Bike to Work Project offers free wheels

Low-income commuters also get training, accessories

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

Published:

 

Bicycle commuting tips

The U.S. Census provides no figures on bicycle commuters. Nonvehicle commuters in Clark County are categorized in one of three areas: public transportation, 2.4 percent; pedestrians, 1.3 percent; and other, 1.9 percent. But take a look around or follow media reports of bicycle accidents, and it’s clear bicycle commuting is on the rise. Here are some tips to stay safe:

• Before biking to work for the first time, be sure to take a trial run to find out how long it takes and whether the route will work.

• Helmet use is mandatory in Vancouver city limits. The fine is $50 for a violation. Helmets aren’t required in the rest of Clark County.

• Bicyclists are subject to the same traffic laws as motorists. That means stopping at stop signs, yielding to pedestrians and queueing up with other vehicles at traffic lights. Bikes may not cut in front of vehicles at intersections in Washington; they’re allowed to in Oregon. Citations can be up to $200.

• Bicyclists are allowed to ride side by side on roadways where there is no traffic in Washington; they’re prohibited from doing so in Oregon.

• At traffic lights and stop signs where a vehicle may make a right turn, don’t rely only on eye contact to find out if it’s safe to cross. Take a look at the vehicle’s right front wheel; that could provide a clue about whether the driver plans to swing a left.

• Don’t weave in and out of parked cars. Drivers might be surprised when the bike meanders back into the roadway.

• Cross railroad tracks at a 90-degree angle, which reduces the chance of catching a wheel or damaging a bicycle.

Sources: Bike to Work Project by the Human Services Council and the U.S. Census Bureau

After being laid off from a masonry job in 2008, Vancouver resident Rick Larson could no longer afford fuel and insurance for his truck as he pursued retraining in business administration at Clark College. He took C-Tran buses to attend classes and, later, to work at an internship at Vancouver Housing Authority.

Now on the cusp of graduation with an associate's degree, Larson, 47, received a bicycle Saturday to shorten his commute and save on the cost of bus passes as he continues his internship and looks for a job. But the bike isn't a graduation present; it's the fruit of the Human Services Council's Bike to Work Project, started about a year ago.

"The whole concept of the program came from our partner group as we discussed what the (local social service) needs are," said B.J. Jacobson, HSC transportation services manager. "There were a number of places, like (Goodwill) Job Connection and WorkSource, that help people find work. One person said, 'Boy, if we could just get bikes into people's hands so many people would be able to get to a job site.'"

The program for low-income commuters is paid for with a state grant for providing people with transportation to work. It is the first time that grant has been used for a bike-to-work program, said Noel Brady, public transportation spokesman with Washington State Department of Transportation.

HSC asked the department if it could use a portion of an existing state employment transportation grant to pay for a bike to work program, and WSDOT consented. About $5,000 per year is budgeted for the program, though a smaller amount is actually spent, thanks to in-kind donations, Jacobson said.

The HSC launched the program in April 2011 after customizing a training program from the Bike Alliance and preparing Michael Kelly, a HSC Medicaid customer service specialist with a penchant for biking, to lead the class. Since the program began, 35 people have been equipped with a bicycle, helmet, lock, headlight, taillights, maps and other bicycling resources.

To be eligible for the program, participants must earn 150 percent or less than poverty level and plan to use the bicycle primarily to commute to work, go to job interviews or do other job search activities. For example, an individual living alone could earn no more than $16,755 to be eligible, according to 2012 federal poverty guidelines. Many of the participants don't have vehicles, but some do and simply can't afford repairs, insurance or gas. Fuel costs averaged about $4.29 per gallon in Washington as of June 2, according to AAA.

That's the case for Brush Prairie resident Charles Miller, 47, who attended a June 1 training. Miller has been taking C-Tran using bus passes from Goodwill Job Connection to visit computer labs and go to job interviews because he can't afford fuel and insurance.

"The main thing the bike will do is give me freedom and flexibility in my schedule," Miller said. "For me, it's to exercise, too. It kills two birds with one stone. I get to exercise and to be where I need to be."

Training required

Before recipients receive their bike, they are required to undergo a six-hour bicycle training, held one Saturday a month. The training covers traffic laws, safety precautions, fitting a bike and helmet, maintenance, changing a flat tire and planning a route. It concludes with a 30-minute group bike ride around Hazel Dell.

During the class, Kelly touches on common misconceptions, including that it's safer to ride on a sidewalk.

"There's no law against riding on the sidewalk; it's just not recommended," Kelly said. "Part of it is, when you're on the sidewalk, you are too far out of the view of the vehicle." That's a problem when the bicyclist crosses intersections. A vehicle might turn without realizing the bicycle is there, Kelly said.

In the program's first year of operation, HSC kept it mostly under wraps in order to grow it slowly, Jacobson said. Organizers wanted to make sure they had fine-tuned the screening and training processes for applicants before seeking any publicity.

Despite its low profile, the

program received a 2011 "Wall of Fame Honoree" award from the transportation department.

Now, the organization is prepared to expand the program, hopefully with the help of the community, said Maggie Lund, HSC employment transportation coordinator. HSC relies on bike donations to operate the program but doesn't have enough bikes for a waiting list of about 20 people who are qualified for the program, Lund said. It needs donations of adult-size bikes, especially large adult bikes, she said.

"We do struggle with having enough bikes that will fit people," Jacobson said. "Until we get people through the screening process, we don't know if they need a larger bike or a smaller bike."

Donated bikes are kept at Bad Monkey Bikes Board & Skate in downtown Vancouver. The bike repair shop hosts a bicycle donation operation and provides free labor and discounted parts to fix up bikes for Bike to Work participants, said owner Wade Leckie. Any bike donations for the Bike to Work program should be dropped off at the shop, Leckie said.

After bikes are fixed up, Bad Monkey gives each participant a bike fitting before the training and then drops the bikes off at the HSC office, 201 N.E. 73rd St., for the day of training.

Clark County Sheriff's Office donates helmets for the program, Bad Monkey donates a patch kit and tube, and individuals also have made contributions of locks and other items, Lund said.

Participants ride the bikes away at the end of the class.

"It really gives you confidence and hope of getting a job," said Vancouver resident Mike Jackson, 55. "It was kind of like Christmas. I never had a bike that shifted right."

For information about participation or donations, call 360-258-2103.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Trends;http://facebook.com/ColTrends;paris.achen@columbian.com.