A members-run cooperative is among recent initiatives created by an emerging community of urban bicyclists.

“The history of Peoria and bicycles is as rich as the history of Peoria… and tractors,” declares Bob Shimmin, bicycle enthusiast and one of the newest members of the Bike Peoria Co-Op. At the turn of the 20th century, this city was a hotspot for bicyclists, home to a myriad of races, tournaments and clubs, as well as one of the nation’s first bike manufacturing plants: Rouse, Hazard & Co. Though that golden age is long gone, a growing movement is bringing bicycles back to the forefront in central Illinois.

Over the last decade, the resurgence of bike culture in cities around the country has come to be known as the urban bike movement. From 2001 to 2009, the number of trips made by bicycle in the U.S. more than doubled, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. At the same time, bicycle commuting rates in large, bike-friendly communities increased 80 percent from 2000 to 2011, thanks in part to advocacy efforts from groups like the League of American Bicyclists (LAB).

In light of this trend, U.S. cities are reassessing their roadways in order to capitalize on this growing phenomenon. From Portland to Pittsburgh to Baltimore and beyond, large metro areas are making critical infrastructure changes to improve safety for bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists alike. Slowly but surely, it’s happening here in Peoria as well.

The Benefits of Bikes
While bicycles offer obvious health and environmental advantages, their considerable economic benefits are often overlooked. Not only is bike manufacturing a $6 billion industry, its impact extends far beyond the direct sales of bikes and related accessories. “The nation’s 60 million annual recreational bicyclists spend $46.9 billion on meals, transportation, lodging, gifts and entertainment,” states a report from Advocacy Advance, a partnership of the LAB and the Alliance for Biking & Walking, while the spillover effects of bike-related activities could be as large as $133 billion, according to the Outdoor Industry Foundation.

Meanwhile, a diverse range of studies indicates an increase in revenue at retail establishments that boast bicycle-friendly features, such as conveniently-placed bike racks. With lower travel and maintenance costs, bicyclists have more money to spend at local businesses, and with greater cardiovascular health and other fitness benefits, their employers save money on health insurance.

Besides boosting business, bikes can also be a major driver in revitalizing urban neighborhoods. From Atlanta to Vancouver, new bike lanes have been correlated with an uptick in property values. In Memphis, bike lanes have been integral to the city’s Broad Avenue Arts District initiative, which has transformed a neighborhood of empty storefronts into a vibrant arts district teeming with local businesses. It’s a cost-effective way to boost economic development efforts, as studies show the build-out of bicycle infrastructure creates more jobs per dollar than road projects.

Brad Nauman, manager of Bushwhacker in Peoria’s Metro Centre, understands the impact on business and the community at large. He believes that with enough support, Peoria can begin to reap the benefits. “You start to see the city differently from a slower pace,” he notes. “You start to see the business fronts that you pass, instead of whizzing by them. When you ride a bike, you start to know your neighborhoods.”

Last year, an ad hoc group of cyclists came together to create Bike Peoria, which seeks to bring these benefits to the River City. Throughout last June, it hosted a series of bicycle-related events—from classes to group rides to community service projects—which it dubbed “Peoria Bike Summer.” In conjunction with Where’s the Rack, Peoria?—an initiative to document the locations of bike racks across the region—the month-long project helped increase awareness of Peoria’s growing group of riders. On January 1, 2014, the movement received another boost when the Bike Peoria Co-Op opened its doors at 612 West Main Street.

Cooperative Empowerment
“Entrepreneurs, in the purest sense, are those who identify a need… and fill it,” writes Brett Nelson, former executive editor at Forbes. By this definition, Tim Beeney is as entrepreneurial as they come. The founder and president of Bike Peoria Co-Op, Beeney has been an advocate for bicycles since he first started working on them in the late ‘70s. In 1990, he founded The Bicycle Bus, a mobile repair service that later morphed into a storefront, also on Peoria’s Main Street. Though the store eventually closed, it seems Beeney may have just been a few years ahead of his time.

Last summer, as Bike Peoria was building a critical mass of local advocates for bike-friendly policies, the idea of a central location to build and repair bikes and educate riders was frequently discussed. Toward the end of the year, Beeney found a location suitable for the venture and took the plunge. “I was tired of waiting and had to do something,” he says, echoing the do-it-yourself ethos that is a hallmark of the movement.

“The culmination of [the co-op] was a combination of a lot of things,” explains Chad Ahmad, co-op board secretary and senior design engineer at Caterpillar. “People were standing up and becoming change agents for something they saw missing and saw the potential for: charismatic, enthusiastic people coming together, agreeing they have a common goal and putting in the time and energy to do something about it.”

Run entirely by its members, Bike Peoria Co-Op is a repair shop, meeting space and education center. “We want to provide something for the community that promotes cycling and offers options for people who can’t afford the high-end shops,” says Ahmad. “We want to offer an educational venue for people to learn about bike safety, bike repair, teardown and rebuild… and put tools into people’s hands who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity—which is an empowering thing. We’re also taking ‘junk bikes’ and giving them new lives… recycling, repurposing or refurbishing them.”

Though they are separate entities, Bike Peoria Co-Op works hand in hand with Bike Peoria, the advocacy group. “We give them a space to organize and they give us volunteers,” explains Jordan Blimbaum, another co-op board member. “We both feed ideas off each other.”

