Photo: Elly BlueElly Blue is on a monthlong Dinner & Bikes tour around the western U.S., along with Portland bike filmmaker Joe Biel and traveling vegan chef Joshua Ploeg. This is one of her thrice-weekly dispatches from the road about bicycle culture and economy. Read them all here.
Topeka, Kan.: “Kansas is sneaky cool.” So says the friend we’re staying with in rural Kansas, about midway through our Dinner & Bikes tour. The state’s capitol, Topeka, certainly proves this to be true.
It’s obvious that at some point in recent decades, downtown Topeka was left for dead. Less obvious is that it’s now bouncing back. It’s doing so in a “sneaky,” quintessentially Kansan way — without any flashy showcasing, but with unyielding determination. And bikes are playing a quiet but starring role in the city’s renaissance.
The few rough characters we saw riding around downtown Topeka on bicycles on a Wednesday afternoon chose, understandably, to stick to the wide and even emptier sidewalks. But it apparently doesn’t take much to fill the streets with bikes. We were floored when the organizers of our event here told us they had sold 90 tickets. People came out of the woodwork from all walks of life to fill a vast, dusty former department store building that was saved from being turned into a parking lot when the founders of the nonprofit Topeka Community Cycle Project asked to rent it out.
For the past year and a half, Cycle Project volunteers have taught bike repair skills and provided bicycles to the community for free, work trade, or affordable prices. The project is right down the street from a homeless shelter, and there’s a strong transportation equity component to its work.
“A wide diversity of people volunteer,” said Meredith Fry, a biology student at Washburn University and one of the organizers of our event. “It really brings everyone from everywhere, and seeing people be able to work together is really great. I think it’s been a big change for the community.”
Photo: Elly BlueDowntown has long been seen as a bit of a wasteland. Many of those who could afford to leave fled to the suburbs. But thanks in part to the biking community, that’s changing.
“In the last two or three years, there’s been a whole change in mentality,” Fry said. “You have people coming downtown for an art walk, and you have a homeless shelter at the end of the road, and it’s like, yeah, you’re going to see them. You can’t hide them — you don’t want to hide them. We’re all people.”
The bike project “crosses so many different barriers,” Fry told me. “That’s why we charged only $5 for the tickets tonight.”
“Rethink Topeka” is the rallying cry around here of late. And it seems to be working. The city, like many we visited, is working with a consulting firm to develop a bike master plan, spearheaded by a bike-friendly city council member. We were given a draft of the new bike map and as I rode around I could almost see the future bike lanes on the downtown’s wide, one-way streets.
In three years, I predict that Topeka will be among the country’s most bike friendly small cities — and if the Cycle Project is any indication, bicycling will be available to everyone, not only those with money.