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One New California Bicycle Friendly University: S.F. State

Nolen Brown, fixing bike at right, sets up an outreach table for Power to the Pedal on the S.F. State campus. Photo by Nick Kordesch.

Among the 51 new and renewing League of American Bicyclists Bicycle Friendly Universities nationwide, there is only one in California: San Francisco State University, which was just awarded Bronze Level status.

This is the first time S.F. State got the award, and Nolen Brown, who worked on the application, said, “We would have been very disappointed if we'd gotten anything better than bronze.”

That's because the bikeability of S.F. State kind of sucks, despite the campus being located in a city with a strong bike culture.

“S.F. State is kind of an island to commute to,” said Brown. “You have to swim across some treacherous channels” from whichever direction you arrive. Almost all the surrounding streets are wide, multi-lane roads with heavy, fast traffic. Plenty of it is generated by the campus, which is largely a commuter school. But there are also students living on campus, and they need to cross those same wide streets to get to, for example, the market.

Brown, who works part time as the Bicycle Outreach Student Assistant, took on the Bicycle Friendly University application as a summer project under the guidance of Nick Kordesch, a staff member in the Office of Sustainability in the campus Planning and Design department.

“We thought it would be a good way to inventory the school's bicycle resources,” said Brown. Going through the application process not only helped identify and articulate what bike facilities the campus already has, but also showed them “where we need to go next, and where we need to improve.”

Kordesch said the process provided them with “a really handy checklist.”

The checklist includes presenting it to the campus Sustainability Committee and making sure bikes are incorporated into the upcoming Master Plan update. Improving conditions on surrounding streets and connections to transit are not under the control of campus, but they are also important elements. Students and faculty at SFSU have already been working on exploring ideas about how to make getting from BART to the campus easier by bike.

But there are other, more immediate things that the campus and advocates can do to help get S.F. State's future Bicycle Friendly University status rise above bronze. Before the application process, said Brown, “We didn't realize how important it is to reach out to groups that wouldn't cycle otherwise. We want to be more proactive about that.”

“Cycling can be kind of a subculture and it doesn't have the most friendly front,” said Brown. “Once you're in it, it's a great community, and people are very, very helpful.” But outsiders may not think about bike riding as a transportation option for them.

Brown has been reaching out to students as part of his job managing the Bike Barn on campus. But the facility is tucked away in a parking garage. Even with a big metal sign, Brown calls it “the well-hidden anchor of the bike community on campus.” Offering free pour-over Bicycle Coffee didn't even get people excited, to Brown's mystification. “But once students find it, they use it,” he said.

The Bike Barn and Power to the Pedal, a bike outreach program run by Brown, are probably the reasons S.F. State got a Bronze-level award. “The Bike Barn has an attendant, and you can safely leave your bike,” said Brown. “We have a workshop, tools, bike lube, cleaning materials.” The services are free to students.

“Just the other day someone came in with a crumpled wheel—his bike had been hit by a car and he had zero dollars to fix it,” said Brown. “We made it work.”

Brown plans to work on promoting the services better. He currently sets up a stand at the campus farmer's market, offering free bike tuneups and advice, but he wants to do more. Organizing casual group rides and holding workshops and classes on things like how to change a flat tire or creative ways to use old bike tubes are on his list.

But the longer term planning, focusing on better, safer infrastructure, is beyond the reach of a student assistant. “I'm going to graduate,” said Brown. “All I can do is make suggestions about preferred routes. The long-term planning is way less tangible for a short-term student job.”

There are signs that might change. Brown is the first student assistant for bike outreach hired by the university under the umbrella of the facilities department; before that the students who ran Power to the Pedal were hired by the Associated Students.

The campus Master Plan is about to undergo a revision, and the Planning and Development department is increasingly interested in active transportation and sustainability.

The Bronze level achievement—Brown has already been interviewed by the campus newspaper and alumni newsletters—may help. “We can already tell that it's been a positive story here,” said Kordesch. “We have a lot of pieces of a good bicycle culture, and [Brown] is trying to bring them together.”

S.F. State joins a distinguished group of universities that have already won Bicycle Friendly status. There are many in California (see below), but there could—should—be more. Universities are uniquely suited for bicycle-friendliness, with a high density of destinations, layouts that lend themselves to compact forms of transportation, and a population of young adults who prefer to drive less.

S.F. State, with a small effort and the attention of a part-time student assistant, achieved Bronze level status and has a list of ideas for improving its bike friendly status.

What about the college campuses near you? Are they bike friendly?

Here are the current Bicycle Friendly Universities in California:

Platinum level

    • Stanford
    • UC Davis

Gold level

    • UC Irvine
    • UC Santa Barbara

Silver level

    • CSU Long Beach
    • UC Berkeley
    • UCLA
    • UC Santa Cruz

Bronze level

    • CA Institute of Technology
    • CSU Bakersfield
    • Pomona College
    • Santa Monica College
    • University of San Diego

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