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The Heart(land) of Bicycling: Building Bike Equity in Tulsa

This article, written by Ren Barger, executive director of Tulsa Hub (pictured below), originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of the League’s American Bicyclist magazine.

Let’s turn our wagons west and take a little journey into the landlocked lowlands, and allow me to show you what I have found to be one of the best kept secrets of the central United States.

Cowboys, the Bible Belt, and once described “the Oil Capital of the World” while still navigating the complexity of the moniker “Native America” — most Americans not residing in Oklahoma would associate Tulsa with a stop on Route 66, or some other memory of a cross-country road trip through the nostalgic and mythological Frontier, where the destination was anywhere but there.

Although this is the land of my birth, I grew up on the verge of the new millennium constantly on the move with a single mom at the helm. I’ve lived on both coasts and came of age in Chicago, IL. I’ve noticed a lot of tumble-weeds are cast from and gravitate in return to this fascinating hub. I like to think of it as the very umbilicus of America.

Not unlike many other sprawling mid-sized cities of the Plains, when you find yourself arrived in Tulsa, you’ll find yourself spending a lot of time in your motorized vehicle, driving across one highway to another.

Nary a bison in sight; likewise you won’t see much public transit or sidewalks. Thus, you won’t see a lot of pedestrians or cyclists from your vantage point behind the wheel. No matter the weather — which can range from tundra to temperate to tropical in a matter of hours — you probably won’t see a lot of people in general, besides the others piloting automobiles.

Merging across the six-lane freeway into any exit into the downtown core, here, at last, you’ll discover multimodal travel. But the cyclists and pedestrians and transit users you’ll see might not look much like you. Here we find the people who are ignored and marginalized by the motorized mainstream. The people who have been overlooked, disdained, forgotten; by accident, or by design, made invisible by the infrastructure planners and developers.

I think we can all agree: Movement is essential to the human condition. For those who have only experienced their movement surrounded by protective screens and at speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour, it could be a great challenge to carefully examine the relationship between movement and mobility. Americans, especially American drivers in the Frontier, like to believe they are free to move, but I have found free and equal mobility to be a myth. Some are in charge of it. Some are excluded or even imprisoned by it.

Americans like to believe they’re free to move, but I’ve found free and equal mobility to be a myth. Some are in charge of it. Some are excluded or even imprisoned by it.

Let me share with you Tulsa, my home at the river bend, as I ask you to consider how movement is culturally meaningful, how it affects changes in social condition and status. Movement can be a lens through which privilege and disadvantage, power and powerlessness are revealed. Streets and transportation systems are the civic inheritance of cultures. They are a reflection of the values and priorities of our nation, cities and society.

It’s fair to say that the planners and developers of my city — not unlike much of the Plains region — shaped it according to moving personal automobiles as quickly as possible from one point to another. I wonder if it ever occurred to them that personal motorized conveyances might not be accessible or affordable to large numbers of citizens? Or, that there could and would be consequences to pedestrians, the disabled, and drivers of human-powered vehicles?

The architects of Frontier infrastructure failed the single mother who has to navigate a drainage ditch with her baby in stroller to get to the grocery store. They endangered the student walking to school and confined the elder whose eyesight is too-far-gone to drive. They stripped the dignity from the veteran who lost the use of his legs in his service abroad.   

People are dying in “our” streets every day from motor fatalities, many involving pedestrians and cyclists and the people who are physically disabled. By accident or by design, the engineers of our civic inheritance have largely severed the connectivity of a Human Scale. Our streets have become an expression of domination and power, where hierarchy of size, speed, affluence, and privilege dramatize the relationship between the Quick and the Dead.

Our streets have become an expression of domination and power, where hierarchy of size, speed, affluence, and privilege dramatize the relationship between the Quick and the Dead.

At 32 years old, I cannot not see people suffering from lack to access to safe and effective  transit options. I can only ask you to consider this way of seeing because of my own experience.

At the close of 2004, when I was 21 years old, a traffic accident resulted in my broken neck and fractures across eight other bones. I was on my bike when the car hit. Then, I was confined to a wheelchair for two months. Just as I was learning to walk again, my sister Felicia, aged 19, was killed in a car accident. Needing full-time care, I was invited to return to Tulsa, the place of my birth.

