I straddled my bike at a stop light near my home in Goleta and watched as cars crammed with futons, hair dryers, shot glasses, and toaster ovens streamed off of the freeway in the annual, unofficial end-of-summer parade.
The hordes of fledgling shoppers bring with them a run on Ramen, fruit punch, and Vodka. Along with the great mid-aisle roommate debates: split the cost of milk or every man for himself? Are vacuums really necessary?
Fortunately, the majority of freshman brought more than mini-fridges, laptops, and a total irreverence for noise restrictions. They brought bikes. Recent surveys show that 53 percent of UCSB students get around by cycling. This has a hugely positive impact on traffic, pollution, and the culture of the surrounding area.
Planning for Pedaling
In 2010, UCSB received a Gold level Bicycle Friendly University award from the League of American Bicyclists. The school ranks third in the Top 10 Bike-Friendly Campuses list compiled by Best Colleges Online. Santa Barbara’s temperate climate, relatively flat terrain, and beautiful scenery make pedaling to class attractive. But, much of what makes biking easy and enjoyable at UCSB is the result of thoughtful planning, careful policymaking, and hard work.
“Biking is a key component of all of our Capital Projects,” said Marc Fisher, UCSB’s senior associate vice chancellor of Administrative Services and Campus Architect.
The University is an ever-evolving work in progress. New construction projects require consideration of cycling traffic flow and space for bike parking. Safety risks must be mitigated where pedestrians, cyclists, and cars intermingle. The network is in constant re-evaluation. Said Fisher, “We are always working on improvements to the bike system on campus.”
Biking has become the typical mode of travel for many on campus. Both the UCPD and Campus Safety Officers use bikes to patrol UCSB, particularly during crowded events. Ten percent of faculty and staff also ride to campus.
Even campus recycling efforts are buoyed by bicycles. Sarah Siedschlag, the Associate Students Recycling program coordinator said that bikes have been used to collect and transport recyclables since the program’s beginning in 1994. Cycling is beneficial for both environmental and economic reasons, she added: “The bikes are completely fossil-fuel free and much less expensive than motorized carts.”
A Better Alternative
The University’s Transportation Alternative Program (TAP) helps facilitate riding on campus by encouraging sustainable alternatives to single occupant use of motor vehicles. The program offers discounts on bus passes, emergency transportation, and secure bike lockers for those willing to forgo the daily drive.
Paolo Gardinali, associate director of UCSB’s Social Science Survey Center, enjoys biking to work each day and loves the support offered by the University. “TAP makes it really sweet and easy,” he said. “I get more than 50 hours a quarter of free car parking for when I need it. For instance, if I had a medical appointment downtown and needed to get back to work quickly. There are bike boxes available, or I can just park the bicycle in my office.”
James Wagner, TAP’s manager cites parking restrictions and climate as two main factors of UCSB’s successful biking numbers. “As a result of the parking permit sales restriction and our temperate weather UCSB has one of the highest human-powered commuter mode splits of any suburban university in North America.”
Cultivating Bike Culture
Incoming students include bikes in their back-to-school supply list as more than mere transportation. They know that biking is a big part of being a Gaucho.
Jacqueline Yap, a freshman biophyschology major from San Diego picked up a bike for both practical and sentimental reasons. “Campus is so big, walking is just out of the question, especially when you only have 10 minutes between classes. But, I also got a bike to feel like part of the community. It’s such a bike and beach community.”
Sophomore Christine Hamlin still remembers vividly the day she bought her bike in Isla Vista and rode back to campus. “It was a Sunday afternoon and it was just so serene and beachy and I thought, yeah, I’m definitely a student here now…Biking is such a huge and normal thing here.”
The Friendly Bike Shop
The Associate Student (A.S.) Bike Shop, located in the middle of campus, offers repairs, tools, discounted parts, and free advice.
“We do about 30,000 sales a year, but much of the work we do is free to the students,” said Mike Rogers, the Bike Shop coordinator.
Staff members offer to diagnose the problem, and lend out the tools necessary to fix it. “We encourage students to try to do it themselves. Probably about half of them do,” Rogers said. This time of year, the rush is on to get bikes back up and running. “Right now, everyone’s bringing in bikes that have been sitting out all summer. They’re just trying to get them back in working order so they can get to class,” he explained.
Rogers is familiar with the ebb and flow of students moving through the bike shop and has been around long enough to see what he’s dubbed “Franken-bikes.” These are bikes that have been passed down between so many students and have had so many parts replaced that they bare little resemblance to their original state. Rogers knows them when he sees them though. “I remember them, see the same bikes year after year.”
As I speak with Rogers, a student rides up to the shop looking concerned. “Its still making that clicking noise,” he said.
Rogers patiently points out the shifters on the down-tube of the student’s bike, “Remember how we talked about shifting gears here?”
“Oh, yeah. That’s it?” The student looks instantly relieved at the easy fix. “Thanks, dude,” he said before riding away.
This kind of simple, free bike education can have a profound impact on riding rates. Many students are getting back on a bike for the first time since elementary school. A supportive environment and a friendly guide can provide intimidated riders with enough confidence to get rolling.
Falling In Love on the Bike Path
Last year, university student Brent Pella posted his music video, “Bike Path Love,” on YouTube. Filmed entirely on campus, the video is a lust-filled ode to the sunshine, beauty, and ocean side biking central to UCSB’s identity. It currently has over 68,000 hits.
While some students undoubtedly do fall for each other on the bike path, many more fall for biking itself. Senior Ali Chamas started riding as a freshman. “I started out just riding to classes and stuff,” he explained. But then he began using his bike to venture off campus and into the broader area. “I started riding farther, the rides just got longer and longer.” Eventually, he joined the UCSB cycling team, where he now races in road and cyclo-cross events.
Lessons to be Learned
Our university provides a great example of bicycle promotion. Cities and towns can apply many of the policies and building principles used on campus to help encourage more sustainable travel. Introducing safe, isolated bike paths, ample bike racks, and low cost education and maintenance to Goleta and Santa Barbara would boost ridership in our area and improve living conditions for everyone.
Every fall we sigh at the newly crowded check out stands, and scoff at the environmental impact that the students’ red solo cups will have on our environment. Then, we load our groceries into our cars and head home, where our carbon footprint is probably not helped by things like sharing a washing machine with 20 other people or sleeping four to a room.
If we’re going to complain about the negative impacts of the student population, it’s only fair to celebrate their contributions as well. As a group, UCSB students are reducing traffic, pollution, and road wear by biking in tremendous numbers. The university provides great incentives, but ultimately it’s a choice that each student makes every day–to get up, get on their bike, and pedal.
It’s a choice we should all make more often.
Andie Bridges lives in Goleta, California with her husband Dan and their two-year-old son, Alden. When not making macaroni art or eating Playdough, they can be found pedaling around town on adventures big and small. As a family, they strive to use the car less and pedal more.