In Atlanta, one of America’s most notoriously sprawling, car-centric cities, fewer than 1 percent of residents are cyclists. But two-wheeled culture is making progress. Last month the city hired its first chief bicycle officer. In March, Mayor Kasim Reed announced that Atlanta Bike Share would launch within a year.
Nedra Deadwyler, founder of historical bike tour company Civil Bikes, welcomes the shift, but says Atlanta will require major infrastructure changes to become a truly bikeable city. Civil Bikes uses education, advocacy and historical narrative to overcome subtler barriers to bikeability.
“People need to see how the city is connected,” says Deadwyler.
Nearly two years after Civil Bikes’ founding, Deadwyler is still connecting the threads herself. The lone force behind Civil Bikes, she’s teaching “Confident City Cycling” classes for beginners at bike shops, renting out cycles, and guiding walking tours of Auburn Avenue on weekday mornings as well as two-hour, eight-mile historical cycling tours on weekends.
All this, while pursuing an M.A. in historic preservation at Georgia State University.
“I thought it was important for me to understand how public historians use the landscape to tell stories, to tell history,” she says.
Tours crisscross through Downtown, Inman Park, Old Fourth Ward and Sweet Auburn, once Atlanta’s premiere African-American economic and cultural hub. Riding past the home of John Wesley Dobbs, Deadwyler tells the story of how black Atlantans secured voting rights and then petitioned the government to have their municipal needs met.
“It’s advocacy for more than just bikes,” says Deadwyler. “It’s bicycle education but it’s also people education. Who are these people that live here or used to live here?”
A cyclist and former social worker who’s deeply rooted in community engagement, Deadwyler founded Civil Bikes in early 2014 after a road trip with a journalist friend to visit critical civil rights era sites in Alabama.
An Atlanta native, she had only recently returned to the South after nearly 10 years in New York and Seattle, and in her hometown, she found a new appreciation for what city life is and can be.
“I learned city life is beautiful and it should be vibrant. It should be colorful. It should be noisy,” she says. “And I learned that if people can walk, people walking and people being on the street is what makes a city a city.”
In that sense, she says, Atlanta doesn’t always live up to its potential. Beyond reintroducing people to a history they’ve often forgotten, Deadwyler sees Civil Bikes as a way to promote cycling on both the individual and the municipal level.
“Atlanta is getting to a point where there’s civic engagement around what do we want Atlanta to be,” says Deadwyler. “We have a choice to continue how things have been, or to create a city that is about people, that is designed well [and] is really designed for everybody.”
The connection between her cycling classes, historical tours and a larger message about urbanism and bikeability was cemented this September.
“September was like a magical turning point,” says Deadwyler. That month, the Alliance for Biking and Walking held its 2015 National Open Streets Summit in Atlanta. Deadwyler gave a presentation and led a tour. She was inspired by the philosophy of fostering greater community through people-friendly, activated streets.
After that, she shifted tours from an emphasis on cycling education to advocacy. Just as cycling can connect seemingly disparate neighborhoods, Civil Bikes draws connections between seemingly disparate histories, challenges and disciplines.
Among the questions that arise on tours: “How do we make these streets safer to walk under overpasses? And who lives under these overpasses? Why can’t we find a solution for homelessness? All of those things, because that’s what we see walking or on a bike. We don’t always see it in a car,” says Deadwyler.
“Everybody knows that we’re the city with the highest rate of inequality. We know that there’s all these divisions along race, class. There are obstructions such as the highway, stadiums that have been built and then massive roads that are arterial streets. But we’re also very much connected too,” she adds. “And I think it’s important to ride between these neighborhoods so people can see how we’re connected, how the landscape changes, and understand why that happens.”
Deadwyler plans to expand Civil Bikes tours into more Atlanta neighborhoods and even other cities through collaboration with community groups, nonprofits and schools.
Many Atlanta neighborhoods sit largely vacant due to historic disinvestment and are vulnerable to rapid redevelopment as the city grows in coming years. Deadwyler wants to create tours of those neighborhoods too, utilizing the oral histories of residents, to make a record of neighborhood character before it changes.
“As people, a lot of times we’re disconnected,” says Deadwyler. “I want [riders] to have that experience of being on a bike and exerting energy, feeling that euphoria you get from being on a bike, listening to these stories, listening to cars, being in the environment as well as engaging with other people. I want them to walk away with this experience and a feeling that they just lived Atlanta’s history but they also lived its future.”
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.