Today’s post was written by Rebecca Brown of Yakima. She is a co-founder of Yakima Bikes and Walks.
The most difficult aspect of moving from Minneapolis to Yakima in the summer of 2013 was adjusting to the culture around transportation. After using my bicycle for commuting, errands, and social calls for the past seven years (before Minneapolis I lived in the other Washington, District of Columbia), I was committed to continue riding to work, to the store, and to other events, just like normal.
But in Yakima, that is not normal. People were surprised to see me (or anyone) on a bike. I couldn’t believe how contrary to the norm riding a bike was in Yakima. The topography was gentle enough—Yakima does not have the steep hills of Seattle, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, or other bicycling cities. The weather was good for cycling year-round (compared to Minneapolis, the winters in Yakima are mild). Bicycling seemed like a natural fit out here.
As I explored my new city and got to know some of the residents, a couple of things became very apparent. First, it was challenging to ride a bicycle in Yakima. Not just because of bicycle lanes or lack thereof (although Yakima does have bicycle lanes and some wonderful multi-use paths), but the general layout of the city created a barrier to bicycling. Outside of the downtown center, there are several main streets going north-south and east-west. These streets generally have no shoulders and limited sidewalks. The residential streets on either side of these main, high-speed roads are riddled with dead-ends and limited lighting. These streets can act as a maze; often I would end up right back where I started. I probably spent hours going in circles in neighborhoods, being chased by dogs, and trying to find a route that avoided the worst of the major streets.
The second thing I noticed was that there were a lot of other people who were interested in biking in the city. Some people thought about it and were intimidated by the traffic, lack of infrastructure, etc. Others rode anyway. I was continually meeting people who had moved to Yakima from bigger cities with bicycle cultures, and they all missed their bicycle-riding lifestyles. There were also folks who had lived in Yakima for a long time who rode or wanted to ride. My co-worker, Phil, rode to work every day of the year. On bad weather mornings, he would walk his bike to work.
Although Phil and I work together, it took an outside catalyst to help us address our mutual interest in bicycle advocacy. We both got involved in organizing a community bicycle race spoof. As a newcomer, I jumped at the chance to engage in my passion for riding bikes while also meeting new people. This project started the conversation about biking in Yakima between Phil and me. Phil knew the background of all the past efforts in bicycle advocacy and planning in the city, and he was keyed into a broad network of bicycle supporters.
After a few months of water cooler conversations at work, Phil and I decided we could renew advocacy efforts in Yakima. We named our yet-to-be-defined group Yakima Bikes!, inspired by the Washington Bikes rebranding. I created a Gmail account and a Facebook page, and invited all of my Yakima-based Facebook friends to like us. A friend suggested that the group include walking, considering that biking and walking infrastructure were both sorely needed. Now we were Yakima Bikes and Walks! Phil and I met over pizza and beers several more times before we held our first official meeting in May 2014. We carefully planned out the first agenda, identified the desired outcomes of the meeting, and even put together a dot-voting system for attendees. We reached out to Facebook friends and email lists from past bicycle advocacy efforts.
Around the same time that Phil and I were conspiring to start a group, Phil crossed paths with Lance, a local bike stop manager, who had caught wind of other people who were eager to organize Yakima bicyclists. Through Lance, Phil connected with Neil, the former chair of the City’s defunct Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and Phil M., an active bicycle advocate/leader of a local cycling club. Together with Lance, Neil, and Phil M., we finalized the invitation and agenda for our May kickoff meeting.
Our May kickoff meeting had over 40 attendees representing interests such as mountain biking, recreational cycling, bicycle commuting, walking for the developmentally disabled, transit, and others. We developed a list of projects/goals to work on with the help of attendees. Using the dot exercise, voted on goals and projects that the group would like to see. Now we had a group and a list of projects to work on. We were in business.
Things started happening rapidly. We started to meet semi-regularly, then once a month. We attended Yakima City Council meetings to request the Council to re-instate the Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee and to press the Council to vote for bicycle and pedestrian friendly projects. A couple began hosting monthly Bike Parties, which are fun and short group rides around town involving costumes and music. A volunteer set up our website. We were featured in a front page story in the Yakima Herald Republic. City staff started attending our monthly meetings.
At this point, I should disclose that I have never started nor led an organization before. Yakima Bikes and Walks became brand-new, terrifying, time-consuming territory for me. What are we doing? How do we maintain membership? What is membership, anyway? What is a mission statement and do we need one? Who writes it? Who makes the decisions for the group? Are we consensus driven, or do Phil and I have the go-ahead to just make unilateral decision? In a place like Yakima, there is a lot of opportunity to improve bicycling and walking, so what do we focus on and how do we decide to focus on it? Who actually has the time to work on any of this? Most of these questions have not been completely resolved.
As the year progressed, we began to see more successes. Right now, several projects are underway. I am writing this piece in a community workshop (the Yakima Maker Space) where several volunteers are putting the final touches on artistic, custom-made bike racks before the racks are powder coated. I spent my lunch break at a meeting with city staff, the local council of governments, the Yakima Health District, and Yakima Transit to finalize details on our May 17th Complete Streets street festival. A technical advisory committee for Yakima’s Bike Master Plan is being convened; many of its members are Yakima Bikes and Walks members. A few of a members and leadership circle, including Lance, were integral in interviewing and assessing the consultants for the Bike Master Plan. We voted on a mission statement earlier this year, and we are setting dates for workshop to set the goals and direction of the group.
It seems like there was a latent, building interest in building bicycling and walking in Yakima. Maybe Phil and I were in the right place at the right time and everything would have happened with or without our group. Or perhaps Yakima Bikes and Walks gave the extra push to jumpstart the activities. I know for a fact that we brought people together, and managed to connect the “old guard” of bicycle advocates with newcomers to the city. All said, we are still a young organization, run solely on volunteer power, and without a budget. And while I still feel like we are having trouble keeping our balance, I know as long as we keep pedaling, we will stay upright.
Ed. Note: On May 17 Yakima will host its first open street event, Feet in the Street. Look for Yakima Bikes and Walks and Washington Bikes at the celebration.