Speeding cars whiz by Jacob VanSickle's silver Civia Bryant commuter bike as he carefully glides down the Euclid Avenue bike lane near Cleveland State University during an afternoon ride. Only a shiny brown helmet and windbreaker protect the executive director of Bike Cleveland, the city's nonprofit bike advocacy group, from the whipping wind and downtown drivers.
The Bicycle Transportation Safety ordinance — legislation city council passed in June that VanSickle helped write — requires cars to give bikes a 3-foot berth when passing and should provide an extra buffer for "VanBicycle," as his friends know him. But when he sees a few cars break the new law during his 4.5-mile ride from his Old Brooklyn home to his Ohio City office, VanSickle takes it all in stride. Car courtesy is improving. "I haven't gotten yelled at in a while," he says.
In his late teens, VanSickle wanted to be a youth minister, but found a new mission while working as an active living coordinator in Slavic Village. He led youth bike rides from the neighborhood's Morgana Run Trail to places such as Lake Erie and the West Side Market. "The best part was getting to that destination, saying, 'Today, we rode 18 miles.' Seeing that look on their faces was just awesome," he says. That's when he first saw how biking can bring a community together and make it more livable.
With Bike Cleveland, VanSickle is affecting policy, legislation and infrastructure in the hopes of making Cleveland's roadways equal opportunity travel spaces for riders. "We want to make it so the 8-year-old biking to school or the 80-year-old going to the market can navigate the streets safely," he says.
The Michigan native has worked with city officials and ODOT to make Cleveland's streets more bike-friendly since 2009 — two years before Bike Cleveland's founding. Bike lanes along the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge have been installed, while a 1.7-mile stretch of Detroit Avenue, from West 25th Street to Lake Avenue, will add lanes next spring.
In a city where only about 3,100 Clevelanders bike to work, VanSickle has an uphill ride ahead of him. But he remains optimistic.
While cruising up Superior Avenue from AsiaTown, he notes that many of Cleveland's wide, usually deserted thoroughfares, built during the boom times of the 1950s, are underutilized. "With street infrastructure that is built for well over 1 million people, our streets can certainly handle less space for cars, and more space for bicycles and pedestrians," VanSickle says. "It is a social justice and parity issue, as nearly 28 percent of Cleveland residents do not have access to a car."
For now his biggest goal is to get people to realize that biking, whether for transportation, exercise or fun, is perfectly normal.
"A lot of people out there still view cycling as a fringe activity," VanSickle says. "Just because I'm riding a bike doesn't mean I'm a freak. I'm just like you, trying to get to work."