By Barbara Bradley
Posted May 9, 2010 at 12:05 a.m.
Dawn Vinson, 36, wears a dress and high heels as she pedals politely Downtown on her old Huffy cruiser. She may not be a lean, mean biking machine, but in some ways, she’s one of the most serious cyclists in town.
Vinson, project manager with the Center City Commission, is spearheading an effort to turn Bike-to-Work Day on May 21 into something it has never been in Memphis: a mind-changing, multifaceted event that will lure Memphians out of their autos and into the joys of low-carbon transport.
David Figiel checks for traffic on Court Street as he bikes to work. Figiel has been commuting by bike for five years and continues to do so despite recently being mugged on his route.
Starting May 16, a week of events ranging from a bicycle film festival and block party to bike maintenance workshops, bike polo, kiddie bike races and a bike expo will celebrate The League of American Bicyclists’ Bike-to-Work Day, when folks here and across the country will mount up for pedal-powered commuting.
Memphis City Councilman Shea Flinn, 37, will bike 10 miles to City Hall on a hybrid bike, a cross between a mountain bike and a road bike that he bought last summer because he was getting too many injuries from running. County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, 46, will bike 12 miles from East Memphis to the University of Memphis Law School Downtown on a second-hand 10-speed. Maybe he’ll “pop over to my county building office to use the shower afterwards,” he said.
Greg Price, 39, project manager with archimania architects, will get to ride only 10 blocks from his home to the office on a mountain bike he bought for $30 from a guy who was moving. But he’s gotten six others from his office to agree to join him. “It’s good for the city, the economy and the environment,” he said.
All around the city, efforts are in the works to grease the paths of cyclists now and in the future, including a revision of a badly outdated bicycle ordinance currently before the City Council. Memphis Area Transit Authority has recently completed equipping all its regular-route buses with bicycle racks, allowing folks with long commutes to shorten the bike ride. A new bridge, an important link in area greenway projects, is under construction. And Downtown is making headway in getting new bike racks installed.
So take that, Bicycling Magazine, whose May issue slammed Memphis as one of the three worst cities for cycling, along with Birmingham, Ala., and Jacksonville, Fla. Our lack of bike lanes and outdated bike laws were cited. This follows our ranking in February as the “third-most miserable” city by Forbes.com and precedes our ranking in the May issue of Men’s Health Magazine as the fifth-fattest city.
Biking isn’t a silver bullet, said Flinn, “but it’s one of those tipping-point issues because it plays into so many areas.” A bike-friendly city affects our health, the environment, transportation and budget issues and even our misery quotient, said Flinn. “We have to wrap our arms around this because what we’re doing now isn’t working,” he said.
“You don’t have to be or do anything special to use your bike,” said Vinson. “You do what works for you at your level.”
Vinson dragged her bike out of her garage a couple of years ago and started riding to do errands around home. Then she realized it was the best way to do certain parts of her job, such as checking out the progress of Downtown construction projects, taking photos of available buildings to post on the CCC’s website, or meeting with nearby project partners.
She also realized that promoting bicycling Downtown is another way for the CCC to meet its goal of making sure Downtown is safe, attractive and livable.
She rides in dresses because that’s what she wears every day. The only extra equipment she purchased was a rearview mirror. She prefers her 15-year-old Huffy to fancier rides because “it’s sturdy and comfortable and the tires are indestructible. They go right over rocks.”
Don’t expect street cones on Bike-to-Work Day. The idea is to get folks to find their own bike routes to work and to ride under normal conditions. But less-traveled bike routes are laid out for you atcityofmemphis.org.
There will be help in the form of three “Energizer stations” that will offer water, goodies and gift bags to those who register for the event. They’ll be open from 7 to 10 a.m. at Memphis Farmers Market Pavilion at Central Station on Front at G.E. Patterson; the Trolley Barn at 547 N. Main; and the parking lot east of the Urban Child Institute at 600 Jefferson.
Go to downtownmemphis.com/biketowork for online registration.
One cyclist who will welcome the new company on the streets is David Figiel, 47, who moved here from Boston and commutes by bike from his Midtown apartment to his Downtown job as associate director of The Hospitality Hub, a resource center for the homeless.
Figiel, who doesn’t drive, also cycles to a part-time job as a waiter Downtown.
Figiel sticks to quiet streets, and until last month his only incident in five years was a run-in with slick, wet trolley tracks that caused him to fall and break a tooth.
But on a ride back from his restaurant job on a recent Sunday night, he was mugged at Cleveland and Madison by two neatly dressed young men. They kicked his bike over, punched him in the head and got his backpack.
But they didn’t get his new mountain bike. “There was no way I was giving that bike up,” said Figiel, who wrestled for it. A driver who stopped and honked apparently scared off the muggers. Figiel got cuts and bruises, but by Tuesday morning he was back on his bike. “I’m not going to let that stop me,” he said.
While such attacks are always a possibility, Benjie Kabakoff, a frequent commuter, said cyclists he knows are far more afraid of being hit by a distracted or impaired driver. Kabakoff, who belongs to the Memphis Hightailers Bicycle Club, is often on Germantown Parkway for his 12- to 16- mile commute to Baptist Memorial Hospital in the early morning when it’s still dark. Flashing lights and a healthy paranoia are his main defenses. “You have to make sure you don’t make a mistake, because it can be deadly,” he said.
Figiel wears no special gear. But some equipment, starting with a helmet, is recommended by Hal Mabray, co-owner of The Peddler Bike Shops, who will teach one of the bicycle maintenance classes. A helmet (about $45), gloves ($20) and a flashing tail light ($15) are basic, he said. Some good options are a kit for fixing a flat tire and a seat bag to put it in for $55. Some like to have a rearview mirror ($15).
Before you ride, get a safety check, he said. Mabray will check your bike, oil chains and air tires for $10.
Know how and where to ride. “It’s bike etiquette to ride in the street a few feet from the curb and with traffic,” he said. This allows you to avoid storm drains while still generally allowing cars to pass. You can get more tips on riding and bike maintenance at bicycle workshops scheduled at three bike shops before the event.
Figiel plans to be more watchful, and perhaps carry mace in the future. But he’s not abandoning his bike, which is not only transportation. It’s also fun.
“Cars are cubicles on wheels,” he said. “When you’re out on your bike, you’re part of the environment. Shop owners on Madison see me every day and wave to me. I love that small-town atmosphere.”