Local Politics at Work: Celebrating Cycling in St. Louis

24th Ward Alderman Scott Ogilvie
Around 30 people gathered this past Friday in the new bike shop Spoked in the rapidly changing Cherokee neighborhood. There were two half kegs of Civil Life beer on ice and free pizza from the wine shop next door. One wall is painted a bright, invigorating orange and the silvered tin ceiling looms overhead above bike rims hung up high. I met up with several friends and ran into others I knew from Gateway Greening and CityArchRiver who, like me, had come to bond over cycling, hear about new bike infrastructure and, yes, drink the free beer.

My mom was visiting too, and was by far the oldest person in the room. But she shared stories of biking in Boston almost 40 years ago and how she knew it was too cold to bike to work that day if her nose hairs froze on the way to the bike shed behind her apartment. Everyone was welcome.

Spoked was hosting a happy hour principally to celebrate the huge success of painting buffered bike lanes on Tower Grove Avenue ahead of the closure of the largest north-south thoroughfare in the city, which will divert traffic to Tower Grove and other detoursthis effectively preserves my only route for cycling to work.

Scott Ogilvie , the alderman for the 24th ward and an avid cyclist, leapt up on the counter to welcome everyone and entreat us to be active advocates for biking in St. Louis. He introduced Matt Wyczalkowski, the man who led the fight to stripe Tower Grove before the Kingshighway closure. Matt told us how he had used Tower Grove to commute to Washington University for years and felt passionate about this short mile that is so crucial to bike commuters in the city.

Matt Wyczalkowski
When he learned that the planned bike lanes would be postponed until after the construction to allow more car traffic to use the routeessentially closing the street to all but the most diehard cyclistshe gathered a coalition of biking advocates and neighborhood associations. Together they held votes that convinced my alderman, Stephen Conway of the 8th ward, to expedite the bike lanes. It was done days later. Without Matt's intervention, Conway was prepared to let the planned striping lapse for two more years. At the behest of his constituents, persuaded by Matt, this important route is maintained.

I owe Matt two years worth of my biking commute: hundreds of hours worth of both pleasant and difficult exercise that starts and ends my working day.

Matt took questions and I asked him, "What's next for you?" His response was to ask me the same, and to point out how focused determination on a finite problem can lead to real results. His pet project was expediting bike lanes on a short stretch of his local street. If each of us in the room that day found our own tractable issue and pursued it by building coalitions of neighbors and friends, we could accomplish the same.

Rhonda Smythe
Rhonda Smythe, until recently the policy and advocacy manager at Trailnet, closed out the speeches by outlining her goal of including more people in the cycling community by reducing the barriers to biking. Outside of the spandex-wearing road cyclists, Rhonda wanted to get people who bike once a month to start biking four times a month. By creating low-speed, low-traffic routes through neighborhoods, she wanted to encourage families to bike for more of their short trips.

In my former neighborhood of Skinker-DeBaliviere, this takes the form of the Des Peres bicycle boulevard that improves through-access for cyclists over cars and has highly-visible markings to encourage more relaxed biking.

The owners of Spoked, Matt and Shane, also encouraged us to be advocates mainly by getting on our bikes and riding. Improving the visibility of the cycling community, they said, attracts the attention of neighbors and local leaders so they can internalize how vital it is for our city.

Somewhat unexpectedly, this event became the highlight of my week and a resounding lesson in the power of local politics that, I believe, lifted up everyone in attendance and left us all feeling energized and ready to act, alone and together, to make our home better.

Why I Bike

I didn't grow up biking around all that much. Sure, I had a bike. And I would use it to get around in the neighborhood. I never really went very far though, and there weren't a ton of kids in my neighborhood that all went biking to the creek or something every summer. In high school I pretty much stopped biking except for rare weekend excursions.

But since coming to St. Louis, and especially since moving to south city, I've been biking a lot for both exploration and transportation. Just as running has become a significant part of my life, cycling has grown in its impact on my daily routine.

My commute is six miles each way. Most days I make that trip by bike; it takes about half an hour with stop lights and traffic. Although I don't love losing an hour each day to my commute--I used to have a 10 minute walk to work--I sincerely appreciate the exercise. I always walk into work with a smile on my face because I just got to bike through two amazing parks, I got my heart rate up, I worked for it. When I go home I can burn off the daily stress and walk through my door out of breath and relaxed. On the days I drive to work, I almost always regret it. Dealing with traffic and highways always puts me in a bad mood and I miss the workout. Although I have to deal with the uncertainty of traffic as a cyclist (Will they see me? Do I have to stop at this stop sign?) the physical struggle is rewarding enough to push those stresses aside.

In a car you lose your connection to the areas you drive through. Your windows might be down but you're still inside, walled in. You're a behemoth and your primary responsibility is making sure that nobody gets hurt as you hurtle down the road at 40 miles per hour. On a bike you're part of your world. You can go quickly enough to actually get somewhere, but you have the opportunity to look around and observe the world as it goes about its day. You notice the same cyclists on your route. You pay attention to the trees. You know what the weather is like that day and you stop fighting against it and learn to revel in the heat and the rain. On a bike, you are not an individual separate from your world; you're a member of it.

As exploration, biking can't be beat. Living in Tower Grove East, I am about a 15 or 20 minute bike ride from so many exciting, different neighborhoods. I love being able to bike to Benton Park or Soulard without worrying about having a couple drinks. I like being able to go to the Whitaker Music Festival without stressing about parking. But it's actual exploration that cycling excels at. Learning a new neighborhood by knowing roughly where you're going and having a sense of adventure. Getting a little bit lost and finding a new park or bar. Seeing the city and its architecture at a slow enough pace that you can drink it all in. I live to know my city a little bit more every week. Biking offers me that. And as others have shown me STL by bike, I always enjoy sharing this city with others by cycling around. It really is the best way to learn what St. Louis has to offer.

When you drive, you have a destination. When you bike, you have a journey. It's the journey I enjoy.