Some Towns Treat Bikes As Trendy, But In Reading, Pa., They're Tools

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A lot of cities tout themselves as bike-friendly as a way to attract affluent outsiders, millennials, sustainability advocates, pro cyclists. But the city of Reading, Pa., is taking a different approach, catering to its existing residents, many of whom bike because they have to. Marielle Segarra from WHYY's Keystone Crossroads has more.

MARIELLE SEGARRA, BYLINE: Harrison Walker is standing outside a bike shop in Reading. He's 54, a bulky guy wearing glasses and a black T-shirt. He has a metal chain with a bike lock slung over the back of his neck.

SEGARRA: Walker just got out of prison. And he's living in a halfway house. He can't afford a car. So he bikes everywhere.

HARRISON WALKER: I do my errands about town. Sometimes, I'll ride as far as Wal-Mart. It's a nice ride.

SEGARRA: In Reading, the unemployment rate is several points higher than the national average. And about 14 percent of workers don't have a car. Here's Dani Motze from ReDesign Reading, a nonprofit group that's trying to revitalize the city.

DANI MOTZE: Reading's poor. And a lot of the people who live here are poor. So riding a bike is how they get from place to place.

SEGARRA: It's hard to say exactly how many people in Reading bike. According to census data, only about half a percent of the city's workers commute by bicycle. In other U.S. cities known for biking, it can be more like 6 or 7 percent.

But a lot of people in Reading don't work. What is clear is that biking in Reading isn't easy. The city has no bike lanes, signs or street markings, which Harrison Walker says can make riding feel dangerous.

WALKER: You're riding. And I hear, like, a screeching of tires or sudden acceleration. Sometimes, you know, I'll be on my toes.

SEGARRA: A few years ago, when Craig Peiffer became Reading zoning administrator, he was shocked that the city was so far behind other municipalities when it came to support for biking.

CRAIG PEIFFER: As a planner in - here in Pennsylvania - I've seen smaller towns - significantly smaller towns - where they were already putting in designated bike lanes.

SEGARRA: Peiffer and a colleague decided to take action. Their goal - make Reading a safer, cheaper and more convenient place to bike. That started with Reading's first bike shop. It sells used bikes and affordable parts. Russell Eckert is a volunteer.

RUSSELL ECKERT: There's a lot of people in the city that can't afford to go buy a new bike. And they come in here and buy the bikes from us.

SEGARRA: The shop also holds bike safety workshops and lets local riders borrow tools. Harrison Walker came to borrow a wrench.

WALKER: If I were to go buy the tool, I'd have to go to Sears. And it'd probably cost upwards of $20 just for this one wrench.

SEGARRA: After the bike shop, the city launched a bike share program and installed a repair station downtown. The local transportation authority also added bike racks to all of its buses. Now Reading's getting grant money to paint white arrows for bikes on the street in a section of the city. And it's eyeing other streets for bike lanes. Craig Peiffer says all these efforts are meant to help Reading's residents.

PEIFFER: Where we're seeing the largest number of cyclists are the people that live here.

SEGARRA: This is a different way of looking at biking, compared to other cities. Here's Brian Kelly from the non-profit ReDesign Reading.

BRIAN KELLY: Other cities have used biking 'cause biking is cool and hip. And that's fine. There's nothing wrong with that.

SEGARRA: But in Reading, it's just not the point. For NPR News, I'm Marielle Segarra.

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