The tight gripping of the handles, the wind blowing in your face, the freedom of cruising down a rocky trail—what’s not to enjoy about bicycling? Growing up in Chatham, riding bikes was always the natural way to get around for Olatunji Oboi Reed when he was young. But as he grew older, and as cars became the norm among his peers, Reed slowly began abandoning his bicycle in favor of the increased independence and speed of the car.
“It was not a priority,” Reed lamented about his adolescence.
It was not until much later, when Reed began to struggle with feelings of depression and inadequacy at a corporate job, that he found biking again. In dealing with his ongoing struggle of depression, Reed was seeking anything that would bring him a sense of meaning or an “ultimate escape.”
He then remembered an old, dust-covered bicycle in his basement. He thought going on a bike ride might be just what he needed to clear his mind and alleviate some of the mental and physical pain he was dealing with. This decision, he often says, ultimately saved his life. He began his journey of pedaling to solace that first day cruising down the lakeshore path. This transformative experience allowed him to connect not only with nature, but also with people for the first time in a long while. The beginning of a movement started with a simple two-wheel vehicle and a beautiful summer day.
After becoming aware of the value of cycling in his healing, he started biking recreationally and recruiting family and friends to join him. In his attempts to encourage more people in his life to cycle, he created a bicycle club named the Pioneers that rode together on a regular basis. From that point, he ventured into the world of Chicago’s bicycle advocacy—though he did not consider himself an advocate.
“I was just doing it for my own personal benefit, and then I wanted it to be a little bit social,” he said. “Others, however, saw it as advocacy and getting more Black folks on bikes.”
Reed recognized he wanted to establish something more formal and folded the Pioneers into the group Red Bike & Green Chicago—a chapter of a national Black biking organization—with the help of co-leader Eboni Hawkins. Alongside RB&G Chicago, he caught sight of an organization called Slow Roll based in Detroit. As soon as he heard of them, he fell in love with the idea and wanted to bring Slow Roll to his hometown. After a few months of discussion and negotiation with the founders, he finally got the ball rolling and allowed Reed and his cofounder Jamal Julien to create a chapter here in Chicago. The basis of Slow Roll Chicago was to create a “vehicle for social justice” through community bicycle rides, the activity of cycling, and the organization as a whole.
“How do we use the activity of cycling to improve the condition of our neighborhoods and to transform our lives?” Reed asked.
Founded in September 2014, Slow Roll Chicago’s primary strategies focus on creating stronger communities, building equitable and diverse bicycle culture in Chicago, hosting neighborhood-based bicycle rides to provide context for neighborhood issues, and providing clarity for what they wish to achieve in their “bicycle movement.” The community bicycle ride series, the organization’s main activity, involves regular neighborhood-based rides from May to September.
The rides serve to highlight both the beauty and the challenges present in the neighborhoods—a way to tangibly understand what work needs to be done. Slow Roll’s advocacy works towards campaigning on behalf of communities of color and low-to-moderate income communities for the equitable distribution of bicycle resources, community ownership of decision-making process for transportation planning, and respect for the needs and history of these neighborhoods. To reach a younger demographic interested in improving their communities through cycling, Slow Roll Chicago established its Youth Leadership Program to engage high school students in bicycle advocacy and to make neighborhoods safer through training and energizing the next generation of leaders.
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After three years as the head of Slow Roll Chicago, Reed resigned as its president and CEO on December 31, 2017 to expand his sphere of influence beyond Chicago. He has set his advocacy sights much higher with his new organization, Equiticity—a mash-up of “equity” and “electricity.” Equiticity plans to take the lessons in equity, mobility, and justice learned from Slow Roll Chicago and apply them to other neighborhoods of color across the nation, across all modes of mobility. The new organization will focus on policy change as well as engagement—a shift from his former group. The ultimate vision is a large U.S. city where equity is fully integrated into every resource—every budget, department, legislation, decision—that composes the city until it becomes “a model for the rest of the country and the rest of the world to understand the sincere, authentic operational way to committing to equity.”
