Last Sunday’s Síclovía, the mass ride that brought 15,000 people to bicycle, skateboard, and jog down a four-mile stretch of Broadway for four hours while autos were rerouted, was the first SA edition of the international ciclovía movement (Spanish for “bike path”), a fresh-air party celebrating fitness through human-powered transportation. In a town where more than 67 percent of residents are obese or overweight, the City-sponsored focus on exercise was as fresh as the new cooler temps by last week’s weather.
Appropriately, the event came three days after the City Council updated the bicycle/pedestrian master plan and mandated a “complete streets” policy that will require all new road projects to be considered through the lens of all road users — that’s pedestrians, bicyclists, bus riders, and drivers. Plans to extend our 210 miles of bicycle-friendly roads to 1,700 miles by adding bike lanes and shared-use paths still needs to be ironed out, and adequate funding to fulfill the new policies is yet to be obtained. And while the Council sent VIA back to the drawing board on an ambitious rail plan, Mayor Castro and the Council voiced support for rail. A mixed-transportation New Urbanism paradise will be hashed out in the details.
And while it’s unlikely many of Síclovía’s organizers have ever heard of it, it’s unlikely the event would have happened without nearly covert community actions like the 2007 San Antonio Bike Gang Summit. Billed as “The First official San Antonio Bike Gang summit since the 1940s,” when SA’s own Bandidos Motorcycle Club organized outlaw biker meets, the 2007 event brought together pedal-bikers in a night ride that culminated with a screening of the art-house film “Pandora’s Bike” on the banks of the San Antonio River Tunnel Inlet, now the site of the Pearl Brewery complex. Organized by downtown artist/provocateurs Justin Parr and Mark Jones, the ride definitely had a political-art spin, with participants dressed as their favorite felons in wry protest of the negative view that motorists often have of bicycle riders as rude, crude, and a general nuisance on city streets. The ride happened twice, but more importantly, it helped bring the spirit of the Critical Mass movement to San Antonio.
Critical Mass rides began in San Francisco in 1992, and have now spread to over 300 cities worldwide, where they are often held on the last Friday of the month. The term comes from the Chinese practice of bunching approaching bicycle riders at an intersection until they have reached a large enough number to fill the lanes with bikes, a critical mass that cars won’t mess with. It’s a fitting description of the street presence that bicyclists must develop to usher in policy change.
The Bike Gang Summit was the first of many open-participation rides organized by the Downtown Highlife Bicycle Club, and five years later they’re still riding. Jones ran the informal group until med school started demanding more of his time; Tito Bradshaw, who spoke with the Current before last Friday’s monthly ride, now heads up Highlife.
“We meet monthly in front of the Alamo at 9 p.m, and take off at 9:30,” Bradshaw said outside Tucker’s Kozy Korner on the Eastside. The rides are free, and open to anyone. Riders on multi-speed road bikes are joined by BMX dirt racers, mountain bikes, and fixies, the often brake-less single-speed bikes popularized by bicycle messengers. There are usually a few cruisers, too, low-slung and custom. “We visit art galleries, anything local, independently owned, perhaps a park or a hidden location,” Bradshaw said. Last Friday’s plans were to go up Blanco past Hildebrand to the Texas Ice House, then to Alamo Heights “riding on some nice curvy roads ... a good 15-20 mile venture.” Bradshaw stresses that Highlife’s monthly ride is not “official Critical Mass.” They do share the same goal, however, “which is making people aware that there are bikes on the road.”
A few years ago, it wasn’t socially acceptable to ride a bicycle here in SA, Bradshaw said. (“This is the South. You’ve got a vehicle, land, and you’re supposed to drive.”) But, he said, things are changing. “A few years ago it was just a small core group of 15 guys on fixed gears, and now there are hundreds and hundreds of bikes. Once people saw us riding up and down Broadway, they realized that you can get somewhere safe on the bike lanes. It’s like, ‘Hey if these guys can do it, we can do it, too.’”
On a last-Friday ride you might meet riders from the many bicycle clubs in town, like Slow and Low San Antonio, known as SALSA, or the ladies of the High Heel Bicycle Club (HHBC). If you’re lucky, you might meet a rider on a chrome-kustom from the famous Lone Star Lords Motor Club, a lowrider car club that floats an armada of bikes, too. With most of the clubs, it’s a face-to-face meet to get involved, though you can find info for Highlife, SALSA, and HHBC on Facebook.
