The Rockford region is catching onto something our friends in larger cities have long known: biking is an important part of our urban landscape. It’s not only a convenient means for getting a workout, but it’s also an easy and affordable transportation method for people of all income levels.

Add in broader social concerns, like rising gas prices and a growing residential base downtown, and there’s a sense of imperative to making our region as bike-friendly as it can be.

Local bikers know that Rockford’s streets haven’t always been kind to them, but things are starting to change as local leaders re-evaluate the ways we get around.

Here are three ways things are starting to improve:

  1. Cycling Communities Unite

If you’ve seen a gang of cyclists hitting the streets and trails around town, you’ve seen groups like I Bike Rockford in action. What started as a Facebook group for avid bikers has morphed into a united front for a more bike-friendly community. Its mission is to “work so that more people of all ages, abilities and biking styles can say ‘I Bike Rockford’ for fun, recreation and transportation.” The group is now encouraging policy changes, addressing safety concerns and hosting local events meant to improve conditions for cyclists around town.

  1. Engaging Our Youth

What began as a means of clearing unclaimed bikes from the Rockford Police Department offices has morphed into a program that engages at-risk youths and teaches them positive skills in the company of adult mentors.

Rollin’ Strong now works with a handful of youngsters age 11-13 in an old storefront on Broadway Street, where police officers, United Way and Kegel’s Bicycle Store are helping kids to fix up old bikes with some hands-on instruction. Around their weekly sessions, they’re also going for rides, learning bike safety and – hopefully – finding a positive diversion from crime, since many of these youngsters have had some sort of experience with the courts.

It’s teaching kids to see “broken things” as only temporary, and worthy of a fix, says Grant Schubert, of United Way. At the end of each 12-week session, the kids take their newly fixed-up bikes home with them. Monetary donations are always appreciated.

  1. Cycling Events Raise Awareness

It’s hard to create a united front without a community of like-minded people, and that’s just what’s happening with local cyclists.

Stop by City Market and you might notice a horde of cyclists converging downtown. It’s part of Swarm the Market, an I Bike Rockford event that’s open to riders of all ages and abilities; nobody gets left behind. It leaves City Market every Friday at 7 p.m. and travels about 5 to 7 miles before wrapping with a post-party at the Prairie Street Brewhouse.

Historic bike tours have brought groups of riders through Rockford’s historic neighborhoods as they learn more about their city’s history. Check out other events like Cycle on 2nd, a unique bike ride that happens on North Second Street the morning of Sept. 8.

Team Fur Bandit’s Tour de Frost, scheduled for early December, is a 20-mile bike ride and nonprofit fundraising event that welcomes in the winter weather.

Isn’t it time to pump up those tires and head out for a ride? Happy biking!