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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

November 20, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Life & Culture

On the right track: Bike culture at Ithaca College

There are a handful of points like these in the school day: the moments when hundreds of students pour into — or emerge from — their classes. It’s when a once-quiet Academic Quad teems with students in transit — darting into doorways, into dining halls, into their cars. In this crowd, coasting with ease among the many bodies, one may spot the cyclists. Sometimes sitting, sometimes perched above their seats, they coast down the churning hills of Ithaca College’s campus, a blur among walkers, some speeding toward The Commons, some off to class.

While cyclists may ride by quickly, it’s not hard to spot the college’s bike community on any given day. There’s the lone, white road bike, latched to the light post outside the Roy H. Park School of Communications; the single-speed, with custom beige wheels, resting in front of the Fitness Center; and the tangle of different bikes huddled under the covered bike rack by Williams Hall. Bikes are all over campus, allowing students quick and easy travel, no matter where they may be going.

Senior Brendan Davis, president of Bomber Bikes, an on-campus, student-run cycling organization, said this cycling presence on campus isn’t so surprising. For getting to and from class, bikes are just plain fast, he said.

“[Riding a bike] is definitely faster than a car on campus,” Davis said. “There’s been some times when I’ve been up in Terraces … or even in Circles, and some friends would get in their car and drive to Park School, get out of the car and go to class, and I’d already be there.”

Davis’ story rings true with other student cyclists, like sophomore Wilson Vivas. Vivas, who grew up in Queens, New York, said he found a love for cycling after cutting what was once at least an hour-long commute on the bus to school practically in half. Coming to Ithaca, Vivas found himself beating the clock once more: When an evening nap went too long, he found himself late for a date downtown. With the Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit bus nowhere to be seen, Vivas borrowed a bike from a friend and sped down the hill.

“I was able to make great time, given when I was supposed to be there,” he said. “I managed to make my date, and it was great — I mean, she never found out … I think that bike saved me.”

Thankfully, those struggling to find a bike won’t have to borrow one like Vivas did. Bomber Bikes, in its efforts to develop and improve bike infrastructure on campus, officially began an on-campus bike sharing system last May. Now any student, with just a campus ID, can hop on a bike and cruise around as much as his or her heart desires, be it on campus or downtown. It’s entirely free, something Davis said he hopes gets people riding.

“This almost sounds crazy, but biking, you feel free, in a way, when you’re doing it,” Davis said. “It’s so special that people should be able to enjoy that, and hopefully it will get people out doing it. That’s the main goal, really — to get people out on the bikes. So if making it free is going to get people to do that, it’s got to be that.”

For junior triathlon participant and cyclist Tal Aizen, the idea of a bike share on campus is exciting. Aizen, who recently visited Washington, D.C., — a city with a well-established bike sharing system itself — said having something comparable on campus would be positive.

“I’m excited for the bike share,” Aizen said. “I was just in D.C. last week looking at their bikeshare program. And jeez, if we could replicate that at Ithaca, that would be unbelievable.”

The same school of thought can be found all around Ithaca, providing an even wider network of biking opportunities to students. In the city’s cycling population, it’s easy to spot efforts to get people riding. Laurence Clarkberg works with Friends Bike Clinic, a volunteer organization that helps cyclists fix — not repair, which Clarkberg is quick to point out — their bikes. He said having Ithaca cyclists get their own, hands-on time with their bikes is his duty as a shop owner.

“I put it that way — I don’t say we will repair your bike — because then people misunderstand,” he said. “We help you fix your bike … As part of that, I feel like it’s my own personal mission to give everyone in Ithaca new brake shoes.”

In addition to fixing up ailing bikes, Clarkberg’s shop, Boxy Bikes, on Green Street, is offering a whole other option for two-wheeled transport. In an effort to combat Ithaca’s many hills, Boxy Bikes both sells and rents out electric bikes. Far from a motorcycle, but still offering considerable speed, these bikes are something that Clarkberg said he hopes can ease congestion in Ithaca’s streets.

“My goal is to have people replace their cars with bicycles,” he said.

Merging the world of automobiles and bicycles — perhaps the endgame of any city’s bike culture — is a concept that Andrejs Ozolins, founder of Bike Ithaca, holds dear. Bike Ithaca, which describes itself as “an informal group of people interested in getting around by non-motorized means and committed to making Ithaca more hospitable to that kind of travel,” was founded in 2007, acting as a voice for cyclists and pedestrians alike. He said Ithaca’s overall “bike-friendliness” has been increasing, and while there is still work to be done, the changes make a significant statement.

“We have the beginnings of some bike lanes up East Hill. That’s frustratingly inadequate, but it’s there. It’s been achieved,” he said. “Those are very, very direct messages to the driving public  that bikes are on the road.”

These signs of a bike-friendlier future for Ithaca are all around: bike racks are placed throughout the recently unveiled Ithaca Commons, while lines for a bike lane are painted on a renovated Cayuga Street.

Fernando de Aragon, executive director of the Ithaca-Tompkins County Transportation Council, said these developments offer a solution to burgeoning issue of congestion in the Ithaca area, and hopes they can help change the mentality of transportation among citizens.

“The road system we have is the road system we’re going to have,” Aragon said. “We need to take care of it. In order to protect the functionality of our roads, we need to mitigate the congestion. We’re trying to get more people to start thinking about ways of moving around rather than just driving.”

The ITCTC provides consultation, funding and planning for Tompkins County–wide transportation, Ithaca included. The organization has, since its establishment in 1992, facilitated programs including the Bike Boulevard Program — which aims to establish bike-priority roads throughout Ithaca — and helped monitor the quality of residential roads for pedestrian traffic. Echoing Ozolins’ sentiments, Aragon said Ithaca is improving for cyclists with the likes of new bike lanes and scenic trails, but maintains that it is still not a bike haven for each and every rider.

“The city has been very proactive right now, and I think they are in a good place as far as their policy and their philosophy and what they’re trying to do to bring more bicyclists to the city,” he said. “So when you ask me is [the city] bike-friendly for the less-confident biker? Maybe not, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

Getting away from the bustle of downtown and taking those bikes off-road, however, is a cinch. With surrounding nature trails, like the newly completed Cayuga Waterfront Trail — which had its grand opening Aug. 30 — local cyclists have all the more reason to get on their bikes. Just as Bomber Bikes is doing on campus, the Ithaca Youth Bureau offers its own bike rental service, Ithaca Bike Rental, which was established in June. Marty Schreiber, a program coordinator and creator of the rental program, said the majority of his customers are getting on the trail to enjoy Ithaca’s more scenic aspects.

“Almost all of my clients come in to ride the trails,” Schreiber said. “And to take in the natural beauty that is Ithaca and the surrounding areas.”

It’s an incentive that Davis understands. In a nature-minded city like Ithaca, he said, cycling is a natural fit.

“I think nature and environmentalism kind of go hand-in-hand, and bikes kind of fit in perfectly in between the two,” Davis said. “People in Ithaca really are nature-minded. Like with the natural lands, people want to get out there and explore it in new ways.”

Ultimately, regardless of where the bikes are taking riders — be it from class or into the Natural Lands — Ozolins said one thing is hard to deny: Ithaca’s cyclists have a city to pedal through for some time to come.
“I think what is behind the question is if bike culture is catching on, is it thriving?” Ozolins said. “And I think it, without question, is. Just watching my street and people coming down West Hill, there’s three or four times as many people. It used to be no one.”

Steven Pirani can be reached at spirani1@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @stevenpirani