Elderly riders connect with community in trishaws piloted by volunteers
Ever since John Seigel-Boettner took the training wheels off his bike in 1958 and promptly crashed into the geraniums at the family home on Chino Street on Santa Barbara’s West Side, the magic of two wheels helped carry him to Pee Wee League games at MacKenzie Park, deliver the News-Press, honeymoon with his wife Lynn, and pedal his newborn sons, Jacob and Isaac, home from Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital on a trailer towed behind his bike.
“The first time, my mother-in-law wanted to kill me. The second time, she told everyone in the hospital lobby,” said Mr. Seigel-Boettner from his home on the Mesa.
After earning his teaching credential at San Francisco State University, the San Marcos High School graduate and history buff fulfilled his dream of a six-week biking trip in New England.
During the 22 years he taught at Santa Barbara Middle School, Mr. Seigel-Boettner shared his love of biking with his students through twice-yearly, multi-day bike excursions sanctioned by the school.
Included was a cross-country bicycle trip with pre-teens, which provided the inspiration for “Hey, Mom, Can I Ride My Bike Across America? Five Kids Meet Their Country.”
In the book, Mr. Seigel-Boettner chronicles the group’s perseverance through snowstorms, intense heat and even a tornado.
In 2008, he took a group of middle school students on a bike ride through the Republic of Rwanda in central eastern Africa.
After his retirement from teaching in 2015, his passion for bicycling hasn’t abated.
In fact, his enthusiasm has grown since he founded the Santa Barbara Chapter of Cycling Without Age, a worldwide movement started in 2012 by Ole Kassow of Copenhagen.
“Mr. Kassow, a 47-year-old social entrepreneur, wanted to help elders get back on their bicycles, but he had to find a solution to their limited mobility. The answer was a trishaw, and he started offering free bike rides to the local nursing home residents,” said Mr. Seigel-Boettner.
Today, Santa Barbara is one of more than 2,700 chapters throughout the world, serving more than 1.5 million people.
“With the motto, ‘The right to wind in your hair,’ Cycling Without Age offers recreational mobility to seniors in the form of volunteer piloted trishaw rides. This promotes communication between the senior passengers and their riders, called pilots. These rides enable seniors with limited mobility to explore their neighborhood and the surrounding area,” said Mr. Seigel-Boettner, who was inspired to start the local group after hearing a TED talk by the founder.
He and his wife, who teaches at Vieja Valley Elementary School in Santa Barbara, funded the first trishaw, which cost $10,000 and had to be shipped to Santa Barbara from Copenhagen, where all the trishaws are made.
“Santa Barbara has a large population of silver-haired people, and we wanted as many as possible to have the joy of riding under the blue skies with the wind in their hair,” he said.
Their first presentation was in the parking lot at Heritage House Retirement Community on Hollister Avenue. Then as the word got out, they went to Garden Court, Alexander Gardens, Mariposa and Friendship Center.
“We now have seven trishaws, one of which is outfitted for a wheelchair, that have been funded by donations from Yardi Systems, Heritage House, the Copp family and Santa Barbara Middle School,” Mr. Seigel-Boettner told the News-Press. “We’re hoping to raise $15,000 for a matching grant from the Living Peace Foundation in Santa Barbara. That means we can buy three more trishaws, and one will accommodate a wheelchair.”
There are more than 30 volunteer pilots, all carefully trained men and women with a wide range of backgrounds ranging in age from 21 to more than 70 years.
“The elderly riders are a hidden treasure in our community. They provide a wealth of knowledge about the history because they have lived here so long. Old timers tell me their stories. One woman from Garden Court was like the well-known local historian Walker Tompkins. As we rode down State Street, she pointed out where Ott’s Hardware and Bonnie Langley and other longtime businesses used to be. Her grandfather was a stagecoach driver,” said Mr. Seigel-Boettner, who encourages his riders to interact with pedestrians.
“I tell them if they don’t wave, I’m going to drop them off. If they see someone they know, we pull over and chat, which is why the free rides can last from 30 minutes to three hours. The trishaws are specially designed to encourage conversation between the pilots, riders and community.”
Often the riders share the red padded seats with their dogs or grandchildren.
“My oldest rider was a woman celebrating her 101st birthday,” Mr. Seigel-Boettner said.
Because of the pandemic, Cycling Without Age is currently on hiatus, but when it begins again, he and the other pilots will pick up riders at the various local retirement communities and people’s homes unless the location is too difficult to reach.
“Then we arrange to meet them at the Dolphin Fountain at the bottom of State Street, the courthouse, Shoreline Park or some other convenient place,” said Mr. Seigel-Boettner who has a car but noted, ”it doesn’t work very well.
“It’s a 1976 VW sky blue van that I named Fred. I prefer riding my bike around town. It was built for coffee farmers in Rwanda. It’s 15 years old and has six speeds. It keeps me humble.”