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Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009 09:24 pm

Bike council gets down to work

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It would be like putting a lobbyist for the pesticide industry in charge of promoting organic food.

That’s how one founding member of the Sangamon County Organization for Reform of Cycling Habitat (SCORCH) describes the city’s nomination of David Sykuta as the chairman of the new Springfield Bicycle Advisory Council.

Sykuta, the executive director of the Illinois Petroleum Council, was named on Sept. 21 to the nine-person volunteer committee. The group’s main tasks are to analyze and provide recommendations for bicycling routing, operation and safety in Springfield.

Even though Sykuta also belongs to the 300-member Springfield Bicycle Club, which helped the city create the advisory council [see “Advisory council aims to make Springfield bicycle-friendly,” Feb. 25], SCORCH views his involvement as a conflict of interest.

Bill Hannaford, a founding member of SCORCH, a group that emphasizes bicycling as urban transportation, questions Sykuta’s public stance against national cap-and-trade emissions legislation. In the past few months, Sykuta has organized a rally, as well as submitted a guest editorial to the State Journal-Register, condemning the legislation.

“Motor fuel is nearly half of U.S. petroleum consumption,” Hannaford says, “and in negotiations between bicycle and automotive traffic, we’ve been assigned a lead advocate whose bread and butter comes from the other side of the table.”

Wes King, a member of SCORCH and organizer with the Illinois Environmental Council, also questions Sykuta’s appointment as the BAC chairman:

“Because of his position as a lobbyist for big oil, I can only assume that he is interested in promoting biking as a form of recreation and not as a means of transportation.”

Sykuta considers himself a recreational rider — he doesn’t ride his bike to work every day. But, he says, the whole point of the BAC is to create a master plan that meets the needs of everyone from the most avid bicyclists to residents who haven’t ridden a bicycle in 10 years.

When asked about SCORCH’s concerns, Sykuta says he hopes that the committee can overcome politics and work together to bring more attention to bicycling in Springfield.

“The real challenge is that bicycling is everyone’s third or fourth most important thing,” Sykuta says. “It’s not the top of anyone’s agenda. Everyone likes it, but our job will be to move it up there so it is a more important choice for more people.”

Sykuta plans to bring the BAC together for its initial meeting and to begin public outreach in November. He wants to hear from all Springfield residents — including SCORCH members, he says — on how to make the city more bicycle-friendly.

Carey Smith, a single mother and a member of SCORCH, doesn’t own a car and uses her bicycle to get from her southeast Springfield home to her job at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. Without downtown bike routes, she’s forced to ride on streets with heavy traffic or up on the sidewalk. She hopes that the BAC focuses on developing safer alternatives for bicyclists.

“It’s all a little scary with no bike paths,” Smith says. “Springfield does not have a bike-awareness culture. People are not used to looking out for bicyclists.”

In addition to downtown bicycle routes, King suggests placing more bicycle racks around the city and on the front of city buses. The advisory council should also launch an educational campaign, he says, to show how bicycling as a means of transportation can promote good health, save money and help the environment.

BAC members share many of the same concerns. Michael Higgins, owner of Maldaner’s restaurant, put more than 1,000 miles on his bicycle this summer. He agrees that Springfield needs better bicycling infrastructure — maybe by connecting historic Springfield sites, he says — and a heftier emphasis on bicycle safety.

“The development is happening in larger cities, so it should be a little easier in terms of educating and sharing the roads in a city like Springfield,” Higgins says. “There are economic hardships, but how much does it cost to paint a stripe and put up some signs?”

Kevin Greene, another committee member who rides his bike to work a few times a month, wants to see bicycling viewed as a viable choice for activities like commuting, shopping and running errands. He believes that the BAC can accomplish that goal.

“The thing that impresses me about the membership is there’s a good mix of people who can bring different viewpoints, and that includes Dave,” Greene says. “You want people there who view the bicycle as something that can serve multiple purposes.”

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.
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