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MODESTO — When people think of bicycle commuting friendly cities, towns like Davis or San Francisco usually jump to mind. While the Central Valley lacks the bike friendliness of those areas, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties’ largest cities are trying to be more hospitable to those choosing a two-wheel mode of transportation.
“Davis is one of the best in the country,” said John Gerling, an avid cyclist in Modesto and president of Gerling Applied Engineering Inc. “Modesto by comparison leaves a lot to be desired.”
Despite the somewhat sparse accommodation made to area cyclists, the cycling community is thriving in the area. Gerling is a member of both the Stanislaus Bike Club, which caters to recreational riders and the Ciclistas Del Valle Cycling Club, which serves riders involved in racing and long endurance rides.
Riders in San Joaquin County have the San Joaquin Bike Coalition and the Stockton Bicycle Club, as well as others to choose from. Lodi had a strong enough biking community to lure a leg of the Amgen Tour of California to the city.
While on any given weekend, dozens of cyclists can be found crisscrossing county roads, getting people to use their bikes in an urban environment can be a challenge.
“Modesto is trying to promote and install more bike lanes,” said Michael Sacuskie, associate engineer with the city of Modesto. “We tried to earn the bike friendly designation. The city wants to go again and see if we can get to the bronze level.”
In 2013, Modesto applied to the League of American Bicyclists to become a “Bike Friendly” city. The city got an honorable mention but was left off the list of 55 California communities that currently have the bike friendly designation. Within that designation are ranks that run from the best, platinum, down to bronze. Currently Davis is the only California city to achieve platinum status.
Modesto’s top current priority is to connect areas that have some bike infrastructure and make it easier and safer to travel from one part of the city to another.
“We have the College Avenue project from Needham to Briggsmore which is a big priority now,” said Sacuskie.
The project would connect the Modesto Junior College campuses and change lane markings on 1.6 miles of College Avenue so there would be one lane in each direction for cars and a center lane for left turns. The remaining space would then create more room for cars parked along the street and a bike lane on each side of the street, including a buffer between the bike lanes and traffic.
“Overall the city has a strategic goal of making the city more livable,” said Sacuskie. “We’re really aiming our efforts at the 60 percenters.”
The “60 percenters” is a term that comes from a study the city of Portland did 15 years ago when that city decided to promote urban bike use, especially bicycle commuting.
“That Portland study that showed 60 percent of those surveyed were interested in riding, but concerned,” he said.
Those concerns were similar to those of riders in the Central Valley. The concerns included the safety of riding in an environment with so many vehicles. It’s something Portland spent decades addressing, resulting in the city now having one of the highest bike use rates in the country.
“Portland spent a lot of time working on that perception,” said Sacuskie. “There are still a lot of our streets that the average rider isn’t going to feel comfortable riding on. Our goal over the next 10-15 years is to change that. It’s not going to be changed overnight, but it is something will happen.”
Changing perceptions is a challenge for those promoting bicycle commuting in San Joaquin’s largest city as well. Stockton riders face issues such as a lack of bike lanes and the idea among riders that riding the streets isn’t safe.
“I think Stockton has a lot of potential to be a bike friendly city,” said the San Joaquin Bike Coalition’s Executive Director Kristine Williams. “It has a lot of neighborhood lanes. We are lacking in bike infrastructure and there are issues with connectivity of the existing bike routes.”
She also said that education among riders and automobile drivers is a key issue in boosting bike use in the city.
“Some people don’t know that you should ride with traffic and not against it,” said Williams. “We are hoping to start an education campaign to educate riders and drivers.”
She said that the geography of Central Valley Cities should make biking more attractive.
“The public terrain is so flat that it should be easy for people to bike fairly short trips,” she said. “A lot of people in Stockton ride out of necessity because that is the way they have to get around. That is the group that we advocate for.”
Stockton is revamping its its master bike plan. The plan includes a network of bike paths and lanes that will be created over time. It classifies elements like Class 1, dedicated paths, to Class 3, which includes bike route signage. The last time the bike plan was updated was in 2007.
Since then, the city has faced an economic meltdown and a bankruptcy that put improving bicycle infrastructure on the back burner.
“I think the plan that we have needs to be revamped,” said the city of Stockton’s Engineering Services Manager Wes Johnson. “The growth patterns have changed, and it’s not the most buildable plan right now.”
He said a top priority is to connect the north and south parts of the city. The city plans to hire a consultant to help rework the plan and find safe routes from the Miracle Mile and University of the Pacific to downtown.
“My opinion is that it’s battling traffic and not having choices as to dedicated bike areas that hurts ridership,” said Johnson. “Having to ride a bike and take your chances against traffic, that keeps people off their bikes.”
To meet the challenge of getting people on their bikes, area cities are promoting events like Bike to Work Day. Stockton’s event will be May 13 followed by Modesto’s event on May 14th. The events are aimed at educating people about the benefits of riding, such as better health, easier parking and less pollution in the air.
“One of the biggest benefits is a healthier citizenry and the benefits of air quality by people getting out of cars,” said Johnson. “Any time we go for grant money, a big part of that is how many cars can we get off the road.”