A few years ago we were encouraged to be tourists in our own towns.
National Geographic, USA Today, and countless travel blogs have caught on to the trend that has unwittingly become the best (and only) way to find new adventure in times of a global pandemic.
All of these tips and tricks encourage us to see, experience and explore our physical environments differently: Go to new places, learn new things, interact with new people, taste new foods. But how about trying a new method of moving?
I have lived in the Mahoning Valley all my life. I’ve made countless trips through the region on smooth, freshly paved highways and moonlit gravel back roads. I know exactly how long it takes to get from here to there—both time and distance like we Midwesterners do—and what I can expect to see along the way.
But that all changed — my mind map was erased, like someone had picked up and dramatically shaken an Etch-a-Sketch — when I chose to get out of my car and onto a bike.
A whole new world
In the summer of 2021, to commemorate the shift from working from home to my downtown Youngstown office, I decided to take some lessons from the past year and do things differently; break free from the “I’ve always done it this way” mentality. So, for the first time since I got a driver’s license, I took my bike to get around.
It was a bit terrifying. It was quite exciting. And it was completely energizing.
Since that first day, I’ve done the same 5-mile round trip multiple times (that’s nearly 100 miles done by bike rather than by car). I also noticed the benefits of starting my day with 15 minutes of exercise and fresh air – I could think more clearly and didn’t need as much coffee to wake me up.
But more importantly, I became more aware of the practical and real-world implications of the benefits of investing in improvements to the built environment that make it easier, safer and more feasible for people to get around using means other than personal vehicles. These types of changes provide benefits for almost everyone – for those who rely on walking, biking, rolling, or horseback riding to get around, and for those who have the choice to make the more active choice.
As the Tourist in Your Town movement suggests, when I traveled by bike, I was able to see the same old, familiar sights with fresh eyes, as if I were seeing them for the first time. I used this discovery to start drawing a new mind map. Destinations that seemed incredibly remote, that can only be traveled by car, were actually not. Previously unknown or unseen showcases during the 35 mph passage from point A to point B became evident and sparked curiosity. And infrastructural conditions like pavement, lighting and signage – whether good, bad or ugly – became glaring.
How we move matters
Although brief, my time traveling on two wheels revealed the full potential there is to create better connected and more active communities. But it has also amplified the significant need to invest in our transport infrastructure in radically different ways.
These changes are all related to a movement often called “active transport”. The Ohio Department of Transportation defines “active transportation” as: “Human-powered transportation that engages people in healthy physical activity as they move from place to place. People who walk, cycle, use strollers, wheelchairs/mobility devices, skateboard and in-line skate are engaged in active transportation.
Active transportation is a strategy that communities are using to address several concerning trends related to resident health as well as environmental and economic sustainability. That’s a lot to go through and it may leave you with more questions than answers, like, “How does active transportation (whatever that means) improve my life or my community?” or, “What does biking or walking have to do with economic opportunity?” or, “How is driving a big bus better for the environment than driving my much smaller car?”
Let’s start by looking at what we care about most — literally — which is our health. Here are some stats to keep under your hats or helmets. First, more than half of an individual’s health is directly related to the social and environmental conditions around them. This includes things like access to transportation, stable employment that pays a living wage, safe and affordable housing, healthy and affordable food, and safe and connected streets and sidewalks.
According to the US Department of Transportation, nearly a quarter of adults nationwide do not engage in regular physical activity. About 2 in 3 American adults report a weight status considered overweight or obese.
That’s a lot of people – around 82.5 million, to be exact.
The area’s most recent community health assessment, which was conducted in 2018, gathered feedback from hundreds of Mahoning and Trumbull county residents through a survey and series of focus groups. Based on this information, approximately 1 in 3 Mahoning Valley residents report having a weight that is considered overweight or obese. About the same number of residents reported not getting enough physical activity over a two-week period. The number of residents increases when looking more closely at the race and income of the respondents. So if you’re African American or earn less than $25,000 a year, you’re much more likely to experience health hurdles like this, among several others.
This represents tens of thousands of Mahoning Valley residents whose health – physical and mental – is affected by where they live, the jobs they do and how they have to get from place to place. to the other.
So back to the bike
The job I do in this office where I cycled nearly 100 miles traveling last year is to serve as the director of an initiative called Healthy Community Partnership. The partnership exists to work with individuals and organizations who share a passion and commitment to making the Mahoning Valley a healthier, more equitable, and vibrant community by removing barriers like those mentioned above. One of our focus areas is active transportation, and in the short time our partners have been active on this issue, so much has changed.
In recent years, several Mahoning Valley communities have developed active transportation plans, such as the towns of Warren and Niles, and the townships of Boardman and Howland. Specific corridors that connect our communities to each other and to economic opportunity have also been examined through an active transportation lens – some examples are the Belmont Avenue Corridor Plan and the Market Street Transit-Oriented Development Plan .
We have arrived in the month of May, when we celebrate the end of the April showers and the bright colors of the May flowers. We also recognize and celebrate National Bike Month. Since its inception in 1956, Bike Month’s goal has been to highlight the many benefits of cycling and encourage people to get back in the saddle for a ride. There are many occasions to celebrate and join in the excitement of traveling by bike, such as Bike to Work Week, May 16-22, or Bike to Work Day, May 20. For budding cyclists, schools are encouraged to sign up for Walk, Bike & Roll to School Day, which can take place any day in May.
This year, the League of American Bicyclists is celebrating National Bike Month by challenging people to ride, travel, explore, and record their experiences by marking their rides #BikeThere. Whatever your reason for riding – for recreation or to fulfill your calling – every trip and every mile counts.
Several community organizations and upcoming events will provide opportunities for cyclists of all ages and abilities. Local organizations to watch include the Out-Spokin Wheelmen, the CycWard Bike Club, and the Rust Belt Revival Trail Coalition. So keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities that match your level of comfort and curiosity.
Creating or integrating active transportation principles, like cycling, into a community’s planning process helps prioritize projects that make streets safer and communities healthier and more connected. Accepting this challenge to plan differently, to experience familiar places differently, to travel differently opens up a whole new world of possibilities. A world where everyone can get where they need to go more easily, more safely, more actively and with more choice in how they get there.
You never forget your firsts
They say you never forget your firsts. The first layer of cool, creamy ice cream on your tongue on a hot, sunny summer day. Your first kiss – full of nerves, bumping knees and sweaty palms. Your first bad grade or bit of biting criticism – also likely fraught with nerves, bumping knees and sweaty palms, maybe a pinch of flushed cheeks to top it all off.
First friends, enemies, partners, ex; first hello and goodbye. First skinned knees, surgeries, broken hearts, repaired fences; first paychecks, homes, spouses and babies.
All those mini-milestones, moments that end in an instant, but none are forgotten.
I take first times, maiden voyages and pioneering attempts very seriously – sometimes, I worry, a little too seriously. Once it’s over, it’s over – no replays or redos. So it better be good, whatever it is.
A recent first, maiden voyage, and pioneering attempt I still cling to is about a near-universal experience that represents unlimited joy, thrill, and freedom—and that shared inspiring feeling is riding a bike.