Bicycle paths will abound in Utopia, according to H. G. Wells. Bike paths abound in Salt Lake City, too. There's a bike lane on just about every street and countless bike-friendly parks. But Salt Lake City isn't quite the Utopia Wells envisioned. Even with all the paths, roads fill with cars during rush hour. The Bicycle Ambassadors aim to change that.
The Ambassadors, a Salt Lake County program, builds a team of experienced cyclists to mentor commuters just starting out by offering one-on-one or group workshops to teach newcomers the rules of the bike road, help them choose a route to bike and advise them on equipment maintenance. Ambassadors will even escort first-time commuters who are nervous.
Jack Lasley, the Bike Ambassadors program coordinator, has been biking exclusively for seven years and no longer owns a car.
"My pitch is I used to dread commuting," Lasley said. "The drive to work was the worst part of my day. When I switched [driving] with bicycling, it became the best part of my day."
For people who see bicycle commuting as dangerous, there are plenty of ways to alleviate the dangers.
"Try it with a friend a few times," said Colin Quinn-Hurst, who works on bike projects for the Salt Lake City transportation division. "Scout out a good route. There are plenty of neighborhood streets people don't have to be afraid of."
Salt Lake County modeled its ambassadors program after those in larger cities such as Chicago, Austin, Texas, and Washington D.C, but it is the first program to cover an entire county. Currently, 15 ambassadors cover all of Salt Lake County and offer round-the-clock support to fellow cyclists.
"If we see someone riding without lights in low light," Lasley said, "we will hand out some. We give guidance if we see people riding dangerously."
Salt Lake County renewed its push for bicycling in 2009 to help address air pollution, public health and traffic congestion.
The Bicycle Ambassadors and Salt Lake County are not the only ones reaching out to cyclists.
The Bicycle Collective is part of the effort by providing refurbished bikes and educational programs to those with low incomes through their shops in Salt Lake City, Ogden and Provo. In addition to donating bikes to other outreach programs, the Collective sells refurbished bikes and then uses the money to provide services to the community. So far this year, the Collective reported a 10 percent profit increase in sales in its Salt Lake City shop. Still, the Collective relies mostly on donations. Last year people donated 1,700 bikes to the business to be distributed to the community.
"A lot of them, we give away," said David Davis, executive director of the collective. "And a lot of them we cannibalize and use for parts so people can tune-up their own bikes."
This year, five bicycle enthusiasts, including Lasley from the Ambassadors, Davis from the Collective and Quinn-Hurst from the transit division, teamed to create SLC Bike Party. Bike Party is a county-backed program that hosts monthly family-friendly bike rides around Salt Lake City. Heidi Goedhart from the University of Utah and Tom Millar, a bicycle and pedestrian transportation planner, are the other Bike Party organizers.
Before Bike Party, the only group bike ride available was Critical Mass. During Critical Mass, a large group of bikers set out, but don't always heed stop lights and signs or signal their turns.
"People run red lights, cars are honking," said Goedhart, who has participated in Critical Mass since moving to Salt Lake City in 2008. "It's part of the experience, but it's not conducive for families. There was a need for a group ride for everyone."
The July Bike Party was held on a Friday evening earlier this month. About 50 bikers gathered on the lawn at the Salt Lake City and County Building decked out for the party's 'Merica theme. An America flag attached to the back of Lasley's bike billowed as he rode around the block with a bullhorn calling for passersby to join. The Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" blared from an amp strapped to Goedhart's bike as she weaved red, white and blue streamers through the spokes of her wheels.
Just after 7 p.m., everyone gathered on the steps of the building for a group photo. Finally, they set out for Reservoir Park and a "bike-in" screening of "With My Own Two Wheels," a documentary about the help bicycles provide to people around the world.
For anyone who wants to ride but is a little weary, all five Bike Party founders had the same advice: Give it a chance.
Bike Ambassador Services
Mentorship • Advice on equipment purchases, route planning and first-commute escorts.
Community workshops • Teach basics of maintenance and rules of the road.
Commuter Pit Stops • Provide support along popular bicycle commute routes.
Bike Lane Stewardship • Help to maintain and clean up bike lanes.