Montebello Bicycle Coalition on Bike Talk

Montebello Bicycle Coalition in studio

Montebello Bicycle Coalition rocking the mic at Kill Radio’s Bike Talk!

We dropped by the Kill Radio studio this weekend to catch Montebello Bicycle Coalition rocking the mic for a Bastille Day edition of Bike Talk. The theme fit: MBC is bringing revolutionary change to this car-centric suburb in southeast Los Angeles County. Organizers Manual Zavala, Cynthia Cruz, Elsa Suzy Greno & Joel remind us that the faces of bike advocacy will be young and brown – a shift in the advocacy winds like a late-season Santa Ana gust from inland!

On this morning the Montebello Bicycle Coalition organizers Cynthia, Manny, Susie & Joe recount their efforts at bootstrap organizing for pro-bike change while a wobbly ceiling fan squeaks in the dry summer air of the Kill Radio studio on Vermont Avenue (more about Bike Talk). The coalition came together in November of 2010 when some cyclists there looked at the Metro bike map’s network of Class II bike lanes for Montebello and realized that only one existed, says a MBC member. “And that bike lane was primarily used for parking!”

That’s the kind of outrage that has sparked many an advocate into action. New local LACBC chapters have formed in Antelope Valley, Pomona, and the San Gabriel Valley too – all areas that aren’t thought of as hotbeds of pro-bike advocacy. Yet the eighty-something cities just like Montebello that tend to recede into the shadow of behemoth City of Los Angeles are where a change in the mobility mindset is most needed. If bike advocates are to make streets safer for cycling across our County of ten million people (and six million licensed drivers), change will have to ripple out from the centers of activism to the provinces.

Storm the Bastille!

Bastille Day seems like an appropriate occasion to acknowledge a new wave of upstart advocates like MBC who mobilize in provinces far from Los Angeles, long the titular political power center in the Southland. Back in 1789, upstart insurgents put an end to monarchical feudalism by presenting the King at Versailles with a constitutional assembly and subsequently ceremoniously liberated political prisoners from a Paris garrison by that name. Through armed insurrection they secured a declaration of rights for the proletariat and set into motion an historic change in the direction of the new French republic.

Bastille Day marks the moment and the place. And today, latter-day bike revolutionaries ran with that theme. Stephen Box, Alex Thompson and other organizers  framed the fight for safer streets as a revolutionary movement akin to the French Revolution. They inaugurated a ‘Storm the Bastille’ annual ride to take their message to Los Angeles City Hall. They created a Cyclists Bill of Rights. But their efforts to bring change beyond Los Angeles reminds us that change comes slowly to the provinces

Just as it took time for the post-revolutionary order to reach beyond the banks of the Seine in Paris, of course it will be no different in Los Angeles today. Downtown City Hall may have been the place where revolutionary change arrived first, but Montebello, like so many other jigsaw-puzzle Southland provinces, will see change arrive late – and only through the dogged persistence of advocates like the MBC folks. And perhaps it may demand the liberation from the tyranny of auto dominance of yet another Bastille, Montebello City Hall.

Montebello Bicycle Coalition

When Montebello Bicycle Coalition organizers realized that bike lanes shown on the map don’t actually exist, and that their city was misreporting bike improvements, they took their concerns to City Council during a public comment period in January of 2011.  There they found an advocate in Councilmember Cortez.

Shortly afterward they were meeting with city planners and a traffic engineer to address the issues – and to sketch out a broader vision for cycling in this city of 65,000 at the edge of the San Gabriel Valley. “We told them what we were envisioning but we were in high school and maybe they were not taking us seriously,” a member of the MBC told Chicken Leather of Bike Talk. So they looked to Metro for leverage – it’s an agency with a relatively bike-friendly posture and money to spend – and soon in March found themselves at the city’s first-ever town hall meeting to talk about bike improvements.

“The greatest opportunity that MBC is creating for bicyclists in Montebello is getting the idea out there that bicycles have a place on our city’s public streets,” Suzy said. She joined MBC after meeting the organizers at a Rio Hondo ride in February. “Bikers and drivers need to develop a shared understanding of using the roads as a common space. It’s not just us against them, its all of us working together to make our streets accessible.” With a feasibility study now underway, hopefully the best opportunities for realizing improvements to the common space can be identified. At least, they feel like they’re gaining some traction.

