Members of the Bike It! Santa Ana group, whose efforts were highlighted at a statewide bicycle conference this weekend. (Photo from the Bike It! Santa Ana Facebook page)

Santa Ana youth took the stage in San Diego this weekend at the state’s largest conference on bicycle advocacy, sharing how they’ve organized fellow students to push for improvements to make it safer to bike and walk around town.

Among the highlights at the conference, dubbed the “California Bicycle Summit,” was Maribel Mateo’s story of successfully working with other high schoolers, advocates, and city officials.

It all started when her father got in a car accident and couldn’t afford to fix their family’s car, leaving Mateo with a bike as her only option to get to Godinez Fundamental High School.

This experience led Mateo last year to help form a youth-led group, Bike It! Santa Ana, which advocates for bike lanes that are separated from car traffic by physical barriers.

With help from the Santa Ana Active Streets coalition, the group did a formal assessment to identify areas in the city that need protected lanes the most, met with a city planner, and prioritized three projects.

But they still had trouble getting support from the Santa Ana City Council, because some members dismissed the youth as not having valid ideas, Mateo said.

But Mateo, and others including local high schooler Tony Gatica, kept at it, going so far as to create a detailed map using GIS software and produce a video. And things started to change.

“It was kind of hard until we started showing up more often…showing them that we actually know how to do all this stuff” like GIS mapping, said Mateo, who now attends Cal State Fullerton and wants to major in civil engineering.

Their persistence eventually paid off, and all three projects chosen by the students are now funded and slated to become a reality. They include a protected bikeway from the city’s train station to the downtown Civic Center and $2.3 million in state funding for protected bike lanes on Edinger Ave., after the students themselves wrote the lengthy and technical grant application.

When Mateo mentioned their recent success with the grant they wrote, her audience at the bike summit burst into applause.

The event, which runs through Wednesday, is organized by the state’s leading bike advocacy group, the California Bicycle Coalition, and features dozens of workshops on topics like successful bikeway projects in Latin America, how to influence state legislation and ways to reduce crime against cyclists.

As residents have organized city-by-city and county-by-county, bicycle activism has become one of the more visible grassroots advocacy efforts in California. In addition to reducing injuries and deaths among bicyclists and other pedestrians, the effort promotes policy goals like increasing physical exercise, improving air quality, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cars.

Very little attention, or dollars, were spent in Orange County in recent decades to make cycling a viable and safe option – particularly in the central and northern parts of the county.

But things started to change dramatically just a couple of years ago, when the active transportation movement began ramping up locally with support from officials like Santa Ana Councilwoman Michele Martinez.

Now, Santa Ana is on the leading edge in the county of efforts to expand bicycle infrastructure.

A common theme Sunday was that major improvements for cycling safety require well-organized and persistent activism, with a willingness to challenge the status quo and also work with supportive officials on solutions.

Elizabeth Claes, a mother from the Central Valley city of Turlock, shared her experience of going from a concerned parent to organizing people in her community to push for bike and pedestrian safety improvements.

Eventually, she said, the city started to listen and an elementary school is now finally going to get much-needed sidewalks.

“Those children, for 65 years, have not had sidewalks,” Claes said. “And it happened not because of some engineer, not because of some government. It happened because the people of our community wrote letters.”

Organizers also paid tribute to the life of Deb Hubsmith, an advocate from the Bay Area who founded the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.

Hubsmith, who recently passed away from cancer at age 46, led the successful advocacy effort to get a Safe Routes to School bill passed in Congress, which provided over $1 billion for improving safety for walking and bicycling to school.

She was a tireless advocate who spoke “urgently and frequently” about the need for safer bike infrastructure, her friend and colleague Jeanie Ward-Waller told attendees.

Despite the progress in Santa Ana, advocates readily acknowledge there’s a lot of work left to do, as major areas of the city are still extremely dangerous for cyclists.

But as advocate Mike Kaiser told the students, in a democracy, it’s the people who ultimately have the power.

“Just remember that you hold the key,” he said.

You can contact Nick Gerda at, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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