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

Sep 11, 2016
Originally published on September 11, 2016 9:52 am

Harrison Walker of Reading, Pa., bikes everywhere he goes.

He can't afford a car — he just got out of prison. He's living in a halfway house and finding temporary automotive work around the city.

"I do my errands about town," he says. "Sometimes I'll ride as far as Walmart. It's a nice ride, it's about a 40-minute ride, so I don't mind. I've rode most of my life."

Getting around by bike in Reading is now a bit easier than it used to be. The city is making an effort to become bike-friendly as a way to cater to existing residents — many of whom, like Walker, bike because they have to.

The unemployment rate in Reading is 8.2 percent, more than three percentage points higher than the national average. About 14 percent of workers don't have a car.

"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," says Dani Motze from ReDesign Reading, a nonprofit group that's trying to revitalize the city.

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, while in other U.S. cities known for biking, it can be more like 6 percent 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. Walker says that can make riding feel dangerous.

"You're riding, [and] there's always an expectation that something may happen," Walkers says. "I hear a screeching of tires or a sudden acceleration sometimes, I'll be on my toes."

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

"As a planner here in Pennsylvania, I've seen smaller towns — significantly smaller towns — where they were already putting in designated bike lanes," he says. "It was frustrating, quite frankly."

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, which sells used bikes and affordable parts. Russell Eckert is a volunteer.

"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," he says.

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

"If 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," Walker says.

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.

Peiffer says all these efforts are meant to help Reading's residents.

"Where we're seeing the largest number of cyclists are the people that live here, so that's first and foremost," he says.

This is a different way of looking at biking, compared to other cities, which often use biking amenities to attract outsiders — particularly affluent millennials, sustainability advocates, and pro cyclists.

"Other cities have used biking because biking is cool and hip — and that's fine, there's nothing wrong with that," says Brian Kelly, executive director of ReDesign Reading.

But in Reading, it's just not the point.

Marielle Segarra is a reporter for Keystone Crossroads, a statewide public media initiative reporting on the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Just a mile off the coast of China sits an island that China wants. It's called Kinmen, and it belongs to Taiwan. For decades, it stood as the front line of a cross-strait standoff between a young, impoverished communist giant and its tiny capitalist neighbor. But economic fates have changed. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Plastic water bottles, brown medicine vials, styrofoam coffee cups - a daily tide of garbage washes up along the beaches of Kinmen Island. But it wasn't always litter that came from mainland China. Communist soldiers from China's Red Army stormed this beach in 1949. Thousands were massacred. Islander Song Li Fa drives me through lush fields of corn beyond the beach.

SONG LI FA: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: "You see that well?" Song asks me. "It's full of their bones." Song's built like a rugby player. He towers over the cornstalks he lumbers through.

SONG: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: "See all these plastic bottles the farmers mounted on stakes?" Song asks me. "Farmers won't plow there because there are dead soldiers buried underneath." More than a hundred plastic tombstones rise above the corn.

SONG: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: "We were willing to leave their bones and not disturb them," Song tells me. "I think how you treat others is important." Decades later, relations are thawing.

Hundreds of mainland Chinese tourists push their way off a ferry from the mainland. They come looking to escape the crowded skyscrapers and polluted air a mile across the strait. Kinmen Deputy Magistrate Wu Cheng Dian wants more than just Chinese tourists, though.

WU CHENG DIAN: (Through interpreter) I'd like them to live here too. I hope someday they can buy property here and their children could come to school here. We only have 100,000 residents. I'd like to push that to 300,000.

SCHMITZ: Wu wants to make it easier for mainland Chinese to own property on Kinmen. He also supports a bridge to the mainland, a cruise ship terminal and a merged currency system. Taiwan's national government has put the kibosh on all these proposals.

WU: (Through interpreter) Let's all take a deep breath. We can develop so fast if they would just let us.

SCHMITZ: But Wu's constituents are conflicted. At a restaurant inside the island's biggest town, 26-year-old ukulele instructor Xu Yi Teng wants to keep the mainland at more than an arm's length.

XU YI TENG: (Through interpreter) There are so many Chinese people, and many of them are wealthy. If they come and buy as many houses as they want, Kinmen's local culture will be ruined.

SCHMITZ: Across the island in an ancient village, local culture is on display each morning as residents burn incense and fake money at a neighborhood temple. Yang Yunu says she's not scared at all about an invasion of wealthy Chinese.

YANG YUNU: (Through interpreter) The more people, the more money they bring. I'm not worried about losing our traditional culture. We'll influence them, they'll influence us.

SCHMITZ: But many islanders' opinions about the mainland are more nuanced.

LI YOU ZHONG: (Through interpreter) We're conflicted between belonging to Taiwan's free democratic system and the desire to make money. I think one thing we can agree on is that peace is priceless.

SCHMITZ: Television host Li You Zhong speaks from experience. He lived through a time when Kinmen and the mainland fired bombshells filled with propaganda leaflets at each other every other day for 20 years. On his first day of middle school, a classmate was killed by one.

LI: (Through interpreter) They sounded like (imitating bomb) and they killed so many people. We couldn't go to the beaches because they were filled with landmines. We were always scared and worried about the future.

SCHMITZ: A relic from that time stands proud on the island's western coast, a three-story-tall speaker system that blasts Taiwanese songs and propaganda towards the mainland at ear-piercing decibels.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: A voice proclaims, stay healthy and long live democracy before launching into a popular ballad from the 1970s. Song Li Fa, the burly man who gave me a tour of the battleground, smiles. The song reminds him of when he was a soldier decades ago.

SONG: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: "Back then, my mission was to destroy the mainland," Song tells me. "Now our economies are booming, but Kinmen's economy still isn't very good. Taiwan still treats us as a front line in a battle."

TERESA TENG: (Singing in foreign language).

SCHMITZ: "But mainland China," says Song, "doesn't see Kinmen as an enemy at all. Why can't we put the people's interests first?" he asks. Rob Schmitz, NPR News on Kinmen Island, Taiwan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUN ZAI QIAN XIAO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.