A day full of examples of building community through bicycling: A report on the Bike Summit

Last Friday, I spent a whirlwind day at Lawrence University in Appleton for the Wisconsin Bike Fed’s annual Bike Summit. I have attended several such Bike Summits in recent years, and I considered this one to be as inspiring and informative as the others, perhaps more so.

About 200 people were in attendance to participate in the day’s schedule of 20 presentations plus several keynote lectures. The interactions among the attendees, both during sessions and in-between, was stimulating and enlightening. From the moment I arrived just before the summit welcome at 9 AM until I started my journey back home just after 8 PM, I was immersed in lectures and discussions on a myriad of topics connected to the issue of making bicycling better.

With four parallel presentations taking place during each of the five sessions, I had to make choices on what to attend. Since I have strong interest in the role of bicycling as part of community building, I gravitated towards presentations related to this topic. I was certainly not disappointed by what I heard. The summaries below are highlights from my experiences of the day.

slow roll chicago

Oboi Reed (right) and Jamal Julian of Slow Roll Chicago

Slow Roll Chicago
Slow Roll Chicago organizes a community bicycle ride every Wednesday evening from April through October in neighborhoods throughout Chicago. The co-founders of Slow Roll Chicago, Oboi Reed and Jamal Julian, gave a presentation on how they got started and what they’ve accomplished.

The Slow Roll movement started in Detroit in 2010 as a means for bringing people back into that city and reimagining what Detroit could become. These urban bike rides quickly grew from a few participants to hundreds and then thousands of riders. Word of the positive impact Slow Roll Detroit was having was perhaps most widely spread via an inspiring Apple iPad commercial.

The success of Slow Roll Detroit inspired Reed and Julian to create a Slow Roll chapter in Chicago just over a year ago. The overriding principle of Slow Roll Chicago is that bicycles are vehicles for social change, with a particular focus on reducing violence, improving health, and creating jobs. Their target audience includes people of color and low-to-moderate income residents on the south and west sides of Chicago.

Creating community is at the core of Slow Roll Chicago. Participants on these weekly rides create bonds of trust among themselves. Riding through neighborhoods perceived to be dangerous uncovers a reality that these areas are welcoming to these community-building rides. Partnerships have been formed with community organizations and businesses to foster deep community engagement.

Advocacy achievements of Slow Roll Chicago include a program providing affordable access to Chicago’s Divvy bikeshare system for low-income residents. They have elevated community ownership of local transportation planning, thereby garnering respect for local culture and history while combatting gentrification. They promote bicycle equity by tackling racism and other negative social attitudes head on, challenging perceptions that bicycling is only for white people or only for poor people or only for fitness fanatics, and reaching out to people influenced by such false narratives who don’t ride bicycles.

Slow Roll Chicago still has much work to do towards its goals, but its success to date got the attention of the US Dept of Transportation. As part of the White House Champions for Change event last month, Slow Roll Chicago received a 2015 Champions for Change in Transportation award.

The messages that Reed and Julian shared are not only inspiring but are also important to be heard and embraced by a widespread audience. Although bicycling is at the core of Slow Roll Chicago, their efforts are really about improving neighborhoods, thereby creating a more livable city. This is a lesson we can all adapt to our own communities.

ladies revolution

Carolyn Weber of Ladies’ Revolution

Women and Bicycling
I heard several speakers sharing stories about inspiring women to create community around bicycling. All of us, regardless of gender, can learn from these stories.

Jillian Imilkowski is the founder of the Bella Donnas, an all-women recreational bicycle group from Milwaukee started in 2006. When sharing her inspiration, Imilkowski stated that she knows she is a strong bicycle rider, yet there are times when she “doesn’t feel good enough” when riding with others. So she created the Bella Donnas as an outlet where women of all abilities could ride together in an atmosphere that values mentoring and motivating. In acknowledgement of the occasional discouraging self-doubt in one’s abilities, riders are not only expected to be kind to each other, but are also encouraged to be kind to themselves. Imilkowski’s vision seems to resonate with her target audience. She said that the Bella Donnas have consistently seen about 15-20% growth yearly, with rides as large as 150 women.

Joan Donnelian told about her experiences with the Bike Fed’s Women and Bicycles program as a Roll Model in Jefferson County. She has created a weekly ride series for women of all abilities. She also organizes special events. One such event she described was a combination bike ride and bike repair basics social, complete with food and beverages. Participants experience opportunities to set and reach personal goals, improve fitness, and build community.


Tonieh Welland of Black Girls Do Bike Milwaukee

Tonieh Welland shared her experiences starting a Black Girls Do Bike chapter in Milwaukee. BGDB started in Pittsburgh and now has approximately 50 chapters around the country. Welland spoke of her extensive experience bicycling and how she was frustrated to discover that she was always the only black woman participating on her group rides even though she lives in a racially diverse city. So she started BGDB Milwaukee as a way to address the perceived barriers to bicycling among women of color in her community. Welland not only discovered the need to teach safe bicycling skills to those interested in joining, but she also realized that she needed to dispel the social stigma of bicycles as a symbol of poverty. Through her efforts, BGDB Milwaukee staged 45 rides and events this past year and saw great participation among its 280 members.

