Ramon Zavala
“I use my lifelong experience of living without a car to help people make the switch to commute by carpooling, vanpooling, bus or train – or even riding their bike or walking to work – instead of driving a car alone,” says UCI employee transportation coordinator Ramon Zavala (with his favorite mode of travel). Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications

Every morning and evening, Ramon Zavala ’05 pedals his Felt Verza City 3 along Anteater Drive, cycling between his Newport Coast apartment and his UC Irvine office. As coordinator of employee transportation, he encourages drive-alone campus commuters to reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions by adopting public transportation or other sustainable modes of travel. And he practices what he preaches.

Zavala has never held a driver’s license nor owned a car. “It’s always been bike, walk, skate, bus, train and carpool for me, and I’ve lived in Southern California my entire life,” he says. “This is easier than it sounds when growing up poor and independent. The lack of choice can be a blessing.”

When he joined the Transportation & Distribution Services department, Zavala began a blog chronicling his adventures in full-time bicycle commuting. Called “Bike UCI – Commuting, Advocacy, Education: The Story of an Upstart UCI Bike Commuter and Advocate,” it’s by turns personal, instructive, entertaining and activist.

A sample: “In my experience on two wheels, I’ve discovered that I have fewer issues (breathing, muscular) if I just shut my brain down and observe a 10-foot distance ahead of me – switching my head back periodically to check for closing cars or bikes. No music. No analysis of the past day. No lingering appreciation of the three hawks and one buzzard that perch on the light poles on Anteater Drive. It’s just me, my bike, my thighs and the next 10 feet of hill. And the next 10 feet of hill. And the next 10 feet of hill.”

Zavala believes in behavioral modeling. “Commuters change their habits most reliably when they’re confronted with real-life authenticity,” he says. “If we want people to carpool, we must carpool and be visible doing so. If we want people to take the bus, we must also take the bus and be visible doing so.

“If we want to market biking, the most important thing we can do is ride our bikes and talk to others on their bikes. Sustainable commuters themselves are the best marketing tools because they make what was once ‘alternative’ seem normal, accessible, realistic and beneficial.”

To create not just more but better campus cyclists, Zavala sought and received a grant for the Bike UCI series of free lunchtime classes on bicycle safety, rules of the road, equipment and commuting. The hands-on sessions are taught by certified League of American Bicyclists instructors, including Zavala, and attendees receive free bike bells or other safety gear.

Zavala’s approachable, outgoing personality makes him a popular representative of UCI’s sustainable transportation programs at various workshops, seminars and conferences. He’s also a liaison for many on-campus student groups and serves as a mentor to departmental interns.

In recognition of his efforts helping people make smart commuter choices, Zavala won a 2011 Parking Professional Merit Award from the California Public Parking Association and this summer was named one of the top “40 Under 40” transportation demand management professionals by the Association for Commuter Transportation.

But for Zavala, the real reward is seeing change happen. “My heart and passion will always be in education and witnessing the most glorious moment anyone can experience: the realization of capability. ‘I can do this. I understand this. I did this. This is easy now. I can’t wait to do this again and bring someone along.’

“I get to be a part of change at the personal level and affect large groups of people. What more can anyone want?”