By Anna Bowen
In January 2008, the REI/Bicycle Friendly Communities program started issuing grants to community bike projects in cities across the USA. The program offers funding to bicycle friendly communities (as designated by The League of American Bicyclists) that are trying to increase ridership in urban areas. The grants - ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 - are awarded through Bikes Belong, and made possible by funding from Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI).
The grants have supported a wide variety of different projects; funded proposals include everything from organizing community bicycle surveys in Colorado Springs to running a bike-rack design competition in New York, orchestrating car-free celebrations in Chicago, and launching the first bicycle event in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.
One such success story is the Sunday Parkways events that launched this October, organized by the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation (CBF). In conversation with Arline Welty, CBF's Director of Development, the energy and optimism behind this new initiative is clear. Welty explains that Chicago is well situated to be moving forward with new bike-friendly events.
"Bicycling in Chicago is the best it has ever been," explains Welty. "When I commute to work, there are four, five, six other people waiting on their bikes at the traffic light when I get there - businessmen with briefcases, people in jogging pants, young people in stylin' outfits - all kinds of different people are getting on their bikes right now in a way we have never seen happen before."
The first Sunday Parkways events took place on October 5 and 26 this fall. These festivals are car-free community bicycle celebrations inspired by Ciclovia, a Latin American celebration of cycling and community. A few years ago, the former executive director of CBF and current chief strategic officer, Randy Neufeld, traveled to Bogotá, Colombia specifically to experience Ciclovia. Neufeld was "totally inspired by the transformation that he saw happening there." This inspiration was followed by the Healthy Streets Conference in 2005, and a return visit to Bogotá by a delegation of CBF staff; this is when Chicago officials decided to experience Ciclovia first hand.
The next step consisted of approaching communities in Chicago to see where Sunday Parkways events could effectively take root. Because the events are "scalable, practical, and affordable for public health and civic infrastructure," CBF was able to gear these events to underserved communities within Chicago, in particular Latino and Black communities that have the least green space and that "haven't seen the public and civic investment that more affluent neighbourhoods have."
For Sunday Parkways in these neighbourhoods, the leadership, vision, and organization of the events was taken on by the communities themselves. "The community groups are extremely well organized, have sought a lot of funding, and CBF is now just an event consultant," explains Welty. For example, the REI/Bicycle Friendly Communities dollars are going directly to "culturally appropriate, community-driven" activity stations along the route of the event. These community-led activities include salsa dancing, basketball, kickboxing, Muévete (a creative "move yourself" dance), and kids' projects.
In one sense, this grant initiative marks a commitment on REI's part to fund sustainable national initiatives. The company - ranked in the top 100 companies to work for by Fortune magazine for 11 consecutive years - " is the nation's largest consumer co-op with more than 3.5 million active members." Since 2006, REI has been conducting a greenhouse gas emissions inventory of their staff and business, and aspires to be a zero waste company by 2009. In addition to their support through the grant, REI has offered to deploy roaming bicycle mechanics throughout the Sunday Parkways events in Chicago.
The beauty of the REI/Bicycle Friendly Communities grants is their flexibility: communities determine where their needs lie - whether at the planning/visioning stage, on the organizational level, or in basic material needs like pavement markings or bike racks. Grants are available to advocacy organizations and city planning departments in League-designated Bicycle Friendly Communities. Although the grants may not necessarily be administered in the same way in the future, Bikes Belong has independently been funding bike initiatives for years and will continue to do so in the future.
Whatever their source, such grant programs are what grease the chain of new projects and initiatives like Ciclovia or Sunday Parkways to get on the road. Explains Welty: "it takes a lot of political will, culture change, and movement-building to change the biking culture in a city. I think that what bike advocates have to fight for is investment all over the place - from private bodies and also from federal legislature. Private funding for the Sunday Parkways event has been absolutely instrumental for enabling us and the community groups this year - it has accelerated the process, and it has encouraged more private funders to buy in and to believe in the project."