Equiticity’s first initiative involves two community-based dockless bicycle “libraries” to be launched by April of next year in Lawndale on the West Side and Riverdale on the Far South Side. Joining a wave of dockless bikeshare organizations popping up in cities across the U.S., including Seattle, Dallas, and Washington, D.C.—following an eighteen-month boom-and-bust cycle in China—Equiticity has planned a community-based approach to bike-sharing with community partners. These partners help recruit for the libraries, with many of the bikes being rented for long-term use at reduced or no cost. In neighborhoods like Riverdale that may not have access to Divvy, the city’s official bikeshare program, as well as neighborhoods like Lawndale where Divvy usage is low, these libraries can help attract demographics that traditionally do not use bikes. Reed’s plan with Equiticity is to work together with established programs like Divvy and offer support systems for communities who may not be able to afford it in the moment, as well as raise awareness for these disparity issues in the hopes of creating a unified biking community.
Beyond bicycle libraries, Reed also hopes to increase advocacy work around removing police enforcement from Vision Zero Chicago, the city’s plan to reduce traffic deaths. Released late last year at the urging of transportation advocates and after many delays, the plan identifies the city’s high-crash areas—almost all of which are in predominantly Latinx and Black communities—and lays out the city’s strategies to address traffic violence using engineers, education, and police enforcement. In response to the plan’s perceived heavy hand on enforcement, Reed claimed that transportation professionals who created the policy failed to interact with communities impacted by Vision Zero programs in a meaningful way, specifically with regard to the issue of increased policing as a crash reduction tactic. He argues additional traffic enforcement in communities of color should be removed as a Vision Zero strategy until the Chicago Police Department makes efforts to eradicate police misconduct. In his analysis, the international Vision Zero movement made the mistake of addressing the symptoms of unsafe streets but not structural racism or wealth inequality as the root of traffic violence rates in these communities.
Reed’s persistent and pivotal endeavors in transit advocacy led to his selection as one of 2015’s White House Transportation Champions of Change. Along with ten other individuals, President Obama and the federal Department of Transportation honored Reed for his unique transportation initiatives to transform communities nationwide. The honor was a shock to him, but “validated the work [he] had been doing” after pushback he received from mainstream bicycle operations. Many of these organizations told him he was wrong to push for bicycle advocacy, at times making him feel alone in the movement. Along with support from organizations like RB&G Chicago and Friends of the Major Taylor Trail, the White House honor further ignited his passion to influence transit systems, and is something Reed proclaimed that “our city should be proud of,” as Slow Roll Chicago members and their community partners rode along with him to get there.
Honors aside, cities, states, and the federal government, Reed insists, need to commit to equity in their policy work to help communities underserved by current transportation systems. Formally expressing their commitment through their legislation and actions, not through empty promises or mission statements, is a stepping-stone into stimulating necessary change. Reed referenced the city of Bogotá—Colombia’s capital and largest city that, in the 1990s, had a multi-billion dollar private bus system controlled by the mafia—as a thriving center for transit equity. Enrique Peñalosa, the city’s mayor from 1998–2001 (and currently serving his second non-consecutive term) believed viable urban design could be the foundation for social change, and created what at the time was one of the world’s most advanced public Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems, and is still the world’s largest (though many of the city’s bus lines are still privatized). Peñalosa and the following mayor also constructed around 190 miles of bicycle lanes, increasing bicycle use by five times in the city. The bike paths run through both low-income and wealthy areas to promote integration, and an estimated 611,000 trips are made daily in Bogotá by bicycle, according to data from the Inter-American Development Bank. Since the 1970s, the city has also hosted a car-free Sunday every week to encourage cycling. Reed points to these examples in Bogotá as possibilities for the future of biking and transit in America.
“We’re gonna show the world that we’re gonna do it right here in the U.S.,” Reed said.
Beyond the government, Reed firmly advocates for individuals to contribute and get involved in their communities. He is hopeful that a new younger generation of activists will be able to influence a world that is already paying attention to them. The power, knowledge, technology, and tools to “flip this planet on its axis” is in the palms of their hands, and all young people have to do is decide what needs to be done.
“All you gotta do is make that decision that you’re gonna turn on the power,” Reed said, “and force people to pay attention.”