While Bolte didn’t necessarily start the Bike Share program for environmental reasons, he appreciates any positive impact it has. “Over 50 percent of car trips are under three miles: 77,000 miles won’t be driven in our first year as a result of the Bike Share Program and 20,000 cold starts won’t happen,” he says. Another eco-friendly feature of the project is an automatic system that tracks calories burned, distance traveled, pounds of toxic pollutants avoided and money saved, which annual members can find online. “If you sign up for an annual membership, you can go to greenbikeslc.org, create an account and a profile,” he says. When I asked Bolte about his plans for future kiosks, he explained that convenience was, again, a high priority after a level of density has been established. “I’d like one on every half block, or 30 in the central business district. Then, you head to residential areas surrounding that. We’re looking most at Sugar House and West Valley or Rose Park,” he says.  

Even though I already own a bike that I ride daily, I still plan to check out their emerald crusiers to bar hop or joy ride (minus the stealing part) to Twilite. Bolte and Mayor Ralph Becker have promotional videos coming out as part of a city project. Judging by Bolte’s personality, I expect them to be hilarious. One startling yell of “Colin!” and several thrown pens later, I left Ben’s office thrilled to learn how widely expansive Bike Share is in the U.S., and how quickly it is growing. After an expeditious stop at Pie Hole (they have alfredo pizza with tater tots on it now!), I chaperoned my Allez to a meeting with Colin Quinn-Hurst, who has been organizing the Open Streets event on May 4. He is also the man to whom Bolte’s screaming of “Colin!” can be attributed, and I’ve heard he is an imperative man to have on your project.      
Quinn-Hurst described Open Streets as a figurative free-for-all, designed to exhibit how easy it is to ride on the streets: “We open a mile and a half of downtown streets to walking, biking, stilts, juggling and skateboarding for four and a half hours on the first Saturday in May.”
Open Streets was inspired by Ciclovia, a weekly Open Streets event in Colombia. Many cities across the U.S. have embraced this interactive opportunity. “There are about 70 of these programs happening across the U.S.––Portland and San Francisco do it regularly,” Quinn-Hurst says. After observing the positive effects on local communities and economies, Quinn-Hurst decided Salt Lake could benefit from an Open Streets event as well. “It’s good for business. If you get a couple thousand people on the street who are walking and biking, they will be more inclined to slow down and see businesses they haven’t seen before. It also gets all types of people interacting,” he says.       
In the summer of last year, sections of new, separated bike lanes were installed on 300 E. and in other various places around the metropolitan area. Quinn-Hurst hopes to see these efforts extended. “We are working on the bicycle master plan, which includes completing a network of bike lanes and paths. It’s so important to get more people to accept cycling as a way to get around. The more programs, the better,” he says.       

My attendance at Open Streets will be focused on relishing in total car-less freedom. While you’re out, after Open Streets, you can bike to the Tour De Brewtah, coast to Evil Dead before it’s gone, or, if you’re feeling like diarrhea, mow on some dogs to replenish at the Bees vs. Padres game. Either way, May 4 is a good day to be in SLC.      

Later, I met with Phil Sarnoff, who works with Bolte on Bike Share, and also pitched the “Year of the Bike” idea to Mayor Ralph Becker. Sarnoff described Becker and his staff as the main reason why YOTB has taken off so quickly. Sarnoff detailed YOTB as a marketing idea. “We noticed that there were so many events going on this year, and we thought that there was too much compartmentalization. We wanted to make the community more cohesive,” he says. For cyclists like myself, who have committed 2013 to our gutter horses, Sarnoff promotes attendance at events that will be scheduled all year. “I encourage people to go to the Bike Share launch, to the Open Streets event and contact elected officials. This is a great opportunity for Salt Lake to fit into that Portlandia formula,” he says.      

As a commuter cyclist, Sarnoff enjoys the constructive effect his choices have on the community. “The air quality and decreasing motor vehicle congestion are at the top. On the other hand, the economics and community building are just as important. When they launched a Bike Share program in Paris, sales of bikes went up 35 percent. If you’re not driving a car, you’re using your money for other things, and most likely, that’s to go out to eat at a local restaurant or buy products at a local store. Instead of shipping our money out to oil companies, we can take that money and reinvest it in our local communities,” he says.

With a social-minded mayor like Becker, Salt Lake City is heading toward an era of revamping and vehicle/cyclist peace offerings. Even with difficult economic times and budget cuts, Becker has committed to overhauling alternative transportation. “Reducing vehicle miles not only contributes to better local air quality, but conserves on the consumption of non-renewable fuels. Transit and active transportation modes create better and stronger connections within and among our great neighborhoods,” says Mayor Becker.      

Year of the Bike is here (nearly halfway through), and Becker has a plethora of beneficial ideas and plans running through his brain as to how the remainder of the year can be spent on improvement. “We’re continuing to look at new areas to implement our protected lane, or cycletrack. We’re also working on creating better and more numerous bicycle connections between city neighborhoods and our trail systems,” he says. Year of the Bike may only apply to 2013, but its effects will be seen for many yeas in the future. “We believe the work we’re doing right now will have a profound impact on how transportation will look here in our city 10 years from now. I hope for more ‘complete streets,’ more transit options, including a growing network of streetcars. A vibrant, livable and sustainable future is one we will only achieve through responsible planning that happens today,” says Mayor Becker. 

The best place to find details about developments in “Year of the Bike” and information about bike trails/lanes is the BikeSLC website. For more information on events, “Go to bikeslc.com, which is a Salt Lake City transportation division website. There is a calendar of events that people can submit unlisted events to,” Sarnoff says. Quinn-Hurst and Sarnoff both contrasted BikeSLC and SaltCycle, saying that SaltCycle was more of a news forum and BikeSLC was similar to UTA.      

With all of the new transit options introduced this year and last year, the flow of city traffic is changing. The inversion is slowly seeping away, finally revealing a vibrant metropolis cuddled in a rugged mountain valley. Cycling is not only great for your body, it also does wonders for the environment and helps support the local economy. Whether you’re commuting around on a GREENbike, participating in Open Streets, or mashing across Salt Lake on your roadie, fixie or mountain bike, this spring/summer is a great time to get off of Netflix and actually see the sun! If you’re interested in roundhouse kicking some asshole or Olympic squatting a giant squid, cycling is the best way to reach your goals. You’ll have legs of titanium after just a few months.