Biking the Road to Health in Richmond

Najari Smith at a Rich City Rides bike repair station along the Richmond Greenway. Photo: Daniel McGlynn

“How do you make bike riding cool?” asks Najari Smith, standing next to a bike repair station he set up, as he does every other Saturday, next to Lincoln elementary school, along the Richmond Greenway, on the border of Iron Triangle neighborhood.

“Things become cool when you see other people doing them,” he says, revealing the strategy underlying the multi-faceted organization Rich City Rides that works, very visibly, with a variety of bike advocacy groups, community organizations and city officials. Smith founded the Richmond-based Rich City Rides in 2012 with several goals: to underscore the city’s existing bike culture, promote bicycles and bicycle infrastructure as tools for local economic development, sustainable transportation, and encourage more healthful lifestyles.

Rich City Rides is trying to make biking more accessible by improving local bike infrastructure, giving safety classes for bicyclists and motorists, teaching people how to maintain and repair their bikes, and holding bike-centric social events, like bike parties and family rides.

Smith grew up in Brooklyn and remembers when he first moved to the Bay Area to take a corporate management job, which he has since left. But at the time, he was living in Oakland and exploring by bike, something he learned he like to do while growing up in New York. On one of his first rides in Richmond, at night, along the Bay Trail, he looked up at a clear night sky. That ride in particular is memorable, he says, because as a kid who grew up in the city, he had never seen so many stars.

“I remember somebody saying that nobody rides bikes in Richmond.” He found out that wasn’t exactly true. He started hanging out at Richmond’s only bike shop, the Richmond Spoke. When they closed their doors, Smith saw a need for a place for the city’s bike minded people to gather.

Part of Rich City Rides target demographic is Richmond’s youth. Fifty-two percent of Richmond’s school age children are overweight or obese, according to a 2010 Contra Costa public health study. Smith sees regular biking as a good way to help residents stay active.

“I think every kid should be able to bike to school,” Smith says.

That’s why Smith points to last year’s opening of a bike lane along Harbour Way, one of the city’s busy thoroughfares, as a major success. The lane connects an elementary school with some other transportation options and was financed by a grant that Smith, operating as the executive director of Rich City Rides, but also the chairman of the Richmond Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee, helped secure through a federal Safe Routes to School program.

Improving Richmond’s bicycle infrastructure, and making reality align with the city’s 2011 Bicycle Master Plan, which was created by city planners to create 145 miles of bike routes and secure places to park bikes within the city, is a critical part of what Smith and Rich City Rides are working towards.

“A lot of people won’t even touch the road because they don’t feel safe,” Smith says.

Not everyone in the city is happy to see bike lanes painted on the shoulders of busy streets. Traffic restriction and congestion are often the chief complaints. But the objections don’t slow Smith down. “Every great movement started by someone saying no,” he says.

Beyond getting the city physically more welcoming to bicycles, Smith and Rich City Rides also work with individual bicyclists to train them to fix their bike and how to ride it safely and legally in an urban environment. They do this at their twice-monthly bike fix-ins along the Greenway and by also offering regular, more in-depth workshops about how to repair specific bike components. They also loan out bike mechanic tools for people interested in undertaking major overhauls or improvements.

Smith sees their hands-on approach as a place the organization can really provide value to local residents, especially in a city with no remaining bike shops. Last spring, Rich City Rides raised enough money to send Smith and Josue Hernandez, a young aspiring bike mechanic, to the United Bicycle Institute (UBI) in Portland, Oregon, for a two-week intensive training on professional repair and shop operation.

Active with Rich City Rides from the beginning, Hernandez used the UBI experience to land a job at a bike shop in neighboring El Sobrante. He still helps to organize and document the Rich City Rides sponsored bike parties and social meet-ups.

Hernandez also started a club called the Richmond Fixed Soldiers, a group of about two-dozen fixed-gear enthusiasts. (Fixed-gear bikes, or fixies, are a style of street bike adapted from track racing, which are capable of unique maneuvers and tricks, but require expert handling because there are usually no on-board brakes). The club meets for rides and also attends races, like the San Francisco Alleycat, as a team. Having the club, Hernandez says, “does help build a culture and identity.”

Both Hernandez and Smith realize that in Richmond biking isn’t always just about having alternative transportation or a healthy social outlet. “For some people everyday is bike to work day,” Smith says.

Rich City Rides collects and rebuilds donor bikes and then finds people that need them.
“I got a call last week from a kid on probation,” Smith says, “and he needs a bike. We are doing the best we can to get him a bike, get him mobile, and get him to work.”

Smith’s long-term vision is to open a cooperative bike shop that will collect all of the different work Rich City Rides is doing into one location. In the meantime, the organization is trying to survey residents to figure out what the local barriers to bike riding are, and how to remove them.

“Everybody remembers when they first learned to ride a bike and how much fun it was,” Smith says. “We are just trying to reconnect people back to that.”

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