SALSA organizes two all-ages rides each month, second Saturday and last Sunday, often riding in Southtown down the river towards the Missions. They also do an adults-only First Friday ride that starts at the Blue Star complex. HHBC was started in 2008 by Melissa Diaz, and yes, it’s a ladies club. Her husband, Henry Parilla, is the full-time bike mechanic at SA Cycle near Brackenridge High School who also runs the SA chapter of Frankenbike, a monthly swap meet that attracts 15-20 venders and a couple hundred potential buyers. Parts, frames, and complete bikes are for sale, and there’s no fee for sellers. The next swap gathers at 10 a.m. Saturday, October 8, at The Korova (107 E Martin St). Like the last-Friday ride, Frankenbike attracts a diverse group of bicycle aficionados, and is not only a cheap way to get on the road but a good intro to riders with experience. Upcoming swap meet dates are posted at sanantonio.frankenbike.net.
Many bike shops and tour companies offer guided rides that provide a tour guide and bicycle for about $50, but it’s the free community-based events that are most effective in spreading the two-wheel cause. The Blue Star Growlers (on Facebook at DTSApolo) is a hard-court bicycle polo club that meets at 7 p.m. Thursdays and Sundays at the concrete slab behind the parking lot at La Tuna before riding out to play at a nearby empty lot. The game is a three-on-three pick-up rotation, with teams chosen by throwing polo mallets in the air to see which side of a line they fall on.
And then there’s racing. Fixed-gear bicycles may be a trend-setting bike today, but they were developed by road racing teams over 100 years ago. In San Antonio on Wheels, a history of transportation in SA written by Hugh Hemphill, the director of the Texas Transportation Museum, a section on bicycles in SA recounts the story of the Independent Five, whose motto was “Keep in Front.” They competed on the Texas bicycle racing circuit in the 1890s on Nationals, an extremely light bike that was stripped of extras like brakes, gears, and the free-wheeling mechanism. The fixie is still in use on the banked ovals of velodromes and as a work bike by bicycle messengers. They’re definitely not for amateurs, though. Try stopping in traffic by dragging your foot on the ground and you’re likely to soar right through a busy intersection. The fixie race par-excellance is the Alley Cat. Like the bike, it’s part of bike messenger culture.
When Sergio Hernandez came back to town in 2005 after two years as a bike messenger in Chicago to work as a tech at the Blue Star Bicycle Company, he brought his Alley Cat attitude with him. “In Chicago and New York, the bike messengers get together and see who’s the best in the city,” Hernandez said a few weeks ago at La Tuna. “But it’s not like necessarily the fastest rider who wins. It’s more like, ‘Do you know where this little place is? Do you know about this secret alley to get you across here?’ and that’s the tricky thing about it.” Unlike road races that are run on set courses, in Alley Cats the riders are required to pass by a number of checkpoints before reaching a final goal. How they get there is their business. They’ve been staged in SA before, and may be again. Though they have the deserved rep of being risky, the emphasis is usually, believe it or not, on safety.
“Here in SA we wanted to show people, ‘OK, you’ve been riding your bike around town fixed up ready to go, but do you know where you’re going?’ If you’re on your bike and you don’t, you’re going to get hurt. Something bad is going to happen to you.”
As an ex-messenger, Hernandez is a bit critical of some of the rides around town. “There’s a group of them riding out to the Flying Saucer at night, so they choose to ride down Fredericksburg because it’s a straight shot, but Fred is dark as shit and people are driving 50 miles an hour.” He’s talking about the Monday night Highlife ride. “I’ve tried to go on these rides with them and kind of pull out in front and show them little moves. Three or four riders can pick up stuff from you, but a big group of people is just wanting to burn through every light, no matter.”
Safety, and the image of biking, is an issue that also concerns James Odom, SA’s only bicycle messenger. With courier chops honed in Portland and Austin, Odom has been the sole rider for San Antonio’s Dependable Express since June.
Bike messengers, and the courier business in general, have taken a beating this recession — partly due to advances in signature technology in email, but the scruffy courier image hasn’t helped, either. For that reason, Odom rides clean-cut, like “a UPS guy, but in a red shirt,” he says.
