Why I Ride
Post by: Erik Reader, President, Reader Area Development
I have been waiting for the right time to drop my own post on the Bike Peoria site for a while. It’s not that I haven’t had the words, I just haven’t had the time. But isn’t that the age old excuse. For those of you who are unfamiliar, I usually do my blogging over at Reader Area Development dot com. Sure, that’s some shameless self-promotion for myself, but what the hell, I’m an administrator on this site as well.
Like most, I grew up riding my bike around the neighborhood after school just to be outside playing. That evolved into riding to school, downtown, to baseball practice, a friend’s house, or wherever my legs could motor me. Somewhere around that pivotal age of 15-16 it became clear that it wasn’t cool to ride a bike. As we all know, the most exciting thing for every high-schooler is getting their driver’s license.
I remember my parents telling me that I would have to get a job in order to afford a car. So at the ripe old age of 14 I got my first real job – at McDonald’s. Yep… first you have to be humbled before you can be cool apparently. Needless to say, I saved up enough to buy a 1990 Chevy Beretta. How I kept the ladies at bay was a mystery, it just naturally happened.
At a time with $0.88/gallon gasoline (1998), I made my way to the bowling alley, movie theater, cross town to friends houses, to school and a few side trips my parents don’t need to know about. That was all fine and dandy, but I still had to work here and there to afford my new-found responsibility. With no other obligations to my name, this wasn’t a huge drag, but the real sticker shock would occur in the 15 years since.
The cost itself wasn’t just in the form of driving from A to B, it was everything else it represented. Gas, car insurance, maintenance, the occasional ding or scratch, countless hours staring through a pane of glass, and the hours working a job I hated to afford it all. I grew up outside of Chicago in the far western suburbs and that meant LOTS of driving. Want to go to a baseball game? Drive. Need a job? Drive across the ‘burbs. Thinking about visiting friends? More driving…. you get the picture.
In college, I had an opportunity to study abroad in the Netherlands. Leeuwarden, a northerly city of 90,000 people exposed me to a different culture that has taken years to decipher what I really learned. The Dutch are widely regarded for their over-the-top biking culture. I didn’t really “get it” until my semester abroad started.
We were told that we would probably want to rent a bike. The few Americans in the group looked at each other like it was a joke or something. Even me, I hadn’t ridden anywhere on a regular basis for several years didn’t understand it. We have cars … duh? All kidding aside, they were serious. The best way to get around town is by bike. The town, which is hundreds of years old, is perfectly laid out for it. No bike? Well, walking is just as easy. Riding to the bar as a 21-year-old was probably the most freeing feeling you could imagine. You mean I can go do something stupid and follow it up with something responsible afterward? No shit…
Unless you’ve been, I have a real hard time of putting it into words and trying to explain it. That’s the reason why downtown Leeuwarden remains as my website header. To serve as a reminder that this other place exists.
After my tour abroad ended, it was back to Geneva, where that quaint, charming downtown existed but the biking culture didn’t. I was dying to bring back what I thought to be a slice of heaven back with me. No one else felt the same. My excitement to ride faded as my jobs would take me here, there, and everywhere by car. It got to the point where I was filling up for gas twice a week. It became a repetitive and vicious cycle. I’d seen my Dad fall into it, and I knew it was killing him too. Spending hours in a car everyday isn’t healthy for you. That’s a no-brainer. So why do we get stuck in the proverbial rut?
We somehow accept this as our reality. We know in order to find work, we must drive. In order to find food, we must drive. In order to live, we must drive. After a year of life on the road, my then girlfriend, now wife, Danielle and I moved to Dallas, Texas. A change of scenery was interesting, and it provided the initial stimulation we needed. But something still seemed off. Gone were the Main Street’s and downtown’s of Illinois I was used too. Everything is bigger in Texas, even their big-box stores which dominated the landscape. Six-lane residential thoroughfares were the norm. Big hair. Big trucks. Big stereotypes. We enjoyed our stay, but after 5 years it was high time to head out.
Before we did, I came across a little biking movement that was taking over a south Dallas neighborhood. The Oak Cliff neighborhood was quickly becoming the “bike part of town.” I was curious, as I hadn’t heard of such a thing. Bike Friendly Oak Cliff, was one of those things that I needed to see at just the right time. “Ok, so there are people who have thought the same thing as me and feel the same way…” This wasn’t about racing, an extreme off-road excursion or loading up the bike for leisurely stroll at a park. This was about riding your bike for day-to-day things. I get that.
When we left Dallas for Peoria, I decided I’d like to take a slice of what I thought was a great citizen-led movement with me. We moved to Pekin, which admittedly, isn’t the biking capital of the world. I would talk about the Dutch, Dallas, and what I thought could be a bike movement in Central Illinois. The only thing more out of the ordinary than seeing someone without a DUI riding their bike in Pekin, is someone talking about “Bike Friendliness.”
Back to the subject of stereotypes. The same freedom, liberation, and mobility I felt in Leeuwarden could and should be applied in Pekin, Peoria, or anywhere for that matter. Why is it that people think you must have done something wrong to be riding a bike in broad daylight wearing anything but lycra? To be fair, there are a good amount of those riding with some legal troubles, yes, but that’s why it is imperative for low-income, low-educated towns like Pekin to adopt a new transportation strategy. One that is equitable for all of its citizens. And for those who don’t want to hear my previous statement, I’m sorry, the 2010 Census blew your cover [DATA].
Whether you’re young or old, need affordable transportation, wanting to stay fit, or wanting to exercise your right not to drive, you should have that opportunity. So that is why, when a fate meeting with some other like-minded individuals early this spring brought us to the table looking to create a “biking movement” I jumped at the chance.
My ride last night finally knocked loose what I was looking to write. I ride as much as I can right now. I wish it could be more, but you know, I have to drive to Peoria for a job. I am in meetings on opposite sides of town. I am renovating a house after all of that and need to carry random odds and ends around. I have seen more people out there who are curious. Those are the people who will help shape the future of Peoria. Having only lived here for two and a half years, I see an area that is dying for a breath of fresh air. We, as everyday, ordinary people can give that to the area we call home – one bike ride at a time.
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