Gaining Ground to Cycle on the Streets of Memphis

By Stacy Wiedower, Commercial Appeal

Avid bicyclist Kendra Hotz has always loved to ride for recreation. Four years ago, she cycled up a notch and became a bike commuter.

“I had always wanted to commute to work just because I love riding so much, but wasn’t sure how to do it safely,” said Hotz, who commutes 13 miles round trip to her job at Rhodes College.

She followed blogs, studied safety guidelines and took two dozen practice rides during low-traffic hours. At first she rode to work two days a week, eventually making the switch to full-time bicycle commuter. And then a year later, she found a resource that could have helped her from the start: Revolutions Bicycle Cooperative, a Midtown-based organization for cyclists whose mission is “building an inclusive community by getting people on bicycles.”

Founded 14 years ago, Revolutions has lately been involved in strategic planning to connect more Memphians with the resources they need to ride for fun, exercise and transportation.

“We’re an educational organization who is working to connect people and bicycles because we believe we are building a better, more inclusive community by getting people on bicycles,” said Sylvia Crum, executive director. “We look at bicycles as a tool.”

A lot of people, Crum said, view bikes as a kid’s toy.

“Children are given a bicycle at Christmas and sent out to play,” she said. “We want children to be given bikes and view them as really fun. But we’re helping people who, say, want to ride with their children to get them to school. It’s an active form of participation. It gets your brain fired up because you’re peddling instead of riding in a car.”

Obviously bicycling has health benefits. But it has community-building benefits, too, and that’s partly what Revolutions Bicycle Coop is about. Its diverse membership of around 300 Memphis-area bicycle enthusiasts includes experienced cyclists and newbies, occasional riders and daily commuters.

Members have access to the organization’s workshop tools and its classes, like “Basic Bike Assessment” and “Fix a Flat.” In the former, attendees learn the basics of how a bike works, including how to be sure it’s in good working order and safe to ride. The latter teaches riders not only how to repair a flat and get back on the road, but also how to prevent them.

The group has offered beginning rider classes, as well as a seasonal class called “How to Ride in the Street.”

“We like to help people feel as confident as they do on the Green Line on the streets of Memphis so they can use a bicycle as transportation,” Crum said. “Especially among women, there’s a fear of going out into the street. We’ve run that class twice and we’ve really seen great success.”

Hotz said the class is a game-changer.

“It is the class that I wish had existed when I started riding for transportation,” she said. “I needed someone to ride with me and show me the ropes and help me build confidence. This class is designed to do all of that.”

Membership in Revolutions Bicycle Cooperative costs $50 a year and includes access to members-only classes and a T-shirt. Other resources, though, are free and open to the community, including a “women’s bike chat” that takes place every third Sunday at Revolutions’ shop at 1000 S. Cooper St. in First Congregational Church. (Bike parking is available on the Cooper side of First Congo.)

Group rides are also free and open to the community, and they’re another big part of Revolutions’ mission. People come from across the Mid-South to join Revolutions’ group rides. Joe Fennell, who gets around almost exclusively by bicycle and city bus, likes to take part in the regularly scheduled rides to connect with the community of cyclists that’s formed around the shop.

Fennell started hanging around Revolutions shortly after its inception, volunteering off and on in the years since.

“It was during volunteering that I learned the skills to maintain my bicycles,” he said. “Starting out with basic repairs, learning how to diagnose a bicycle for overhaul, to fully overhauling a bicycle.”

Most recently, Revolutions has experimented with a business membership package that encourages work colleagues to try out bicycling together. Classes might include commuting, route mapping, group rides, bike tune-ups and more, and the organization welcomes feedback from local businesses on what might benefit their employees.

“We’ll talk through street riding safety tips, things to consider if you’re going to ride out in business clothes to pick up lunch or go to meeting,” Crum explains. “We’ll tailor it from there.”

Revolutions is moving and growing with the community in other ways. As Explore Bike Share runs a crowdfunding campaign with the goal of launching a bike share program across the city, Revolutions is getting in on the effort.

“We feel like if we can educate people on how to be comfortable on the street, then when bike share stations pop up, people will feel more confident,” Crum said.

Mainly, Revolutions wants to make it easier for Memphians to ride, period. The group offers bike rentals at low cost – $5 for a standard bike, $10 for a family cargo bike that can carry children. Revolutions also sells refurbished bikes, raising funds for its educational programs while offering riders an affordable option to get them on the streets.

“We’re really trying to connect people and bicycles and just be a resource to help people gain confidence about how to use a bicycle,” Crum said.

Now that she rides almost everywhere for transportation, Hotz has discovered that this activity she happens to love comes with many benefits.

“It’s good for my health, both physical and mental,” she said. “I feel more connected with the city, its people and neighborhoods. Riding a bike is a major money-saver compared to driving, and replacing car trips with bike trips – even if you only do it from time to time – is good for the environment.”