×

Neighbors: Paving the way

They may be the co-founders of the Maui Bicycling League, but you won’t find Saman Dias or Lee Chamberlain pedaling 10-speeds or competing in a road race anytime soon. They’ve never watched the Tour de France on television and they don’t own a single pair of Spandex bike shorts. But Dias and Chamberlain do have one thing in common with die-hard cyclists: sheer determination.

Two years ago, the California natives decided to leave the corporate rat race and retire in Kahana. The couple were looking forward to some well-deserved downtime; they never imagined they would soon be busy advocating for a bicycle-friendly community.

“We’re both very active,” Chamberlain said. “But we never really had an interest in bicycling.”

Dias was a competitive tennis player, while Chamberlain was drawn to another two-wheel sport, adventure motorcycling. However, after two close calls in California, he downshifted to a lower gear and purchased an electric bicycle (a pedal bike outfitted with an electric motor).

Not long after, Chamberlain had a craftsman in Kihei retrofit an old Schwinn to a tandem electric bike so he and Dias could ride together. With the strategic addition of side bags, the couple began to run their daily errands on the bike – and left the car collecting dust in the garage. “An e-bike is perfect for Maui,” Chamberlain said. “It’s cost-effective, eco-friendly transportation . . . and you don’t have to be Lance Armstrong to ride it.”

This eventually led to a new – and rather unexpected – business venture, Pedego Maui, which Chamberlain established in 2013. He now rents and sells a variety of e-bikes to residents and visitors in Kaanapali.

But a near miss on a Lahaina roadway in 2014 opened his eyes to a dangerous reality. “A car turned without warning and I crashed into it,” he said. “Fortunately, I was OK, but it made me realize that there was a serious infrastructure problem here on Maui.”

Shaken by the incident, Dias and Chamberlain decided to do their homework. They were stunned to learn that Hawaii was named one of the least bike-friendly states in the nation (ranked at No. 40) by the League of American Bicyclists. Even worse, the couple discovered there had been several fatal accidents on Maui roadways involving cyclists that year alone. One tragedy in particular left them especially rattled: the death of Karl Hagen, who was struck and killed while riding in a designated bicycle lane on the Piilani Highway.

This newfound interest led them to stumble upon Walter Enomoto’s Maui Bicycling Alliance blog, which gave them a comprehensive history of bicycle safety on the Valley Isle. Dias credits the blog for prompting them to take the first step toward bike and pedestrian advocacy.

“We all deserve a safe place to walk and ride,” she said. “We also need to preserve Maui’s natural beauty, so it won’t turn into a place like Oahu, which has so much traffic and congestion. Bicycling is one way we can keep that from happening.”

That same year, Dias and Chamberlain traveled to Honolulu to attend a conference hosted by the Alliance for Biking & Walking and the League for American Bicyclists. At the time, they never imagined they’d be returning home to launch the Maui Chapter of the Hawaii Bicycling League. But that’s exactly what happened.

After a series of public meetings and countless hours of behind-the-scenes planning, Dias and Chamberlain held the first official Maui Bicycling League (MBL) meeting to formalize the organization in December. The organization, which now has a slate of officers and a steering committee, has been active since January; its members meet monthly at the Pacific Whale Foundation Discovery Center in Maalaea. Dias is the chair of the MBL and Chamberlain serves as the group’s advocacy chair.

“Our mission is to build safe bicycling and pedestrian pathways on Maui,” Dias said. “We also want to ensure bicyclists and pedestrians have a stronger, organized voice on Maui.”

It may be a fledgling organization, but the MBL has already had its fair share of victories. The group played a significant role in the passage of the Central Maui Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan for 2030, a resolution sponsored by Council Member Don Guzman.

In addition, Dias and Chamberlain successfully – in a matter of 72 hours – collected more than 200 signatures on a petition that was submitted to the Maui County Council Budget and Finance Committee. They also persuaded MBL members and nonmembers alike to provide testimony at budget hearings countywide. As a result of their efforts, more than $6 million of the 2016 budget will fund new and existing bikeway improvement projects, some of which have been languishing on the back burner for years, Chamberlain said.

The MBL is partnering with community groups islandwide to solicit input for customized regional plans. On the west side, Chamberlain has been lobbying for the West Maui Greenway, a 15-mile path that would stretch from Olowalu to Napili, offering pedestrians, cyclists and equestrians an alternative to riding or walking along the Honoapiilani Highway. The project is not without its complexities, though, as sections of the proposed greenway are cane haul roads that are privately owned, while other sections are managed by the county.

Chamberlain, who often wakes up at 3 a.m. to work on the project, is undeterred. A pilot phase of the greenway – a 4-mile segment that runs from Olowalu to Puamana – is expected to be completed by the end of 2016.

Clearly, Dias and Chamberlain are gifted when it comes to advocacy. “If you want to build it, you have to advocate for it,” Dias said. “And you also need to show people what it is that you’re advocating for.”

With this in mind, the couple coordinated a series of group bike rides in May (National Bike Month), such as the Ride of Silence, Safe Routes to School and the West Maui and Central Maui Rides. They also managed to coax several elected officials – including Mayor Alan Arakawa, Assistant Public Works Director Rowena Dagdag-Andaya, state Rep. Angus McKelvey and Council Members Elle Cochran, Don Couch and Guzman – to take a spin on an electric bike along the proposed West Maui Greenway. Dias said that Dagdag-Andaya purchased a bike after riding the greenway and is now taking part in a 60-day bike challenge.

“We are definitely touching people and changing the way how bicycles are used here on Maui,” she said. “We are amazed what we have been able to accomplish in a short time.”

Chamberlain and Dias may be the driving force behind the MBL, but they say it hasn’t been a solo ride.

“We couldn’t have come this far without the community leaders and organizations that supported our efforts,” Dias said. “We could not have done this on our own and we are grateful to all who believed in us and supported us.”

n Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer and instructor at the University of Hawaii Maui College.

Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.