Katie Harris, Rails to Trails Conservancy Blog
You’re a grown adult, but you’ve never learned how to ride a bike. Where do you even start?
If live in or near the twin Cities you will find with SPOKES Bike Walk Connect riding a bike, you are never to old in Minneapolis, Minn.
Born from the Non-motorized Transportation Pilot Program (NTPP), SPOKES is a community nonprofit of the Seward Neighborhood Group, in Minneapolis with a mission of “creating a more informed and diverse biking and walking community.” To achieve this mission, SPOKES aims to remove barriers that make it difficult for people to travel on bike or foot.
“The participation has been unbelievable,” says SPOKES director Sheldon Mains. “We had over 700 visits to the shop last year. And it wouldn’t have been possible without NTPP.”
One of the many programs that SPOKES offers is Learn-to-Ride, a series of classes that aims to teach adults bicycle riding and safety skills. So far, 90 adults have participated in the program and for some, this was an eye-opening lesson on what they were truly capable of.
“Before I was involved with SPOKES, I would see bicycle commuters or people just riding for fun, and I was really impressed by them,” says SPOKES student-turned-bike advocate Hayat Ahmed. “Once I got my own bike, I thought, ‘Oh! That could be me!’”
But it wasn’t just learning to ride that brought Ahmed confidence, it was also learning the mechanics of a bike. “Now, if I’m out on a ride, I know what to do when something goes wrong. It is very powerful to know how to fix something,” Ahmed states.
Creating a safe community space is a priority of the program, and participants value the inclusiveness of SPOKES. “It had always been a goal of mine to ride a bike,” recounts Maria Padilla, who joined the Learn-to-Ride class on a friend’s recommendation. “I was kind of embarrassed when I signed up for the Learn-to-Ride class, because I was an adult, but everyone else in the program was an adult too, so that made me feel much more comfortable,” she said.
According to Mains, NTPP funds amounted to 60 percent of SPOKES’ funding in the first three years of its existence. These funds helped support the hiring of a community organizer, Abdi Hirsi, who Mains credits with making incredible connections—critical to the program’s success—in Minneapolis’ East African Community (more than half of SPOKES’ participants come from this community).
“It is the one-on-one communication and connections that he [established] that made all the difference for us when we were getting started. It’s that personal invitation that gets people there,” affirms Mains as he states that in an effort to make the community center more welcoming to program participants, the walls of the center were painted with incredibly bright colors. “We would propose a shade of paint, but [people kept saying] ‘No, brighter! No, brighter!’ We now have a very bright center, and everyone loves it,” he adds.
For Padilla it’s the welcoming community and safe space that inspires. “There is always someone there to help you and anyone is welcome at SPOKES. The staff is so involved and respectful, and you feel secure,” she says.
The community program is also changing perceptions about cycling. For some participants, riding in traditional and religious dress is often a perceived barrier, but SPOKES creates a community where riding a bike is a normal activity, regardless of your culture, religion or ethnicity.
“Like me, most Muslim women cover their hair and dress modestly by covering our body except for our face and hands. So we stand out when riding a bike because of what we’re wearing; the community is learning to get used to seeing women on bikes who are dressed similar to me, but it’s just not that common yet,” explains Ahmed.
She continues, “Those of us who started biking through SPOKES are starting a new trend. The more you see it, the more normal it becomes! If I can show that I can wear what I wear and ride a bike, it normalizes it for others.”
SPOKES’ focus is bicycles, but its reach into the community is much deeper than may appear on the surface. For participants like Maria Padilla, it has brought a new confidence and freedom into their lives.
Padilla affirms, “This program has helped me, has guided me and has given me confidence in how to learn.”
Photos above courtesy SPOKES
Katie Harris is a member of RTC’s communications team. She is a frequent user and advocate of active transportation and recently completed a bike trip across the United States.