For this installment of Stories from the Field, Berkeley SafeTREC’s Kristen Leckie chatted with Santa Barbara County Association of Governments. In this edition, Kent Epperson and Peter Williamson from the Traffic Solutions division, and Lauren Bianchi Klemann from Government Affairs & Public Information talk to us about their recent electric bike safety event, the first one ever held in Santa Barbara County, as part of their EZBike Program. Read the Safety Story below!
What is your current role and how did you find your way into the Active Transportation world?
Kent: I’ve been with SBCAG for over 20 years and run the Traffic Solutions division. The Traffic Solutions division focuses efforts on sustainable transportation, and active transportation has been a really important part of what we've done over the years. Personally, the Active Transportation aspect of what we do at Traffic Solutions is one of my favorite projects to work on, for a variety of reasons.
Peter: I have 10 years of transportation demand management experience (TDM). I got pulled into this world when I was invited to bike with my brothers [from] Seattle to Portland, and I didn't have a bike. So, I borrowed one and I was like, “I gotta find time to train; I'm going to start biking to work.” I started having these thoughts like, somebody should be paying me to bike instead of drive. I Googled, “Someone pay me to bike, and that's how I got my job in San Luis Obispo County, and now, in Santa Barbara County. So active transportation has a special place in my heart.
What was it like putting together the first ever safety event for electric bikes?
Kent: Well, it was new territory. But it was something that had been in the back of my mind for some time, because of the EZBike project that we've been doing for almost two years now. I felt a responsibility, that if we're going to promote electric bikes, we have to address the safety issues. Anytime doing a new project, I start from the very high level, and look around at what's being done elsewhere. And so, it was a great opportunity to connect with other communities that are doing a great job addressing e-bike safety issues, like Carlsbad and Laguna Beach, two that I think are shining examples and ahead of the game.
Then, we pulled together a coalition of the players that have stake in the game of e-bike safety… a broad, diverse spectrum of organizations and people, ranging from partners in the nonprofit bike education arena, bike shops and manufacturers, Safe Routes to School and school districts, Santa Barbara County, law enforcement, elected officials, public health officials, and the people designing facilities. They've been very engaged and supportive.
Peter: This was very different from things that I've done in TDM, there was an accelerated [timeline] and partnerships created, way faster than most campaigns that I've been a part of with a new audience. It's a different approach to gathering a lot of people who are invested in safety that might not care about biking as a mode, and it goes beyond people on electric bikes.
What is the EZBike Program?
Lauren: The EZBike Program was a demonstration project that we started a little over a year ago, where Kent and his team got a fleet of about 13 electric bikes, intended for those who lived and/or worked in Santa Barbara County to try different electric bike models in a non-commercial setting to figure out what would work for them. Residents and/or commuters were invited to attend pop-up events and try out the different models or even check it out for a long weekend. The program is evolving, and we're looking ahead toward employer-focused opportunities where we can drop off the fleet of electric bikes at a local business for a month-long trial period, which could help change the game for some commuters here in Santa Barbara County. And so, when Kent mentioned safety, there’s this sense of moral obligation of that alongside the work that we're doing with the program, which underlines much of the work of those who are promoting electric bikes here in Santa Barbara County. It’s demystifying that fear around electric bikes. The team is empowering people to understand what they can do with an electric bike and how they can keep themselves and others safe.
Kent: In addition to expanding the program to employers, we're also looking to expand it to schools because one of the areas that we've gotten a lot of feedback from the community is we're seeing a big uptick in the number of youth riders. We just had a class that was family-oriented and there were a number of adolescents at the class. It was so great to see them getting direct feedback on these rides, seeing the [unsafe] behaviors that we see on State Street, for example, and being able to quickly correct that with guidance.
What was the point where you realized it was important to do education work around e-bikes?
Kent: We envisioned the EZBike Program and started planning for it pre-pandemic, and I'm always trying to stay ahead of the trends to harness their power. I've been an e-bike user for many years. And I've been waiting for that critical mass to come around, for the price of e-bikes to come down, and also for the dependability of the bikes. I didn't feel good about promoting something that I felt was unreliable and also too expensive.
And that really started happening about three years ago, and at that point, it was: “How do we leverage this the best we can?” Originally, we envisioned it being a way to encourage parents to ride with their kids to school, because there were these bike trains. But parents weren't stepping up to do it. So, the first thought was, if we could give parents e-bikes to ride with the kids to school, we could increase biking to school. But quickly, I recognized that was a very limited touch point and we could go much bigger and broader with the promotion of e-bikes. That's when we came up with the idea of a loaning library.
What is the safety pledge?
