Air Quality Board Member Rides a Bike to Meeting. Why Is this Newsworthy?

BautersPrinz
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Note: This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that BAAQMD does not reimburse its boardmembers for parking expenses. It offers them free parking, and reimburses them for vehicle mileage. It also offers reimbursement for transit costs. At the December 4 meeting, after many requests from Bauters, the agency announced it would offer a reimbursement to boardmembers who use active modes to get to meetings. Bauters was reimbursed $3 for his 40-plus-mile, 3-hour bike ride.

Emeryville city councilmember John Bauters planned to ride his bike to attend the Bay Area Air Quality Management District board meeting, of which he is a member, on his 40th birthday this year. But the weather did not cooperate. So at the December 4 meeting, he announced that he would do so at the next meeting.

He said he was tired of the way the BAAQMD, and other public agencies, say they are working on air pollution and climate change but then don’t encourage real change. For example, the board encourages its members to drive to its meetings by offering them free parking.

“But we don’t do anything for people who try to be carbon neutral, who walk and bike. I do not understand how we expect anyone to change if we don’t model it,” Bauters told Streetsblog. “We are incentivizing the wrong things.”

Nevertheless, Bauters hesitated. To get from Emeryville to San Francisco by bike, he would have to ride a little over forty miles, crossing two bridges, in a big loop around the bay. Sure, he could have taken a shorter route – only one bridge, plus a bus – but that wasn’t what he wanted to do.

“The point is, I live closer to the building than anyone at the meeting,” he said. “And yet to bike there it would take me three hours.” If there were a bike path on the entire length of the Oakland Bay Bridge, a bike ride would take maybe thirty-plus, 45 minutes– a “reasonable” amount of time. But that path isn’t there, because investing in and encouraging, and normalizing, biking and walking is not a high priority at any of our state agencies.

But riding the whole way would mean leaving by 5 a.m. Plus he was missing a tail light, which he would need because of the early hour. Maybe, he thought, he should wait for slightly longer days.

“Then I thought: why are you choosing? If you want to bike to all the meetings, then bike to all the meetings,” he told Streetsblog.

So yesterday, he did the ride, which he said “was awesome.” Robert Prinz of Bike East Bay joined him at 5:30 a.m. at the foot of the Berkeley bike and pedestrian freeway bridge, bringing along a red flashing tail light. From there, they rode north, through Albany on the Bay trail and over the new Richmond Bridge bike path, through Marin, then south on the Golden Gate Bridge and over to the base of the Oakland Bridge. He was the first board member to arrive at the meeting.

The ride was “refreshing,” said Bauters, “and quiet.”

“I had never biked through Point Richmond–it’s a quiet little town, and I felt like I was biking through a set for a movie, because of all the Christmas lights. There were little magical moments: we reached the top of the Richmond bridge at twilight, and you could see the sun just starting to come up over Alameda County.”

When they got to Marin, it got really cold. “My toes and fingertips were freezing–I didn’t wear my wool socks. But we laughed about it. I survived.”

They biked over the Mill Valley Sausalito trail, and saw steam rising over the marsh. “There were geese, birds–it felt like we were riding through medieval England. It was quiet and serene.”

They avoided Camino by riding closer to the water. “We biked through quiet neighborhoods where nobody was up yet. It was like an express lane, we zipped through,” he said.

On weekdays, bicyclists ride on the east side of the Golden Gate Bridge with pedestrians (unlike the busier weekends, when they can ride on the west side). That gave them a view of the city as they rode south. “It looked like San Francisco was coming out of a dream,” he said. Stacey Randecker met them at the southern end of the bridge to finish the ride with them. People were just coming to work, shops were opening up. “It was kind of cool to do an almost-three-hour bike ride and show up just as people are getting up,” said Bauters.

They biked to the Bay Area Metro Center, where Bauters encountered an obstacle. Security guards insisted he could not bring his bike inside the building. “I had assumed, as a member of the board, I could bring my bike in with me,” he said, but they wouldn’t let him. He hadn’t brought a lock–it seemed like unnecessary more weight on a long ride, and the guards insisted he leave his bike with the parking valet – but without someone watching over it. In the end, he was able to borrow a lock so he didn’t have to worry about it. “I really didn’t want to lose my bike,” he said.

At the meeting, Lisa Fasano, the AQMD communications director,  expressed disbelief that he had ridden “all that way.” Her tweet about it could be, maybe should be, repeated frequently for all members of public agencies everywhere to ponder: “It can be done, just takes a paradigm shift in our thinking,” she wrote.

But at the meeting, Bauters didn’t talk about his ride. At other meetings, however, he has pushed for that paradigm shift. He has proposed raising tolls on Spare the Air days, when things get really bad and we all have to pitch in to cut emissions immediately. And he suggested using the money to improve transit.

“We have Spare the Air days,” he said. “But I don’t get the point. They don’t do anything,” he said. “If you want to change behavior, you have to give people reasonable choices. An educational program is window dressing.”

“We can’t expect change if we keep doing the same things.”

Bauters is frequently a voice for considering active transportation, better transit, and more choices. He’s gotten a positive response from fellow board members and others, both for speaking up and for “walking the talk.”

“People want this type of change,” he said, “But it sometimes feels like elected officials don’t. I have people thank me for speaking up, even asking me to move to their cities to help move the needle forward, to speak up for what makes sense. But I don’t want to be out here by myself. I gotta ask: Why aren’t you doing it, too?”

It may be because many people in positions of authority are still so antiquated and crusty that they cannot imagine a world where people want choices. At the December 4th AQMD meeting, for example, board member Jim Spering bashed public transit, and specifically BART, as being “a miserable, dirty thing to ride today.”

Spering’s screed is quite a solutionless, grumpy rant. You can listen to a sound clip of it here (at 1:49:40). It sounds remarkably like a similar speech by another dinosaur at another regional air quality agency, and it raises the question of why these people are on these boards at all.

“If you don’t like transit the way it is, then we should invest in it,” Bauters said. “We keep spending money on things that are bad for the environment. Nobody wants transit to be terrible, but what are we doing about it?”

As for his ride, he said, “I decided to bike this and be public about it, not to put a finger in someone’s eye but just to show it can be done.”

“I had a full conversation with my riding partner; I saw things you can’t experience or even see from a car. Could I do this every day and get my job done? Probably not. But if we put political will and reprioritize around our future, then I wouldn’t have to bike through four counties. Maybe there would be a thousand of me every day, biking, enjoying the view, not worrying about where I’ll park my car, or how I will pay. People who don’t bike don’t have the perspective to know what that could be like.”

All in all, he said, it was “a really good learning experience. I can’t wait for the weather to be warmer; I will do it again.”

Bauters is perhaps the most public bike “super commuter” but there are plenty of people out there who have discovered some of these facts for themselves. Riders are taking advantage of the new path on the Richmond Bridge to commute by bike where they never could before. Several people this writer knows personally regularly commute between 25 and 50 miles by bike. They may not ride every day, but they do it a lot. They do it for exercise, stress management, and, in the words of one of them, “to cut down on driving, which leaves you grumpy and costs more.” Also for the sheer joy of it.

Follow Bauters on Twitter @JohnBauters

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