Courtesy Shereef Moustafa
After 20 years without one, Melissa Balmer bought herself a bike because it was just too expensive to own a car. Two-and-a-half years later, Balmer is directing the Women on Bikes Southern California (WOBSoCal) initiative in Long Beach. In less than six months, WOBSoCal has grabbed media attention and has been endorsed by cycling advocacy groups, such as BikePortland.org.
Balmer founded WOBSoCal because of stories just like hers. She recalls her own tentative return to cycling: “I was afraid I would ride too far and then be too tired to get back; then I’d feel humiliated.” Once she finally relented, her first ride was in a Christmas parade, “which was a great seduction.” Her fears were instantly replaced by her newfound passion.
“Whether you have to or want to choose a bike for transportation, we want to celebrate it,” said Balmer. Not only is biking fun, it is also healthy, convenient and affordable; so why aren’t more women riding?
Women Leading Women
When Balmer learned that only three women in Southern California are currently League of America Certified Bike Safety Instructors (LCIs) and they may or may not be teaching, she recognized an opportunity to get more women leading other women.
Candidates in the LCI course, Traffic Skills 101, invest a full weekend of their time, “which doesn’t always work for people who have to work on weekends,” lamented Balmer. That’s why WOBSoCal wants to design shorter training sessions that are scattered throughout the city – currently LCI training takes place at the edge of the city and it is difficult to get to without a car.
This year, WOBSoCal is piloting a scholarship program to have 12 women trained as LCIs. The team at WOBSoCal is also looking into developing shorter training sessions that are bilingual – nearly 40 percent of the Long Beach population speaks Spanish. The long-term plan is to have their new LCIs lead their own LCI training sessions at other locations in Long Beach. Funding for the scholarship program is halfway to its goal and Balmer expects fundraising for such programs will become easier as health agencies realize that integrating safe cycling into daily activities helps combat what she terms “sedentary diseases.”
WOBSoCal’s Secret to Success
The secret to WOBSoCal’s success in Long Beach: Ever-present parking pressures, rising gas prices, the city’s young population and North America’s first Bike Friendly Business Districts.
Conceptualized by Charlie Gandy, a nationally recognized community planner, and promoted by Vice Mayor, Dr. Suja Lowenthal (who is also Momentum’s BikeStyle model in issue 56), the Bike Friendly Business Districts of Bixby Knolls, Cambodia Town, the East Village Arts District and 4th Street Retro Row have new infrastructure and host community events geared toward cycling. And the local merchants are profiting. Being bike-friendly is drawing in new customers and increasing sales, in part because the streets are safer and the program reduces the parking issues endemic to one of the highest density cities in the US.
One more bit of luck that has helped WOBSoCal succeed: Apparently people search for the term “women on bikes,” which puts them at the top of search engine lists, just behind the Women on Bikes in Portland, OR. Balmer wants to share that luck. “If this sparks an idea in you, please go ahead and use this kind of idea, and we’ll share whatever tools are working for us.” Just as Cycle Chic – based in Copenhagen – inspired WOBSoCal, WOBSoCal wants to inspire others. “Part of the big draw for us is being a part of the social media conversation.”
Betsy Agar has pedaled anything but a straight path! Although trained as a civil engineer, she found her passion in words rather than formulas. So, in 2006 she retired her engineering stamp in favor of freelance writing. Her pursuit of sustainable living drives her cycling interests, so she has not only been Momentum’s intern editor, but also a writer for WE Canada, a campaign directed at shaping Canada’s role in addressing climate change.
A couple of points in this story need clarification. There are presently 20 female League Certified Instructors in Southern California. And April Economides developed and ran the Bike Friendly Business Districts program for Long Beach.