Bike Issue: Pondering pedaling
Riders sound off on cycling’s place in the community
Is Chico really bike-friendly?
When considering this question, one of the first responses likely to come to mind is how the city was named America’s Best Bike Town a dozen years ago by Bicycling Magazine.
Or was it No. 1 Cycling City? Most Bicycle-Friendly City? America’s Greatest Bike Town? (The Internet is littered with at least half a dozen different references to the magazine’s tribute to the community.)
In any event, Chicoans certainly have clung to the designation over the years.
And it’s no wonder, really. Bike shops appear every few blocks within downtown, and the surrounding streets are teaming with riders on any given day. Commuters appreciate the area’s flat routes and the moderate weather allowing them to take to the streets throughout the seasons, while competitive cyclists have Honey Run Road, Highway 32 and other challenging rides on the outskirts of town.
Local cyclist and biking advocate Karen Goodwin wouldn’t have put much weight to the ranking back when it came out. “It might have been an indication of how bad other cities are,” she said, only half joking.
That’s not to say Goodwin thinks Chico isn’t bike-friendly. Quite the opposite, in fact. Goodwin and her husband, Pete Hollingsworth, are a big part of the welcoming committee. The couple are organizers of BikeChico! Week—a sort of cheerleading event to get locals interested in commuter biking. Currently, they are gearing up for the third annual installment, scheduled for May 10-17.
As a biking ambassador, Goodwin, a cycling instructor certified by the League of American Bicyclists, has mostly positive things to say about getting around locally on two wheels. The climate and flat terrain are factors, though she prefers hills. Perhaps the biggest reason Chico gets a great biking rep is the culture and recognition of bikers’ place in the community.
“Generally, I think for the most part, people are fairly considerate of bicyclists here,” she said. “I’ve ridden in a lot of other communities that aren’t so sympathetic, so I think that’s a plus.”
At lot has changed since Goodwin relocated (traveling by bike) from Southern California to Chico in 1980. From the first Chico Velo Wildflower Century race a year after settling here to the current love affair with bikes, Goodwin said that a real surge in biking has developed during just the past few years. She illustrates this by noting that only five years ago she would personally know each cyclist passing her while riding up Neal Road.
Not true today: “Now there’s just this tidal wave of recreational riders,” she said.
Then again, the community has also grown tremendously. Of course, more residents result in more vehicles, contributing to the thing most inhibitive of riding a bike: traffic. But Goodwin doesn’t shy from cars.
“Ever since I moved to Chico, I’ve always ridden down busy roads, because I wanted people to see that cyclists had the right to be there, and that maybe if they saw someone having a good time on their bike they’d want to get on their bike,” said Goodwin, who is a nutrition education specialist with OPT for Fit Kids at Chico State.
Ironically, Goodwin’s biggest pet peeve about riding locally is the inaccessibility at the university, a sentiment echoed by many others, including Russ Mills, an engineering professor who commutes to work. A former city park commissioner and longtime member of the Bike Advisory Committee, Mills said the campus is one of the hottest topics when it comes to bike transportation and the place that has seen the least progress.
Improvements, he said, are needed in many places surrounding the institution, but Second Street is by far the worst.
“I dodge cars every day,” Mills said of riding on that street. “It’s routine.”
Admittedly, not every rider is as confident as a longtime cyclist. For those looking for the best ways to travel through the city, a helping hand exists in the form of a detailed bike map created last year by the Butte County Association of Governments.
Sitting down in his east Chico office last week, BCAG programming manager Iván Garcia went over the excellent guide, pointing out colored lines indicating the many series of bike paths, lanes and routes, as well as certain streets recommended to riders as the best ways to travel through the disconnected areas between them. Available in bike shops around town, the maps have proved extremely popular with residents, as evidenced minutes later when Budd Schwab, owner of Campus Bicycles, popped into Garcia’s office, looking to restock his downtown shop with them.
Garcia, who regularly rides to work from his north-Chico home, pointed out that he often sees riders traveling along roadways—or in manners—he considers unsafe. In fact, one day while driving home he pulled over to speak with a biker who was towing his child (who wasn’t wearing a helmet) in a trailer along a particularly bad stretch of East Avenue.
“Take the time to learn and take an alternative route that’s safer to get wherever it is you want to get to,” said Garcia, recalling his advice to the man who he handed a map. “It may not be as direct, but when you’re compromising safety, especially when you’re transporting a child … this is about making informed decisions.”
Chico City Councilman Jim Walker said that—like anything else—learning the best routes takes experience. A bike commuter since in middle school, Walker said one of the biggest mistakes bicyclists make is riding where they drive.
Garcia said same the same thing, noting that while aiding cyclists is the main objective of the guide, another benefit is that it will be used as a planning tool for future development within the city and county.
By far the biggest biking project underway is a proposed route paralleling Highway 99, from Southgate Lane near Butte Creek Country Club to Hicks Road in north Chico near the municipal airport.
“Think of it as an expressway through the city for bikes,” said Brian Mickelson, senior civil engineer with the city of Chico, who’s in charge of city traffic engineering.
The project is in the design and review phase as the city applies for additional grants to buoy its existing $1.5 million in funding ($1 million in federal grants; $500,000 from Chico coffers). Mickelson, also a bike commuter, expects to begin construction in summer of 2010. When completed, the new route will greatly enhance the current system, he said.
He acknowledged that California is home to other cities with vastly superior bike transportation. Davis, for example, was the first U.S. city to garner a platinum designation by the League of American Bicyclists. Bicycling Magazine named the Yolo County city the best small town for cycling in a feature about “America’s Best Biking Cities” three years ago.
For the record, Chico was named No. 1 in the magazine’s list of “America’s Best Bike Towns” in the August 1997 issue of the national publication. Managing Editor Christine Bucher told the CN&R the ranking was based on such things as great places to ride (road and mountain), availability of cycling events, cycling culture, job opportunities and housing (back when a three-bedroom home near Bidwell Park cost $135,000, noted the article).
Chico currently meets the LAB’s bronze level; however, as Mickelson noted, the city’s established infrastructure is larger than in Davis, making transportation development significantly more complex.
“I think any city could use improvement,” he said, “but we are going after it very aggressively.”