Clearing The Air In Wilmington, One E-Bike At A Time
In Wilmington, where smog and the ocean breeze collide, a community of small business owners are fighting the climate crisis, one e-bike at a time.
E-bikes aren’t a very common sight in Wilmington, but cars, trucks and oil refineries are. Wilmington is the third largest oil field in the U.S. and is surrounded by three major freeways and the busiest ports in the nation. Wilmington is also home to more than 50,000 people — 89% of whom are Latino, according to 2021 census data.
That inundation of industry has contributed to high rates of cancer, Alzheimer's and asthma in Wilmington and nearby communities such as Harbor City, Carson and Long Beach, according to an investigation from Grist.
“There’s a lot of money being made but meanwhile we are stuck with contamination,” said María Serafín, who has lived in Wilmington for 24 years and has four kids, one of whom has asthma.
Promoting Two Wheels Instead Of Four
In 2020, as the pandemic wore on, Serafín started feeling antsy. One day, a friend invited her to join a group of community leaders who call themselves the Safe Street Promotores, or promotores for short. They were meeting on Zoom and Serafín said she’d try it — she had more time to fill than ever.
“Being a promotora more than anything is advocating for the community,” said Serafín.
Their mission is to make streets safer and improve air quality by advocating for things such as bike lanes and speed bumps. They also provide information in both English and Spanish so their community can inform and empower themselves.
When a group of bike enthusiasts and activists called the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, or Bike LA, received a grant in December 2020 from the city of Los Angeles to buy 42 e-bikes for the community of Wilmington, they turned to the promotores for guidance, including Serafín.
While the group received the grant in 2020, the program did not kick off until March last year due to the pandemic.
The goal of the program is to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by getting more people on e-bikes, instead of in cars. The California Air Resources Board, which regulates air pollution and climate policy in the state, reports that the transportation sector is the largest contributor to greenhouse gasses — and a big chunk of that pollution comes from the tailpipes of the cars and trucks tens of millions of us drive every day. That's the case nationwide as well, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
And — you guessed it — that's also true for L.A. A recent report from the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority found that 40% of the county’s carbon pollution comes from the tailpipes of passenger vehicles.
But can switching to more e-bikes really help cut carbon emissions significantly? Well, one Portland-based study did the math and found that drivers could reduce their carbon emissions by 12% if they switched up their routines and used e-bikes just a little more — 15% more to be exact.
Most of us don't drive all that far on a daily basis. In the U.S, almost 60% of trips are done within a five-mile radius or less. In the city of L.A., people drive on average about 9 miles any given weekday.
So using an e-bike instead of a car for some of those shorter car rides could cut an individual's carbon footprint — and cities' carbon pollution as a whole — significantly. That Portland study found that replacing a car trip with an e-bike just 15% of the time could cut an individual's carbon pollution by 225 kilograms per year — that's equivalent to the amount of pollution spewed from a gas-powered car that's driven 558 miles.
In California, pollution from the tailpipes of passenger cars and trucks account for more than 40% of the state's planet-heating emissions. But, across the U.S, most car trips are within just a five mile radius.
So how much could switching to an e-bike cut carbon pollution? One Portland-based study found that transportation-related emissions could be reduced by 12% if drivers used e-bikes just 15% more of the time.
That means an individual could cut their carbon pollution by an average of 225 kilograms per year. That's equivalent to the amount of planet-heating emissions spewed from a gas-powered car that's driven 558 miles.
Bike LA received $490,000 from the L.A. Department of Water and Power’s Community Emission Reduction Program to purchase 42 e-bikes and cover other programming costs. The program was designed to fund grassroots projects to help reduce emissions in communities like Wilmington that are hit the hardest by pollution from refineries and traffic.
The idea was that Bike LA would loan the e-bikes to participants for six months for free. Ideally, by the end of the program, they’d want to purchase the e-bike at a discounted price (from $1,600 to $800) and forgo their cars more often.
The organization expected to hear mostly from app-based delivery drivers who work for companies like Uber Eats and Doordash because their operations had skyrocketed during the pandemic, said Kevin Shin, the director of Bike LA.
“If we're looking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we've got to get to the people who are driving,” said Shin.
But only about three app-based delivery drivers showed interest.
“What we found instead was that a lot of folks were already conducting delivery services from clothing to food to flower arrangements to homecare services," said Alejandra Alvarez, program manager of the e-bike pilot program. "Our pool of participants is very diverse and it's not what you would expect when you think of delivery service."
Serafín's deep connections to the community led to a boost in interest from independent, small business owners.
