As a way to introduce you to the people behind PeopleForBikes, we do a short interview with every member of our staff. This month, we turn our questions to director of local innovation, Kyle Wagenschutz.
1. What is your first memory of bicycling?
I remember learning to ride without training wheels when I was very young and living in Orlando, Florida. My family lived in an apartment complex and after weeks of trying to get the balance just right without falling, something clicked one day and I just started riding. My parents would let me ride around the parking lot after school. Later, when I was in the 3rd and 4th grade, we had move to a Navy base just outside Charleston, SC. There was a school on the base and no school buses were provided to get students to school. Every day, I would escort my younger brother to and from school, sometimes taking alternative routes from the most direct pathway in order to explore the base a bit more.
2. When did you first fall in love with bicycles?
After college, I began volunteering at a community bike shop in Memphis called Revolutions Community Bike Shop. With the help of staff, I learned how to build a bike from scratch using recycled parts from donated bikes. After completing my bike, the staff asked me to continue volunteering at the shop and to assist others seeking to build bicycles. The experience of working closely with a diverse group of individuals from throughout Memphis, going on group bike rides, and providing bikes and safety classes to children taught me the power of bicycles in our community and fermented its importance in my life and led me to study city planning in graduate school.
3. Why did you decide to make bicycling a part of your career?
While working at Revolutions Community Bike Shop, the staff organically began to see the need for better bike infrastructure in Memphis and organized some of the first advocacy for bikes in Memphis. For the most part, we were using the Internet to locate best practices for biking from throughout the world and trying to figure out the best ways to pressure the city to implement these ideas. As a matter of importance, I thought it best to back up this burgeoning advocacy movement with education and enrolled in graduate school at the University of Memphis to study city planning. Under the guidance of some key mentors and professors, I used my educational experience to focus my work on bicycles and transportation. By the time I graduated, local bike advocacy in Memphis had organized with enough strength that the new mayor at the time announced he would be hiring the city’s first Bike/Ped Coordinator. I applied for the job, was hired, and the rest is history.
4. What is your favorite thing about bicycling?
There is something fundamentally simple about bicycles. First, as a mechanic, the ways in which simple systems combine to provide a tool that maximizes transportation efficiency can be therapeutic and inspiring. Second, as a community advocate, bicycles have the power to provide new freedom to children, access to jobs for the underemployed, and a mechanism for instigating community socializing and engagement. I’ve seen the bicycle be more than a vehicle for racing or commuting. It can be the starting point of a conversation about developing better neighborhoods, seeking social justice, and bringing people together. I’ve never seen a group of people mad after taking a bike ride together.
5. What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done on a bike?
As a kid, I would have to say that jumping my bike off sketchy ramps would have been the coolest, but as an adult I’ve had the opportunity to do a bit of bike touring with friends. The most successfully completed trip took place about 7 years ago along the Mississippi River Trail, a signed route following country roads along the the Mississippi River. Part of the trail runs right into downtown Memphis and is used by lots of recreational riders in the Memphis region. Heading north, you can travel a little more than 100 miles by bike to Fort Pillow State Park. Three friends and I set out one August morning for Fort Pillow, made the trip in one day, camped for a few nights, and returned home a couple days later. The friendship and memories of that trip will always stay with me. In my house, there is a photograph of the legs of each of us after the trip showing the sunburn/tan lines on our legs from doing two century rides in the middle of August in Tennessee.
For a while, I also played Hardcourt Bike Polo on a regular basis even playing in a tournament. The Memphis polo scene is pretty small, but very tight knit. Most of the players came through Revolutions Bike Shop at some point and we used the shop to modify our bikes and make mallets and goals for playing. I really enjoyed spending time with my friends, riding bikes, scoring the occasional goal, and cooking out late into the nights. I stopped playing once my son was born and I used that time to care for him. Playing polo really made me a better bicyclist, helping me hone my balance and precision skills in a way that was evident in my daily commuting experience.
6. Where is your favorite place to ride?
The country roads and levees along the Mississippi River offer some of the most scenic and adventerous rides I’ve ever done. In the region surrounding Memphis, these infrequently traveled roads offer flat terrain, views of the river, and access to small agricultural towns that most don’t ever get to see. Now, with the opening of the Big River Crossing in Memphis, a bike/ped bridge connecting downtown Memphis with West Memphis, Arkansas, access to these trails and roads is even easier and I expect we’ll see more people discovering these gems in the near-future.
As a close second, I had the opportunity to travel to Melbourne, Australia in 2015 and had an incredible time discovering the city and region by bike. An extensive off-street trail system could immediately transport you from buzzing urban areas to pastoral villages in the blink of an eye. Protected bike lanes in the urban area made riding a cinch. I got lost a lot of times while riding there, but that was half the fun. Getting lost and exploring is easy when the infrastructure allows you the comfort and safety to do so.