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The photo project Chicagoans Who Bike encourages more people to ride, one story at a time

Photographer and interviewer Viktor Köves talks to residents he meets all over the city about their cycling habits, with the goal of getting more folks on spokes.

A dad and two of his kids ride a bike in Chicago. Photo: Viktor Köves, Chicagoans Who Bike

The transit agency held public meetings in Uptown and Edgewater.
The post is sponsored by the Active Transportation Alliance.

Storytelling is a powerful tool for moving hearts and minds. And Viktor Köves – creator of Chicagoans Who Bike – hopes storytelling also helps move bodies from cars to bicycles. Köves interviews Chicagoans of all ages, from all neighborhoods and walks of life, shooting beautifully composed portraits and asking folks to share their experiences biking in the city. His goal: demystify, encourage, and empathize. His interviews can be found on Instagram, Twitter, and the ChiWhoBike website.

Sharon Hoyer: Tell me a little about yourself and your own relationship with biking in Chicago.

Viktor Köves: I’m a [longtime] Chicagoan, though not born here. I started biking around in high school. I took a couple years off for a surgery that kept me from biking, but it’s been one of my modes of transportation for a very long time. It’s something I want to share with people and demystify. I find there are people who bike who are like "Oh yeah, I go here or there." And then people who don’t bike, where if I talk about biking in Chicago, it’s like I’m talking about walking on the moon. 

SH: Are you a photographer by trade?

VK: No, I’ve been an on-and-off amateur photographer, but I picked up all the photography gear for this project specifically. It’s a hobbyist thing and I’m learning by doing.

SH: What was your inspiration for creating Chicagoans Who Bike?

VK: Biking through the city, I saw a lot of people doing their own thing – maybe people biking dressed really nicely, or someone riding a really cool bike – and I wanted to learn more about those people. I wondered if anyone had done any of that type of storytelling but didn’t find anything in Chicago.

I had some context from other places. I’m familiar with this [YouTube] channel called Propel, run by a guy who owns an e-bike store in New York. It shaped what I wanted to do – a mix of that and Humans of New York. Trying to bring out some people’s life experiences and with the goal of showing that biking may not be what you think it is and it’s not the people you might initially expect.

SH: How do you prepare for your interviews?

VK: I have a set of questions. My main goal is to capture a wide variety of people in Chicago, and that’s one of the challenges. I want to make sure I capture people in a place that’s important to them. If you’re a keen-eyed Chicagoan you’ll probably pick up on some landmarks, but it’s all around the city. I’ve put tons of miles on my bike going from the Far South Side – Major Taylor [Trail] and 111th – all the way up North, West, everywhere. I record video, I transcribe the interview and I pick out some snippets for the published written interview and pick out some video clips for context.

SH: Are there any interviews that stuck out in your memory or surprised you?

VK: I just published one yesterday that I loved, with a woman who biked while pregnant. I’d never thought about that before and I thought it was really beautiful and a cool experience.

"An expectant mother living car-free with her wife and currently biking pregnant" in Chicago. Photo: Viktor Köves, Chicagoans Who Bike

There was also an interview I did on The 606 trail [aka the Bloomingdale Trail] with an older gentleman. He got an e-bike from his daughter and talked about the joy of riding with three generations of his family. It was really meaningful to me to talk with someone older who used an e-bike to help him out. I find whenever there’s a community meeting, people are under the impression it’s all people in their 20s riding and that’s it. I like to push back against that narrative.

The older man who rides with his grandkids on The 606. Viktor Köves, Chicagoans Who Bike

SH: I was reading through some of the interviews and came across the family of seven who all bike together. I’ve been biking in Chicago over 20 years but that even surprised me. I thought, "Wow! How great they have the whole family on bikes." You don’t necessarily think of that being viable in the city.

VK: Yeah. I only have two strict rules about who I interview: They have to live in Chicago and they have to bike for transportation. If it’s someone who lives in Chicago but only races or hits trails, I’m not as compelled to talk to them. And it’s important they live in Chicago, someone who pays taxes here, maybe voted for Mayor or alderman. One of my rules is not that someone doesn’t have a car. One of things people think that might keep them biking is "Oh, I have a car." So do a lot of these people. We have a false binary about just biking and not owning a car when it’s really more nuanced and complicated.

SH: What has the public response been?

VK: It’s been really positive. One of my goals has been to spread awareness and I think that’s happened. The other think people appreciate is that they feel seen and validated when someone has had a scary experience like theirs or had to make tough decisions. I published an interview with a younger man who talked about riding on the sidewalk. He said, "I know it’s illegal, but if it’s between riding on the sidewalk and getting hit by someone on TikTok driving 40 mph, I’ll take the sidewalk." That one surprised me for how well it did, and I think because it really tapped into the feeling of having to make a tough decision between safety and breaking the law. 

The young man who talked about riding on the sidewalk. Viktor Köves, Chicagoans Who Bike

I interviewed a woman who described a driver cutting her off and cussing her out when she had a young child on the back of her bike. People were mortified, but also not surprised. Sometimes, people push back and say, "This didn’t happen."

The mom who was threatened on her bike with her kid (not pictured). Photo: Viktor Köves

SH: Really??

VK: Oh yeah. My goal is to talk to people who don’t bike, and sometimes those people have a strong reaction. People’s knowledge of the world is so rooted by their personal experience. If you’ve never ridden a bike, if you’ve never been threatened or harassed, you may think it doesn’t happen. It’s challenging those expectations.

SH: What do you hope people will take away from Chicagoans Who Bike?

VK: My real goal is to reach people who don’t bike in Chicago or haven’t in a long time and show them the wide variety of people out there and that it’s possible. In my ideal world, if you can get on a bike, try it. So often at planning or City Council meetings alders are like, "No one bikes in my community" or "That’s only a certain group of people." I hope to reach those people and show there are rich people biking, there are poor people biking, there are young people biking, there are old people biking. For policymakers, this is something I want them to grapple with. This wide variety of people all deserve safety and to be protected on our streets.

SH: Anything else you’d like to mention?

VK: The one other thing I’d say is I have so many different stories and that’s intentional. But one thing that breaks my heart is almost every single person has some sort of conversation about safety. They might disagree on strategies or implementation, but almost every single person has safety on their minds. And I think that’s kind of damning for the City administration – interview a wide variety of people and that’s one thing they all agree on. To be fair, almost all of them say it’s gotten better, but all agree we need infrastructure improvements. 

Check out Chicagoans Who Bike on Instagram, Twitter, and the ChiWhoBike website.

To respond to Viktor Köves' statement, "I wondered if anyone had done any of that type of storytelling... in Chicago," probably the closest thing to this in our city was photographer Martha Williams' Bike Fancy blog. It featured fashion shots and brief interviews, ending in February 2015. Another local website with a somewhat similar approach was Dottie Brackett's and Trisha Ping's blog Let's Go Ride a Bike, which ended around the same time. So it's great to see that at least one project has picked up the cyclist photography blogging torch in Chicago. – John Greenfield, editor

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