Strength in numbers
How a fun group bike ride is helping a city get back to the bicycle
The Doable City Reader
There is so much that can be done to make our cities happier, healthier and more prosperous places. Every day in cities around the world, citizens and city planners alike are showing us how small actions can scale up to have massive impact. And they can in your city too.
That’s what the Doable City Reader is about. In June 2014, 8 80 Cities, in collaboration with the Knight Foundation, brought 200 civic innovators from around North America together in Chicago at the Doable City Forum to share and discover methods for rapid change making. The Doable City Reader is inspired by the rich conversations amongst presenters and participants at that forum. It is a resource for any and all people who want to make change in their cities and is meant to educate, inspire and empower anyone to do so.
There’s a catch-22 that often arises when it comes to creating a more bike-friendly city: one of the most important first steps is simply having more cyclists in the first place. Without a solid cycling population, politicians may feel hard-pressed to justify spending money on bike infrastructure. Yet nearly every study out there tells us that good infrastructure is required in order for average people to feel comfortable enough to get onto the streets on their bikes.
In Charlotte, N.C., a local community group dubbed the Charlotte Spokespeople has tackled this problem head on by creating an alternative route to getting people out and comfortable on their bikes. They call it the Plaza Midwood Tuesday Night Ride (PMTNR): a simple, fun and free weekly group bike ride that happens every Tuesday night, rain, shine or snow, in the Plaza Midwood neighbourhood. Each week, up to 150 people come out for the 10- to 15-mile ride, which lasts about 2.5 hours, including stops at local businesses. A social ride (versus a performance-oriented or competitive ride), the PMTNR is open and fun for cyclists of all abilities and, most importantly, it is geared toward creating a supportive environment that allows people who are new to cycling or hesitant to ride in traffic to get used to doing so. The Charlotte Spokespeople also host even slower rides on Sunday afternoons with the same goal.
Bethanie Johnson’s story is an example of the type of change such a simple initiative can spark. A 45-year-old single mother, Johnson rode her bike frequently as a teen and into her early adulthood. Once she had her daughter, she found herself chauffeuring around between work and school and more or less stopped riding regularly. One evening, she was invited to take part in the PMTNR. She arrived to discover that her friends had backed out of their commitment to meet her there. But it looked so fun that she decided to go anyway. On that ride, her brakes broke and were immediately fixed by two men who had brought their tools in case someone needed help along the route.
“They weren’t hitting on me or anything. They just wanted to help. It just gave me this feeling of ‘this is a place I want to come back to where people help each other,’ and it’s been like that ever since. Sometimes I go to church and people aren’t very friendly or social sometimes. But on these rides, people care,” Johnson said. She began going to the rides regularly and inviting her friends and colleagues along. Johnson’s daughter, a 17-year-old who hadn’t previously shown much interest in anything active, borrowed a bike from a friend and started coming along. Both Johnson and her daughter got bike baskets and panniers, and started going grocery shopping and running errands on their bikes together. Johnson even started noticing that her neighbours had seen them doing so, and began riding their bikes too.
This summer, Johnson took a huge step and committed to riding her bike to work — a 26-mile round trip — every day. The Tuesday rides, she said, had given her a new confidence. “I’d met so many people at the ride who commuted. These were people who weren’t just commuting close distances but were actually committing to going a lot further. Plus, riding with other people on the street, you learn the tricks of riding, kind of, and it gives you more confidence to ride in traffic with people and not feel so intimidated by that,” she said.
Since she started riding, Johnson’s lost about 10 pounds — though she admits that neither she nor her daughter were really overweight or needed to slim down. But she did notice something else. As a teacher and a single mom, money sometimes gets a little tight in the summer when school is out and she’s not earning as much. “This year, I noticed that there weren’t any times that I was absolutely strapped for money, because I only drove my car twice this summer — I didn’t ever have to buy gas.”
Want to inspire others like Johnson to get out on their wheels? There are rides like the PMTNR all over the world. Listen to PMTNR founder Pam Murray speak about her experience of starting the ride in the video above. For another example with a fun twist, check out how folks in San Jose, Calif. have accomplished the same goal with bike parties in the video below.