Odom says he can outrun the car messengers he competes against downtown. Most of his customers are in the legal business, which still demands hard-copy documents. Before noon, he often makes 15 trips to the courthouse, taking as little as four minutes to make a run. “I was talking to one of our car drivers today, and it takes him 20 minutes to get 12 blocks around downtown. I can get there and back in 10 or less,” Odom said. Asked what part of town is the safest for a non-professional rider, he replied, “If you’re skill level isn’t that high, I would say suburbs are the safest place. King Williams is a pretty low traffic area. There’s a lot of people who ride bikes in Southtown, but once you start getting more north, going up into Hildebrand, it’s just kind of crazy. There’s two lanes, and then it magically switches to three lanes and people are driving in the middle of the lanes and you’re trying not to die.”
Recently another company started using bikes to deliver, but the Bike Waiter is no competition to Odom’s efforts. Started a little over a week ago by Shane Broussard, the new venture is an outgrowth of the pedicab-pulled billboard business he’s had since 2009. With four riders including himself, the Bike Waiter delivers meals from nine downtown restaurants. They charge a 15 percent gratuity, plus a charge of $3.99 on a minimum order of $20. Their website (thebikewaiter.com) allows customers to order online, a nicety usually restricted to the big chain restaurants but now extended to select owner-operated eateries.
With stops and starts, bikes are coming to SA, and hopefully they’ll stay. Before automobiles arrived at the turn of the century, it was bicyclists who pushed for paved roads in town, and safer roads to rural areas. Today, bicyclists are among the most vocal proponents for development of mass transit, including bike lanes. During Síclovía the Current spoke with Robin Stallings, director of BikeTexas, the state’s largest bicycle education and advocacy organization that delivers bicycle safety instruction to over 20,000 public-school kids every year.
Thanks to last week’s adoption of a complete streets policy San Antonio could move its bronze rating as a bicycle-friendly community to a gold rating in as little as five years, Stalling said. The ratings are given by the League of American Bicyclists, which currently recognizes 14 cities at the gold, or second-highest level for providing bicyclists safety, encouragement, and accommodations. “You’ve got everything in place. At the city level, you’ve got political support for it, but it’s a big jump,” she said. Nationally SA is still on the bottom half of all cities in per-capita spending on bicycling, but at a state level we’re one of only three cities that have adopted both complete streets and a 3-foot passing rule. (Austin and Denton are the other two.) The Safe Passing Ordinance, passed by the state lege in 2009 but vetoed by Governor Rick Perry, cleared SA’s Council in 2010. Like the statewide bill, this local ordinance lists cyclists, pedestrians, motorcyclists, and tow-truck operators as entitled to special consideration when encountered on the roadway by motorists. Another thing we’ve got going for us, said Stallings, is the B-cycle bike-sharing program.
“You wouldn’t look at SA and say ‘What a good city to bike in,’” said Cindi Snell, the director of B-cycle and co-owner of Bike World. “We brought B-cycle in before infrastructure was in place, putting the cart before the horse. Now I think that infrastructure will follow because there is so much enthusiasm.” The first bicycle-sharing program in Texas, B-cycle set up in March and is still growing. The planned addition of another two stations this year will increase the fleet from 160 to 200 bikes. But Snell wants more. “We want to expand to college campuses, and connect lower Broadway with more stations. Then we’ll branch out.” There is already interest from a developer up north at 1604 and I-10.
The bicycles are intended for short trips of 30 minutes or less, the time it takes to go from one docking station to another. With an annual membership cost of only $60, its quite a bargain. In some ways, its better than the gym for exercise. The system employs GPS tracking follows usage online. Riders have the option to translate their exercise by how much carbon was offset by choosing not to drive, the number of calories burned, or the amount of gas saved. Already the fleet of bikes have collectively eaten up 56,000 miles, with over 2.5 million calories burned by users. And San Antonio, that’s something you need to lose.
Enthusiasm for bicycling in SA is high at present, but how our bike lanes will be extended a promised eight-fold is yet to be seen. Many of the wider streets, which could easily forfeit area to new bike lanes also run with faster traffic, while slower narrower streets will require more investment to widen. Eventually, San Antonio, like all cities, will have to learn to live with bicycles. That we’re making an effort at all is due to a relentless few, the two-wheel pioneers who still “Keep in Front,” but leave no rider behind. •