Like all cyclists, pedestrians, and physically disabled people must answer to drivers of motorized conveyances, I am asked constantly, “Don’t you know how dangerous it is to travel in the road with motorized traffic?”

In response, I’d like to know why it’s not of more pressing concern that driving is the most dangerous activity one will perform in one’s adult life … or, if the questioner has ever imagined what our streets would look like if they were full of people, instead of motorized traffic.

It was a miracle I lived. Tulsa provided me a place to make visible my belief in human power. To make up for the time that was taken from me. To combine a love for cycling with a passion for social justice. I call it Tulsa Hub.

Tulsa Hub is, categorically, a syndicate of volunteers on a mission to change lives through cycling. Within this community cycling workshop in Tulsa’s downtown, long days and even longer nights are enjoyed in incredible company, refurbishing discarded bikes and pairing them with people who have been discarded from society.

The leadership is two full-time and three part-time staff, and a core group of eight volunteer mechanics and educators. We execute our mission through adult and youth programming and events in the community. The Workshop is a multi-generational mentor-learning environment — a safe space where people build positive relationships and learn new skills.

As an alternative to consumerism, all of our methodology is participation focused, meaning we value the contribution of people’s time equal to their money. Or, if they wish to pay for their services, we let them.

More than 1,400 people are engaged by our ACE (Adult Cycling Empowerment) program annually — people lacking abundant support relationships, adequate physical and mental health care, or those simply lacking convenient or accessible transit options to get them to and from work when they have the drive and talent to share.

After 5-12 hours of volunteerism and bike safety and maintenance education, a high-quality bike, lock, and safety gear can be earned at no cost. Or, if participants wish to pay for the equipment and training, we let them. Since 2009, 370 people have become commuter cyclists through ACE. Forty percent of these folks are still in touch with Tulsa Hub and have reported using their bike to get them to a job or school or into housing, to the grocery store, to church, to nature, or otherwise mobilize themselves more swiftly into self-reliance.

Meanwhile, we are affecting the habits and worldview of the next generation by working with kindergarteners through 8th graders at Title I elementary and middle schools. In my short career, I’ve had the extreme delight of training and riding in Earn-a-Bike programs with 700 students in schools, and 1,500 more at events and summer programs annually. Most of these kids would never have a working bike to call their own otherwise.

It is my understanding that many of these transportation challenges I’ve described are prevalent beyond Tulsa. I’ve certainly observed the hopelessness and depravities caused at the intersection of poverty, lack of access to education and auto-centric public infrastructure everywhere I’ve traveled in the United States and abroad.   

Bicycling education and human-power advocacy is how I enact my responsibility as an American citizen. It means a great deal to me to be able to work in company with architects, planners, business leaders, servant leaders, and very smart people — people like you, the readers of this magazine. A fellow cyclist by the name of Albert Einstein said, “People who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.”

Bicycling education and human-power advocacy is how I enact my responsibility as an American citizen.

So, the kids of Tulsa like me are boomeranging home, urging the civic leadership toward urban infill development and transit options and all of these mainstream niches of cycling have grown since I’ve lived here the past eight years. Our trails system is growing and improving. There’s a public recreational bike share and another in the works; several social riding clubs not involved with the Tulsa Hub in any fashion, and a world class Ride and Race Festival, Tulsa Tough, every June.

As Tulsa is striving to define and market its identity, the leadership at Tulsa Hub is committed to ensuring the cyclists our mission serves — the riders absent from the marketing materials you’ll see at the airport — and other vulnerable users of the roadway have a voice in the dialogue. My team and all of the people I have met through our programming have helped me understand that homelessness and poverty are not the problem, but symptoms of the problem.

It has been the greatest honor of my life to offer a simple solution to complex problems through the bicycling education programs I’ve conducted as a League Cycling Instructor. It has been an even greater honor to ease the suffering of people around me by loving them through cycling.

Ren Barger is the executive director of Tulsa Hub and was a keynote speaker at the 2015 National Forum on Women & Bicycling.