The push to make Erie more bicycle-friendly.
The kid's probably ten years old. It's a glorious spring day, after school, and he's tearing off on a slightly too-big bike he'll likely grow into this summer. He glances back at me. Eyes up my bike. His face contorts with all of the fiery pent-up energy of his decade on earth. We're approaching a little climb. He emits some sort of characteristic Tonka-truck-ish speed noise, stands, and pedals his butt off, his bike swinging back and forth as he throws his strength into winning.
But I pass him anyway.
I know. I should let him win. But it's spring. And I was a kid once, too. Remember that feeling? Biking returns it to you, if you're lucky.
The kid and I are lucky. We both own functional bikes and helmets. We're on a side road in Fairview. It's pretty safe to bike here.
For many people in Erie, it's another story. Roads are wrecked. Some drivers speed, text, and otherwise disrespect bikers' rights. Some cyclists ignore basic safety rules and endanger everyone. Bikes and requisite helmets are hard to come by. Maintenance and repairs are out of reach.
But cyclists are a resourceful lot. And there's safety in numbers. So in 2012, with the hopes of solving local pedaling problems, Bike Erie was born.
Justin Smith, a Bike Erie founding member and volunteer, emphasizes that "There have been a lot of important advocates and folks from other organizations who've helped biking in Erie and the region progress for a much longer time than Bike Erie has been around. It's been a grassroots movement that's still evolving."
Bike Erie has grown from cooperative, meaningful action. And as of 2015, they have an operating board, nonprofit status, and a goal of raising enough funds to hire a director.
Their collaborative spirit is evident on Bike Erie's impressive website. Providing countless motivating resources for cyclists, the website's "Get Involved" page is comprehensive enough to overrule anyone skeptical about biking's plausibility as a means of transportation. Ultimately, they'd like to see Erie achieve the goals of Bicycle Friendly Community (BFC) assessment through the 135-year-old League of American Bicyclists, which emphasizes five categories: Engineering, Education, Encouragement, Evaluation & Planning, and Enforcement.
According to their website, "Bike Erie supports using the BFC application as part of a framework for tracking the progress of each city, municipality and place throughout Erie County." The League's BFC guidelines provide Bike Erie a framework to adapt to Erie County's unique needs, "to make our communities safer, more accessible and enjoyable to bike and walk."
This year, Bike Erie has partnered with the League to certify League Cycling Instructors (LCIs), who'll teach Smart Cycling classes locally to children and adults. LCIs' goals are "to help people feel more secure about getting on a bike, to create a mindset that bikes are treated as a vehicle, and to ensure that people on bikes know how to ride safely and legally."
The cliche "it's like riding a bike" suggests biking's simplicity, but there's a lot more to safely biking as primary transport. Providing educational outreach to both cyclists and motorists who share the road is a galvanizing focus of Bike Erie.
"We're hoping to provide a lot of resources for the community," says Eric Brozell, another founding member. "Some of the ways I've seen kids and adults ride are just scary. Our schools teach kids how to drive cars. But a bike was the real freedom when I was a kid."
When I reach Brozell, he's just returned from — you guessed it — a bike ride. It's a shining Sunday evening in May, the sort that makes May an obvious choice for National Bike Month. The Saturday before, Environment Erie hosted Bike Around the Bay, an event my bike-obsessed husband returned from with the same relaxed ebullience Brozell exudes on the phone.
Brozell has been a cycling advocate for years, and an Erie bike commuter since 1993. In fact, the opportunity to ride to work was one of Brozell's reasons for returning. "I'd spent way too many hours in my car," he says. But when he began, "There was little info out there about how to ride" in the city.
Interestingly, according to Debbi Lyons' Old Time Erie blog, the Tribune Bicycle — a single-speed model with a frame resembling today's designs — landed Erie's Black Manufacturing on an 1896 cover of Scientific American. But somehow, cycling hasn't maintained its celebrated status here, a fact Bike Erie hopes to change.
"[Erie is] flat, our roads are relatively wide, and we don't have much of a traffic issue," argues Brozell. "It could be a perfect bike friendly place."
Currently, though, Erie falls short. In a recent survey conducted as part of the Erie County 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan, respondents rated bicycle amenities as very high priorities. Unfortunately, they rated the need for major improvement to current bicycle amenities even higher. "A lot of people named the ability to bike safely as their highest priority," says Brozell. "But we essentially have almost no bike lanes."
Brozell points out that even positive pedestrian efforts — such as concrete bump-outs — create "squeeze spots" for cyclists, and that in general, cyclists' needs are not considered nearly enough in planning. "We need to change this," he states. "It's not the way a community should be run."
Increasingly, local leaders agree, including Erie City Council President David Brennan and Erie County Councilman Jay Breneman who, according to the Erie Times-News "are spearheading the Eastside Opportunity Corridor project. This aims to create 2.4 miles of bike trails and walking paths along a former railroad line and East 19th Street, between State Street and Schaal Avenue."