Peter: Our safety pledge goes back to the idea of inclusivity. It was for all road users and we designed it that way intentionally and we have 415 pledges to date. Now, we can continue to engage [these contacts] in the safety conversation, a great start for going into another year of this with the EZBike project and this campaign.
How are you all thinking about equity and how did you weave that into not only this event, but the program in general in Santa Barbara?
Kent: I'll be frank. I think we could do a lot more. Because this is a new endeavor, we were trying to get the bases covered and get the players at the table. I do believe we have [done that]. One thing we're seeing is the new rebates and subsidies that are coming online, and their focus on disadvantaged communities. I think we could focus some of our demonstration opportunities to different parts of and groups in the community that can really benefit from those programs. When it comes to Spanish speakers, for example, that's a next step for us. I always know that we can do a better job.
Lauren: Equity is something that's on the forefront of SBCAG’s mind in everything that we do. That’s why it's so important to be a part of a coalition when you're organizing, to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table to be able to bring their perspectives, to see what will work, and what will not work. When Kent presented the safety awareness resolution, it was great to hear all the different voices that helped influence that. And then, it’s not only about language justice, but also about making sure people of all types and abilities are able to access this e-bike and understand what is available for them. Santa Barbara County, in general, has a great network of infrastructure, and we really work hard to show what is possible with travel in this region. We are a coastal city, but there are a lot of hills and it's intimidating to be able to bike if you have a longer commute. So how do we demystify that, and how do we make trails that are accessible on an e-bike to get to work or school regardless of your lifestyle?
We did a survey during the demonstration program and found that it skewed to older, predominantly white, and resourced residents. That really helped the team think about how we can retool this effort, like the hours that we're having these pop-up events. Or, how can we look at doing it differently so it works for different types of people or groups? And the safety event that we participated in on State Street was at a different time and it worked with Downtown Santa Barbara. It is the partnership with other organizations that is really great to bring out new and different audiences than we've traditionally worked with.
Peter: In terms of engaging different audiences, we were at the Guadalupe Mexican Independence Day, and also did outreach in Orcutt, just south of Santa Maria. In that area, we were going into retail shops and engaging with a very different employment base than the traditional TDM model engages. It was a great opportunity to engage with essential workers because we know they are having to continue to go to work, whereas a lot of people are afforded the privilege of working from home. Another element of equity in our program is to include a BCycle in our fleet to demonstrate. BCycle operates a bikeshare service for the City of Santa Barbara and offers a low income annual membership for $25, which includes unlimited rides under 30 minutes. We see cost and storage as big challenges, where a discounted bikeshare membership solves both.
What advice do you have for people who are concerned about the influx of e-bikes?
Kent: We were hearing a lot about that for the State Street Promenade [which] was closed to cars and is now open to pedestrians and bicyclists. We have, and continue, to get a lot of input from the community about e-bikes on that facility, because they're moving at a pretty good clip and it's downhill. One thing I think that's helpful is to gather up the best data about actual safety issues. Is it a perception issue or is it actually something that's occurring? We looked at our local data, but also realized there's more that can be done in terms of recording crash data related to e-bikes, because that's not necessarily something that law enforcement is used to checking the box for.
In general, we were surprised to see that there hasn't been an uptick in the last year in fatalities. And since [Vision Zero] was adopted and new facilities have come online, there's actually less crashes than there were before. The other thing that was unique to looking at State Street was the context. When we closed down State Street to cars, we immediately created a facility that was safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. That's a huge win; there's been a decline in crashes involving serious injuries because the cars have been removed from the equation. I think the other piece here is that it's ever evolving, we're seeing a lot of changes to laws at the state level and we’re seeing CHP start to engage.
What I've been cautioning people is, rather than reacting prematurely without getting information, find out what are the real safety issues and who we need to reach. How can we change behavior? What are the laws that are most effective in changing that behavior? Let's see what the problem is, and see how we can change, for example, the speed on a bike path.
Let's look at what the issues really are and be thoughtful about what we do, rather than act too quickly. That might end up making the problem worse, or just not addressing it and create more problems down the line. And so we've been taking a slower approach here before we take big measures. Let's see what we can do to educate the students and get bike education integrated into the school districts.
And it's not just bicycling, it can be almost any form of transportation. How can we have multiple touchpoints integrated into the educational system so that we're not trying to fix a problem after graduation. For example, Laguna Beach and Carlsbad both instituted e-bike education into the schools. In Laguna Beach, they actually require that the students go through a class in order to bring an e-bike on campus. And I think there's something to be said, that if they want the privilege of using an e-bike on campus, then equip them with the information and skills they need to do it safely. That's the time to do it.
These Stories From the Field interviews were conducted in collaboration with UC Berkeley SafeTREC. The opinions and perspectives expressed are those of the interviewees and not necessarily those of SafeTREC.