Nicole Burgess – A Truly Extraordinary Mom

Nicole Burgess at the opening of the Mike Gotch Bicycle/Pedestrian Bridge

For the past two years an Ocean Beach mom, Nicole Burgess, has single handedly started a bike train and then founded and led the District 2 bicycle/pedestrian working group. All of this is was with the goal of making District 2, and specifically Ocean Beach more bike friendly. I recently rode over to Ocean Beach to experience a day in the life of a bicycling mom. I experienced what it was like to ride with about a dozen (extremely energetic) kids to school and then sat down with Burgess to learn more about her and her advocacy. I hope you find Burgess as inspiring as I have.

Q: How did you get into biking? Was there a break between you riding as a kid and as an adult?

A: There was a break between me riding as a kid and as an adult. When I was a kid I did bike and then I went to college in Chico, CA – a bike friendly city. When I came back I was definitely in the car mode. After having kids I was definitely the car mode. It was when the kids were old enough to get on a bike and get out of the stroller that I began riding regularly as an adult. I was pushing three kids on a stroller to school. It was crazy. So once I got on a bike, I got them going.  I think when I was 37 when I said, “we’re going to start bike tradition!” I told my kids “you’re going to bike your age!” I got the idea about biking with the kids from a friend, but he claims he didn’t give it to me.  So I don’t know where the idea came from.

I started biking the kids to school. The bike train to Dana [Middle School] started because my oldest began going to Dana. Before Dana, we always walked to OB Elementary which is our neighborhood school. Dana is too far to walk to so we got some friends to ride with their kids to school.

Ocean Beach Bike Train. Photo: Nicole Burgess

Q: How many adults ride with the kids to school?

A: There are a couple of adults that sometimes ride with us. When I first started it, I was the only adult and I wondered how do I get all these kids and their backpacks to school. But I got a baby carrier in which I carry the backpacks. When I had the help of another mom we had two carriers – two moms. But now that the kids are older they need to carry their own backpacks. I can’t carry them. A couple of the kids have panniers [pdf].

Starting them out young and on the road to independence. Photo: Nicole Burgess

Do you often ride with the kids by yourself?

Most of the time I do. In the first year, I had one mom helping me with backpacks, on occasion. Her son and my daughter have gone to Correia Middle School which is within walking distance. So they’ve chosen to walk. Her youngest is still at OB Elementary so this last year she helps on occasion. The challenge is different schedules between the elementary school children and the middle school children. How do you get the little ones to go on the same commute especially when there are hills? From what I gather from the parents who are signing up their kids for next year’s [bike train], they can’t help out because they have young kids at home.

Q: How old was your youngest when you started?

A: The three kids are all two years apart – the youngest was in first grade when I first started. So I had another mom watching my youngest when I picked up the Dana kids. I think for parents with kids in first through second grade it is really hard. They want to get their kids riding to school, the kids can’t ride to school, it’s unsafe to ride to school, how do you ride with them on the sidewalk? For those parents I recommend a tandem bike. To get a child to and from school and not worry about the kids having to know the rules of the road, I’d recommend a tandem bike or an xtracycle, if I were a parent again, I’d have an xtracycle and I’d  just putting a seat either in the front or on the back rack. My nine year old – I still pick her up and have her sit on the back rack as she still doesn’t’ have her bike yet so this option works for older kids too. The simple act of getting your child on a bicycle is a good avenue for the young moms still figuring things out.

Getting hauled in a trailer. Photo: Nicole Burgess

Q: Have you had comments from parents about the cost of investing in a bike.

A: Most people in OB/Point Loma have a bike. Most people have a bike in the garage that is not being used. If there is a parent that doesn’t have a bike, I will find some way of getting them a bike.

Q: So what is the biggest objection from parents in getting their kids to ride to school?

Safety. Safety is the #1 concern.

Q: What do you mean by safety being the big concern?

There is too much (auto) traffic. It is unsafe.

Q: How do you deal with parents’ concerns on that?

I just have to accept it. That they’re not going to put their kids on a bike and get out there. I don’t push the issue. I just work on the kids that do want to ride to school. I have this one friend whose kids are very active but he won’t allows his kids to ride on the street. His kids don’t know how to bike. He’s lives on my route. His boys should be riding. My attitude is just go for it and do it. I tell him that if his kid rides with me, he’ll be one less car for me to deal with.

Our future. Photo: Nicole Burgess

Q: When you started, weren’t you afraid of the traffic?

