Transporation coaches help plan bike, train routes

  • By Amy Lee
  • Transit reporter
  • November 19, 2008 @ 9:00 AM

A desire to reduce carbon emissions and encourage healthy habits has prompted a Chicago group to provide personal coaches who teach people how to bike or take public transportation instead of driving.

The Active Transportation Alliance – formerly the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation – has launched a program that pairs one of its public transportation experts with those who are interested in cutting car rides, but are unsure how to do so.

The Alliance launched to the program in the south suburbs and has a goal to enroll 300 people by September 2010. Though focused now on Rock Island and neighborhoods along Metra lines, the group hopes to expand the program into city limits in the coming years.

“Somebody might say, I just need a map and information about bus routes, another might say I don’t know how to change a bike tire, another might say I don’t know how to ride in traffic, so we’ll go out with them and show them how to ride in traffic,” says Mary Lynn Wilson, one of four coaches who provides one-on-one assistance to those seeking alternative transportation options.

“You really just a need a willingness do it and to be flexible enough to look at obstacles out there and find ways around that, like maybe combining bike and public transportation to get to your destination. It can be done, and we’re here to help people figure out how to do it.”

According to data provided by the Alliance, people can cut creation of carbon emissions by up to 380 pounds per year by biking, walking or taking public transit for one trip a week instead of using their car.

Thus, if the Alliance recruits 300 participants to do that, it could cut 114,000 pounds of carbon emissions in one year.

“We try to work where there is a big need for it,” says Falon Mihalic, program manager of the coaches program for the Alliance.

“The program won’t work as well in a neighborhood far removed from transit, it enhances transportation assets that are already there but that are underutilized,” Mihalic says.

The Alliance modeled its program after successful coaching programs in Portland, Ore. and in Australia, and landed a $50,000 grant from the Grand Victoria Foundation to pay four coaches to provide individual assistance. Expansion into Chicago would require additional funding, Mihalic says.

“We’re closing the information gap for people who are interested in biking, walking and taking public transit in pace of driving their car. These coaches give people very personalized info and plan routes using whatever mode that person wants to use,” Mihalic says.

The idea is to take the guesswork out of alternative forms of transportation and get people to change the sometime reflex habit of jumping in a car to run an errand or go to work, says Margo O’Hara, spokeswoman for the Alliance.

Wilson also hopes to show regular, everyday people that biking doesn’t require a heavy investment in specialized biking gear.

“Sometimes people think that commuting by bike or doing errands for bike is only for cyclists, people who ride a lot but not for the average person,” Wilson says. “You don’t have to dress up in Lycra and wear special clothes or shoes or anything. Just get a decent commuting bicycle and go for it.”

For more information on the program, contact Mihalic at (312) 427-3325, extension 289.

Amy Lee is a Chicago-based journalist. She covers transit issues for the Daily News.