Updated: May 21
My name is Kayla Gilbert. I am the program manager for our Denver Community Active Living Coalition grant program and have worked in this role for the City & County of Denver since 2015.
I originally shared this story as a "Fast and Furious" 7-minute presentation for the 2019 HEAL Summit by LiveWell. In honor of the Ride and Walk of Silence this week, I am sharing my story here on our blog.
My biking story began long before my work with CALC. As a life-long Denver area resident, and a lover of riding bikes, I've learned many pivotal lessons along the way that apply to the the transportation work I do today.
My transportation story starts with me, as a little kid. It was the early 90s, in suburban Denver, CO.
By the way, this picture is not me. Why?
You will not find a picture anywhere of me riding a bike as a kid.
Not because my parents didn’t take pictures, but because I just didn’t ride a bike.
There were lots of reasons, but there is one memory that sticks out in particular.
I must have been about 5; I was biking at Clement Lake Park with my family.
I lost balance, and crashed, hard - into an elderly gentlemen.
He was so nice and kind about it, but my chain must have cut him, because the only thing I remember, to this day, is BLOOD EVERYWHERE.
It was horrifying.
And I didn’t get on a bike again until I was 20.
Which brings me to Lesson #1: Trauma, real or perceived, affects people’s choices.
Even in transportation.
Even in activities, like riding a bike, that others might find fun and awesome.
But in 2010, I finally came around. A friend taught me to ride and my mom bought me my first real adult bike. I thought I wanted this fancy hybrid, with lots of gears, a comfy seat.
But it just didn’t feel right.
I tried, but I wasn’t ready to be a cyclist yet.
Which brings me to lesson #2: Everyone is different and unique.
This was probably someone’s dream bike, but not mine.
Don’t give up on finding your perfect fit, even if you don’t find it right away. Everyone deserves that quintessential bike ride that feels like you are effortlessly flying.
But I hadn't found mine yet, and I didn't even know how to look. What did I even want? How much should I spend? What do I look for?
The same friend helped me again. He asked me some questions, scanned craigslist for me, and sent me a link that said, “Here - offer him $300.”
And I did exactly that.
I have never regretted it.
I found my perfect fit - a lightweight, low-maintenance, blue single speed SE Draft Lite.
Another friend, a bike mechanic, did a safety check and helped me add a rear rack, swap the handle bars, and find rechargeable lights.
Which is Lesson #3: We all need a little help and encouragement sometimes.
Ask for help, and always be willing to pass it on.
Had it not been for these friends that encouraged, supported, and helped me on my bike journey, my transportation story would look a lot different.
So at this point, I was working downtown and taking the bus to work, because I couldn’t afford paying to park a car downtown. But the #6 bus was just chronically late.
Then I started thinking - can I bike faster?
The answer was yes, but I was scared to bike downtown and on streets with traffic (even though the majority of my commute was off-street on the Cherry Creek Trail).
So when I started, I would literally walk my bike to and from the trail, terrified to ride on streets with car traffic.
And once on the trail, I didn't even have the stamina to ride the full 2.5 miles at once because I had never been a cyclist before in my life!
But, eventually, I overcame my anxiety, built up some muscles - and within a few weeks, I had a consistent 25 minute bike commute, door to door.
No traffic. Just fresh air.
It was amazing!
This part of my story demonstrates two lessons:
Lesson #4: Dis-incentives do work. My initial reason for becoming a bike commuter wasn't some heroic, lofty goal - I simply didn't want to pay for parking downtown.
I just needed to find a more efficient option and I was willing to try anything.
But here’s Lesson #5: Incentives work too!
If we make biking easier for more people to do - make the healthy choice the easy choice - more people will choose it more often.
I may have started biking for other reasons, but I KEPT biking because it kept me happy and healthy.
As for the time saved, bike commuting in a city can be the fastest, most efficient way of travel…
... But it’s not always the safest.
In November 2012, my friend Gelseigh was hit and killed by a truck while riding her bike in Cherry Creek. There was no bike lane, and she was riding in the street with traffic.
Gelseigh was 23 years old.
She had the biggest heart, nannied three small children, and volunteered with me hosting vegan community dinners.
I remember thinking at the time that it was such a freak accident.
From the reports, neither Gelseigh nor the driver did anything wrong, and Gelseigh’s death was deemed “accidental”.
No, maybe it was not any specific behavior that caused the crash. But what if that street had a bike lane?
I do think that Gelseigh might still be alive.
Which brings me to Lesson #6: Traffic violence is real. This is a real public health crisis.
People are dying on our streets in preventable traffic crashes.
We can and we must act to redesign our streets to save lives.
I had already been working on transportation and community-building projects, but in 2015 I started my current job with the Denver Community Active Living Coalition.
We take a health equity-based approach to co-create projects with communities that support connecting people and nature through active living.
We work alongside residents, families, non-profit partners, and city agencies to create tangible changes to make it safer, easier, and more fun to walk, bike, and take transit in Denver.
And over these past five years, I have felt a change in Denver’s active transportation scene.
And I do believe that we are ALL part of a movement - even you, reading this blog post.
Which is Lesson #7: When we change the story to prioritize PEOPLE first, it’s nearly impossible to not be on board.
Because streets AREN’T just for transportation --
Streets are for People.
Everyone has a transportation story, even our city.
The pictures above show Denver in the early 1900s. Look at all those people and trams in the streets!
By the late 1920s, fifteen million cars were sold throughout the country. And in less than 30 years, nearly every American city, including ours, changed drastically to support the widespread use of motor vehicles.
(Learn more about the advent of the personal motor vehicle here.)
Affordable, accessible, and using government-funded roads and highways, our culture adapted to accept cars as a way of life.
The infrastructure we create today will affect the culture of future generations, just as those decisions from the 1900s are still affecting us today.
But all of those changes - cities adapting to personal motor vehicles - happened in less than 30 years, which really isn’t that long.
Call me an optimist, but it is totally reasonable that I could live in a car-lite Denver in my lifetime.
So when I think of what I want Denver to be in 2050 - I want to align my goals accordingly.
Which is the eighth and final lesson:
If we work together,
With a bold vision,
We can truly achieve
Streets for People.
Thank you for reading and for being a part of this movement.
What is your transportation story?