This article is part of our state-by-state exploration of local solutions.
North Nashville was once a “mobility desert”: A highway dissected the neighborhood, and public transportation left many areas without service. For young people, the burden was especially heavy.
“When you get dropped off of the school bus, you’re pretty much confined to your neighborhood,” says Dan Furbish, who runs Oasis Bike Workshop, which provides students with bicycles and mentoring. He finds that many kids have not visited parks just 2 miles from their homes.
To make the case for better neighborhood mobility, Furbish’s class of middle and high school students mapped their movements around North Nashville, tracking the spaces they visited most and the barriers that kept them from getting around, such as the lack of crosswalks and paths. They developed suggestions for connecting North Nashville to the rest of the city, eventually sharing their findings with urban planners.
After meeting with the class, city planners incorporated a new bicycle lane along Rosa L. Parks Boulevard. Although the lane stretched only 2 miles, it created a bicycle route across the interstate, connecting North Nashville to downtown.
Studies show that improving city bike infrastructure isn’t just good for reducing traffic congestion. More sidewalks and bike lanes also boost health, generate business for local merchants, and help people feel more connected to their communities. The reason is simple: Moving through a city at 10 miles per hour allows for taking in more than if zooming by in a car.
With those benefits in mind and inspired by a community bike project in Detroit, Jamal Julien and Oboi Reed launched Slow Roll Chicago in 2014. Every Wednesday night, they lead group members—sometimes a few, sometimes a few hundred—on bike rides to introduce them to Chicago neighborhoods. “People don’t patronize the local businesses here because of this narrative that there’s crime and violence and you’ll get killed,” says Julien. “So what we found is that taking these people on the slow-based community rides, they can enjoy the local culture despite what the media says.”
The program yielded an additional result. After riding through the South Side, cyclists were most alarmed by traffic, not violence, Julien says. Despite Chicago’s commitment to being one of the most bikeable cities in the country, the South Side and West Side neighborhoods lacked a network of bike lanes.
Later that year, Slow Roll Chicago, together with other local cycling groups, published an open letter to Mayor Rahm Emanuel calling for the equitable distribution of bicycle resources across Chicago. They attended city meetings and cycling forums, spoke with officials, and organized with other cyclists to push the city to expand infrastructure.
Emanuel ultimately issued a revised plan promising every neighborhood a bike lane that connects to a greenway. Additionally, Slow Roll Chicago worked with the Department of Transportation to expand Divvy, the city’s bike sharing system, to the South Side and to establish a subsidized annual fee and the ability to sign up without a credit card.
Teaser photo image: Oasis Bike Workshop participants learn how to straighten a wheel. Youth build their own bikes from the frame up, learn to do maintenance, and traverse the city’s greenways as they learn safe riding skills. Photo by Gabriela Aguirre-Iriarte.