Riding bicycles for fun, fitness, and quick errands around the neighborhood is an idea embraced by thousands in San Diego’s hospitable climate. But to volunteer to abandon the personal automobile at all times in the midst of Southern California’s car-centric culture ... that’s a daunting proposition.
According to a 2013 study published by the League of American Bicyclists, just over 6900 San Diegans rely on their bikes as a primary form of transportation. While that’s just 1.1 percent of the local workforce, the per-capita numbers are the third-best in cities with a population in excess of 1 million, besting Los Angeles and New York City.
In the midst of September’s Tour de Fat stop in San Diego, an annual festival celebrating bikes and beer, Colorado-based brewer New Belgium (famous for its Fat Tire ale and namesake cruiser bicycle that adorns the bottle’s label) challenges one person at each of ten tour stops to trade in the keys to their car for a new bike, gear, and a pledge to go a full year without a car.
“I was a pretty avid biker before — I was in Normal Heights, which is a pretty cool part of town to travel by bike,” says Hutton Marshall, who took the challenge in 2014, swapping a 2000 Honda Civic he’d owned since his teenage years for the Surly Long Haul Trucker, a $1600 road bike.
Indeed, most of the bike traders I talked with were already avid recreational cyclists before participating in the program; they’re often drawn from the ranks of local cyclist advocacy groups like the San Diego County Bike Coalition, which receives the lion’s share of more than $40,000 that the Tour de Fat raises each year for promoting two-wheeled interests in the region.
“I’ve ridden recreationally, as part of training for triathlons, but never to commute. It’s always been in large groups of other cyclists, usually on the weekends,” says Maria Olivas, coalition board secretary and the program’s newest participant, who agreed to turn over her 2001 Hyundai in September.
Olivas said she first started thinking about signing up for the challenge in 2014. “My husband didn’t think I was ready. I kind of hassled him for the whole year about it. In the end I needed his support to give me the final push to go for it.”
Before she received her bike, which she had custom-built from a Soma touring frameset, Olivas began making the daily trek, roughly six miles one way from her home in Bay Park to work in the Scripps Mercy Hospital emergency room in Hillcrest.
“The car has just been sitting on the street,” Olivas says, a few weeks after the tour. “I’m sure my neighbors hate me, but I’m just, like, ‘I don’t need this thing anymore,’ and in a way it’s empowering.”
How has going without a car shaken up her routine?
“It can take an hour or more to get where you’re headed,” continues Olivas. “Everything has to be planned out ahead of time; there’s less room to plan things last-minute.”
On her blog, which traders are encouraged to update frequently as one of several forms of community outreach, Olivas celebrates small victories (mounting pizza boxes to a rear rack) and laments the difficulties of carrying large items such as groceries or a surfboard for any considerable distance (future purchases: front pannier racks and a side-mounted board carrier).
While commutes from one central neighborhood to another can seem challenging enough, Tom Landre decided in 2013 to take on what might in comparison seem to be a Herculean feat: a 20-mile one-way commute from Eastlake to his job as bicycle coordinator with the City of San Diego. “When I first moved to San Diego, I was riding my bike to work and pretty much everywhere — I didn’t even own a car,” Landre says. “But then I moved further out and started commuting by car from Eastlake to downtown. My idea with the bike trade was to get a bike with electric assist.”
“When it worked, it worked great,” Landre says of an electric bike that replaced the Toyota Camry in his garage. “You can ride them as a regular bicycle, but there’s also a setting that gives you a boost in getting up a hill or an option to just turn the throttle and go.”
Battery issues plagued Landre from the start, though he kept pedaling through adversity.
“San Diego has produced some of our best bike traders ever,” boasts Matt Kowal, ringleader of the Tour de Fat circus as it travels across the country, making ten stops during the summer in locales ranging from Washington DC to Tempe, Arizona.
The festival itself, which Kowal has been a part of for the past 11 years, draws thousands of cycling enthusiasts to Golden Hill Park, where festivities include an offbeat costumed parade, kids’ obstacle course, and low-budget carnival attractions — oversized kaleidoscopes and Jenga bricks along with a “bike pit” where attendees attempt to successfully pilot a hodge-podge assortment of pedal-powered contraptions loosely resembling bicycles. On the main stage, musical acts take turns with vaudeville performances and crowd-interaction segments, many featuring an amped-up Kowal portraying one of a handful of elaborately costumed characters.
I ask Kowal to expand on the origins of the bike-trade portion of the event, which has been part of the festivities for nine years and recently selected its 100th participant at a tour stop in Denver earlier this year.
“One day on a ride along the McKenzie River Trail [a popular mountain biking destination in central Oregon] we were talking about those programs that get people to trade in guns for cash, and we were, like, ‘What if we were to get people to trade in their cars for bikes?’ So we went to New Belgium and they jumped at it.
“For some of the first trades we had the car hoisted up on a rope. We got a gospel choir, and I got them singing Stevie Wonder’s ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,’ while the bike would descend on angel wings. It’s come a long way.”
The allure of $2200 to spend on a custom bike seems like it might be enough to entice a lot of would-be traders to enter the contest on a whim, offering up a car that’s worth considerably less in order to cash in despite an unlikelihood of really being able to commit to a year car-free. But Kowal believes the screening process and the gravity of the challenge actually keeps the number of entrants to a minimum.
“I’ll get twice as many ‘nibbles’ as I’ll get full applications with folks that submit a video in every city,” Kowal tells me. “We had two applicants here this year. We picked Maria Olivas, but the other candidate looked great as well.
