[Streetsblog invited Olatunji Oboi Reed, president of Slow Roll Chicago, to share his perspective on our city’s bicycle equity challenges.]
Let me explain why I’m aggressively advocating for bike equity in Chicago.
About ten years ago, when I was 30 years old, I took an extended medical leave from my job at Citibank when work, family and relationship stresses brought on a severe bout of clinical depression. I have struggled with this illness on-and-off since high school.
During this time, I was experiencing a level of emotional pain so intense, an escape route was the only thing I could think about. One day, as I sat on my couch in Chatham, crying in the dark, I summoned the will to explore an alternative to taking my own life.
A few years before, when I was living in Champaign, my dear friend Ogunsola Hammond Carter sold me a green Diamondback mountain bike for about $50. After I moved back to Chicago, I hardly ever rode the bike. However, during my moment of crisis, I felt my final option was to try bicycling as a healthy escape from my pain.
I got up and went next door to my mother’s house, where the bike sat in the basement with two flat tires, covered in dust and badly in need of a tune up. I resolved to take the Diamondback to John’s Hardware & Bicycle Shop for repairs, then go for a ride and see what happened.
Early in the morning on a beautiful summer Saturday, I put the now-rideable bike in the trunk of my car and drove to 63rd Street Beach. I walked the bike to the trail, took a deep breath and started to ride.
Soon, I noticed the tranquil beach and the waves rhythmically crashing on the sand. I started to play hide and seek with the sun, as I pedaled by the trees along the trail. The rustling leaves sang a song to me, drowning out the negativity in my head. I was smiling for the first time in months.
I began to take note of other Black people on the trail, enjoying themselves, walking and running and biking. Feeling a newfound desire to connect with other people, I would sometimes look up from my handlebars and make eye contact with a fellow brother or sister on the trail. I was a bit surprised to find that, every single time, I was greeted with a head nod, a warm smile, or a friendly “How you doing brother?” I no longer felt alone.
I had found the respite from my pain that I so desperately needed. Over the next several weeks, I rode as often as I could. It was still a struggle to find the will to get out of bed each day and do basic things like showering and eating, but I pushed through. Each ride gave me more energy to address my problems.
After ignoring my depression for nearly two decades, I decided to do something about it. I began seeing a therapist and started a regimen of medication. Eventually, I returned to work.
I continued to struggle with this mental illness, and it sometimes got the best of me, but I no longer considered suicide. Along with counseling, diet, yoga, and spending time with family and friends, biking is still my one of my greatest weapons against depression.
I know unequivocally that I am alive today because of that ride on the Lakefront Trail a decade ago. This knowledge fuels my current efforts to bring the many benefits of cycling to others in the Black community.
For a host of reasons, many Black Chicagoans have little interest in cycling. Like I once did, they view biking as something for children and White people on the Northside. Very few of them consider biking to be a viable form of transportation.