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Changing Perceptions about Biking, One Ride at a Time



Slow Roll is a movement that was started in Detroit, Michigan in 2010. Each Monday night, Slow Roll Detroit gathers for a bicycle ride averaging 4,000 riders. In 2014, Olatunji Oboi Reed and Jamal Julien heard about the Detroit group, and founded a local chapter in Chicago. To learn more about the Slow Roll Chicago movement, sat down to speak with co-founder, Olatunji Oboi Reed.  

“About ten years ago, I was suffering from severe depression. I turned to my bicycle as one way of healing. I used riding my bike as one of the ways that I started to adjust to depression in a deliberate and intentional way. I started to see that biking helped relieve my depression, and I became a cyclist,” Reed said. After a few years of riding his bike, Reed decided that it was time to ride with other people. He started a bike club called the Pioneers in Southside Chicago, which met every Saturday for a ride. “I realized that biking could help other people. We used it as a way to connect nature, exercise in a social atmosphere. Our group was a way to explore Chicago, and live a healthier lifestyle.” Reed said that the Pioneers eventually folded into Red Bike and Green-Chicago, which began to use biking as a way to improve African-American neighborhoods and help people transform their lives. 

About one year ago, Jamal Julien and Reed heard about Slow Roll Detroit, and the global impact that Slow Roll’s biking movement is having on communities. “Their success and large group that rides together weekly inspired us to establish a local chapter, and in September 2014, we founded Slow Roll Chicago,” Reed said. Their first ride was on September 26, 2014. “We committed to riding monthly at first. During that time, we found teams of people that could help us. In Chicago, you cannot ride well in the winter, so we used the winter to plan for the current season.” In addition to mapping out the rides, they discussed their movement with the community, and how to use bicycles as catalysts for social change. According to Reed, “We look at this movement and our community bicycle rides as tools that we can adjust and calibrate to ensure a maximum positive impact on people and neighborhoods.” 

Slow Roll Chicago’s mission is to use this movement and bicycles as a catalyst for social change in the Chicago area and the state of Illinois. They focus on connecting a diverse group of people, transforming lives, and improving the conditions of communities through rides and related programs. “We cannot talk about biking separately from what is most important for people in our community. When we have discussions about biking, we frame it in the context of having a positive effect for the community in violence reduction and promoting job growth through improvement projects,” Reed said. 

Slow Roll Chicago uses a three-fold strategy: a signature ride series, which meets every Wednesday night; youth and family programs; and bicycle equity advocacy, advocating for bicycle equity in Chicago where bicycle resources are distributed equitably throughout the city to people who need them and benefit from their use the most. “The most important things we do is to get people of color and low-to moderate-income people to participate, advocate on behalf our neighborhoods, and advocate for the respect and preservation of our culture and history in these communities,” Reed said. In addition to these, Reed said that they work on creating community ownership of the transportation planning process, allowing the community to have a voice in how bicycle infrastructure is built and implemented in our neighborhoods. Slow Roll Chicago operates a leadership development program for high school students and is helping advocate for increased funding for the Safe Routes to School Program in Illinois. “We are fortunate that the American Heart Association has funded our bike youth leadership program. We work with high school students, and help them learn to care about healthcare disparities such as heart disease and obesity,” Reed said. “We want people to realize that biking can help reduce these disparities. Our youth program allows them a way to learn to elevate their voices as advocates and promote the importance of a biking infrastructure and street improvements in their neighborhood.” 

Reed said that one of the biggest challenges they have faced has been altering the communities’ perspectives on biking. “One of the main barriers is cultural. Bikes and biking are not considered to be cool. Many people view it as something that kids, poor people, white people, or fitness fanatics do; we are trying to shift people’s perspective of what they think about biking,” Reed said. “Our bicycle movement is all about creating a bike culture in our neighborhoods where the activity of cycling is perceived as social, interesting, fun, healthy, and cool. Through our rides, programs, and advocacy, we are breaking down barriers and old perceptions.”

“We are also dealing with the challenges of streets and neighborhoods that are not as bike-friendly as some middle and upper income neighborhoods. This barrier does pose a challenge to people who would consider biking, but who are too worried about getting hit by a car or hit by a car door opening. I believe that if they had protected bike lanes, they would feel safer,” Reed said. Another barrier Slow Roll Chicago is dealing with is the perception of violence in their neighborhoods. “Today, because of the 24-hour news cycle, there is this drumbeat of constant violence that is being portrayed in our neighborhoods. Violence is a problem, however the perception of violence is not true. The vast majority of people who live in our neighborhoods are not affected by violence. Many people don’t go out to ride because they view their block as the only safe block, and most of that is because they don’t know the other blocks,” Reed said. “We want people to get out, to see their city, their parks, and the beauty that is around them. We have to own our streets and show that they are safe; that is why we ride at night, we want to reclaim what is already ours.” 

“Every Wednesday night from April to October, we host our signature bike series in different neighborhoods. We engage the community leaders and elected officials in these neighborhoods, and ask them to participate in the planning and hosting of the event in their area,” Reed said. “I believe in order to get someone to support us and see the impact that bicycling can have for our neighborhoods, people have to come experience it for themselves. If they come out and ride with us, and help us plan and see the impact that it can have, they might start to see that it is helpful and beneficial to our communities. Hopefully they will start to understand that people can forgo a parking spot if that means that our streets are safer, families are healthier, and that biking can be a catalyst for the social change we all seek.”