On the timescale of bike advocacy, their 18 months in business is but a blip. (Their umbrella organization, the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, has been on the scene for 15 years.) But the auto-centric policies that keep Montebello’s reported bike-involved collision injury rate much higher than the median incidence for Los Angeles County cities demands action. And these organizers know what’s at the top of their agenda: “We want to put pressure on the city, to do outreach, and to let people know what’s going on.” (Bike talk will have the podcast up shortly on KPFK’s page.)

MBC is surfing a wave of popular awareness of quality of life impacts associated with auto travel and they’re following in the wake of earlier advocacy efforts that are producing slow but tsunami-scale change across the Southland. Spurred on by policy change in DC and Sacramento intended to encourage active transportation today, and to reduce energy consumption tomorrow, we’re slowly evolving how we plan for multimodal mobility. Backed by mega-agencies like Metro and the Southern California Association of Governments (the region’s metropolitan planning organization), local policies are evolving to recognize transportation alternatives.

MBC also enjoys the fruits of a long Southland history of pro-bike organizing. Local bike coalitions like the LACBC have shown that cycling has specific relevance in majority-Latino communities like Montebello. Its City of Lights program shows the way. State organizations like CBC lead the push for pro-bike policies in Sacramento, like their ‘Give Me Three’ passing buffer campaign. And academy-based initiatives (like at UCLA) crank out studies on benefits not previously quantified, including the contribution of cycling to the local economy and the beneficial effects on childhood obesity from regular cycling.

Uneven Pavement Ahead

Montebello location mapThese are all great building blocks for a pro-bike campaign, and MBC will need them given the challenges ahead. City of Montebello fits no profile of a cutting edge progressive city, according to American Community Survey findings. The city of 62,500 is 78% Latino (in the top quintile for Los Angeles County) and residents are younger and less educated than the County as a whole. While the relatively large 16-years-and-under population (at 24% of all residents versus 23% for the County and 22% for California) may be good for cycling’s prospects, the lagging rate of completion of both a high school degrees and Bachelors & advanced degrees suggests the difficulty ahead. Transportation advocacy might not be the city’s greatest concern. (All figures from the .)

LA County district 1 map in reliefThen there is the relatively low population density. At 20% fewer people per square mile than the median for cities in Supervisory District #1 (left), Montebello more resembles its suburban San Gabriel city neighbors than it does the nearby Gateway cities where very high population densities (to say nothing of the larger undocumented population) puts more bikes on the ground. Gaining support in City Hall for bike lanes might be a tough lift with other priorities (like road maintenance) consuming the city budget.

Montebello does have one very key advantage however: the Metrolink station. It links the city to Metro’s Downtown hub-and-spoke rail system. The station is also a hub for nearby cities too, so if Montebello can support bike lanes to the station with Metro funding it will realize a ‘last mile’ opportunity to shift commuters from car or bus trips to time in the saddle.

And unlike the old guard, the new vanguard of bike advocacy is not fighting old battles. They’re stepping into greater public awareness of the advantages of multimodal mobility. And they know their community. Thankfully we have boots on the ground in places like Montebello, where affinity for the cultural texture of community is as important as a familiarity with politics and parliamentary procedure.

To old-school Southland bike advocates (mostly white, educated, male, and middle-aged, by the way), such places mostly conjure thoughts of tilt-up city halls, auto malls and endless boulevards that stretch across postwar Southern California to the horizon like a Macadam prairie.

LA freeways postcard with suburbsWe’re more likely to appreciate Montebello from on high aboard an East Coast-bound nonstop than from the saddle curbside. But as the MBC reminds us, these are places where post-auto era policy change will likely come latest, and perhaps be the heaviest lift of all. With enthusiastic advocates like Cynthia, Manny, Susie & Joe on the scene, there’s hope yet for our greater Southland.

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Keepin’ It Real on LA’s Bike Talk

Bike Talk at work in studioKeeping it real on Kill Radio found me last week in a too-small space in a seen-better-days Koreatown building with Nicholas Richart, putting on tape another weekly installment of Bike Talk – the global platform for engaged bike folks here in the Southland. It’s required listening whether you listen live via Kill Radio on the web or catch the podcast later. Continue reading