Fresno Aims To Boost Health Through Biking, Walking

Josemelli Ruiz, 15, and her sister, Joanna Ruiz, 13, attend a free bike repair event at a park in south Fresno. Both teens consider biking to school 'too dangerous' due to a lack of bike lanes.  (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Volunteer bike mechanics fix faulty brakes and flat tires under colorful tents at a park in south Fresno. The free bike repair event, organized by the local nonprofit Cultiva la Salud, has attracted dozens of kids and their parents.

Joanna Ruiz, 13, awaits her turn while holding her bike, which has rusty chains. She says she would like to bike more, including riding her bike to school. But her parents won't allow it.

The 2-mile ride from her home to school is over busy roads with scary intersections and no bike lanes, Ruiz says.

"It's basically too dangerous," she says. "A lot of cars don't even stop when they see us, so it would be too dangerous for us to be just riding in the streets." Instead, Joanna's mom drives her and her three siblings to school and most destinations.

The family's fears are founded. They live in south Fresno, where the majority of the city's car collisions with bicyclists and pedestrians take place.

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Public health advocates say unsafe streets discourage people from being active, and lack of activity in turn can drive up rates of Type 2 diabetes and obesity. South Fresno is majority Latino and African-American -- people who suffer disproportionately from these conditions.

Joanna Ruiz's ZIP code in south Fresno has a higher incidence of diabetes among adults than Fresno as a whole, according to data from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. Fresno County's death rate from diabetes is one of the highest in California.

Officials in Fresno are now aiming to boost public health and safety for bicyclists and pedestrians by creating more transportation options that do not involve driving.

Fresno Earns 'Bike-Friendly Community' Award 

Fresno has already moved to become more bike-friendly, according to the  League of American Bicyclists. The league cited Fresno's bike-friendly laws and public education outreach in awarding it a "bronze designation."

The city is pushing ahead with a transportation plan that includes more biking and pedestrian options. Fresno city officials are collecting public comment, with the first two workshops open to the public scheduled for tonight and Thursday. Residents can also suggest where the city should make streets safer for bicyclists and pedestrians through an online mapping tool.

Infrastructure Lacking in Fresno's Older Neighborhoods

Since 2010,  Fresno has dramatically extended its bike lane network by more than a third, to about 155 miles, say city officials.

Most of those improvements have been focused in the wealthier and newer neighborhoods in the city's north, says Genoveva Islas, who directs Cultiva la Salud. The health nonprofit organizes free bike repair events and group rides with Latin American cumbia music to promote exercise and prevent chronic illnesses among local Latino families.

"Unfortunately, when you come south where there are census tracts of lower-income residents, that’s where you really begin to see a deficit in both bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure," says Islas, who was born in Fresno. "So the protective factors that north Fresno has are clearly not available for residents who are living in south Fresno."

Islas says unsafe streets discourage residents from opting to be more physically active in their daily routines, while going to the store or work. That in turn hurts obesity and diabetes prevention efforts.

"We understand that in order for our communities to bike more, they need the infrastructure that keeps them safe and doesn't put their lives or their children's lives at risk," says Islas.

Genoveva Islas prepares to begin a group bike ride in Fresno. Islas directs Cultiva la Salud, a local non-profit pushing to create 'healthier environments' in Fresno and other parts of the San Joaquin Valley as a way to prevent chronic illnesses.
Genoveva Islas prepares to begin a group bike ride in Fresno. Islas directs Cultiva la Salud, a local nonprofit pushing to create 'healthier environments' as a way to prevent chronic illnesses in Fresno and other parts of the Central Valley. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

'New Idea' for City Planning

City officials say newer housing developments have paid fees toward building biking and pedestrian facilities in the north. By contrast, many of the city's older neighborhoods were built several decades ago when city planning prioritized car travel, says Randy Bell, who manages infrastructure projects for the city of Fresno.

"Fifty years ago, city planning had a different idea of how to develop the city," says Bell, so the focus was on cars. "Today we have a new idea to get people more active, and to not use their cars as much."

Bell says the city wants public input to help prioritize projects.

Central Valley Cities Adding Bike Lanes, Sidewalks

Caltrans' Active Transportation Program is the biggest source of funding for localities statewide, with a pool of $120 million available annually, and is funding projects in Fresno, Bakersfield and Modesto.

Public health issues in particular are a rallying cry among community-based groups and city officials alike for Central Valley cities to become more bikable, says Jeanie Ward-Waller, policy director for the California Bicycle Coalition.

She says many in the Central Valley want to have more opportunities for physical activity built into their communities.

"They definitely have high demand for more bikable and walkable places to live," she says.

North of Fresno on Highway 99, Modesto added 4 miles of additional bike lanes last December.

"Every time we do a road project now," says Michael Sacuskie, Modesto's bicycle program coordinator, we "incorporate bike lanes when possible." Sacuskie is a life=long Modesto resident who regularly bikes 3 miles to work. 

Bikers use new lanes opened last year in the Modesto Junior College area. The city paid $1.5 million in local funds to complete the project.
Bikers use lanes opened last year in the Modesto Junior College area. The city paid $1.5 million in local funds to complete 4 miles of bike lane additions. (Courtesy of Michael Sacuskie, city of Modesto)

Bakersfield is about to break ground on 20 miles of bike lanes, additional sidewalks close to schools in a disadvantaged neighborhood and more bicycle parking and wheelchair ramps, said Christopher Gerry, an analyst in the city manager's office.

Back at the Fresno bike repair event, Magdalena Barrios, Joanna Ruiz's mother, says she is planning to weigh in at one of the meetings with Fresno officials this week.

"The city could help us with more bike lanes and street lights so that people can be out and about freely without being worried," says Barrios, 32. "We also need parks."

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Residents in south Fresno have complained for years about a lack of parks and other open space recreational areas in their neighborhoods. On parkland area, Fresno ranks close to the bottom when compared to 18 cities of similar size nationwide, according to a recent Trust for Public Lands report.

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