Not too much. I don’t know why.  I figure when you get five kids on a bike, it slows traffic down.

 Q: Have you had any negative experiences during the year you have been biking to school with the kids?

A: The negative is the kids that aren’t listening. The ones that don’t follow the rules of the road or won’t attend a class (on learning the rules of the road or how to ride safely). Then there are parents who won’t come to a class because their kids have been riding for years so they know everything. The kids are ten [years old] and haven’t had a bike education class. They need one. That is probably one of the challenges.

The other challenge is watching parents ride the wrong way on the road because it sets a bad example to the kids.

The other example most people fixate on is helmets and whether to wear one or not. I can be partial on helmets. Personally. I’ve read articles on helmets and I know how Amsterdam is with helmets. I wear a helmet because the kids are watching me. So as a parent if you want your kids to wear a helmet, you should wear one too.

Q: If other parents in other neighborhoods and other cities want to start a bike train what would you suggest as first steps?

A: Take your own kid to school. That’s the first step. Then try to get their friends. Then get more friends. I tried to recruit by offering incentives. I told the kids that if they recruited another rider I’d take them out to lunch. But that never really works. It’s always so hard to get a new rider. But once they get a new rider, they’re hooked! They love it. But to get the new rider is always a challenge.

And they’re off! Photo: Nicole Burgess

Q: You mentioned something about the coolness factor in riding a bike. Can you talk a bit more about that?

A: For the Dana kids who are in 5th and 6th grades – it’s really pretty cool to ride a bike. You’re in 5th or 6th grade and you’re responsible for getting yourself to school, you don’t have to depend on your mom. It shows them independence. But then they go to seventh grade and it’s not cool to wear a helmet. And maybe it’s not cool to ride a bike because its cool to ride a skateboard. Because the kids think they don’t have to wear a helmet when they skateboard. Because they can just pick up their skateboard and walk if they see anyone who will give them a talk about helmets. So they have a vision of not wearing a helmet when on a skateboard. And then in high school, it’s obviously not cool to ride a bike.

So I’m working on getting the current generation to see that it is cool to ride a bike, cool to wear a helmet. That you can ride a bike. And hopefully by the time they go to high school, I can keep them out of a car. That’s the idea. But because I don’t have high school age kids yet, I’m not there yet. Eventually when my kids are in high school I can be an advocate at high schools, but they’ll lose me at the elementary schools. Which is something I see as being more important because high school students should be able to do it on their own. Elementary students can’t do it on their own.

Learning how to fix a flat in a bike education class. Photo: Nicole Burgess

Q: What sort of advocacy do you do in elementary schools?

A: I conduct “bike assemblies” which is a way for me to talk about bike education [pdf presentation]. I talk about some of the markings that have showed up in OB like the sharrows. I talk about the value of facility improvements by talking about active transportation.

Q: What are your views on sharrows?

A: I think they’re great for awareness. They’re inexpensive and I think they’re a great value. I think we still need to work on the education part. I’ve been asking the Beacon to write an article about sharrows for six months but I haven’t seen one. My bike crew all know about sharrows. In the afternoon on Voltaire Street it is chaos and its crazy and cars are coming up and we’ve got 13 bikers. Drivers should slow down but what happens is the drivers think they’ll just pass this one rider and they then see two and three riders so then they try to zoom past all the riders. As the person riding in the back, I should probably take the whole lane to slow down traffic behind me but sometimes…

Nimitz Boulevard: A San Diego embarrassment. Narrow bike lane that is poorly maintained where riders including children have to contend being passed by speeding drivers.

Q: Let’s talk about Nimitz Boulevard. You’ve been riding it now for three years. Have conditions gotten worse or are they the same?

The potholes have gotten a little worse.

Q: Has there been any work done on Nimitz to improve the road?

A: No. Not at all.

Q: When did you start getting involved with advocacy like being on the SANDAG Bike/Ped Working Group?

A: That happened about two years ago. A bike advocate from Oceanside, Howard LaGrange, asked me,  “why not just focus on your district?” And that was what I did. And that’s the way it should be for San Diego. Because it’s too hard to focus on the entire city. So the district focus is great. I tried to get involved when Jim Lundquist was the bike coordinator. This was when I first started riding and I asked for a “share the road” sign on Voltaire and one by OB Elementary. It took a year to get it the sign. Now I’m seeing all this new signage. It took me a year to get one new sign. It took so long for Jim to get motivated in that.  The city crew has to come out and make an observation and tell you where they will put the sign then they have to go back and make a request and then come out again and put the sign up…then Jim Lundquist said I need a letter from the bicycle coalition to the mayor stating that we need this sign up. So many little hoops to figure out how to go through.

