Last month, at a Martin Luther King Day event in Harlem hosted by the Reverend Al Sharpton, Congressman Adriano Espaillat, representing New York’s 13th district, had something to say about bike infrastructure: “Affordability and gentrification are ripping our neighborhood apart,” he said. “And you see the stress of high rent. Now you got Starbucks. And bike lanes. And sushi. Where’s my rice and beans?!”
The next day, on January 21, rideshare company Lyft hosted an event at the Harlem YMCA to announce its new LyftUp program, which will provide free one-year Citi Bike memberships to 16 to 20-year-olds in the YMCA network. Lyft, which operates New York City’s bike share program as well as those in other major U.S. cities, is partnering with NBA great LeBron James, who showed up to the event to surprise 50 local teens who would be receiving free access to Citi Bikes. I was at the press conference, along with my nine year-old son (who’s really lucky to have such a cool dad). The kids receiving the memberships were absolutely electrified when LeBron James entered the room. So was I, and I don’t even follow basketball. My hand shook as I recorded his short speech.
While he didn’t address the devastating effects of Starbucks or sushi, James did have a very different take on bikes and bike lanes. Once the screaming died down, he spoke to the kids about the role bikes played in his own childhood. “I was a kid, growing up in the inner city of Akron, Ohio, riding bikes,” he said. “What a bike did for me was to be able to travel across the city with my friends, get from my home to school or get to basketball practices or football practices and be able just to travel, breathe the fresh air, be able to clear your mind at times...a segue to be able to do so many things that can also carry you for the rest of your life.”
Furthermore, James addressed the safety and the importance of bike lanes, which in lower-income neighborhoods can be a lot harder to come by.“Safety is always first, and for the city to understand that bike lanes are very important for the kids’ safety,” he said. “For adults that want to ride, too. So this is very important.”
When the kids all gathered for a group photo, James came sliding across the wood floor into the shot—the very antithesis of Espaillat’s pompous podium posturing. Sure, the cynic in me registered that all of this was essentially a photo op put together by a tech company with a $14 billion market cap, but so what? Bikes need more of this. When was the last time you saw anyone even remotely exciting—let alone one of the most talented and successful athletes on the planet—stand in front of a bunch of kids and articulate the sheer sense of freedom and exhilaration that comes from riding a bike? (I’m talking about America by the way, not Belgium or the Netherlands. And sorry, David Byrne doesn’t count.) Here in New York City, when it comes to young people and bikes, the approach by local government seems to alternate between making corny entreaties to kids (think helmet giveaways), and confiscating their bikes as soon as they start actually having fun with them. So an introduction from pro BMX and YouTube sensation Nigel Sylvester, followed by a video of kids getting rad on bikes, and finally a surprise appearance by King James himself, was all rather invigorating.
James exuded sincerity, and what’s more, his bike bona-fides are quite sound. He grew up riding. He famously commuted by bike while playing in Miami, even joining Critical Mass. He’s given away hundreds of bikes to kids in need. He even owned a stake in Cannondale for a while, which says more about his love of bikes than anything else, because only someone completely besotted with cycling would be crazy enough to invest in a bike company.
Far more important, James is not just promoting bicycling, but the bicycle’s potential to serve as an inflection point in a young person’s life. His words resonate with anybody who grew up riding. Our bikes were our first taste of freedom, and exploring our neighborhoods was in part how we learned to chart a course through life. But as our roads become increasingly hostile and ridership among children continues to decline, fewer kids get to experience this sense of independence and agency. We owe it to our kids to return that joy and freedom to them.
Teens I spoke to at the event said that they’ll use their memberships to ride to school, practices, and the Y. One 16-year-old told me he hasn’t had a bike in two years, and that this would finally allow him to start riding again. Granted, we need more programs like this, times a million, but at least it’s a start.
Odds are LeBron James was unaware of Espaillat’s comments the day before, but either way James certainly dunked on him. The idea that bikes—arguably the healthiest, least expensive, and most accessible mode of transport on the planet—are somehow classist and elitist doesn’t hold up under any kind of scrutiny. Who better to send up this absurd notion than LeBron James? Bikes and bike lanes don’t hold people and neighborhoods back, they help move them forward. Give kids better access to both and there’s no telling what they’ll accomplish.