“I put together a council with the nonprofits that are going to benefit from the vehicle being sold for charity. If somebody has already made the trade in their life and they’re not really relying much on a car already, they’re probably not the best candidate. We’re looking for someone who is truly making a lifestyle change. There’s a balance of ‘how much change is this going to make in someone’s life?’ and ‘how good are they going to be at spreading the word about cycling throughout the year?’”
Being picked as a winner means more than just swearing off cars for a year.
“I think of the bike being like a prism — the trader is a beam of light going in, and from that they emit a rainbow,” Kowal continues.
To that end, traders use their status to take on the role of evangelists spreading the appeal of bike culture in the community. While maintaining an active blog is part of this, winners are expected to commit to doing more to spread the two-wheeled gospel throughout the community.
“They can join a nonprofit, go volunteer with kids at schools...if they want to blog about it, great,” says Kowal. “A trader could make a sandwich board for the back of their bike and ride it around, whatever. We have a minimum commitment that they share their experiences weekly online, but beyond that, how they spread the word is up to them.”
Aside from internet proselytizing, many traders end up getting involved with local cycling advocacy groups such as the Coalition, BikeSD, or the San Diego Mountain Biking Association, another Tour de Fat partner.
“We do a lot of trail work — we’re opening up some new trails in the Black Mountain Preserve and a bike park in Valley Center,” says Alison Liebrecht, a volunteer with the Mountain Biking Association and recipient of a trade bike in 2011. “It’s a progressive skills park — it’ll give a challenge to someone who’s really familiar with riding but also someone who’s just hopped on a bike and wants a safe place to go to test out their skills.”
“You want to walk the walk,” Liebrecht says in response to a question about what motivated her to apply for the trade. “But initially, I balked at the idea. I didn’t want people to think that because I’m involved in the Mountain Biking Association and putting on the Tour to think, Oh, she just got it because she’s involved. That wasn’t the case — I had to apply and sit for an interview where they grilled me on what I could do as far as being an advocate.”
A year of riding around San Diego, Liebrecht says, “made me a lot more comfortable in my own town, more confident navigating. It’s really empowering; once you learn the ins and outs of getting around town, you take great pride in having this extra knowledge base.”
While optimistic about cycling’s future in San Diego, the traders say there have been some bumps in the road.
“The other day somebody yelled at me, and it was a really weird experience,” says Olivas. “You sometimes get it from people mumbling whatever as they drive by, but this guy was in the middle of the street with another car, just talking to the driver of the vehicle. I saw him and went around him, and he goes, ‘You stupid bicycle bitch! You’re damned everywhere!’ That totally threw me off track. If it wasn’t for the extra mile or two I had to ride to get to work, where I spend the night in a busy ER, I think it would have really stuck with me longer.”
“I had a few close calls, especially in Mission Valley. Overall, what it really woke me up to was that I wasn’t the only person riding around the neighborhood every day,” says Marshall. “Lots of these other people didn’t have the luxury of giving up a car and being gifted with a $2200 bike for it, and they’re still out there braving the streets, sometimes not by choice but because they can’t afford the economics of a car.”
Liebrecht says she was in the middle of a job search when she agreed to make the trade, which concerned some of her potential employers.
“I did initially in interviews have trouble with [the bike trade], because I had companies in Sorrento Valley or wherever saying, ‘We love you, but you wouldn’t be able to use the facilities for showers or to lock up your bike.’ And at that point this was my only transportation. I think it’s a lot easier now and employers are becoming more flexible.”
She eventually found a job in Old Town, making for a reasonable four-mile commute from her Mission Hills home.
Given their challenges, it seems remarkable that, aside from Marshall (who moved to Costa Rica to pursue his writing career), all of the traders stayed on their bikes for the full year and beyond.
Landre eventually sold the electric bike but has a three-speed he still rides a few miles from his Eastlake home to meet up with a van pool in to work. Liebrecht continued cycling to the office until her firm moved to Mission Valley, where she sometimes still ventures but has purchased an electric vehicle to get around when she can’t take her bike. Olivas remains committed several months in to her year despite the theft of a seat off her old bike while she was on the job. (She mentions that cycling is so popular at her hospital that a waiting list to get one of the bike lockers is several years long.)
The trade participants each signed off with words of encouragement and advice for anyone considering making the transition to two wheels.
“The system is getting better — three or four years ago we didn’t have buffered bike lanes, we didn’t have green treatments, sharrows, bike share. A lot of changes for the better are going on right now,” says Landre. “Every day you meet people, you see things, you stop into stores you otherwise wouldn’t have seen. Neighborhoods just come alive in a different way when you’re moving through them at a slower pace.”
“Establish a relationship with a bike shop close to home. Without a car to bring your bike in if you have problems, it can be quite a hassle,” advises Hutton. “Look into car-sharing programs like Car2Go for those trips too long for a bike and to places without public transportation in place. I really think there’s going to be a better environment for this year’s trader and people that pick up riding going forward. There are a lot of great things happening with bike infrastructure in San Diego right now.”
“Get something that will fit your needs — you don’t need some fancy-schmancy bike, but if your commute is going to be a long one, keep that in mind,” Liebrecht adds. “Plan. Plan, plan, plan. Get what you need planned out the day before, and let people know what you’re doing.
“What’s really neat about biking is it slows things down a bit. It’s made me a much more organized person — it really helped me realize that I can say no to things sometimes; I can prioritize. I mean, if I take one thing on it means I’m going to have to pass on something else because I won’t be able to hit all these different locations at one time. It’s a great experience. If you look at it with a positive light there’s so much you’ll learn. I’ve had the best experience, and I think anyone can, too.”