BRONZEVILLE — Social activist Olatunji Oboi Reed aims to reduce violence, improve health and create jobs through organized bike-riding tours.
On Tuesday, he’ll be recognized at the White House for his efforts.
The White House "Champions of Change" event is honoring Reed and 10 others who are “innovating in transportation and growing the American economy.”
Reed said on Facebook that he's proud of the honor.
“We do this work together, may the journey continue," he wrote.
Reed and childhood friend Jamal Julien graduated from Lindblom Math & Science Academy. They launched Slow Roll Chicago in September 2014. The Chatham residents have organized rides through their own neighborhood as well as Bronzeville and Englewood. Their first Englewood bike ride attracted about 75 people in August, Reed said.
“What drives us is reducing violence, improving health and creating jobs,” Reed said.
“We think of ourselves as a community-development organization, focusing on community-building. The potential to get more people on bikes can improve their health and can improve air quality. Getting more people on bikes can increase jobs at the same time and get people to explore the gardens that are right in their neighborhoods,” he said.
During September, Slow Roll Chicago partnered with the Chicago Sustainability Leaders Network to put on a sustainability series. The groups organized weekly rides through South Side neighborhoods such as Englewood.
“We feel like we were given a gift by this community, a gift of consciousness, of the skills to be men, to be citizens and to care about our city and our neighborhoods,” Reed said. “Anything we can do to contribute back to this community that helped give birth to us and our movement, we want to do it.”
One of the reasons Slow Roll Chicago created the series was to introduce outsiders to new neighborhoods.
“Englewood is beautiful,” Reed said. “It has beautiful people, architecture, beautiful organizations, gardens, but people don’t realize it.
"People outside of our neighborhoods don’t realize it because they’re so caught up with this narrative that’s told in the media that’s not congruent with reality. The reality is that there are shops and people, and nobody is getting shot, victimized. We just want people outside of our neighborhoods to see the beauty that exists,” he said.
Reed recognized that communities like Englewood experience inequality and are disproportionately affected by health care disparities, unemployment and violence, but said even those disparities don’t “match the perception.”
“The perception is that when you walk out the door, you’re dodging bullets, and that’s not the reality,” he said.
He said getting more people on bikes will improve one neighborhood at a time.
“The more people you have riding means more are going to stay in the neighborhood and shop in this community, versus getting in a car and driving miles away,” Reed said.
He said his group would create "short-trip activity" by putting people on bicycles. That will, in turn, generate retail sales.
“More retail attracts more short-trip activity, more short-trip activity attracts more retail, and in turn we create more jobs, more eyes and bodies on the street,” Reed said.
Blacks aren’t riding as much as other groups, he said, but it’s not because they don’t want to.
“It’s true that people of color, especially black people in Chicago, ride at a lower rate than white people,” Reed said. “It’s also true that low- to moderate-income people ride at a lower rate than middle-to upper-income.
"However, one of the reasons blacks ride at a lower rate is because our neighborhoods don’t have the same bikeability as other neighborhoods throughout the city,” he said.
Professor Euan Hague is chairman of DePaul University’s geography department and co-director of the master's degree program in sustainable urban development.
Hague said even though African-Americans have been cycling for decades, there’s this notion that they don’t really bike.
“It’s seen as more of a North Side-type of activity, and I think that any group that can expand biking, as [Slow Roll Chicago] is suggesting, into the South Side neighborhoods would be great,” Hague said. “It’ll be beneficial."
It’s more than just changing attitudes, though, Hague said. The South Side’s infrastructure needs to be more bike-friendly, meaning protected bike lanes, better paved streets and bike stands, he said.
“The issue is whether the city is actually going to provide the same level of infrastructure facility as is provided on the North Side,” Hague said.
Reed agreed, which is why Slow Roll is working with the Chicago Department of Transportation on ways to eliminate the disparities.
“We’re on a mission. We’re serious about this work,” Reed said.
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