Albert Einstein once said, “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” Moving is one thing the City of Opelika is determined to do…even on two wheels.
In fact, the City of Opelika is working hard to become a bicycle-friendly city for its population of just under 30,000 residents. Currently, Alabama has only one city certified as bicycle-friendly by the League of American Bicyclists…the City of Auburn. The push is coming from a small, yet dedicated group of cyclists lead by two physicians – Drs. Shirley Lazenby and Michael Roberts.
“I’ve been biking my whole life. I got involved here with the Opelika Bicycle Advisory Committee because years ago we were THIS close to getting a 17-mile rail-trail,” Dr. Lazenby said. “But now we have all this data on the health benefits of cycling. It really is a good thing! Alabama lags behind all the other states with a #50 ranking in bicycle-friendliness, and we want to change that.”
So, she went to work. What she didn’t realize was that much of the work had already been done but from different angles. Once she was appointed to the Parks and Recreation Board, Dr. Lazenby realized she had the perfect platform for change in her community.
“I was like, ‘I’m in an excellent place to actually make some change and not just be a whiny mom about this.’ I put together a presentation for the Park Board. What I didn’t know until I got more deeply involved was that there was a lot of activity going on in parallel with what I was trying to do. The Central Alabama Mountain Peddlers (CAMP) had already built 17 miles of trails at Chewacla State Park. Cycling and triathlons were becoming more popular. So I did my presentation, and I was expecting some kind of push back from the city, but it didn’t happen. Then, I went to the Auburn Bike Committee to find out what I needed to do next. Joanna Hoit, one of the Auburn board members spoke up and said Opelika already had a Master Bike Plan; she had worked on it years ago! No Opelika city officials were aware of the document when I asked around, and I couldn’t find anything. When the Director of Planning finally found it on a dusty shelf, I realized what had happened – September 11th! Opelika’s Master Bike Plan had been presented to the City Council in August 2001 and the world turned upside down a month later. So right there I had a lot of what I needed to get started. The framework was already done.”
With a plan in hand, Dr. Lazenby began her mission to mold the City of Opelika into a bicycle-friendly town. But, it was more than that. It didn’t take very long before she and colleague, Dr. Michael Roberts, realized they were on the verge of a culture shift. Downtown Opelika was undergoing a bit of a renaissance with cool places to hang out after work and dine on the weekends. It wasn’t long before they noticed one business, James Brothers Bikes, was at the center of the cycling culture in their area. This business sells custom bikes, fixes broken ones, and has become the perfect hangout for the Opelika Bicycle Advisory Committee meetings.
“The more people I talked to the more I realized how much the people wanted this. Our mayor wanted this and was already up to speed on what bicycle friendliness would do for your city in terms of economic growth. Here in downtown where we meet, there’s a real resurgence of activity that’s been going on here. When I first met with the mayor, I had really prepared for the meeting. I had packets and papers…I was prepared! But, what I wasn’t prepared for was when the mayor asked me what could the city do for us? I wasn’t expecting that. That was a huge sign that they were behind us in every way,” Dr. Lazenby said. The answer was simple: More involvement from city leaders would be key. Mayor Gary Fuller responded in a big way by leading a Grand Opening ride on the brand new 1.2 mile Destination Downtown Bike Path during Opelika’s celebration of Bike Month this May.
For Dr. Roberts, there’s another reason for the committee to remain diligent in its efforts in the community – advocacy.
“Before there were a lot of good intentions and not a lot of actions, but that seems to be turning around now. I think that we have a lot of potential here. There are a lot of cyclists in this area, it’s a great community that wants this program, so it all comes down to advocacy and being a voice in somebody’s ear that can make the decisions to make it happen. We think it’s important, and so do a lot of others,” Dr. Roberts said. “We want to continue to be a voice for those who cycle to bring awareness of those on the road to be aware, travel safely, more access for those who may not already be cycling but would like to learn because I think that’s one of the big barrier is that cycling may not be seen as a safe sport.”
Dr. Lazenby admits she’s practically spent her entire life on a bicycle. In fact, she didn’t own a car until she was in medical school.
“It’s freedom and mobility, and that’s why I love cycling. No matter the advances in our technology, biking is still cool,” Dr. Lazenby said. Another cool aspect of working with other community leaders is that by looking at this as a social experiment has produced some intriguing results.
In order to be considered by the League of American Bicyclists as a bicycle-friendly community, a community is scored one to 10 in each of five categories: Engineering, Education, Encouragement, Enforcement, and Evaluation & Planning. The Education category for adults may not have reaped a high score, but Coach Chris Rhodes at Morris Avenue Intermediate School found a curriculum to meet the qualifications for grade school children. Bikeology was modified as a six-week unit and piloted for one 5th grade class in 2016 and then extended to the entire 4th grade for 2017 with the ultimate goal to get it to all three Opelika intermediate schools. Coach Rhodes learned a shocking statistic: About 2/3 of his students had never ridden a bicycle.
“We’re in such a tech generation that kids don’t spend as much time outdoors,” Dr. Lazenby said. “The big win here is that we can change an entire generational misstep with this initiative. He got all but six 4th grades riding competently and safely this year. That’s change!”
Dr. Roberts agreed that not only will bringing the designation to the Opelika community be good for the local area, but an awareness of the benefits of cycling will be good for the state as well.
“Eventually we’ll get to a point where enough people enjoy cycling together as a community and we’ll have multi-use paths, not just for cyclists but for walkers and runners. In Alabama, we do a poor job of outdoor recreation. Alabama is a beautiful state, and there’s a lot to enjoy here. We miss out on what we don’t see when we stay inside all the time. I laugh when I hear someone say they don’t want to go to the gym. Well, I don’t want to go to the gym either! I’d rather go for a ride!” Dr. Roberts said.
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