By Alec Kimmel
Whenever I bring up the idea of how great it would be if the City of Fresno focused its efforts to promote bicycle use on the construction of bicycle trails, inevitably someone asks, “If that is such a great idea, why hasn’t it been done yet?”
I recently joined the Fresno County Bicycle Coalition (FCBC) and representatives from the Merced Bicycle Coalition on a biannual bicycle ride through a portion of Fresno south of Shaw Avenue, including much of the downtown core. This event is a kind of partnership-building tradition between the two organizations, but even though members of the public are encouraged to participate, I only learned about it through a member of the FCBC.
I don’t consider myself an experienced cyclist. That’s okay, because that’s kind of the point. Many people who ride would fit into this category.
The bicycle ride started in the parking lot of the Santa Fe Depot on Tulare Street. The route, per the map included on FCBC’s Web site, took us on local roads for the entire 12-mile length.
I rushed to drive my bicycle from Clovis to the parking lot, fearing I would be late. Fortunately, I had time to spare. John McCracken and Ed Smith, both of the FCBC, had been designated as leaders for the group and were making sure everyone who intended to join was accounted for.
I did a quick inventory of my fellow cyclists when I arrived. Including myself, I counted 25 people, all middle class or higher income, and all but five of Caucasian ethnicity (the remainder being four Asian and one Hispanic). There were two young children among us, hitched to their parents’ bicycles via carriages. All of us had either driven or traveled by Amtrak train to the parking lot.
McCracken had everyone introduce him/herself, and then started by speaking to Fresno’s rating as the fifth best bicycling city by the League of American Bicyclists (LAB), a national organization that he mentioned worked closely with the coalition. The good status of the City of Fresno rests mostly, he said, on the miles of bicycle lanes.
With both the Fresno Bicycle Master Plan due next year for an update, and the LAB’s rating subject later this year for reevaluation, McCracken encouraged the group to put pressure on local officials to continue investment in on-street bicycle improvements. “As the chair of the FCBC, Nick Paladino, is fond of saying, ‘if you don’t ask for anything, you get exactly what you ask for,’” McCracken urged.
In introducing myself, I mentioned that I was a member of the new coalition Shifting Gears, representing on behalf of SEIU Local 1000. I told everyone that Shifting Gears was working toward better bicycle and pedestrian trails in Fresno, and for more information they should feel free to talk with me. McCracken acknowledged it was good to have a union presence, but no one solicited me regarding the trails (or lack thereof).
We began our ride at a leisurely pace. For many locations along the trip, there was no bicycle lane and hardly any signs indicating a bicycle route. This forced the group to occupy en masse the far right lane of streets intended only for motorized traffic. Thankfully, it worked. Members of our group would shout out “Car back!” every time one began tailing us when the driver was unable to pass. Our group was also often broken up by the phasing of the traffic signals.
Along the way, I counted six more low-income people of color riding bicycles. Only two of these were using bicycle lanes where the lanes were present. None of them were asked to join us or told what we were doing, not even the old woman riding her beach cruiser on the sidewalk next to us who cheered us on.
Just after we crossed over State Route 180 headed north, we approached the intersection at McKinley where a canal runs. This canal has banks 10 feet wide and an asphalt ramp from the street corner, all but encouraging bicyclists and pedestrians to walk along the canal instead of being on the road with automobiles. I have seen some ride their bicycles on those very banks with my own eyes, yet no one in my group even noticed it was there.
Some ways past this point, about a third of the way through, McCracken stopped everyone in front of a strip mall and off the road. He explained his choice of the route by wanting to show our visitors both the good and the bad and the “reality” of being a cyclist in Fresno. He then gave a brief, impassioned talk about how he wasn’t going to let the absence of bicycle facilities stop him and that the best thing that could happen would be for more and more people to do exactly as we were doing today.
This is, of course, the core of the philosophy of critical mass.
Yet this philosophy fails to address one critical aspect of all transportation, which is that it is not always convenient to travel together. Behaving as we did as a group in broad daylight on a weekend worked well enough, but for an individual cyclist to do so would be highly dangerous, especially if it were during peak traffic conditions during a weeknight. That’s if you’re an experienced cyclist—and for cycling to become a true option in Fresno, it’s not the experienced people that need to be reached.
It’s the people who are afraid to ride and the people who do it because they have no other choice—the people we passed by on our ride that none of us invited to help build our critical mass.
A popular mantra among cycling advocates is to emphasize the importance of educating others in the proper use of bicycle facilities. To me, that sounds like we’re going to wait until everyone like the old woman I saw knows better than to ride on the sidewalk before we spend money on a facility that negates the need for her to change her way of thinking, such as paving a trail on the canal bank. In the meantime, we will ignore her need to make daily trips for her daily survival while we make biannual demonstrations of how to bicycle properly and fight the power of automobile dominance with our children in tow.
Our bicycle ride continued west on Shields Avenue. Only one in our group noticed in time the sign advising cyclists to use frontage roads where available. The rest of us were greeted by motorists in both directions, who shouted profanities at us as we passed. For the first time, some of our group began to question how safe our riding on the road really was.
This jives perfectly with the research done by Dr. Rebecca Sanders, Ph.D. at UC Berkeley (www.escholarship.org/uc/item/6ct7x8hp), one of a handful of academics studying barriers to bicycling; users of all modes would rather see separated bicycle facilities instead of bicycles sharing the road with cars. Class One segregated bicycle facilities are the solution.
Four hours later, the ride was complete. We dined at the steakhouse at the corner of Van Ness and Kern streets, just after passing through the only portion of our trip completely free of cars—the Fulton Mall, which not a week prior had been voted by the City Council to be completely reopened to automobile traffic.
Alec Kimmel is with Shifting Gears. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.