COLUMBIA — On a sunny Saturday morning, Carole Riesenberg rode her bike alongside her friend to their first Confident City Cycling class, hosted by GetAbout Columbia and the PedNet Coalition. They arrived at Stephens Lake Activities Center to find one other student and two instructors.
Riesenberg and the two others listened intently as their instructors described the anatomy of a bicycle and how to share a lane with a car.
Earn-A-Bike: For children who want to learn basic bike maintenance and
safety. It consists of four one-hour sessions and students receive a
free bike at the end of the last one.
Confident City Cycling: Teaches people 14 years and older how to conduct bicycle safety checks, fix a flat tire and avoid traffic collisions. It costs $20 and is offered as three, three-hour classes or one, nine-hour class.
Bike Buddy: Pairs a Columbia resident with a trained bicycle expert who teaches how to check for repairs, find bike equipment and plan safe routes. The one-on-one program lasts three months.
Cycle/Recycle: A fall event that gives gently used bikes to those who do not have one. Education and basic training is provided to those who attend.
Commuting course: For adults interested in biking to school or work. It costs $15 and participants learn route selection, proper parking and lighting, riding in inclement weather and handling cargo.
WalkSafe, BikeSafe: A biking and walking safety class for children in kindergarten through third grade physical education classes.
Walking School Bus: An elementary school program where kindergarten through fifth-grade students walk as a group to school in the morning.
"I was surprised there were only three of us there," said Riesenberg, who heard of the class through a friend that works for GetAbout. "I just thought it'd be something that lots of people would be interested in doing, like I think lots of people would be interested in the environment."
There are nine other educational programs offered by the PedNet Coalition — a local nonprofit that predates GetAbout Columbia — using the federal grant funds. The GetAbout grant started paying for these programs more than a year and a half ago.
Barring two elementary school-affiliated programs, GetAbout Columbia education programs operated by PedNet have reached a combined 594 residents in 70 class sessions. Those classes include Confident City Cycling, BikePro, Earn-A-Bike, Bike Buddy, Cycle/Recycle, Commuting and Targeted Courses.
"We would love every class to be sold out," said Ian Thomas, PedNet executive director. "Fewer kids are taking BikePro and with the commuting class, there's not a lot of interest."
Because of the low level of participation, PedNet discontinued the Commuting, Earn-A-Bike and BikePro courses. The organization has, however, added two new classes, one to educate bike shop employees and one for basic bike-riding skills.
GetAbout Columbia has allocated $3.17 million of its $22 million grant on promotion and education — about 14 percent — since the brand's inception in 2007 to promote nonmotorized transportation. That full amount goes to Vangel Marketing Communications, a local public relations firm, which has used some of those funds for advertising and the GetAbout Web site.
Ted Curtis, director of GetAbout, said Columbia is spending more for education and promotion than the three other cities who received the same nonmotorized transportation grant from the Federal Highway Administration.
Mary Ebeling, manager of the pilot program in Sheboygan, Wis., said her county will have spent 2 percent of its grant, or about $440,000, on education and promotion by the end of 2010. The Minneapolis pilot program, Bike Walk Twin Cities, will have spent a minimum of $2 million on education and promotion, director Joan Pasiuk said. Principal Transportation Planner Dan Dawson of Marin County, Calif., said that county expects to spend about $1 million on education and promotion.
Each of the four pilot programs financed by the federal grants spends grant money how they see fit. Jill Stedem, a spokeswoman for the Columbia Public Works Department, said GetAbout officials saw education as the best way to get the community involved.
Stedem said a citizens advisory committee developed ideas for programs and produced a list of education opportunities "they felt were important."
"They thought education was needed to get people to change their attitudes and using alternative forms of transportation," Stedem said.
Under GetAbout Columbia, Vangel pays PedNet for its education programs — about $474,000 through December 2008 and an additional $300,000 budgeted from April 1 to the end of the project next year.
Shannan Baker, a Vangel account manager, estimated the nonprofit will be paid $70,156 for its work during January, February and March. Baker said those invoices were still being processed so that amount may change.
In 2007, the city signed a contract with Vangel to handle marketing for GetAbout. The PedNet Coalition signed on as a subconsultant for the company.
Both PedNet, whose bicycle education efforts predate the federal grant, and Vangel applied to run GetAbout's education and promotion during the city's bidding process.
Some classes charge a fee, which Thomas said goes directly to the city Parks and Recreation Department for the use of its facilities. Instructors for the bicycling classes are paid out of the GetAbout grant itself.
There are two exceptions to the low turnout for GetAbout classes:
- WalkSafe, BikeSafe has taught 2,893 students from kindergarten through third grade. The program brings an instructor, certified by the League of American Bicyclists, to physical education classes to give children safe walking and biking techniques.
- The Walking School Bus program, which involved more than 400 students last fall.
These classes bumped participation in GetAbout education to nearly 4,000.
Despite the strong participation in the two programs aimed at school children, both will have less GetAbout funding next school year. Curtis said it was a joint decision between the GetAbout executive committee and staff. Both programs have a better potential for outside funding, he said, which would ease GetAbout budget constraints.
Jennifer Perlow walked her 7-year-old daughter to Lee Elementary School with other participants and signed up again for the spring Walking School Bus session, which started March 9. She learned about the program from her daughter's friends.
"She gets exercise before she starts the school day and expends some energy before the school day," Perlow said. "I consider it to be exercise, she considers it to be play time with her friends."
Thomas said the time commitment required of the other classes might deter people from signing up. For example, the Confident City Cycling class, which had 130 students in 18 months, is three sessions, each three hours long.
"It's a big time commitment," he said. "But I actually think it's quite good to get 130 people."
Thomas said 100 percent of Confident City Cycling graduates reported biking more often. The three-hour Bike Skills 101 class was developed to ease time constraints.
Riesenberg said she hates missing the farmers market on Saturday morning, but what she learned made it worthwhile.
"I need to learn bike safety and bike maintenance," she said of the class. "It was really good and the presenters are such good people. It's hard not to have a positive response."