WHAT GOES AROUND GOES AROUND: Our jail system, as we’ve been told at least a million times, has become — by default — the biggest de facto repository of our mentally ill. But I’d wager the Santa Barbara City Council chambers might be a close runner-up. Certainly, this Tuesday’s council meeting got off to a rousing start. A twinkly-eyed itinerant preacher man showed up ostensibly to bless the councilmembers, but really, to pick a fight. Not only did he lard his comments with far more references to “The Lord” than good manner allows in our pseudo-secular society, but he started with quotes from Sarah Palin and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — whose mere names constitute fighting words in the 93101 zip code. Then we heard how the upcoming London Olympics threatens to unleash upon the world an especially lethal variant of the South Indian swine flu, which, if 1918’s outbreak is any guide, could wipe out more people than all the battles of World War I combined. If you have to cough, the point was, cough into your arm. And so it went.
But then, out of nowhere, sanity struck. Wading into a stack of contracts — worth a combined $2.6 million — whose approval was deemed so pro forma that no time had been allotted for discussion, the councilmembers pounced — en masse — on a relatively tiny proposal to renew the contract for the downtown Bikestation for another five years. Most people don’t know the Bikestation even exists or what it is, but for five years, City Hall has been paying a Long Beach company $25,000 a year to run it in hopes of encouraging downtown workers to ride their bikes to work rather than drive their cars. It is located snugly — if invisibly — by the Anacapa Street entrance to the Granada Garage. By providing a secure parking space inside an unmanned, hermetically sealed structure that can be accessed only with a computerized security card, the idea is that wannabe two-wheeled road warriors might be induced to ride rather than drive. This plan was hatched to mitigate the negative traffic impacts caused by all the extra motorists expected to drive downtown because the Granada Garage had been built. As a certified bike nut and lifelong kamikaze commuter — yes, my bike is equipped with brakes, but I don’t believe in using them — even I had doubts when the Bikestation was first announced. In concept, I liked the fact that City Hall was paying infrastructural lip-service to the cycling community. But in reality, I could never imagine myself — or anyone I knew — ever using such a place. I’m not here to castigate the Bikestation as the worst boondoggle perpetrated against common sense or even a white elephant. However professionally run, it underwhelms in the extreme. The same bikes seem to hang in the window month after month, like decorative salami no one wants to eat. Getting good statistics on actual use has thus far eluded the city planners in charge. The best indicator might be, as one wag suggested, to measure the dust levels accumulating on the frames. A few months ago, I assigned an intern to stake out the Bikestation during rush hours and report back how many people used it. I learned they could be counted by using just the thumb and pinky.
If the Bikestation was such a bust, the mayor and councilmembers wanted to know, why extend its contract for five years, as staff proposed? And they were especially perplexed because an S.B. nonprofit — Bici Centro — with a hard-fought track record of innovation, creativity, and success was chomping at the bit to get the new contract. Better yet, Bici Centro — a quasi commune of exuberantly evangelic pedi-powered geeks and freaks now epicentered in La Casa de la Raza on East Montecito Street — was offering to do the job for $7,000 less. Where the Bikestation is now an unmanned mausoleum, Bici Centro would put an actual person on the premises, offer classes in bike repair, provide a place for bike groups to meet, and make available a place — and the tools — where people could repair their bikes themselves at no or low cost with competent adult supervision nearby. In recent years, the bike scene has transitioned from the traditional do-gooder, eat-your-broccoli, save-the-planet vibe into something far more visceral and fun, silly yet practical. And Bici Centro has been at the heart of that shift. In addition, Bici Centro submitted a proposal to create a bicycle valet parking program — a big hit at the Santa Barbara Bowl and the Farmers Market — plus a “bike library,” where bikes can be checked out — for a fee — for as little as a few hours. One idea was to offer shared bikes to downtown workers as they get off the commuter buses from Ventura, thus allowing them to reach their final destination on two wheels. This plan got the terminal cold shoulder because Bici Centro proposed removing 20-30 bike storage spaces from the Bikestation location and holding bikes kept in long-term suspended animation somewhere else. In their space would go the work stations. Given that the Bikestation is consistently under-subscribed, I’m not sure why that was a problem. But the good news is that the entire council — bike nuts and car crazies alike — came together in bipartisan unity to question the staff recommendation. The Bikestation contract, they decreed, would be extended for one year, not five, and in the meantime, staff was instructed to get back to the drawing board with Bici Centro.
Like I say, sanity struck. I’m not sure what role The Lord, Antonin Scalia, or Sarah Palin had, but it was nice to be there. In the meantime, if you get a tickle in your throat, be sure to cough into your arm. Only the lives of 40 million people depend upon it.