Trek’s John Burke Knows How to Save the World
Santa Barbara Resident and Bicycling Guru Has Big Plans Locally and Globally
By Nick Welsh | August 26, 2021
Spend a few minutes with John Burke, and you’ll hear how cycling can save the world: how the bike can drastically reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions stoking the raging inferno of climate change, and how it can un-choke urban arteries now strangled by automobile congestion.
You’ll hear from Burke how the bicycle can help fight heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, and how during the pandemic, bike riding has offered the sanctuary of safe and socially distanced exercise. In the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, you’ll hear how the bicycle offers law enforcement a tool to connect more meaningfully with the communities they’re charged with serving.
And all that’s aside from moments of random joy the bicycle can inject into the mundane passages of daily living.
Burke’s not wrong.
I’ve long thought all the same things.
The only difference is that Burke — a part-time resident of Santa Barbara for about 15 years now — happens to own and run Trek Bicycles, the largest bike company in the United States and a billion-dollar global enterprise.
Burke doesn’t just sell bikes; he rides them, pedaling no less than 5,000 miles a year. In fact, he estimates he’s ridden up Santa Barbara’s famously grueling and intoxicatingly scenic Gibraltar Road approximately 50 times now. He’s very precise, however, when it comes to how many times he managed to get to the top before his wife, Tania Burke.
On the Fourth of July this year, the two of them rode their bikes from their home in Montecito past the city’s waterfront and up State Street. “When they took State Street and closed it off to traffic, I think that was a brilliant decision,” Burke said via Zoom. The idea that some people might want to exclude bicycles from the new promenade simply did not compute. “We rode down the street and had a wonderful time doing it,” he said. “There were no problems.”
Last month, Burke announced the creation of his new Trek Foundation, which is making substantial donations to two mountain bike trail projects in Santa Barbara County, another one in Ventura, and one more in Arizona. The foundation is giving $200,000 to expand the trails crisscrossing the ridiculously scenic Rancho Alegre campgrounds located in the Santa Ynez Valley from three and a half miles to 10. “Ten thousand kids a year from public schools use this site for various reasons,” Burke explained. “I wanted to make mountain biking an option for kids from all walks of life.”
To expand beyond the cycling stereotype of affluent white people, Burke has launched a number of scholarship programs to get mountain bikes into the hands of kids of color. Likewise, he’s funding an initiative to open up bike shops in “bicycle deserts” — typically poorer and ethnically identified neighborhoods. Likewise, he’d pledged to train 1,000 people in the art of bicycle repair and sales so they can work in these shops.
Closer to Santa Barbara, Burke’s Trek Foundation is donating $100,000 to help restore the six miles of mountain bike trail that snakes up and down the semi-wild hillsides of Elings Park. “This is right in the heart of Santa Barbara. It’s very accessible,” Burke said. “And this is just the start.”
And of course, Burke is the Wizard of Oz directly and indirectly responsible for the flotilla of white electric bikes — all rentals — now whizzing up and down State Street. BCycle, the bike-share company that landed the city franchise, is owned by Trek. The company’s other flagship operation is in Madison, Wisconsin, just spitting distance from the small town of Waterloo, where Trek famously originated in a red barn.
Right now, BCycle has 130 pedal-assist e-bikes and 272 docks stationed throughout the City of Santa Barbara. As of July’s end, the company reported, 30,000 bike-share trips had been taken, 133,000 miles ridden, 5.3 million calories burned, and 125,000 pounds of carbon offset.
The extent to which Burke’s electric bikes are providing a meaningful transportation alternative to the automobile, however, has yet to be determined. City traffic engineers caution that the system is still only halfway “cooked.” Another 120 bikes and 228 docks need to be installed before the total system as envisioned is actually in place. Given that BCycle started operation in the teeth of the pandemic and when State Street suddenly went car-free, BCycle’s launch did not go exactly as planned or expected. Adding spice to the company’s arrival was some head-butting with the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission and an appeal to the California Coastal Commission, which BCyle won by a unanimous vote.
The real test, traffic planners say, is whether the bikes are embraced by locals, not just tourists and visitors. Right now, the numbers are mixed but appear encouraging. Fifty-eight percent of the rides have been taken by people signing up for monthly or annual memberships, suggesting longer term residency;
42 percent were people taking the white bikes out for single rides, more suggestive of tourists.
