1×10: Gene Oh, Tranzito, BikeHub, & Alameda Bicycle

Welcome to 1×10, where we ask 1 inspiring human 10 questions about how they are using cycling as a force for good. Read on to meet Gene Oh, CEO of Tranzito, President of BikeHub, and President of Alameda Bicycle, in Alameda, CA. He is a busy dude! I came across Gene on LinkedIn and reached out and he agreed to do a Virtuous Cycle interview! Learn more about how he fell in love with cycling, his most epic ride (it’s a doozy!), and more about how he’s using bikes to do good, in this 1×10 interview.

Some additional background on Gene:

My mom purchased Alameda Bicycle in 1989; I was 12 at the time.  This was right before the mountain bike boom, so at first we were really scraping by.  My mom worked 7 days a week, my father built bikes and led strategy when not working as a Berkeley firefighter, and my older bro Dave and I worked weekends and holidays to keep the shop going.  

I eventually went to Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley but just didn’t feel like joining the corporate world.  With my mom reaching retirement age and after working so hard for so long, in 2002 I took over Alameda Bicycle.  

I received an opportunity in 2004 to help our regional rail operator BART develop their bike parking program.  The demand for secure bike parking grew with the success of our early locations , and eventually it turned into a separate venture — BikeHub.  We now operate 20 secure bike parking locations for California’s top transit agencies and cities.  We also operate bike share systems large and small — from fleets with 2000+ bikes to 2 — and also consult with public and private organizations on their bike-related programs.  

Bicycles are now considered a “real” transportation mode — not for us fringe crazy cyclists — and as all modes of transportation are converging along the curb, we started Tranzito to help cities and transit agencies manage and integrate shared private mobility with public transit.

1. How / why did you fall in love with cycling?

I started working at Alameda Bicycle when I was 12 years old — working weekends and school holidays — so my intimacy with cycling started out as more transactional, or a means to an end.  Starting from the BMX boom, to the mountain bike craze, to road biking, and now seeing this commute boom, I observed a few constants in the people who’ve purchased bikes from us.

First, it really does bring people and families together.  It’s a great equalizer of sorts, and folks of all ages and skill levels can ride, and that’s awesome.  Second, people who ride regularly are just nicer people.  I’m serious, I’ve employed perhaps hundreds of people, helped tens of thousands of clients, and interacted with dozens of municipal employees — those that ride regularly have a chiller and more positive vibe.  And third, that joy of cycling never goes away, and it really doesn’t matter what kind of bike it is, where it’s ridden, or how much it costs.  Cycling is just fun, period.

So when it comes down to it, beyond a personal love for it, I’ve fallen in love with the power of it… the bicycle has led social revolutions, from fighting racial prejudice, to women’s liberation, to the oncoming re-thinking of our roads as sustainable transportation takes root its wheels keep spinnin’ for change!

“…beyond a personal love for it, I’ve fallen in love with the power of it… the bicycle has led social revolutions, from fighting racial prejudice, to women’s liberation, to the oncoming re-thinking of our roads as sustainable transportation…”

2. Favorite Bike (that you own or covet)?

My single speed steel Gitane commuter with spare take-off parts and bulletproof Schwalbe tires.  It also doubles as my rig when riding with my 9 year-old Isabel and 12-year-old Marley. 

3. What’s the most memorable ride you’ve done, and what happened?

I took my (then) girlfriend Minah to Downieville, the mecca of mountain biking.  She had only ridden dirt 2-3 times with me, and was beginning to like it.  So I thought, where else would she learn to love mountain biking than a shuttle ride at Downieville, with 15-miles of super technical singletrack, right?  Big mistake.  

Somehow my mind didn’t compute the skill and fitness mismatch, and on the first major section — Butcher Ranch — she flipped over and hit her head real bad.  Not wanting to slow down our group, we decided to hoof it down alone.  With temperatures approaching 100 degrees, a minor concussion led to severe dehydration… which led to hallucinations.  This was at mile three with twelve more to go.

There were moments when I thought she wasn’t going to make it.  Luckily some riders who passed us by had more sense than me and alerted the volunteer firefighters.  She eventually got gurneyed out, took a helicopter ride to a hospital 100+ miles away, and fully recovered.  But the concussion must have had a lasting effect, because she somehow agreed to marry me and the rest is history!

“With temperatures approaching 100 degrees, a minor concussion led to severe dehydration… which led to hallucinations. This was at mile three with twelve more to go.”

4. Who do you admire in the cycling world?

I really admire all the bike advocates who pester city planners, agitate at council meetings, and spend countless hours at tabling events.  This is real hard work, and it takes a certain kind of person willing to be a lonely voice in the woods.  In my three decades in the industry, that voice has grown louder and is no longer ignored, and countless bicycle lanes and programs have been funded because of it.  

