Where do the teens in Evanston’s Y.O.U. program go to learn how to fix their own bikes?  And who said that riding bicycles “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world?”

On June 18, the Evanston Public Library hosted a Bike Expo that answered these questions and many more. The Expo included presentations on Frances Willard’s love of cycling by Glen Madeja, the Director of the Willard House Museum and Archive; the history and evolution of biking in Evanston by John Hennelly of Go Evanston; the current and future state of the City’s biking infrastructure by City Transportation and Mobility Coordinator Katherine Knapp; and a lively demonstration of bike-fitting by Sneha Narayan and Matt McMunn of The Recyclery.  Members of the Active Transportation Alliance, sponsor of Bike the Drive, offered information on their regional goal to expand bike trails and public transportation in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. The Evanston Police Department offered bike registration, and local bike store Wheel and Sprocket sponsored tutorials on helmet-fitting.

Mr. Madeja regaled attendees with stories of Frances Willard and her bicycle, “Gladys,” so named because “it made her glad.” Susan B. Anthony declared, “The bicycle has done more to emancipate woman than anything else in the world” and dubbed it the “Freedom Machine.” Ms. Willard concurred wholeheartedly. No longer “enwrapped in the long skirts that impeded every footstep,” Ms. Willard exuberantly seized upon bike riding as a means to express her passionate belief in women’s emancipation as well as her “pure natural love of adventure.”

Ms. Willard’s adoption of cycling came when she was diagnosed with pernicious anemia at age 53. Her doctor advised her to live “out of doors and take congenial exercise.” She followed this advice enthusiastically and methodically, and practiced riding her bike for 15 minutes each day for three months until she mastered it. Ms. Willard went on to write a bestseller about this experience – “How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle” – exhorting women to adopt it as a means to greater independence through the freedom to travel at will, embrace the joy of exercise, and maintain complete autonomy with a thorough understanding of bicycle mechanics.

Mr. Hennelly discussed how perceptions of bicycles and their rightful place among us have evolved over time. A co-founder of Go Evanston, Mr. Hennelly was quick to state that his opinions “are not necessarily the opinions” of that organization.

 Mr. Hennelly said, in the past there was a perception that only “strange and interesting people rode bikes,” and “it was considered odd for an adult to ride a bike.” Having surveyed newspaper clippings over more than a century, Mr. Hennelly made a case for the long-prevailing opinion in Evanston that bikes were “dangerous to public safety” and cyclists were “law-breakers.” He said this perception has been evolving significantly, but vestiges were seen in the vehement reactions in letters to the editor and online forums from a vocal contingent of Evanston residents when bike lanes were introduced on Dodge Avenue and on Davis and Church streets. 

Mr. Hennelly said it is a misperception that bikes are dangerous and unsafe. “There’s a complete disconnect between the way Americans are actually getting hurt and bicycles. The biggest killers of Americans these days are poor diet, cars, guns, and the opioid epidemic,” he says. Bike accidents do not even come close.  In fact, last year in Evanston there were 63 accidents involving pedestrians and 76 accidents involving bikes.  The number of accidents involving cars is more than 2,600.

Mr. Hennelly says he sees signs of a much brighter future for cycling in Evanston.  He said he was very happy to see “the highly functional design of the new bike path on Chicago Avenue.”  By next year, he said, Go Evanston hopes to help incentivize bike riding with a website program that will measure the carbon saved and calories burned on each bike ride.

Ms. Knapp discussed some of the new developments in Evanston’s bicycle infrastructure. She said, “The Sheridan Road project began last year with a 2018 completion date.” A portion on Chicago Avenue has opened, but the entire project will extend from “Chicago and Grove north through campus to the Wilmette border and will include corridor improvement with two-way buffered bike lanes.” 

Another recent development is the Divvy bike program. Started just last year, Ms. Knapp said, “There are 960 active annual memberships of Divvy bikes in Evanston” and “15,000 trips started here in the last 10 months.”  Ten Divvy stations have been established and one more is in the works.  The 24-hour Divvy pass is under $10 and the annual fee is $100.  Later this summer, a “pay-for-me” program will be in place to allow people “who don’t have credit or debit cards to pay for their Divvy Bikes at 7-Eleven stores,” she said. 

Ms. Narayan and Mr. McMunn of The Recyclery used their own bikes to demonstrate “choosing a bike that works for you.”

Located in Rogers Park, The Recyclery is a nonprofit educational bike shop originally founded by the Reba Fellowship. The shop takes donated bikes and fixes them to provide transportation to refugees and homeless people.  Ms. Narayan said the organization also works with Y.O.U., providing a place for Evanston youth to learn how to fix their own bikes. 

“One of the things we hear a lot about cycling is that it is an upwardly mobile activity. But the majority are actually people who use it for a primary form of transportation,” said Ms. Narayan. “Bikes are the cheapest way to get around. They’re a very robust technology – you can replace components.”

Frances Willard would definitely approve.  The “Freedom Machine” continues to emancipate.