“I think community leaders are the experts,” said Carmina Gomez, a program manager with non-profit Los Angeles Walks, which is part of the coalition working to expand similar e-bike efforts.. “They know best what their community needs and who needs the support.”
Excitement And Mistrust
When the program launched, Serafín immediately got to work, talking to her community and urging her friends to sign up, including Irandy Pérez.
Originally from the Mexican state of Michoacán, Pérez has lived in Wilmington for the last 23 years. For 15 of those years, she worked in a Japanese market.
“Fifteen years of entering at 3 a.m.and getting out at 11:30 a.m. and always earning the minimum,” Pérez said. She was constantly exhausted and wanted to have more time with her three kids.
So, Pérez took the leap and quit to start her own at-home business selling a kitchen brand that designs appliances for healthy cooking. That allowed her to be able to drive her kids to school every day.
But the cost of gas for her deliveries added up. So when Pérez learned about the e-bikes from Serafín, she was excited and signed up.
“I don’t use nearly as much gas,” she said. She only wishes it had a basket in the back to hold her larger packages.
When Pérez rides her e-bike, many of her neighbors ask where she got it from. She told them about the e-bike program — now more people in her community are signing up.
“I hope that we get more for our community in Wilmington so that they can get ahead in their jobs,” said Pérez.
Hopefully a program like this can be leveraged as a way to advocate for the city to really invest into better, active transportation and infrastructure in these communities.
But it wasn’t easy to convince everyone in Serafín’s and Pérez’s community to buy into e-bikes.
“They didn’t believe that they [the government] would let us borrow a bike overnight,” Serafín said.
Pérez said her mistrust came from a sense that the government looks down on Latinos.
“They always see Latinos that come here to only get food stamps and get help,” said Pérez. “We came here to work and to get ahead because in our country, there is no opportunity to move forward. So, we are here, making sacrifices for our kids and living a better life.”
The sentiment that e-bikes are not for everyone isn’t uncommon, said Andrés Ramírez, executive director of People for Mobility Justice, an organization that helped launch an e-bike lending program in the San Fernando Valley earlier this year. They also received a grant from LADWP.
Ramírez said making e-bike programs accessible is key to building trust with the community.
“Hopefully a program like this can be leveraged as a way to advocate for the city to really invest into better, active transportation and infrastructure in these communities,” said Ramírez.
Serafín said that's where she came in. She had to help her community believe they could really trust the program. For the first time in their lives, she said, they could hold onto something they were given — with no strings attached.
A Successful Start
With the trust Serafín had already built with her community, soon 25 people signed up for the first cohort, and the second cohort had a long waiting list. With the success of the pilot program, Bike LA is looking to expand into other districts across the county. Their mission? Prove that a future with e-bikes is possible for all.
Ramirez says different types of e-bike programs — from the e-bike lending program in the Valley that he spearheaded to Bike LA's program in south for small business owners — are models for shifting away from a car-centric culture.
"Ultimately what we're talking about is getting less cars in the streets," he said. "That's significant in terms of health and the wellbeing of folks in the community."
For Serafín, the project is a matter of the heart, not just greenhouse gas emissions. When she talks about its success, she can’t help but tear up with joy.
“We are instilling in people to use the bike and to leave their car to the side, that we should walk and be more conscious that we are killing our environment that is our home,” Serafín said.
In September, the newest cohort in Harbor City gathered for an e-bike safety training workshop. About a dozen people chatted and laughed over champurrado and pan dulce.
There were questions like: how long do I charge my e-bike? What are my rights on the road? How do I know I'm not going too fast?
Rosa Jiménez was among the attendees. She works from home selling nutritional products. When she was given her bike, she posed for a picture, proudly wearing her new bike helmet.
Bike LA's next e-bike cohort will be for people who live in Harbor City, Wilmington or San Pedro and are a small business owner or independently contracted delivery driver. If that's you, you can apply online to join the new e-bike cohort.
“The truth is that it’s a blessing,” said Jiménez.
Her husband was sick and she couldn't leave him alone for long periods of time. Sometimes she had to deliver packages all the way to Long Beach. With her e-bike, she saved on gas and gained time to care for husband.
Like many in her community, Jiménez also has a child with asthma. She said that’s why another perk of the e-bike is lowering pollution.
“This helps the environment,” she said, “so that the kids are healthy.”
A previous version of this story stated Carmina Gomez was a program manager with non-profit Bike L.A. Gomez is a manager with non-profit Los Angeles Walks. LAist regrets the error.
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