Credit: Courtesy

CHERCHEZ LA CAR:  This past week, I had to turn in the family car to the company we’d leased it from. The lease was days from coming due, and we needed to downsize. But the real deal is that on this planet, that car could have got me shot. Three times in the past few months, I’d inadvertently gotten into other people’s cars — all the same make, model, and color — parked in various parking lots throughout Santa Barbara, only to realize I had entered into someone else’s unlocked four-wheeled abode. And no, I didn’t steal anything. Fortunately, no one was home at the time. Two White cheerleaders in Texas — not so lucky — recently got shot for doing the same thing. 

Naturally, none of this was my fault. It was my car’s.

It’s a perfectly fine car — better than that, even. It’s a RAV4 hybrid, a dignified, professional-looking charcoal gray. Good visibility, commodious, and pseudo-responsible from an ecological standpoint when it comes to greenhouse emissions. It is, however, the single most anonymous, invisible car on the road — perhaps the planet — a steel-ish tortoise shell on four wheels that pretends to be a compact SUV. Every Saturday afternoon at thousands of shopping malls across America, thousands of hapless Dagwoods — zombie dads — can be seen clicking their key fobs in the vain hope of finding their RAV4 via echolocation.

It’s a wonder more of them haven’t been shot.

It’s a wonder so many leave their cars unlocked.

Fortunately, my backup car doesn’t have the same issues. That’s because it’s a bike. And absolutely no one will ever accidentally happen to just hop on it, either. Back when I got it 37 years ago, my bike was custom-built — by local builder Mike Celmins — to suit the idiosyncratic geometry of my body parts. But in the intervening years, I’ve beat the crap out of it. Only remnants of the original sky-blue paint remain, and most of the frame is covered with semi-oxidized blotches of naked steel tubing. Functionally, however, it’s a thing of joy — imagine careening downhill on the equivalent of a steel coat hanger. It’s a mechanical miracle that makes me grin like a fool, at least for a moment, no matter how pissy the mood inhabiting me. 

I mention all this because it’s National Bike to Work Month. I am told Santa Barbara Mayor Randy Rowse and Goleta Mayor Paula Perotte will celebrate this event by ceremonially riding bikes off Stearns Wharf in municipal tandem. 

I mention it as well because in America, you are what you drive as much as what you eat, with whom you fornicate, or what — or perhaps whom — you happen to shoot. The numbers in this regard are not what they could be. In America, we have 336 million people, 466 million guns, 278 million cars, and only 100 million bikes. Of the 154 million people who work, 116 million drive to the job. All but 10 million of those drive alone. According to the U.S. Census, only 616,000 bike to work

John Burke | Credit: Jeff Kennel

For a host of obvious reasons, cycling to work is not a viable option for everybody. But for many it is. Given that 70 percent of all trips taken in the United States are less than two miles, the bike could be used a whole lot more than it is. (Given that we’ve already had 200 mass shootings this year, we can also say the gun could be used less. And no, those two Texas cheerleaders don’t qualify as a mass shooting.)

Given our climate, weather, and geography, there’s no reason why Santa Barbara isn’t the bike commuting capital of the world. Throw in the exhilarating emergence of the e-bike and it should make it the capital of the universe — and yes, I know, those kids are out of control. In a recent podcast with Trek Bikes mogul — and part-time Santa Barbara resident — John Burke and Trisalyn Nelson, chair of UCSB’s Geography Department and emerging brainiac in bicycle activist circles, Burke observed that 35 percent of all trips made in Copenhagen — that’s in Denmark — are made by bike. Even in Copenhagen’s cold and wet Decembers, he said, the number is 35 percent. But in sunny, beautiful, and beckoning Santa Barbara, the number is closer to 5 percent. Five percent! With the advent of e-bikes, our hills no longer qualify as viable excuses. Burke, by the way, is the one responsible for the flotilla of white electric bikes for rent seen buzzing throughout downtown and adjacent neighborhoods. 

Trisalyn Nelson | Credit: Courtesy

Nelson is currently creating a data dashboard to track bicycle-involved accidents, near-accidents, and their locations. For those with a story about such events, go to and tell it. Among other things, Nelson is trying to pinpoint problematic locations to alert prospective riders and to goad the powers-that-be to take remedial steps

Nelson is a data freak, intent on filling a major void when it comes to policy matters. Right now, she’s dealing with the stigma inflicted by stupid kids — two to a bike, helmet straps dangling, and distracted by cell phones. How many have been involved in actual accidents? Go to her website and log in. Her solution? How about slower e-bikes, for starters, ones that top out at 20 mph as opposed to 28. Teenagers on e-bikes should be embraced as a great and wonderful thing, she says. To be modified, absolutely. But mostly to be celebrated

At a time when monthly payments for new cars have skyrocketed to $729 a month — up 24 percent — and for used cars to $563 a month — up 40 percent — shouldn’t our next car be a bike? And that doesn’t include the cost of insurance, registration, gas, repairs, or parking. As for RAV4s, I understand the manufacturers have just added the letter “J” to the brand. It stands for joyous. But if you rode a bike, you’d already be there. 


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