Cycling for Change on Chicago’s Paseo Boricua

Chicago’s West Town Bikes is celebrating its 5th birthday this year. West Town Bikes, a non-profit that focuses on mechanical skills building and cycling awareness for under-served youth, opened a store front in the heart of Paseo Boricua, a Puerto Rican community on the near north side of Chicago, last summer.

West Town Bikes is well known for its youth programs and “build a bike” classes. The non-profit has an innovative and hands-on approach to using cycling as a means of building community, reaching out to youth, and advocating for a healthier city. West Town’s youth bike programs focus on how youth interact with their environment. Most of the bikes they use in classes and refurbish/resell at Ciclo Urbano (their storefront location) are taken from trash.

I spoke with Sarah Miller, the Associate Director of West Town over drinks. (Full disclosure: She’s my neighbor and good friend. I’ve also volunteered for West Town.) Now that summer’s here, I thought I’d share Miller’s insights as to why cycling advocacy can make a big difference in the urban landscape.

Miller says that average class topics include “oil, health, nutrition and the idea of craftsmanship–working with your hands and being able to tangibly see that you are doing a good job. It’s good to put young people in a professional space–they feel good about that. We also focus on alternatives to transport, gang life, and not finishing school.” From its original summer program of 16 students, West Town’s reach is enormous.

“I’ve had 800 kids through my program in 2009, Miller says. “That’s a big jump since 2004.”

Tell me about an average work day.
I ride my bike a mile down Paseo Boricua to work. I usually see kids and community organizers I know on the way. … Mostly I am in contact with youth workers and organizers who we run programs for, so I coordinate with them a lot. I have an intern that I work with on media and marketing as well. We have kids come in shop to help out at noon, then more after school gets out. … We have bike club on Tuesday and Thursday and around 4-5 kids in the shop every afternoon.

I also conduct site visits. We’re contracted to do programs with schools that have extra funding for after school programming. Sometimes I check in with after school coordinator and oversee the class. [A typical class could include] going over tools, planning a route, or If we’re really lucky, we’ll go for a ride, which the kids really like.

What kind of an impact does West Town have?
There are young people who have been involved with West Town longer than I have. They keep coming back because they feel connected. That’s really hard in a lot of communities that don’t have a lot of resources. One of our teen assistants was recently killed. It’s really hard for young men of color in the neighborhoods we work in to find jobs. He was shot at 3 in the afternoon on a Wednesday in front of his mothers house. I couldn’t help thinking “God, if only he had a job and wasn’t at home on a Wednesday at 3.”

We also help children who have learning disabilities and don’t do well in school. West Town helps them learn a different way and lets them experience being good at something. They can be experts and they can teach classes.

My boss, Alex, is very good at working with middle schoolers and creating a real connection with them. I really enjoy working with older youth and helping them get jobs. We work on many fronts. There are tons of bike mechanics in the city, so there aren’t a lot of opportunities there. But what is growing is curriculum and programs that get kids on bikes. I try to get kids jobs as teachers. I don’t want the instructors of these programs to just be upper class college educated people from the suburbs teaching these kids. I want to put myself out of a job. I want to these young people from these neighborhoods to … promote an active lifestyle, freedom of a bike, the DIY mechanics ethic. It’s really not about a bike. It’s about helping people get jobs or have a community that cares.

What’s next for West Town?
We’d like to have a business that supports us so that we don’t have to rely on grants all the time. We just opened a sales shop, Ciclo Urbano, that sells parts, does service on bikes, and sells rebuilt new bikes. It’s a sales shop and the proceeds are supporting youth bike education. It keeps the lights on.

We’re also going to grow with our train the trainer program. We’re going to train people from communities to run their own bike program. We don’t want to think of ourselves as colonists that are camping out in neighborhoods. We’re more focused on helping people who want to get kids on bikes be able to do that. There is currently so much demand for teachers to run programs that its impossible to fill.

West Town Bikes


Margaret M.
Margaret M.8 years ago

go cyclers!!

Tammy Smith
T Zabel8 years ago

Great article! Thanks

A M P.
A M P8 years ago

Sounds like a wonderful program that should go national. I'm certain there are quite a few communities that would benefit.

Judy Emerson
Judith Emerson8 years ago

Great program! Thank you! :D

Dawn D.
Dawn D8 years ago

I really like this article. Nice to know people care. Thank you!

Janice P.
Janice P8 years ago

The nexus here between having the means, if not just the desire, to accomplish something is the feeling of connection. By this man's own words, he felt a connection with the people he is helping. We often do not help another person, group, or cause because we feel no connectedness to them. Maybe the answer to all of our world's ills lies in that one very basic concept: feeling connected to others. After all, if we felt connected to another, could we steal from them, kill them, harm them in any way? Not likely, except for the psychopath, who doesn't really feel much of anything toward others.

I have thought for a long time that we need to work on our empathy much more than on making the next buck to buy one more thing that we "must have", but do not need.

Borg Drone
Past Member 8 years ago

thanks again

Magdalena w.

thanks for the article, good news!

Paige B.
Paige Boily8 years ago


Philippa P.
Philippa P8 years ago