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The view from the bike lanes of South Bend

We asked our former intern Toria Sullivan, a native of South Bend who went on to work on the Pete for America campaign, for her thoughts on the nation’s next Transportation Secretary. Toria interned at the League with a focus on supoprting our Bicycle Friendly American program over several years while completing her studies at Georgetown and before heading to Iowa as a staffer on the Pete for America campaign during the Democratic Party primaries. 

Oh, cool, Mayor Pete. Seeing the local star was routine at my favorite coffee shop in downtown South Bend, years before the café would become a second office for his presidential campaign staffers. I closed my laptop, calling it a day on my internship work for The League of American Bicyclists, to head out for a walk on the streets of the Silver rated Bicycle Friendly Community for my daily walk.

Ok. Pick up the leg, put it back down. No, no don’t flail it. Can I feel the ground under my foot? No, still no.

This probably isn’t how most people take a walk, but for hours a day in the summer of 2017 I dedicated all of my energy and focus on simply convincing my leg to do its job. I was in South Bend on medical leave from Georgetown University navigating a new diagnosis of complex regional pain syndrome in my left side. Previously a highly competitive collegiate triathlete, the nerves on my lower left quadrant no longer worked with the rest of my body. In fact, they hated the rest of my body, emitting constant pain signals. Practicing walking was not just a physical exercise, but a mental one, too, as I struggled to grasp this new way of experiencing the world.

Read South Bend’s Bicycle Friendly Community report card from 2018

The streets of South Bend in 2017 were not the ones I grew up navigating. Mainly because when I was growing up, one didn’t explore the inhospitable streets of South Bend by foot or bike, but in 2017, new shared use paths winded along the river. They were large, open, passing by infant small businesses, street music, large murals painted by friends who were embarking on successful art careers. Whether walking on the wide sidewalks or biking along the separated, parallel, green colored bike lanes downtown, one was comforted by the safety provided by traffic calming infrastructure. Gone were the days of one way, highway-like streets that allowed cars to shred through the heart of the city. I could see a familiar face across the street, press a button, and stop traffic to safely cross to an encounter that was bound to lift my spirit when it was at its lowest point.

The community created on this transformed pavement nurtured me. When I started bicycling again, my butt would slide off my saddle, thrown off balance by a left leg that failed to keep cadence with its counterpart. Group rides that explored the new pathways of the city kept me going as my left side slowly caught up with my right. My first steps running again tapped the asphalt of a path laid by Pete’s administration. The traction and momentum that pavement provided carried me across the finish line of the USAT National Collegiate Triathlon Championship months later in second place.

South Bend Streets

“Before and after” photos from South Bend’s Bicycle Friendly Community application

With every return trip home to South Bend, I saw firsthand how the bicycle network expanded, stretching its arms further out to grasp ahold of and bring more people in – into the heart of the South Bend community, into the bicycling family. In the fall of 2019, I stopped in South Bend and could finally bike from my home to downtown without fearing for my life. I had just left the League of American Bicyclists and was on my way to Iowa to work for the man who transformed my community, and whose transportation policies created the environment that allowed me to look out upon a crowd from atop a national championship podium, a sight I never could have imagined as just a scrappy kid from South Bend.

I drove into the Iowa town that would be my home for the next few months with the bike that had taken me from paths by a small river in Indiana to championships stowed in my trunk. Unnavigable multi-lane, one-way, highway-like streets pierced the heart of the town, reminiscent of the old South Bend. This place needs the Mayor Pete treatment, I thought. It was an easy sell.

I am a testament to the ways in which a bike can present otherworldly opportunities and I am forever indebted to Mayor Pete for facilitating that moment when I threw my arms up in the air at the finish line and felt beyond what I ever thought I could. A world with a Secretary Mayor Pete leading the Department of Transportation is one where people like me—and people unlike me—have better access to all kinds of safe, accessible mobility options. It is an America in which every town has doors opened to new and profound possibilities for getting around. Somewhere out there is a kid who will one day pick up a bike and set out on a pathway planned under Pete’s management and she is limitless.