By Esther Meroño
When I first picked up a bicycle as a mode of transportation in my early 20s, I had a bicycle guru of sorts. Chelsea Babbish was my roommate, found through Craigslist, and a local bicycle enthusiast. She convinced me to ditch the heavy mountain bike I’d been pedaling around Downtown Salt Lake and showed me how to safely ride a sleek road bike, completely changing my commuter experience. She brought me along to group rides, where I learned about bicycle safety and traffic laws, and she connected me with the Bicycle Collective, where they helped me build up my own bike and taught me how to maintain it.
Since then, I’ve often taken on the role of an informal bicycle guru: helping friends find a bike, showing them how to fix flats, taking them out on rides, and even organizing my own bike events—but not everyone has a commuter buddy to get them started and comfortable on the road. Phil Sarnoff and Colin Quinn-Hurst, both major players in 2013’s Year of the Bike initiatives, realized the power of individual outreach in getting more people on bikes, and using a model from other national programs gaining popularity, pitched a Bicycle Ambassador program to various government organizations until Salt Lake County picked it up and launched in April of last year. Jack Lasley is now the organization’s Program Coordinator, and he, alongside about 20 volunteers, serve as missionaries preaching the message of the bicycle, and supporting the program’s mission statement: “To build a team of enthusiastic, outgoing, and informed bicycle commuters to educate residents, promote bicycle travel, improve bicycle travel conditions, and foster a culture of shared-use and mutual respect between bicycles and other roadway users in Salt Lake County.”
The job is a simple one for any outgoing bicycle enthusiast—at a basic level, it just requires you to be friendly and talk about bikes—and it’s an open position for anyone living in Salt Lake County with commuting experience. Volunteer Bicycle Ambassadors attend local events and talk to people about the benefits of commuting, giving advice and encouragement. They carry around everything from pamphlets about bike safety to bike lights to hand out to those in need on their own commutes. They even give rewards when they see a cyclist obey the rules of the road or demonstrate bicycle safety. For those who could use their very own bicycle guru, the program provides one-on-one mentorships as well, pairing learning commuters with a seasoned ambassador. “Riding a bike for transportation certainly brings you closer to and gives you a different perspective of the city. When commuting by car, you live in a series of islands. You might know your neighborhood in a radius of a few blocks, and the area around your work, gym, grocery store, or any other frequented locations, but the areas in between are just a series of landmarks directing towards something familiar. When you ride a bike, you fully inhabit the city,” says Lasley—evidence of the type of sage insight one can glean from the ambassador experience.
This year, as the organization is still relatively new, Lasley says the Bicycle Ambassadors plan to attend as many events as possible to bring more awareness of the program, making contacts, providing instruction and advice, and encouraging safety. “For the long-term future, we are looking to give this program more of a permanent home in the county with a full-time position on top to allow for growth,” he says. “We would like to see ambassadors attending events year round and providing safety education regularly, through hosted events and scheduled presentation.”
Find the Salt Lake County Bicycle Ambassadors at slco.org/pw/activeTransportation/html/ambassador01.html