W hen asked to think of the great bicycling cities of the world, we think of Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Portland, maybe Montreal. But the kids (and the kids at heart) over at Elm City Cycling? They want New Haven on that list and are aspiring to make it happen—“by getting more people to ride more bikes, more places, more often.”
“That’s what we’re all about,” says Elm City Cycling board member Melinda Tuhus. ECC is a group about six years in the making, having evolved over time from a loose coalition of walkers and bicyclists to an 800-member strong listserv with dozens of committed members and events spread out across the year. ECC attracts the gamut—from the avid cyclist with all the right gear to the person who, before joining the group, didn’t think they could bike at all.
There are compelling reasons for biking whenever possible: it makes economic sense with gas at $4 a gallon, and there’s the environmental impact of all those cars on the road. And clearly, as a country with an obesity epidemic, we need a little more movement in our lives. So why not biking as part of a healthy regimen?
I’ll tell you why: biking freaks me out. I’m clumsy, easily distracted, and prone to falling off. I’m nervous around all those cars. Tuhus and company assure me, however, that it will all be ok. “It’s easier than you think,” she says. “That’s what we always tell people. And once you get going, and get used to it, it really makes you feel better, physically and mentally.”
Fortunately for those of us just getting up the nerve, New Haven ranks pretty high on bike-friendliness, though it hasn’t always been that way. Pre-Elm City Cycling, there were few if any bike paths, and there was little in the way of a cohesive “biking culture.” Now, if you’re paying just a bit of attention, you’ll see more and more white painted lines on the side of the road with those little bicycle symbols. ECC members have spent the last six years working closely with the city, meeting regularly with the mayor, lobbying for signs and safety alike. “Bikers weren’t a constituency the city really thought about,” Tuhus says of those early days. “Now we are.”
There are all sorts of bike-friendly activities listed on ECC’s website. A few highlights: Regular, organized bike rides through New Haven, longer trail rides, trips along the Farmington Canal Trail (which they promote whenever they can, Tuhus says) and the annual Rock to Rock ride each year, which ECC helps coordinate. An annual summer “Bike Jamboree” for kids helps young ones learn to handle and maintain their bikes, fits them for helmets and even pairs them up with secondhand bikes, if needed. ECC also organizes at least a dozen rides ranging from the leisurely and themed to the intense during the Festival of Arts & Ideas in June.
For years, the organization has even managed to get people up early and out of bed. Every third Friday of the month, a crowd gathers in Pitkin Plaza for “Bike to Work Breakfast” in front of Devil’s Gear Bike Shop (a hub of bike community activity at 151 Orange Street)—rain, shine or snow. There’s free breakfast and access to the greater New Haven area’s larger biking community.
That’s tomorrow (Friday, May 18, from 7:30 to 9:30am) for those of you already checking your calendars. Tuhus encourages everyone, biker or not, to come out. This is the big one coinciding with the month of May, also known as National Bike Month. Elm City Cycling is part of a statewide effort to get people to cycle to work, and celebrate biking, on the 18th. There’ll be picnic tables, treats and coffee from nearby Bru Cafe for people already enthusiastic about the biking life, or just a little curious.
Sometimes there are accompanying workshops for everything you need to know but didn’t know where to ask. This month, ECC has arranged for a CT Transit Bus to be parked nearby on the corner of Chapel and Orange with a CT Transit staff person on hand to show how to mount your bike on the rack at the front of each bus. “That’s one of those things that can be really daunting to people,” Tuhus admits. “But they’ll have a little time this Friday to try it out with their own bikes, no pressure, no one waiting. And then you get to see that it’s really doable.”
In the end, it’s about “multi-modality,” says Tuhus. It isn’t about being anti-car. Tuhus and other members own them too. But it’s about minimizing car use by looking to other alternatives. That might mean a daily commute with a bike ride to a bus stop, a hop on a city bus (with the bike on the rack, of course), and then another short bike ride the rest of the way to work. Insert a quick walk, a carpool, your choice here and voila: multi-modality transportation.
The group is also big on the community aspect of biking—ECC has helped people meet, organize, get to know each other and encourage each other through biking. “A lot of people are now friends. I just love going into Devil’s Gear, seeing familiar faces, taking rides with groups.” And of course, you don’t need a fancy bike or fancy bike clothes: this is a very egalitarian kind of thing. Secondhand, free, vintage, kick-stand—all bikes are welcome.
“We love biking for many reasons. And a lot of us try to use our cars as little as possible. When people travel in little metal boxes,” she says, “it’s harder to build relationships.”
Elm City Cycling
firstname.lastname@example.org | call Melinda Tuhus at 203.287.9811
Written and photographed by Uma Ramiah.