“This is real hard work, and it takes a certain kind of person willing to be a lonely voice in the woods.”

5. Top tip for a new rider, or a cyclist about to take on a new challenge?

I hate being clichéd, but cycling really is a metaphor for life.  That hill is only overcome by pedaling, and each pedal gets us closer to our goal.  We always feel like quitting when we’re almost at the top, and so do the countless others that do quit before reaching the peak.  But if we maintain faith and keep pedaling, we reap the rewards of all that hard work with great perspective and an easier path downhill… that is, until the next climb. 😉

“But if we maintain faith and keep pedaling, we reap the rewards of all that hard work with great perspective and an easier path downhill… that is, until the next climb. ;)”

6. Favorite trend or innovation in cycling?

Electric bikes will allow the masses to appreciate the joy of cycling.   This will usher in a much louder voice advocating for more bicycling infrastructure — a win for us all.

7. What are you doing to use cycling as a force for good?

Every bike that is produced with real resources, purchased with real money, and then sits in the garage is a wasted opportunity.  I believe bicycle shops can do more than sell bikes, but sell cycling.  And it starts with motivated staff eager to share their joy of cycling with others.  At Alameda Bicycle we treat bike mechanics as a craft, and provide career opportunities to those that love bikes like I do.  So I developed solid procedures and managerial structures to empower staff, while fostering a co-op feel where everyone’s voice is heard and buy-in is key.  This makes for happier, more productive staff = more pay and incentive to stick around.  The result is a real intimacy with loyal clients and an inviting atmosphere — something that isn’t always associated with bike shops.  We also host over 100 beginner group rides and family/kids’ events annually. We’re helping “non-cyclists” get on and stay on bikes.  The machine does the rest.  

“At Alameda Bicycle we treat bike mechanics as a craft, and provide career opportunities to those that love bikes like I do.”

At BikeHub, we help cities and transit agencies incorporate bicycles into their transportation matrix.  We design and operate secure bike parking and bike share programs.  We’re making it convenient to travel without owning a car.  With bicycles we can undo so much damage: environmental damage, oil wars, suburban sprawl and gridlock, to name a few.  But the real change is harder to measure, things like hopping into work or returning home with a smile on the face and reduced stress, or feeling more connected with our neighborhood as we pass by in a slower and more intimate way.  These qualitative benefits are what really changes people for the better, and all real change starts with the individual.  

“But the real change is harder to measure, things like hopping into work or returning home with a smile on the face and reduced stress, or feeling more connected with our neighborhood as we pass by in a slower and more intimate way.”

8. Thinking about the work you’re doing, what do you see as the potential change for people or the planet? If you are successful, what impact will you have?

The power of the bicycle is real… just get butts on bikes and the experience does the rest.  I’ve witnessed tens of thousands of anxious adults who haven’t ridden a bike in decades hop on a test ride and come back beaming ear-to-ear.  And we founded an annual fundraiser — Alameda Bike for the Parks — to rally our community around a family-focused bike ride and after-party at a local park.  Last year, we celebrated Alameda Bicycle’s 50th Anniversary during the after-party with 600 riders, 200 additional party-goers, and almost 100 volunteers — and we raised over $30,000 for the parks.  That’s how we make change, right from a local level.

“I’ve witnessed tens of thousands of anxious adults who haven’t ridden a bike in decades hop on a test ride and come back beaming ear-to-ear.”

9. What’s your biggest challenge/obstacle to success?

Money is power, or more accurately the access to money is power.  At Alameda Bicycle, we face ongoing competition from larger, more capitalized players.  It was discount chain stores in the early days, then big-box retailers, now the internet.   

At BikeHub (and now at Tranzito), we’re competing with venture-funded companies.  The same dynamics apply, but on an even larger scale.  Thankfully, much like Alameda Bicycle, we have clients who’ve made the conscious decision to pay a bit more in exchange for better service and supporting local business, and they’re getting a fundamentally sustainable business model that won’t evaporate when the people with the deep pockets turn their attention elsewhere.

“At Alameda Bicycle, we face ongoing competition from larger, more capitalized players…At BikeHub (and now at Tranzito), we’re competing with venture-funded companies.”

10. How can people help? Where can they learn more about your work?

Be the change you want to see in the world.  Ride more, try bike commuting, tell your friends, consider being an agitator by attending a council meeting or two.  It’s as simple as riding a bike! 

Gene Oh, is the CEO of Tranzito, President of BikeHub, and President of Alameda Bicycle, in Berkeley, CA. When he’s not doing all of those things you can find him riding around town with his kids Marley and Isabel.

Edited by John Kim. When he’s not out for a ride, John uses his expertise in Corporate Social Responsibility to help companies do well by doing good. Find him at virtcyc@gmail.com or VirtCyc on twitter or instagram.

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