Birmingham is gearing up for the celebration of National Bike Month this May, and cycling enthusiasts are encouraging people to get out and about on their bikes. The Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham (RPCGB) hopes to inspire cyclists new and old to show their support for biking infrastructure in Birmingham by participating in Bike to Work Day on Friday, May 16.
Those who bike to work will be rewarded with free coffee at various coffee shops around Birmingham, as well as free T-shirts and bike gear from the RPCGB and free bike tune-ups from Redemptive Cycles.
“We’ve done this 11 or 12 years now and usually see about 40-60 cyclists participate,” explained Lindsey G. West, Deputy Director of Operations at the RPCGB. “In the past, we’ve done a group ride in the morning, but instead of a group ride this year, we’re doing the energizer stations at the coffee shops so it will really be a bike-to-work because people don’t have to worry about doing one specific ride.”
The goal of Bike to Work Day is to spread awareness of cyclists on the roads, so however people choose to ride — to the coffee shops or to work — having increased cyclists on the road raises motorists’ awareness.
In the past few years, there have been a number of recurring events that center around or include cycling starting in the downtown area. There have been costumed rides around Halloween, a Kitty Cat Ladies’ Alleycat race that allows men to participate if they agree to don a dress, the REVOLUTION bike parade that celebrates bicycles and the arts, the family fun festival TEMPO that features bike activities for children and gives away free helmets and more.
“There has been a huge increase in cycling and cyclists, especially in the past year,” said Marcus Fetch, the founder and manager of Redemptive Cycles, a nonprofit bike shop that sells new and refurbished bikes and gives away bikes to those who intend to use them as their primary form of transportation. “I would say the biggest increase is in urban cycling, of which we are privileged to be right in the center. Most people who have bought a bike from us since we opened have claimed they haven’t owned a bike in years, and we have sold or given away over 300 bikes since we started. That alone shows that cycling is coming back to downtown.”
Even with the growing enthusiasm about cycling around the city, it’s difficult to convince beginners to give it a try without first having a conversation about safety. With few bike lanes, few bike racks and drivers unused to cyclists’ presence on the roads, downtown cycling can seem intimidating to a beginner. Luckily, many groups and organizations throughout the city are working to alleviate safety concerns throughout the city.
“We have an active transportation committee, which helps us get funding to our area for things like cycling infrastructure. That allows us to help communities in their planning efforts — like making room for sidewalks and bike lanes. When REV was doing the pop-up shops, we put in temporary bike lanes to get people out on their bikes. We teamed up with United Way for the Safe Routes to School program and did National Bike to School Day. We partnered with bike shops where we did a bike safety campaign,” explained Gray. “We’re trying from a planning, educational and awareness perspective. We have partnerships, so we don’t do this alone, but whether we get the grants or not, we’re trying a lot of things.”
Additionally, there are more cycling groups in Birmingham who increase visibility of cyclists through group rides, which are open to beginners and well-seasoned riders alike. AlaBike does Le Tour de Ham social ride on Tuesdays, which leaves from Silvertron Café in Forest Park at 6:15 p.m., and Birmingham Bicycle Club keeps a calendar of group rides. There are other group rides, like Red Rock Tuesdays, which rides along the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System, and the 6 p.m. ride on Thursday nights, which leaves from Redemptive Cycles, among others.
Group rides are a good way for beginning cyclists to build confidence in their ability to navigate the city on a bike. Visibility of cyclists is important for safety, because the more drivers and community leaders see cyclists, the more conscious they will be of them.
“My plan is to create as many cyclists as possible and, in doing so, the city will eventually have to respond. Get as many people as you can to ride as often as you can, and ride on every road. If drivers want to complain, they can do so to the city, and that will only help our cause,” said Fetch.
Many in the cycling community feel as though city officials don’t fully understand the need for biking infrastructure, but that, too, is changing. On May 15, there will be a special ride with Leadership Alabama where community leaders will be going on a five-mile ride through downtown, including Uptown and the Civil Rights District. Civic leaders participating will be from Birmingham and other parts of the state. This ride should help leaders understand the challenges cyclists face in navigating the city and promote cycling infrastructure in the future.
“We’re all looking for a culture shift. We don’t want an ‘us versus them’ mentality. The same person that’s driving in the morning is biking at lunch. We all want more bike infrastructure; we want more people using bikes. The way people are going to feel safe is having that infrastructure,” West said.
A major part of Birmingham’s cycling infrastructure is currently being built. The RPCGB is currently working toward the implementation of a bikeshare program. A feasibility study was conducted to see whether a bikeshare could potentially work in Birmingham. The results show that the city’s wider streets, a grid system which slows cars down, topography being favorable in the downtown area and strong density downtown make Birmingham a good candidate for such a program.
“We’ve still got some hurdles before we can get this on the ground, but we’re working hard. We’re meeting with the public, merchants and stakeholders to identify and overcome challenges. We’re making sure we can financially support this. We’re asking ourselves, ‘How much money do we need to raise to make this work?’” West explained.
One of the best things people can do as a cyclist, driver or both is to education themselves about cycling — from what side of the road to ride on and how to properly wear a helmet to the rights cyclists have in sharing the road with vehicles.
“Safety is not in where you ride, it’s how you ride. Learning how to ride in the city and with traffic just takes time,” Fetch said.
To register for Bike to Work Day, visit b2wbham.com.
A few tips for beginner riders biking to work:
- Chart your course.
- Planning your course ahead of time will allow you to choose the path of least resistance. “1st and 2nd Avenues South are great roads when traveling east to west,” Fetch suggested.
- Check your belongings.
- Plan out how you’re going to transport your belongings. Your laptop could be more easily carried in a backpack than a briefcase and if you have a bike basket, your lunch may fit there.
Coffee shops participating as energizer stations include Urban Standard, Lucy’s Coffee & Tea, Crestwood Coffee, O’Henry’s Coffee (Homewood Location), O’Henry’s Coffee (Highland Park Location), Starbucks (Irondale Location) and Church Street Coffee & Books. Energizer stations will be serving free coffee to Bike to Work Day participants from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. on Friday, May 16.
Redemptive Cycles will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., so participants can receive free tune-ups during that time. They are also having an Instagram contest that ends on the 16th. The best cycling photo Instagrammed and tagged #Redemptivecycles will win a $200 gift certificate.