» Bicycling Means Business
Why is bicycling good for the economy? According to Bicycling Means Business: The Economic Benefits of Bicycle Infrastructure, the principles are simple:

  • People who ride bikes buy bikes. This puts people to work in bicycle shops and apparel stores. People who ride bikes buy other things, too. Bike-accessible business districts benefit by catering to these customers.
  • People on bikes are more likely to make repeat trips to their local stores.
  • People who ride bikes on vacation buy food, have travel costs and pay for lodging. Bicycling tourists bring millions of dollars to cities and towns that wouldn’t otherwise end up there. 

All that spending means jobs and tax revenue for communities. But people who ride bikes also save money:

  • With the money saved from lower travel costs, people who ride bikes have more of their money to spend on local businesses. 
  • People who ride bikes can save their companies money on health insurance costs. 
  • Developers, cities and individuals can save money on parking costs by providing space-efficient, low-cost bike parking instead of expensive car parking. 

Source: Bicycling Means Business: The Economic Benefits of Bicycle Infrastructure, a report from Advocacy Advance, advocacyadvance.org.

Over and over, members of both groups can be heard echoing the same word: community. “We want to be a true community place to congregate,” Beeney declares. “A social meeting space.” And while the fledgling group’s vision is rapidly evolving, that’s one thing on which everyone can agree.

“We’ve all got different ideas of what we want this place to be,” Blimbaum adds. “But at the end of the day, what it’s going to become is something none of us can imagine individually. I guess that’s the idea of a co-op—it grows from the sum of its members.”

The Battle for Young Professionals
Around the country, cities are competing to attract young professionals, who are increasingly selecting where they want to live before choosing their jobs, according to a litany of recent studies. While there’s no magic bullet for attracting young talent, this coveted demographic has shown a clear preference for walkable urban areas with a strong bicycling culture—a trend that has not gone unnoticed by municipal leaders. With downtown revitalization at the top of Peoria’s economic development agenda, there’s a strong push to attract 25-to-44-year-olds to live and work there—an effort that could be well served by bike-friendly policies and infrastructure.

Jordan Blimbaum’s story is a case in point. The 27-year-old Caterpillar engineer moved to Peoria last year—but only after learning about the city’s nascent bike movement. “It took me a couple months to accept the job because everyone told me moving to Peoria would be ‘social suicide,’” he says. “But I was really encouraged by all the bike things going on… It showed me that Peoria is ‘getting it’—that the change I’ve seen in other cities is also happening here.”

Indeed, from the work underway in the Warehouse District to the recent construction at Main and University to the coming addition of bike lanes on Sheridan Road, bike-friendly features are beginning to work their way into projects citywide. “Bike Peoria and the City of Peoria have been working together to increase biking infrastructure across the city,” says Erik Reader, a Bike Peoria board member. “As part of the Warehouse District TIGER II project, there will be bike lanes included in the street work that’s going on. We are also working towards installing bike racks in and around key areas there.”

In March, Peoria’s Downtown Advisory Commission selected the placement of bike racks as a “quick win” for the downtown area—a simple, inexpensive way to build the vibrancy that will start attracting young people. “The biggest complaint I hear about Peoria from people my age is that you don’t see people walking around,” says Blimbaum. “People want to see an active city. You want to see people out and about, and biking really contributes to that.”

Released by the Illinois Department of Transportation in April, the Illinois Bike Transportation Plan—the first statewide bicycle plan in Illinois history—shows that state leaders are listening. Several weeks earlier, a Request for Qualifications issued by the City of Peoria attracted interest from 10 professional service firms to assist in creating a Citywide Bicycle Master Plan. “This will be a very helpful guiding document to help design our streets to be more bike-friendly,” Reader notes.

“There is a lot of momentum to build on right now,” he adds. “We’ve all read enough reports and looked at enough plans to understand that this is one distinct way to take Peoria to the next level and make it a great place. Past efforts have left us with a lot of assets around town—now it’s time to connect them together.”

Momentum for Change
Even with this momentum coursing through the city, some key issues remain to be addressed. “One thing that keeps people from cycling is… a lack of knowledge and respect from drivers,” explains Ahmad. “I came to Peoria as a bike commuter and got hit by cars twice. Some drivers just don’t recognize people on bikes as having any rights to the road whatsoever.” Yet he is optimistic this will change with increased awareness and education. “As more and more people get on bikes, the awareness becomes more present, and it changes the way people respond to bikers.”

Building that awareness is part of Bike Peoria Co-Op’s charge. “Classes are something we want to do more of,” Beeney says, “from how to fix a flat to commuter tips… to anything and everything cycling-related.” With warmer weather finally upon us, the co-op is extending its regular hours while its members work on a range of new ideas for classes and events to promote bicycling in Peoria. Now, they believe, is a critical time for the city to look to the future and determine what it wants to become.

Tim Beeney has seen many of his friends grow up in Peoria, only to move away the first chance they got. He is urging people to stay here and make a difference. “This is something I’ve told a lot of people who have left. You’ve got a lot of talent—do something with it here. Do what you’re interested in and make it work. I’ve seen too many friends say there’s nothing here, or ‘I can’t do anything about it’… Yeah—you can.”

“Inspiration plays a big role in people’s decisions,” says Ahmad. “Showing people that you have the motivation, the drive and the will to do something—and to make it happen—inspires the next person, who perhaps had the same idea but never did anything about it. And they say, ‘I want to be part of that.’”

“Community is our goal,” adds Shimmin. “What we do here in this place will make a difference.” iBi

To learn more about Bike Peoria Co-Op, email [email protected] or find them on Facebook. Visit bikepeoria.org for information on Bike Peoria and links to other local cycling groups, bike shops, maps and more. Visit wherestherack.org to view or participate in mapping the locations of bicycle racks throughout Greater Peoria.