It’s 8 am on a Wednesday morning when I arrive at Logan Park in Northeast Minneapolis. I recognize Em’s* purple bike and bright red helmet from across the park. She’s in the spot where we normally meet, a section of the path with a slight incline. Em pushes off down the slope, loses her balance, and falls to one side. She jumps away from the bike and I can tell that she is not hurt. In fact, I am certain that she is laughing.
Em is one of the women I work with through the Community Partners Bike Library (CPBL). A program of Cycles for Change, the CPBL collaborates with 20 diverse organizations in the Twin Cities metro area to make bikes and education accessible to underrepresented communities, encourage lifelong bicycle-use and increase livability, health and access throughout the Twin Cities.
Em signed up for the Bike Library program not knowing how to ride a bike. “Since I was little my dream has been to ride a bike,” she says. The program equipped her with a loaned bicycle and an instructor (me) to teach her.
This summer 44 students took Learn to Ride classes with the CPBL. 43 out of the 44 students were women, with Latina and East African women making up the majority. Most students attend group classes at their partner organization sites, but if they live far away from their sites or need extra practice, we set up individual lessons with them. Some students, like Em, go on to take our Train-the-Trainer workshop to gain the skills to teach others how to ride.
Students talk about how learning to ride a bike has helped them spend more time with their families, improve their mental and physical health, and have a reliable form of transportation to get to work, or school, or the grocery store. When mothers learn to ride it tends to have an effect on the family as a whole. Idil, who learned to ride with the Bike Library two years ago, said, “I am interested so I can teach [my kids]. Before I never looked at it – Bike? Riding a bike? But now I’m interested and my kids are interested.”
Back in the park, Em practices putting her second foot on the pedal. Her daughters have joined us as they usually do about halfway through the lesson. They have their bikes and zip by her on both sides. “I am impacting my family,” Em says, “Teaching them all to be active. A lot has changed in my house. We are all active. The girls want to be on their bikes.”
On my way home from my lesson with Em I imagine a map of little red dots. Each one represents a student who learned to ride with the Bike Library. Each student’s dot branches out to the other people in that student’s community who ride a bike because of that student. Maybe my map is a little bit idealistic (the webs keep growing and growing…), but I don’t think that it is totally far-fetched. When people take the time to learn to ride bikes together, spaces for building a diverse cycling community are created. When a Bike Library member shows up at a Learn to Ride class they can expect to find other people in their same position and they can support each other. When Em’s neighbors see her riding a bike with a child trailer attached to it, they might think that it is something that they can do too. They might even ask her where she got her child trailer and how to use it, because she speaks their language. When Idil explains to her curious friend the logistics of biking in a long skirt, her friend might give it a try.
After one of our lessons toward the end of the summer, Em unbuckled her helmet and put on her philosopher’s hat. While many students talk about the tangible health and economic benefits of learning to ride, a lot of students also talk about the experience of learning being empowering in and of itself. “Learning to pedal a bike and balance marks a change in your life,” Em said. “Being a consistent and persevering person applies in lots of areas of our lives… Each time I take up something new I think like I am getting onto a bike to pedal. And each time I pedal I go a little farther. So in other areas of my life – each time I pick up a book, each time I sit down with my daughters – I got a little farther, a little farther… It is beautiful to learn to pedal because you discover a marvelous potential within yourself.”
*A pseudonym used at the student’s request.