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The Creative Commuter

Last March, Kent Epperson bought a house in Ojai after months of fruitlessly searching for an affordable place in Santa Barbara. With that move, his short bike commute to his office near the intersection of Calle Real and North San Antonio Road in Santa Barbara abruptly changed to an hour and a half drive every day between the two cities.

“I was depressed the first few months as I settled into my routine and realized what it was going to be like to live in Ojai and work in Santa Barbara,” he says. As director of SBCAG’s Traffic Solutions program, Kent’s job is to encourage people to find ways to drive less, “and here I was sitting in traffic on the 101, alone in my car each day. It made me feel guilty, and it made me feel like I was living two separate lives.”

Nearly 20 years ago, Kent began his career in sustainable transportation in Denver, working as a bicycle planner for the local transit agency. In 2002, he moved to Santa Barbara, joined Traffic Solutions, and continued advocating for all types of sustainable transportation with the twin goals of reducing traffic and improving air quality. Throughout the years, he has been a stalwart bike commuter, inspired in part by his father’s own bike commuting during the oil embargo and energy crisis of the 1970s. “Bike commuting was a wacky thing to do back then, but it stuck with me,” Kent says. “It was something I knew was important and that anybody could do.”

Still, the nearly 70 mile round trip distance between Santa Barbara and Ojai was more than Kent wanted to bike every day, and with no direct, public transit options available, he soon realized that he had two options: either continue making his solo commute or find a carpooling group.

“I decided to create a mini Traffic Solutions campaign to encourage people to carpool from Ojai to Santa Barbara,” he says. “We call it ‘The Ojai to Santa Barbara Carpool Community.’ The biggest hurdle was people getting to know one another, so I hosted several mixers in Ojai to help people meet each other and sign up for the carpool list.”

It worked. Today, about 37 people are on the list, Kent included. Two thirds of the time, he carpools in with a guy who works in the office building next to his. The two both own a Prius and take turns driving to share costs. About once every other week when Kent has meetings downtown, he rides in with another group who regularly commute to the center of town. He throws his folding bike in the car on those trips and bikes the few miles to his office when he’s finished downtown.

When he’s not the one driving, Kent enjoys having the time to himself to look out the window, take a nap, and just generally arrive at work or back at home more relaxed than he would otherwise. When he does drive, he’s glad to have passengers along, knowing that he’s doing his part to help them drive less. His co-carpoolers feel similar sentiments, Kent says, and are grateful that he made it easy to find others interested in making the same commute. Most of them have comparable, fixed schedules, and once they have their routine in place, don’t vary it much. Kent’s schedule is a little more complicated depending on the day, but having a number of people on the carpooling list makes it easy to find a ride if he needs to return home a little earlier or later.

There are those unexpected benefits, too.

“Thanks to the carpooling mixers, I was instantly introduced to people I didn’t know otherwise, and they know others and so on,” Kent says. “Now, I’ve met a number of people that commute, and it’s made me feel like my Ojai and Santa Barbara worlds are coming together as one. Instead of viewing my commute as a burden to be suffered, I decided to be creative and approached the situation as a fun puzzle to figure out. Anybody else can do the same. It can really enhance your lifestyle when you go outside the standard of just driving back and forth to work every day.”

Carpooling groups, however, aren’t the only creative collaborations Kent has been building in the community.

In the years since he started with Traffic Solutions, he’s been instrumental in crafting partnerships between his organization and others in the area, including working with CEC on the Green Shorts Film Festival, with the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition on CycleMAYnia, and most recently with the Coalition for Sustainable Transportation (COAST) on Santa Barbara Open Streets.

A driving force behind this weekend’s Open Streets Festival, now in its second year, Kent was originally inspired by the weekly Ciclovía events that first occurred three decades ago in Bogotá and the subsequent Open Streets movement it has inspired in cities across North America. He reached out to COAST to help create a similar event in Santa Barbara. “It’s been really exciting working on Open Streets because it has such long-term implications and potential in changing how we experience our public spaces and seeing how much space we dedicate to the automobile,” he explains. “I really love the concept of using that space differently for a day, repurposing the streets to build community and promote exercise and public health.”

Join CEC as we once again sponsor the Santa Barbara Open Streets Festival on Saturday, October 25 from 10am to 4pm. Take a spin on the 7-person big orange conference bike with local elected officials, leaving from the CEC booth across from Chase Palm Park.

Emily DeMarco

Emily DeMarco holds a master of environmental science and management from the Bren School at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she specialized in strategic environmental communication and water resources management.
Emily DeMarco

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