Nicole La Brie and Carolyn Weber spoke about Ladies’ Revolution, a women/trans/femme bicycling group that started this past summer in Milwaukee. Besides group rides, Ladies’ Revolution organizes DIY bike repair nights at local bike shops as well as monthly workshops on a variety of topics. La Brie and Weber expressed particular interest in reaching out to novice bicycle riders in order to increase their confidence. As motivation for this, they explained that experienced members were all newbies at some point and benefitted from their mentors, so that sharing their accumulated knowledge with beginners is a way to “pay it forward.”

Advocacy for Better Bicycling
Although the full day was all about making bicycling better, there were a few advocacy highlights that stood out for me.

lunch keynote

The Bike Summit attendees listening to one of the lunchtime keynote speakers

The summit welcome included a few remarks from State Representative Mike Rohrkaste, a member of the Republican caucus from Assembly District 55 in the Fox Valley. He has been an ally to those working to pass legislation that promotes better bicycling. The recently passed state budget was not particularly kind to bicycling, the most notable example being the rescinding of our statewide Complete Streets legislation. Nevertheless, it is valuable to have a positive voice for bicycling among the members of the party currently in control of our state legislature.

I had a brief chance to speak with Rep Rohrkaste and proposed the idea of creating a legislative bike caucus to foster cooperation among members of the Senate and Assembly from both parties who enjoy bicycling. He showed interest in the concept.

Later in the day, Dave Cieslewicz, Executive Director of the Bike Fed, held a roundtable discussion with about 20 bicycle advocates from around the state to hear ideas about how the Bike Fed can help with their local efforts. The Bike Fed has offices in Madison and Milwaukee, which presents opportunities to assist advocates in those major population centers. But Bike Fed staff and funding are severely constrained, thus limiting their assistance to those in other areas of the state, particularly in regions with sparse populations.

At the same time, the Bike Fed realizes that in order to more effectively communicate the benefits of bicycling to members of the state legislature, they need to find ways to empower voices across the state. Legislative progress will be difficult until more members of the State Senate and Assembly hear regularly from their constituents who want better bicycling.

I was thrilled to have an opportunity to participate in this discussion. For several years, I have felt that I could be more effective with my efforts in the Stevens Point area if I had better access to stories from other advocates statewide about their challenges and successes. Bicycle advocates all face similar issues in our disparate communities, and we can all be more effective by learning from each other rather than reinventing the wheel time and again. I contributed this idea to the discussion, as I feel it is something the Bike Fed may have bandwidth to enable.

This discussion led by Cieslewicz was a starting point. We advocates scattered around Wisconsin realize that it is unrealistic to expect substantial direct assistance from the Bike Fed in our efforts. Nevertheless, the Bike Fed may be able to develop tools and initiatives that amplify our individual efforts, thereby positively affecting efforts in communities around the state. And seeing progress towards better bicycling at a statewide level makes it significantly easier to advocate at the local level. I look forward to learning how the Bike Fed moves forward from this initial discussion.

The above is just a sample of the many interesting presentations I attended, not to mention the many discussions I enjoyed with other attendees. The closing reception at the nearby Museum of the Castle provided more opportunity to chat about the day’s events. I did finally find a bit of time to slip away from the crowd to stroll through the fabulous museum exhibit on the history of bicycling in Wisconsin, entitled Shifting Gears: A Cyclical History of Badger Bicycling.

I want to thank the Wisconsin Bike Fed for once again organizing an exceptional Bike Summit. It is inspiring to see so many people putting so much energy into making bicycling better. We all still have much work to do, yet there are many success stories to share. It is extremely valuable to have the opportunity to learn about all these efforts and achievements. I am grateful the Bike Fed puts on these annual Bike Summits, and as always I look forward to attending again next year.

To close, I want to mention a thread that connects so much of what I experienced at the Bike Summit. From all the stories I heard during the day, it is extraordinarily clear that it merely takes the efforts of one or two ordinary people with little more than a vision for constructive change to have an enormous positive impact on their community.

Our cities often face enormous problems, and it can be easy to think, “I’m just one person. I don’t have enough power or influence or wealth to make a difference.” Such thinking leads residents to turn inward while simply letting the “system” deal with the problems. As we all know, the “system” has a spotty track record.

It was wonderful to learn of so many examples demonstrating that power and influence and wealth are not necessary to make a difference. And it was just as wonderful to see how bicycles can stimulate the community-building that fuels constructive change. Out of all the messages delivered during the day, I feel this is the most important take-away of all.

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