LIFESTYLE

After scare, young siblings push 'Bike It! Santa Ana' campaign to keep cyclists safe

When you think of Southern California, the last thing one thinks of is its “bikeability.” But for two Santa Ana teens and their families, the dangers of riding a bike became both personal and the driving force to make a difference in their community.

Maribel Mateo, 18, and her brother Tony Gatica, 15, got into action after their dad was hit by a car pulling out of a driveway two years ago. Although badly injured, he was able to remove himself from the very busy street and crawl back onto the sidewalk. This was the catalyst for the campaign that would be known as “Bike It! Santa Ana.”

Thanks to the determination of the siblings and a group of students working with the Youth Empowerment Network at the non-profit KidWorks, the city was recently awarded $2.37 million for three projects initiated by the students, who wrote a detailed grant application.

The projects include a protected bikeway from the city’s train station to the downtown Civic Center and protected bike lanes on Edinger Ave., for which the city received state funding.

“In early January of 2014, I met a group of passionate young people who rode bikes everywhere. They were determined to have bike lanes, to make it safe for people, and that drove the Bike It! Santa Ana project forward,” said Lynnete Guzman, Community Engagement Coordinator for KidWorks, to Fox News Latino.

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Starting two years ago with a “bikeability” assessment in central Santa Ana, the students found that the bicycle routes people most needed were also the most dangerous. One highly trafficked area offered no sidewalks alongside 14 homes.

“This was a collaborative effort. We worked with Santa Ana Active Streets (SAAS) — they were there for support, to collect surveys and helped plan community rides,” Guzman told FNL.

Approximately 78 percent of the 300,000 residents in Santa Ana are Latino, with many of the men working in factories and the women in domestic jobs. English is usually their second language and quite a few families do not own cars.

KidWorks also offers education to the community about how to feel comfortable and safely ride in the street, organizing community rides and challenging the community to understand that cyclists are entitled to take a full lane.

“At the time we launched this program, biking was the only way for my family to get around,” Gatica said. “We biked everywhere.”

He explained that they first created a detailed survey asking bikers about the routes they currently took and the ones they needed. They then came up with three projects and focused on a route that connected eight city schools.

“It was surprising winning the grant,” said Gatica, a high school sophomore. “We thought it’d be hard, but we knew it was a possibility.”

According to the Orange County Register, the KidWorks grant application documented 12 bicycle collisions and eight pedestrian collisions that had occurred on the 1.7-mile stretch of the proposed bike lane project between January 2011 and May 2015.

Just this past July, a 13-year-old girl riding her bike was struck and killed by a Santa Ana Unified School District employee driving a work truck.

Although it will still be a couple of years before the lanes are up and ready to go, the kids say the best part of the city awarding the grant was that it gave them hope and an invaluable piece of knowledge: big victories are possible.

Rebekah Sager is a writer and editor for FoxNews.com. She can be reached at rebekah.sager@foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @rebekah_sager.