"Years ago, when riding the bus to work downtown, it struck me that such a long, and practically unbroken stretch of land could sit there, cutting through neighborhoods and serving as a dumping ground," says Breneman.
"As time went on, and I got to know the people, businesses, and organizations in the area, my resolve continued to strengthen that something needs to be done for this community. I felt [this] was an issue that both the County and the City should work together on, because it will benefit the region as a whole by demonstrating that no corner of our County deserves to be forgotten, or dismissed as a lost cause."
Meanwhile, Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper invited County employees to bike with her to work on May 15: National Bike to Work Day.
So how did Brozell honor National Bike to Work Day? "By biking to work!" he laughs. "The more people ride on the streets, the safer it is for all of us."
"More often than not," adds Smith, [biking is] a lot more enjoyable than driving. It makes sense as a transportation option more often than most people probably realize, so I think it's important to have organizations like Bike Erie to help people learn how to incorporate healthy transportation in ways that make sense for them."
Inspired by successful bike organizations' efforts in nearby cities, Bike Erie is exploring ideas like bike sharing, where people may rent bikes for point-to-point travel. But Brozell feels that bike sharing is unlikely to work until we have more bikeways, and more understanding among both motorists and cyclists about how to safely share the road.
To that end, Bike Erie has partnered with the Sisters of St Joseph Neighborhood Network (SSJNN) to facilitate Pedal Mettle, a build-a-bike program for kids, nearing its one-year anniversary. Volunteer Kristine Nelson saw a similar program on TV and thought it would be great for the Erie area.
The five-week course, open to 12- to 17-year-old city residents, teaches basic bike terminology, safety, and maintenance through the hands-on experience of refurbishing a donated bike. Participants are fitted for a bike and learn how to fix minor problems that might strand them. They even get to decorate the bikes they'll earn. In an introductory video on the Bike Erie website, Nelson explains, "So we're covering a boost in their self esteem, a boost in artistic endeavor on their parts, and of course the health and fitness aspect of getting out on a bike."
"I'm very touched about the sense of accomplishment that we're seeing in the kids as they learn the small skills of bike repair," adds Nelson. "It's just so cool to see them kind of maturing before your very eyes."
"We were encouraged to do this program to help kids in the city," adds Gloria Shotwell, SSJNN East Program Director. "Instead of kids getting in trouble, we're giving them something positive. And kids love the program."
Pedal Mettle, located at St. John the Baptist School, is directly behind the International Institute. They've reached out to the local refugee and newcomer community through supporting agencies, with evident results. Brozell says the current kids' class "looks like the United Nations of bicycle building."
Pedal Mettle depends upon volunteers and, as such, welcomes anyone interested to contact Shotwell at 870-9021, or email@example.com. Volunteers needn't know much about biking, as experienced Bike Erie folks are always on hand.
Also especially needed are bicycle donations, especially in smaller sizes. "Anything that looks like a bike," says Brozell, "we'll take it." During garage sale season, finding cast-off bikes and parts is a breeze, and those willing to donate are likewise encouraged to contact Shotwell.
Pedal Mettle is also open to adults on Monday evenings, with access to bikes, parts, tools, and safety training. Some city residents who are homeless have benefited greatly from this service, as bike ownership is often the key to gaining employment and escaping poverty.
This year, Bike Erie and SSJNN inaugurate Erie's first formal bike cooperative, open to everyone in the Erie community. "Our hope," according to Bike Erie, "is to grow the co-op into a successful city hub for bicycle education and repair." Over 100 similar co-ops nationwide have expanded access and interest in cycling for folks from all backgrounds.
"I'll encourage anybody to ride their bike," summarizes Brozell. "I don't care what their income level is!"
And that's a lot of what it comes down to. Bike commuting isn't a sacrifice. It's not something we should only do if we absolutely have to.
At one point I got stuck in the writing of this article. Staring at a computer, as it turns out, doesn't make words appear. But a bike ride often does.
Out West Lake Road, past acres of emerging crops, I breathed the luxurious aroma of lilacs at peak bloom.
As a kid, I rode my bike down long dirt roads lined by Queen Anne's Lace, past redwing-blackbird-crowded thickets and rows of field corn. The older I got, the further I was allowed to ride. The further I rode, the freer I felt. If we're lucky, we learn the pleasures and freedoms of biking as kids, riding out of our parents' sight towards early glimpses of who we might become. The bike as an agent of freedom never quite leaves us. Nevertheless, we end up in cars. Isolated, sheltered, inert, and — at least as commuters — anything but free.
In his book Bicycle Diaries, Talking Head David Byrne writes, "Cycling can be lonely, but in a good way. It gives you a moment to breathe and think, and get away from what you're working on."
Or for some, like Bike Erie's faithful volunteers, cycling becomes the thing you're working on. And the rest of us are better for it.
To volunteer with Pedal Mettle or donate bikes or parts, contact Gloria Shotwell at (814) 870-9021or or firstname.lastname@example.org. To join or learn more about Bike Erie, or to receive their newsletter, visit www.bikeerie.orgv