Reclaiming the Streets Through Cycling

My first bicycle was a purple and white Huffy gifted to me by Santa when I was in third grade. My parents—err, Santa—was too cheap to invest in oversized wrapping paper and bows that year, so I found the bicycle sitting unadorned next to the tree when I ran into the living room that Christmas morning. That didn’t matter. I was ecstatic. When you’re eight years old, bicycles equal freedom.

Dad taught me to ride that afternoon. He did that thing where he holds onto the back of your seat and runs alongside you until you get enough momentum to keep yourself up. I remember the surge of pride I felt when I started to get the hang of it and the rush of feeling like I was moving faster than a cheetah. I’ve learned a lot of things since then – how to drive a car, how to get boys to like you, etc. Nothing topped the thrill of my first set of wheels.

Years later, I would upgrade to a sleeker, black and green bicycle. Getting that ride wasn’t nearly as momentous an occasion in my life, and not just because it was a hand-me-down from my older sister. By then, my family had moved deeper into the suburbs, to a house near the top of a hill. My increasingly lazy self determined this hill to be too steep to pedal up regularly, while my increasingly anxious self found it too scary to blast down at full speed. By the time I got my driver’s license, I’d all but forgotten the power of pedaling.

My story is all too common. Our culture has long designated bicycling as a recreational activity meant for minors and athletes. Bicycling as a primary form of transportation is only for people not fortunate enough to own a car.

The tide may be turning. Studies have shown an increase in bicycling both as recreation and as a practical mode of commuting. Similarly, the amounts of federal funds budgeted for bicycle infrastructure improvements have increased. Louisville is on trend. Last year, Louisville Metro spent $300,000 on new signage and bike lanes that connect the Highlands, Germantown, Smoketown and Old Louisville neighborhoods with downtown. This year, Mayor Greg Fischer has budgeted another $300,000.

Bicycle-centric and bicycle-friendly events are also on the rise. One of them, CycLOUvia, was held last weekend. Based off a similar program in Bogota, Colombia, the event transforms a road typically dominated by cars into an open, public space for walkers, joggers, bicyclists and other non-motorized fun seekers.

Louisville Metro has held previous CycLOUvias on Bardstown Road and Frankfort Avenue. Sunday’s event brought the event west, shutting down Broadway Avenue from 9th Street to 26th.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Broadway event wasn’t as well-attended as previous outposts. Some will speculate it’s because people are afraid to go west of 9th, but I wonder how much the corridor itself had to do with attendance. Broadway just doesn’t have a naturally high level of foot traffic the way Bardstown and Frankfort do on Sundays. While there were great food trucks and stands se tup, the only sit-down restaurants in that stretch are fast food joints, so people might have felt like they couldn’t make a day out of it as they had in the past. Also, it was the first full day of the football season. I have to imagine a few folks chose their fantasy teams over the reality of open streets.

Regardless, those of us who did show up for the afternoon event were treated a friendly atmosphere and a one-of-a-kind surprise performance. Outside the Louisville Urban League at 16th and Broadway, I passed a Tina Turner dance party. Further down the street, Teddy Abrams, the 27-year-old wunderkind who recently made his debut as the music director of the Louisville Orchestra, set his keyboard up in front of KFC and banged out an array of tunes, from a funky variation of the Charlie Brown theme to improvisations inspired by audience suggestions.

(Fun Fact: Teddy Abrams doesn’t have a driver’s license. He told the crowd he appreciates the concept of open streets more than most.)

Mostly, though, I just cruised. The last CycLOUvia I went to on Bardstown Road felt like a hectic multi-way parade. An acquaintance I bumped into commented similarly about Frankfort Avenue, noting that she’d felt like she was constantly dodging people. On West Broadway, we didn’t have that problem. The roadway was an open paradise of space. I slowly wove between the road markings, not worried about being in anyone’s way. It reminded me of those aimless days of my youth. I stopped at every interesting building or sign I saw, learning new things about the city.

When I got tired, I settled down in some shade and watched a dude take photographs of a girl lying down in a dramatic pose in the middle of the street. A while later, I saw a dad riding with his son, who still had training wheels on his bike. “Keep going,” the dad encouraged. “Don’t look down. Look forward, buddy.”

That’s good advice for us all. With more infrastructure and opportunities for bike riding than ever before, it’s time to get over our past reservations about biking and hop back on. Whether it’s for recreation or transportation, the important part is to just get moving. It’s not so difficult. As the saying goes, it’s just like riding a bike.

Photos Courtesy of MARY BETH BROWN