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Bronzeville Bike Giveaway Aims to Launch a New Youth Bike Culture

Angela Ford. Photo: Melissa Manak

“I thought to myself, what if we could get 500 bicycles on the streets of Bronzeville?” said community activist Angela Ford, discussing the eureka moment that led her to organize this Saturday’s bike giveaway at Wendell Phillips High. “That would help instantly create a culture of cycling.”

The event, dubbed the Bronzeville Bike Builder, and hosted by Ford’s nonprofit, the T.A.G. Foundation, and local bike recycler Working Bikes Cooperative, takes place this Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the school, 244 East Pershing. Kids 12 and under are invited to come learn bike safety skills and leave with a free cycle. On-line pre-registration, now closed, was optional, but Ford says about 200 parents have already signed their children up for a bike.

Ford, who gave the keynote address at last month's Women on Wheels summit, grew up in the Southeast Side’s Pill Hill community in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when all of her friends rode bikes. “Riding together built camaraderie and took us on adventures,” she recalled. “We shared our favorite bike routes, long before that was done by city officials.”

Like most of he peers, Ford quit biking when she turned 16 and got a driver’s license, but took it up again in the mid-Nineties, when her son Steven, now 25, asked her to teach him how to ride. That was when she rediscovered the pleasures of transportation cycling. “While driving is often stressful, you are immediately happy on a bike,” she said. “The minute you start pedaling, all your cares fall away.”

She went car-free in 2007 and hasn’t looked back. “I get around by biking, walking, and public transit,” she said. “I consider the CTA to be my personal driver. When I’m on it, I read books, I catch up on email, and I feel like I’m in the back of a limousine. I don’t even know what the price of gas is.” Currently, she owns a consulting firm specializing in environmentally friendly real estate practices.

Recently, when she moved into a Bronzeville building her family has owned for some 70 years, she was surprised to see few children riding bikes. “I wanted to turn on the younger generation to the joy, functionality and health benefits of bicycles as transportation,” she said.

Working Bikes Co-operative. Photo: WBC

For the giveaway, Ford partnered with Working Bikes, the Little Village-based nonprofit that sends thousands of bikes to sister organizations in developing nations, but also donates cycles locally. The co-op is providing the lion’s share of the used bikes for the event, its largest single local donation, Ford said.

Working Bikes volunteers have also fixed up other old rides Ford has collected via drop-offs at 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell’s office and the 2nd District police station. “One neighbor has old bikes with children in college, while the next neighbor has young children with no bikes,” she said. “We are simply reconnecting the community in the old tradition of sharing and caring.”

At Saturday’s giveaway, the city’s Bicycling Ambassadors will be on hand to teach a bike safety course to the recipients. Volunteers will help families select the right size bikes, and adjust the seat and handlebar height for the children. Then the kids can try out their new bike smarts in an obstacle course in the school’s parking lot before they hit the road. “We’re teaching kids the ABCs of safe biking,” Ford said, “We’re not just going to hand the bikes out and say good luck.”

Ford hopes to put on similar events in other Chicago neighborhoods. “A lot of times, if a parent has three kids, if they can’t afford a bike for everybody, they won’t get anyone a bike,” she said. “This way, all the parent has to do is buy [an adult] bike and they’re all-in, a family of riders with a healthier lifestyle.”

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