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Naomi  The Biking Life

 by: Naomi Bloom  6/1/2007

Bike Education with A Woman's Touch

The email message from Mary Paquet came in about 5:00 pm on April 22. She would be teaching a FREE street and road skills class for women only at Google on Friday and Saturday, May 4 and 5. A Licensed Cycling Instructor (LCI) certified by the League of American Bicyclists (LAB), Mary has been instructing volunteering and instructing with the ACTC Academy and the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition (SVBC) for years.

So I knew this class would be a good one. I just had to check this out! So I responded right away: Could I come along for the ride?

A quick visit to the SVBC web site revealed that this was just one of the free classes offered this spring and summer. Since bike coalitions are notoriously poor, where does money came from to sponsor such a program? The answer seemed to be the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). News to me, since VTA's publicity materials, including their web site, make no mention of sponsoring BikeEd programs or funding SVBC. Not even a link to SVBC.

"We've been talking with VTA for quite a while," SVBC Executive Director Corinne Winter told me. "They're responsible for helping Santa Clara County reduce car trips and helping develop pedestrian and bicycling facilities. We hope we can show there is a real demand for these classes and that VTA will sponsor this kind of thing ongoing."

The Google connection
Still, it was Deb Hennigan who got the Google initiative going. Part of Deb's job is coordinating corporate environmental programs, including Bike To Work Day. When her boss asked if anyone in their department was interested in becoming an LCI, she volunteered. Now she's the go-to Googler for commuting support and education.

Riding almost every day to work, Deb saw only the male-type guys out there on the road with her. "What's up with that?" she asked herself. "Even at Google most of the bike commuters are male engineers with attitude," she told me. "Women might attend a Street Skills class but they were intimidated. So I decided to try a women-only class, with the on-bike Road I course included."

Arriving at the Google campus, I discovered that it's quite spread out around the Shoreline area of Mountain View. And I noticed in front of every building a bike rack loaded with yellow bikes; any employee can use them to get around campus.

In the classroom I met SVBC's new BikeEd Coordinator, Carridad Taber. She gave a quick rundown of SVBC's other education projects, like lunchtime commuter workshops for people who want to do BTW Day for the first time, and a middle school program that will reach about 5,000 kids this year.

About 12 women attended the Street Skills afternoon class. Mary introduced three instructor assistants -- Nancy Smith and Susan Francks from ACTC, and Margaret Okuzumi, a longtime SVBC member who rides her folding Dahon just about everywhere.

In the round of introductions, we heard that most of the women had traffic "issues." Cynthia bought a new bike, then discovered she's afraid of cars and of making left turns. Ditto for Maria, who bikes to the Google shuttle station but is intimidated about riding ride all the way to her office. Wendy used to ride to work but after her non-profit agency moved, the overpasses "freaked me out."

Then there's Gail, who runs and is looking to offset her injuries by taking up the bike. "Everyone seems to be cycling so there must be something good about it," she observes. But she kept falling trying to deal with clipless pedals. Nearly every woman present had a similar tale of woe.

Street Skills cram session
Instruction began with a PowerPoint presentation developed by traffic engineer and former Palo Altan John Ciccarelli. Here's a rundown of some of the interesting factoids, tips and discussion:

  • Cyclists and the Law: Although most states define a bicycle as a "vehicle," the California Vehicle Code calls it a "device." But a cyclist is still considered a "driver."
  • Safety: Cyclists need to communicate with drivers at all times, mostly by position on the road. Always do a shoulder check; even if you use a mirror, look over your shoulder to check for traffic before making a lane change. It helps signal your intention.

  • Riding Between Intersections is John's term for riding straight ahead, not turning left or right. He uses terms like "speed positioning" and "destination positioning," a bit too technical for easy comprehension, IMHO.

  • Street Types prompted a question about push-buttons at curbs that read: "Bicyclists Push Button to Cross." Margaret and I immediately chimed in unison, "Those thing are terrible!"

  • Intersections: 90% of all bike crashes occur at conflict points. Intersections are major conflict points because of turning traffic. On the bike always take the right-most lane going to your destination. On left turns, look out for the "McDonald's effect" -- cars coming in and going out of fast food joints, strip malls, etc.

  • Tripping Signals: Some video detectors use image processing software that doesn't always detect a bicyclist. If lining your bike up with the seam in the pavement where the sensor is (or should be) doesn't work, try dropping the bike toward the ground to expose more metal. If the light still doesn't trip, it's a "nonfunctional light"; you can proceed through it when it's safe.
  • Interchanges showed Page Mill Road, where the less-than-wonderful bike lane is on the left at the Highway 280 interchange. Cyclists must do a shoulder check for traffic descending a fast hill behind them to access freeway on-ramps. Or the cars may be going straight, or perhaps turning left onto Arastradero Road. And the cyclists must cross all of that to get to the bike lane on the left.
  • Bikes on Transit: Here we diverted from the presentation to talk about personal experiences. Mary and Margaret talked about CalTrain: Older bike cars used to take 32 bikes, and some trains had two bike cars, for a total of 64. But the newer cars only hold 16 bikes each.

    Every transit system has different rules. BART only allows bikes during non-peak hours or in the non-peak direction. Capitol Corridor trains have tricky-to-use bike racks that adjust up and down. Bikes are welcome on Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) trains. VTA Light Rail also has tricky racks, described painfully by blogger Akkana. VTA buses have racks on the front. To rack your bike you have to pull a green handle to flip the rack down, then you must lift your bike up and hook a spinning latch over the bike. Margaret recommends getting off at the front door and telling the driver you're removing a bike to avoid getting hit! Bikes ride free on ferries. And don't forget to take advantage of the Bikestations in Palo Alto, Berkeley and at the Embarcadero BART station in San Francisco.

  • Riding in the Rain was a show-and-tell presentation from Margaret, who demonstrated her large yellow rain cape, gloves, gaiters and rain pants. She also talked a bit about helmet fit and other clothing tips.

The afternoon concluded with a 20-minute video, "Cyclists' Eye View," showing a rider in Long Beach employing the principals demonstrated John's presentation. Some of the discussion that followed including claiming, or "controlling," the lane and avoiding being "doored" by parked cars.

I skipped the next day, when the group met for a six-hour on-bike session, including a four-mile ride on the Stevens Creek Trail and over the busy Highway 101/Shoreline Blvd interchange.

More classes to come
SVBC will offer the same two-day course for free at Mountain View City Hall on June 1 and 2. Mary will be teaching it, along with her significant other, Bob Eltgroth (a sterling LCI in his own right).

VTA will sponsor a Street Skills class at Sports Basement in Sunnyvale on June 12. Bonus: a 15% discount on all purchases (with 5% benefiting SVBC)! You can sign up for these and/or future courses with SVBC. Or find out how to bring LCIs to your company in-house "training."

Don't live in the South Bay? Bug your local advocacy group to train LCIs and offer similar classes. It's worth the effort, to educate new riders, get more commuters on the road, and give the "old pros" like me an eye-opening refresher.

Naomi can be reached at naomibloom@earthlink.net

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