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Mayor Ralph Becker calls the city a “cycling mecca”.
By Elizabeth Obreza Hurst
The 19th century Mormon prophet Brigham Young instructed the builders of Salt Lake City to make the roads wide enough to allow horse-drawn carts to make U-turns. Whether or not you believe in prophets, you have to wonder whether he sensed how modern cyclists would struggle to share the road with motorists. Just as Young was concerned with the future of transportation in Salt Lake City, the city’s modern leaders foresee the necessity of improving the city’s cycling infrastructure.
Parked outside the Salt Lake City Hall you can often find mayor Ralph Becker’s well-loved commuter bike. Becker, a long-time commuter cyclist, has increased the cycling infrastructure budget from $50,000 to $500,000 to double the city’s 60 miles of bike lanes over the next several years. He and his Bicycle Advisory Committee have put the wheels in motion to establish a bicycle transit center at the Intermodal Hub in downtown Salt Lake City, with the hope of installing a bike share program.
Salt Lake City council member Luke Garrott recently organized the city’s first Bike Summit, featuring speakers mayor Becker and Gary Sjoquist, director of government relations for Bikes Belong. Four panels and 50 people strong, this inaugural bike summit was an impressive start to what will become an annual opportunity to continue the dialogue about cycling in Salt Lake City.
Garrott, a commuter cyclist who doesn’t own a car, spearheaded the Bike Summit to give cyclists the opportunity to meet and have policy-informing conversations about cycling infrastructure, ordinances, enforcement and economic development.
Becker noticed the need for a focus on cycling during his 2008 mayoral campaign. “I was surprised and encouraged to find that it was such a prominent issue for people in Salt Lake City,” he said. Citizens would tell him from their doorsteps that, “they would like to cycle more if not for concerns about their safety on the streets.” He has since made improvements in cycling infrastructure one of his top priorities.
Salt Lake City holds 11th place overall among US cities for its bicycle friendliness, according to the League of American Bicyclists, and is a “cycling mecca,” according to Becker. He said, “We have some incredible trails that go beyond the commuter population, that also serve great outdoor recreation experiences as well.”
Most Salt Lake City cyclists say the wide and level streets make the city easier and safer to ride than many US cities and their grid-like organization makes them relatively easy to navigate without a map. The addresses indicate how far – by number of blocks – each location is from the city center. The city also has moderate weather, with four distinct seasons making for a temperate riding climate.
Lindsey Howard, a local cyclist, says that the city is rideable in all seasons. “It is a common sight to see cyclists riding around Salt Lake in the spring, summer and fall. In the winter, there’s a lot of solidarity between cyclists. On most of my winter rides, if I was riding in the same direction as someone else, we’d tend to ride together for a few blocks and chat about bikes, fenders or commuting.”
When Howard isn’t commuting, she volunteers as a bike mechanic at the Women’s Only Night at the Salt Lake City Bicycle Collective. “Women who attend have expressed that they feel much more comfortable in a women-only environment,” Howard said. “There’s been a lot of interest expressed by women here about learning to be mechanics beyond just maintaining their own bikes.”
Tara McKee, a long-time Salt Lake City resident and commuter cyclist thinks that women cyclists, who are often more concerned about their safety, are the true measure of the city’s success as a cycling town.
Model Julie in the Cycle Style show at the Gallivan Center in Salt Lake City. Photograph by Jesse Keller
“When you see a number of female cyclists riding their bikes downtown, stopping at a bistro for lunch, going shopping or just commuting to work, then you know you have a safe, comfortable city, a real measurement of a healthy cycling environment.” McKee organized Salt Lake City’s first bicycle fashion show last May to model different bicycle and clothing options available to men, women and youth.
Salt Lake City’s commuter cycling community does all it can to embrace ?and support local novices and experts. Cyclists like Cory “Zed” Bailey said, “I felt welcome in the cycling community. They don’t care about your background. It’s a cohesive community.”
Bailey, the administrator of Saltcycle.com and contact for the local Critical Mass, has spent the last several years in Salt Lake City trying to help all current and aspiring cyclists feel welcome and connected to the cycling scene. Saltcycle.com is Salt Lake City’s online bicycling community that promotes the local cycling culture by sharing event information, creating dialog and encouraging individual contributions.
The web forum in conjunction with the SLC Bicycle Co. hosted the first Gallery Roll in May 2009 to give cyclists the opportunity to share their experiences of Salt Lake City’s bicycle culture through art. All contributing artists donated 40 to 90 percent of the proceeds of their sales to support the cycling community through non-profit organizations such as the Utah Bicycle Coalition, Salt Lake City’s Bicycle Advisory Committee and Salt Lake City Bicycle Collective.
“Salt Lake is very much a community,” said Jonathan Morrison, Executive Director of the Salt Lake City Bicycle Collective (SLCBC) and New York native. “We call it ‘Small Lake City’ because you often bump into lots of the same people. It has a small town feel and bicycle culture, events like alley cat races and bike film festivals.”
The SLCBC’s goal is to “get more butts on bikes,” Morrison said. It aims to do so by educating and motivating the rising generation of cyclists. Its Earn a Bike program gives bikes to young riders. “The trick is that they have to rip the bike apart and put it back together,” Morrison said. “They might not be pro, but they are confident enough to try.” More than 100 children per year earn a bike through the SLCBC program.
The SLCBC also offers bike safety and maintenance classes so participants who earn bikes can learn how to incorporate them into their lives. Morrison says a lot of the kids come back and have become volunteers at the community bike shop and with the youth programs. The collective also gives bikes to people who can’t afford them. They can volunteer at the shop to earn a bike. “We never turn away anyone because of lack of funds,” Morrison said.
The local cycling community is like this shop, made up of simple and unassuming people with incredible amounts of enthusiasm for their lifestyle and sport; some are cycling advocates, others make a few quiet journeys to the store and back while others still ride their bikes out of necessity. All contribute to the cohesive cycling community that Salt Lake City supports.