However one reads such statistics — credit card data indicating home addresses will help paint a clearer picture of who’s riding and who’s not — it’s clear Burke has much bigger plans for the South Coast and BCycle. Burke said his people are “talking” with the City of Goleta and administrators at UCSB about extending the distribution of his BCycle fleet further up the coast. And likewise, he added, they’re also talking with officials in Montecito, Carpinteria, and as far south as Ventura.
For the time being, it’s all just talk. But the prospect of a regionally integrated market of that size conjures images of thousands — not just hundreds — of shiny white pedal-assist electric bikes with wicker baskets suitable for a small dog hanging in front of the handlebars.
In person — to the extent a Zoom conversation can be said to be “in person” — Burke comes across bigger than he actually is. He speaks slowly and deliberately. There are no dangling modifiers or thoughts that trail off into the void. He knows what he intends to say, and he says it clearly.
He took over a company started in 1976 by his father, Richard Burke, at the height of America’s road bike Renaissance — inspired by the environmental movement, high gas prices, and a rediscovered love of the great outdoors — to prove high-end, handcrafted bikes could be made right here in the United States. In year one, the company sold 906 bikes. Burke’s father would, however, eventually succeed beyond imagination.
John Burke jumped in at age 24 in 1984, working in sales and service. When he took over in 1997, the company had expanded well outside the United States borders and was grossing $300 million a year. Now, Trek is grossing $1 billion and claims 22 percent of the United States’ market share for bike sales, slightly more than Trek’s two closest competitors combined.
Along the way, Burke found time to start a bicycle advocacy group — PeopleForBikes — that lobbies Congress for bicycle infrastructure and rates cities on their bike-ability. (Santa Barbara, by the way, comes off better than average, but surprisingly not by that much.) He’s written three books, each detailing a handful of simple-sounding policy steps to save either the world or the United States. He briefly toyed with running for president as an independent candidate in 2020 and has been unstinting in his criticism of Donald Trump’s tax policies. Drop the tax rates, he advocated, but plug the loopholes so companies like General Electric can’t make $12 billion in profit and pay zero taxes.
Burke is positively evangelical about the imminent perils posed by climate change; the fire and brimstone is here and now. There are many changes his company is making to address this — no more plastic packaging material, a major pivot to alternative fuels — but riding a bike, he insists, makes a big difference. If just one percent of American motorists got out of their cars and onto their bikes, that would reduce carbon emission by 17 times Trek’s total global carbon footprint.
To increase its number of riders, Burke said Santa Barbara should look to countries like Denmark as a model for cycle-friendly changes to adopt. “People need to feel safe on the road,” he said. “It’s pretty simple.” It’s not enough to paint a green line on the street, he said. There has to be a genuine sense of separation between cyclists and cars. This does not always require massive investments in new infrastructure; even a lane marked off with plastic bollards, he said, will suffice.
Over the past 10 years, slightly less than 4 percent of all Santa Barbara City commuters get to and from work by bike. Although the pandemic has witnessed an explosion of interest in cycling — and certainly an acute shortage in bicycle inventory — it remains unclear what long-term difference that will make on commuting numbers. The city, however, is currently moving forward on several bicycle infrastructure projects long in the gestation process. If Burke is correct, these could make a difference.
The $20 million bike lane linking Las Positas and Modoc roads with the bike paths that end up at UCSB should be ready for riders by this December. Construction begins next spring on new bike lanes that connect the city’s Westside with its downtown, and likewise with the project extending the Chapala Street bike lane to Alamar Avenue. Work on the De la Vina bike lane extension — to Padre Street — also begins this fall. At that point, the build-it-and-they-will-come theory can be put to the test in a meaningful way.
Given Santa Barbara’s environmental ethos, Burke said, the numbers should definitely go up. And given the toll global warming has taken on Santa Barbara in the past few years, he said the need for change should be obvious. “Santa Barbara has had a front row seat to the destructive consequences of climate change,” he said. “And if you’re waiting around for someone else to solve the problem, you’re not paying attention, and you’re going to be waiting a long time.”