Q: Do you know why it took so long?

A: No. Then Jim Lundquist left and then Tom Landre came in. I don’t know why things take so long. But it definitely helps to have a group of people working to make the same demand. That’s why I founded the District 2 bike/ped working group. Since last year I’ve been asking everyone I can to form an advisory committee.

Nimitz Boulevard (highlighted) with the three main OB Parks.

Q: What has been your focus in District 2 bike/ped meetings? What are some of the problem spots in District 2?

A: Nimitz is our main priority. It’s a huge corridor. Nimitz used to be not on the radar for the city for improvements, but now it has become a priority. Greg Cox supports the idea. All of SANDAG supports this, Kevin Faulconer supports this.

With Nimitz, I regularly only ride a small portion to get to Dana Middle School but, it links up to the huge Mission Bay bike path and the Harbor Drive bike path. If we make a small change we can get a huge amount of tourist traffic coming into OB. Right now riding groups ride from downtown to Mission Beach via Pacific Highway. They’re skipping out on Ocean Beach! We’re missing all those people coming in. If Nimitz was good, it could be a coastal route. It also is huge in connecting the three big parks: Bill Cleator (next to Correia Middle School), Robb Field and Dusty Rhodes. They’re all so close! Why aren’t they connected? Why can’t we walk across the street from one park to another? Hundreds of kids play soccer and they have to cross a hundred yards or two hundred yards of highway to get from one park to another. So guess what? All of them have to have their parents pick them up  to come down Voltaire (one of the busiest roads) or go on Nimitz. It’s crazy. If I had a vision for the next 20 years, I want to see these parks being utilized by everybody. There’s parents that have girls playing softball in one park, and boys’ soccer in a differnt park that is less than a mile away. But they get in the car and wind up doing this loop, three times in one day and go back and forth. It’s crazy. Anyone living in Loma Portal area that wants to go to Mission Bay take Nimitz. Kevin Faulconer takes Nimitz. Then you see kids with skateboards trying to get to the skateboard park, across the I-8 ramp – it’s scary to watch.

Bacon is another street. People come off the bike path and are confused on how to get around OB.

Q: Have you had any success in asking for traffic calming?

A: I’ve never really asked for traffic calming.

Riding to school is fun. Photo: Nicole Burgess

Q: Any other last thoughts?

One issue with bike trains is I’m a huge advocate of odometers. I love my odometer and the kids get so excited to ride with an odometer. I sponsor my kids because it was hard to get my kids motivated to ride everyday so when I decided to do this , I told my kids I don’t need to fight with you every time over biking so I’m going to give you a buck/mile. Now, publicly I don’t advocate for a buck a mile, but I do say $0.20/mile because that’s what it costs: $0.25/mile in an average car. So if you can save your parents a $0.05/mile, your kid should get part of those savings. So if you get an odometer for your kid and pay them every hundred miles, they get $20. It’s amazing. My son, when I did a buck a mile, wanted shoes. So I said fine, let’s ride our bikes to Sports Authority. Sure enough, I owed him $40 in bike money. So he was able to buy his own shoes. My other kids went to Target and bought their own clothes. I have not spent money on them, because they’re making good money. I’m going to change it though.

Q: How?

A: Next year, most schools have a run for life program and they give out shoes for every hundred miles. So I’m going to go out and get bike charms that are color coded, a color for riding 100 miles and a different color for 500 miles and a different color for a 1000 miles so other kids know visually how many miles their friends have biked. A lot of my kids have odometers and their parents are sponsoring them in some way, sometimes the pay is computer time or giving them credit for getting themselves to school and giving them an extra incentive, because its amazing how much time it saves parents.

Q: How does biking to school save parents time?

A: For example, afternoon pickup time is at 1:10 PM and parents leave at quarter to one by car to get a “good parking spot” to sit in their car and wait for their kids. Or sit there and do nothing. And I can leave five minutes before they get out and meet them at the front door of the school rather than up the street in the car and be home at the same time as the rest of the parents and not waste any gas. It seems like a no-brainer to ride to school!

To contact Nicole about either starting your own bike train, helping her with her bike train, or to get involved in District 2 bike advocacy please contact her at