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City has potential to be next Bike City U.S.A.

Posted: Friday, Jun 21st, 2013

Watsonville High School students Daniel Bonilla (left) and Ulises Cristino replace the brakes of a BMX bike Friday during a bike repair class at the school. (Photos by Erik Chalhoub and Roseann Hernandez/Register-Pajaronian)

WATSONVILLE — Whether it is youth groups biking on the slough trails or the numerous bike clubs that roll through town every weekend, Watsonville has become a hub for cyclists of all ages, but what more can it do to become the next Bike City U.S.A.?

"Watsonville's got excellent facilities," said Theresia Rogerson of the Community Traffic Safety Coalition, which promotes safe, alternative modes of transportation in the county.

"You have the slough trails and bike paths — so many resources for anyone who wants to cycle, even if they don't want to be alongside traffic," Rogerson said.

Cycling around town does pose some challenges — Freedom Boulevard lacks designated bike lanes and the traffic on Main Street make it difficult to share the road safely, but according to those who work to promote alternative forms of transportation in the region, Watsonville has a lot going for it as a bike accessible city.

"There is tons of potential in Watsonville," said Amelia Conlen, director of People Power, which promotes bicycling in the county. "Because it's flat and relatively compact — not super spread out, you can get across town on a bike quite easily."

"Everything is so close in Watsonville, really dense, which makes it really accessible on bikes," said Ben Walker, who is currently teaching a bicycle repair summer school class at Watsonville High School.

Walker would like to see more bike lanes along major roads like Freedom Boulevard but feels the city's on the right track with it's long range master plan to create more trails and bike and pedestrian pathways.

"It's a really good idea," Walker said.

Watsonville currently has seven miles of designated trails, with 29 separate entrances and plans to construct an additional 33 miles of new trails around the city, pending funding, as part of its ambitious Trails and Bicycle Master Plan.

Back in November when the City Council approved the plan, which was funded by an Urban Greening grant, it was heralded as "far-visioned," with one city resident claiming it would make Watsonville one of the most "attractive hiking and cycling centers in the whole Monterey Bay region."

“We would love tourists and locals to use the bike trails,” said Nancy Lockwood, environmental projects manager at the city’s public works department. “It’s fun to bike along the slough.”

During a series of public workshops held last year, a trail between Pajaro Valley High School and Airport Boulevard topped the priority list once funding became available for construction.

Pajaro Valley High students currently have to navigate traffic on Green Valley Road and Harkins Slough Road if they want to walk or bike.

Lockwood said that proposed segment is “complicated” due to private property issues and like the whole plan, is conceptual – “permitting issues abound.”

The Community Traffic Safety Coalition holds workshops on pedestrian and bike safety at local elementary schools and partners with Ecology Action on the Safe Routes to School program, which works with schools and the department of public works in creating safe passages for students to get to and from school.

Rogerson said that while there is still more work to be done to make all of the city's schools pedestrian and bike friendly, Watsonville has made significant improvements.

"Watsonville is doing very well with putting in pedestrian and bike improvements around schools — curb ramps, sidewalks, lights — there have been more comprehensive improvements than in other jurisdictions, for sure," Rogerson said.

Tawn Kennedy, the director of Green Ways to School, a county-wide initiative that engages youth in bike-related activities, including special Bike Tune-Up Days and group bike rides, said he’s noticed an increase in youth taking an interest in cycling over the past five years, spurred in part by the “fixie” or fixed-gear bike craze of two years ago.

“There is a huge amount of interest due to the single speed bikes, but Watsonville is a great town to get around by bike,” Kennedy said, adding that he has seen more bikes in cages at the area high schools where he conducts bike safety presentations.

Kennedy said while the usual teen worries of not wanting to get all sweaty or their hair and clothes mussed or not wanting to feel out of place if they are the only one of their friends riding a bike, combined with the age-old desire to get a car when they reach driving age are still in effect, he has noticed an attitude shift.

“I think this cultural stuff is changing because more people are riding, which is exciting,” Kennedy said.

An ROP Bicycle Repair class at Pajaro Valley High School has proven popular, said Kennedy, referring to it as an “auto shop for bikes,” where students learn bike repair, assembly and maintenance.

At the Watsonville Bike Shack, four new youth volunteers will learn the art of bike repair and maintenance over the summer.

Bike Shack manager and bike mechanic Lorenzo Holguin said to encourage more youth to get on their bikes, everyone should cycle, including adults.

“It’s prevention and it gives youth something to do,” Holguin said. “They learn to become self-sufficient.”

The Watsonville Bike Shack is also a certified helmet fitting site in the county and for the past four months have been showing youth how to fit their helmet properly on their head, and if they don’t already have a helmet, they are given one for free.

It has been illegal for minors to ride a bike without a helmet in the state since 1994. A citation for not wearing a helmet can cost upwards of $200.

Though technically legal, Rogerson said adults should wear their bike helmets, too.

“It is important to have parents wear a helmet as well — to set an example, and you certainly would not want to have a head injury,” Rogerson said.

When asked what the city could do to better facilitate cycling in Watsonville, Rogerson said she would ask the city to “put the word out” about all the resources available for cycling, including the trail maps that have been created for the trails and bike paths.

She said, with the trails and bicycle master plan, the city is “doing all the right things.”

Watsonville’s Economic Development Manager Kurt Overmeyer said increasing the cluster of bike-related businesses in the city, of which there is about 16 so far, the largest being Fox Racing Shox, is a target for economic development.

Running down a list of bike retail shops, manufacturers and small outfits that offer bike tours, Overmeyer said the city aims to attract more of these types of businesses in the coming years.

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