Firefighter wants to raise Vancouver's profile as bike-friendly city

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 
photo"Vancouver is becoming a bike town. The writing is on the wall." Eric Giacchino Founder of Bike Clark County

Riding his bike through downtown Vancouver, Eric Giacchino likes what he sees.

As several other cyclists pedal by, Giacchino greets just about every one of them. He calls out a hello. He offers a wave. He receives friendly smiles in return.

The founder of local nonprofit Bike Clark County naturally wants people to feel comfortable cruising through the city's heart on two wheels instead of four. It's a sight that wasn't as common even a few years ago.

But like any city moving toward a more bike-friendly future, Vancouver has plenty of room for improvement and plenty to learn, he said. That goes for some cyclists themselves, too.

On the same ride, Giacchino stopped for a red light at the intersection of Columbia and Sixth streets. While he waited, a young man on a bike sped by him from behind, blew through the light and -- wearing no helmet -- cut across to the left side of the street, continuing against traffic.

Giacchino shook his head.

"That," he said, "is the kind of thing that we're trying to get away from."

Bike Clark County's volunteers hope to nurture, embrace and educate what they see as a growing bike culture in Vancouver and Clark County. The group played host to a community workshop last month. Only a year after its founding, Bike Clark County is also starting to turn heads outside Southwest Washington.

"Portland always kind of looms over the area," said Blake Trask, statewide policy director for Seattle-based Bicycle Alliance of Washington. "But to see Vancouver kind of step out of the shadows … is really great to see."

Connecting advocates

To say that Giacchino practices what he preaches would be an understatement.

The Vancouver firefighter commutes by bike to work, riding the seven miles (one way) from his downtown home to the Walnut Grove station. He and his wife pedal to the grocery store, their two young daughters in tow. They ride to the kids' piano lessons. Giacchino estimates he put only 5,000 miles on his car all of last year.

Giacchino has long been a prominent voice in the local bicycling community, for years volunteering at bike safety events in Portland — a city known as one of the most bike-friendly places in the country. But last year, Giacchino decided it was time to bring the same energy to Vancouver. He founded Bike Clark County.

"We should be doing that in my own town," he remembers thinking about Portland's bike-related programs. "There was really nothing like that going on here."

Many of the pieces were already in place here, Giacchino said. Vancouver has its share of bike advocates, but they weren't always connected in their efforts, he said. Bike Clark County was founded as a voice to bring them together.

The organization — with a dedicated group of volunteers — brought bike safety programs to three Vancouver schools this year. Giacchino hopes to expand it to more in the future.

Bike Clark County uses a fleet of more than 100 bicycles it currently stores at the former Hough Pool, which also serves as a workshop. That's an arrangement the Hough Foundation is happy to accommodate, said executive director Barbara Hammon. The pool closed in 2010 due to budget difficulties.

The foundation, which owns the pool, eventually hopes to convert the facility into a community center. In the meantime, it will lend a favor from one nonprofit to another, Hammon said.

"So far, it's working out great," she said. "It's just perfect that we're able to partner with another community organization that does great things for kids."

'Writing is on the wall'

Last month's "Hub and Spoke" workshop focused on both local and national trends, along with how to improve conditions in Vancouver. The midweek event drew about two dozen participants, though Giacchino admits many were familiar faces.

Helping lead the workshop was the Bicycle Alliance of Washington. Trask, the organization's policy director, characterized the event as a success not every city could pull off.

The workshop included a bike tour highlighting what's good and bad about Vancouver's infrastructure. The city offers ample bicycle parking downtown, Giacchino said, a plus some other places don't have. But it can be difficult, particularly for less experienced cyclists, to get around some cramped streets and intersections, he said. Many view the relatively spacious Columbia Street as downtown's main north-south bike corridor.

Much of Bike Clark County's mission centers on education. The organization hopes to boost its school program in the coming years, and give cyclists more access to services and equipment for repairs, Giacchino said. It also has its sights on a possible community "car-free" event for Vancouver, he said.

Giacchino is quick to say he doesn't consider Bike Clark County his organization. He'd be more than happy to see the nonprofit thrive regardless of who's at the helm.

"This isn't mine," Giacchino said. "This is for the community, the people who ride bikes in Clark County."

The rising prominence of Vancouver's bicycle community has come "clearly from the bottom up," Giacchino said. But local agencies have responded. The city of Vancouver and Clark County both incorporate bicycle and pedestrian issues into their planning efforts. A Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee reports to the county.

Giacchino doesn't expect the trend to slow down anytime soon.

"Vancouver is becoming a bike town," Giacchino said. "The writing is on the wall."

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.