GJ Bike Night is saving Grand Junction, CO.
Every Friday at 7 PM, outside of the Mesa County Old Courthouse, magic happens. A stable of bikes and their riders gather around the front of the courthouse and prepare for a bike ride around Grand Junction. Bikes trickle in group by group until the front of the courthouse is filled with sprockets. Thirty, forty, fifty bikes amass. Some riders champion new-age mountain bikes; others ride old fixies. Tandem bikes, road bikes, fat tires and trikes are not out of place. Everyone brings their bike to GJ Bike Night, whatever that might mean to them.
The Pathos. I’m not a particularly bike-knowledgeable person. I am, however, extremely lonesome. A pandemic, the monotony of work, the unrelenting continuation of time and the capitalist machine hurrying me towards success and madness have left me with very few friends.
I heard about GJ Bike Night, how most people learn about it: Someone invited me. Selling me on the idea was rather easy. It sounded like a good time and I already owned a bike.
I found my current bike through Facebook Marketplace after weeks of searching. I knew I wanted my bike the moment I saw its poorly staged photos. Newly listed. Only seven minutes from my location. I contacted the seller and took the bike for a spin that same day. From the garage, the seller brought out a 1989 bright yellow Schwinn Prelude, complete with red and hyperlink-blue accents marks on the frame, fitted with skinny white tires that sported checkered racing flag tape across its sides. The previous owner used to race it down the Colorado National Monument in his heyday but recently upgraded to something more modern.
This is all to say, my bike is cool because someone else made it cool.
Today, the tape is falling off the handlebar. I have no tail light. I don’t own a helmet; my head is too big for the helmets I tried on at the downtown consignment shop. I might be too short for the bike frame, but I’m not sure. I don’t know the lingo. I haven’t downloaded the jargon. Around me at the courthouse are these encyclopedic, great cyclical thinkers of our time having fun. Essentially, at GJ Bike Night, I am in full pose.
At GJ Bike Night, wheels roll at sunset. The first 150 feet of the route faces you towards the Colorado National Monument, where the sun casts a golden aura around its crown. The Fall air is crisp. Reel 2 Real’s 1994 classic “I Like to Move It” plays on someone’s speaker. It’s another beautiful desert night in the city.
“People show up because they know it’s where they can be part of something bigger, but gives more than it needs,” Ian Thomas, one of the event’s founding organizers, says.
The grupetto winds through the city streets. It doesn’t take long before riders pop wheelies and do tail whips. Others ride no-handed, with arms to the side doing nothing. People scream from their chests and howl a howl only a Colorado dude-bro can howl. Finally, the shackles are off.
It’s hard not to feel rebellious at GJ Bike Night. The sea of bikes clogs traffic and even halt intersections at green lights from time to time. In a world where cars receive the lion’s share of our city’s space, Bike Night makes you feel like a human again, capable of traversing our public land in a more efficient, eco-friendly and exciting way. And when a large group of people come together to share this experience, everyone can’t help but feel like a part of something outside of themselves. And in being part of a team, a part of a movement, you meditate on your role and what you bring to the scene. It’s a beautiful thing to realize who you are by being around people that accept you for whatever bike you ride, if you will.
“The secondary goal of Bike Night is to provide an avenue of easy to access activism, whereby simply attending the fun and engaging event, they are staking their claim as a road user that isn’t in a car,” Thomas says. He yells directions, clutching his green vuvuzela, only to be used when Bike Night feels especially Bike-Nighty.
Organizers of Bike Night take its spirit off the bike lane and into politics. During the Oct. 20 meeting of the Grand Junction City Council, the GJ Bike Night organizers spoke about the new I-70 development being planned by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT).
At the meeting, they couldn’t be more out of place. The political landscape of Grand Junction is skewed to favor the older white man with wealth. Yet, Thomas and fellow organizer Logan Wagner, at least 30 years younger than most at the meeting, sit near the front of the chamber and patiently wait for CDOT’s presentation on the I-70 Business Loop expansion plans.
The Grand Junction City Council meetings happen in an auditorium-like chamber where the council members sit on a heightened platform and behind a large curved wooden desk. To give public comments, citizens must stand up in front of the council, behind a microphone and adhere to a time limit given by a recorder that gives you three minutes of speaking time, no more, no less.
Several senior citizens take turns speaking about the lack of ambulance availability for their stunning Redlands homes. An older gentleman grieves at the podium with several and-another-thing-isms that the council thanks him for at the end of three minutes.
“I don’t like the loud,” a man exclaims during his turn.
Another man complains about the Grand Junction Police Department taking his personal information and distributing it to the rest of the department. “I want them to do that for the bad people,” he says, “I don’t want them to do that for the good people like me.”
Despite the gauntlet of public comments, Thomas and Wagner remain steadfast in their mission of expressing their disinterest in CDOT’s I-70 Business Loop phase six expansion.
The discourse over this expansion came after CDOT conducted an Environmental Assessment of the I-70 Business Loop in 2008 that concluded that this stretch of road needed an additional car lane in both directions to meet the potential traffic demand that the city might see in 2030.
“Now I know that sounds like a load of mumbo-jumbo, but this seemingly inconsequential council meeting sets up exactly what the area [...] will look like in the future,” Thomas said in an email sent to potential GJ Bike Night folks that wanted to speak to the city council. “I don’t know about y’all, but I would much rather see this area teeming with tourists fresh off the train, a new, safe, route to the Riverfront Trail for a bike ride, new restaurants, shops, and jobs instead of a barren, ugly, area utterly hostile to bikes and pedestrians.”
The city of Grand Junction enlisted the help of The Sonoran Institute, which led the New Mobility West (NMW) campaign to create a proposal of their own. The NMW proposal aimed to accommodate multimodal transportation while balancing traffic flow with local access, livability and connectivity to the downtown area.
The main talking points of the NMW plan included a 30MPH speed limit, four pedestrian and bike crossings, transit access, upgraded access to the Amtrak station and a two-lane count in each direction.
Lane count is the hot button issue as CDOT’s plan includes six total lanes that have a bus lane occupying the new third lane of the road until the city requires the extra lane for all traffic in perpetuity. They also included a mobility hub that could include busing services, passenger rail, rideshare connections and multimodal transportation stations for bikes, scooters and pedestrians.
Grants are tied to the mobility hub’s construction. If the grants fall through, a stripped-down version of the mobility hub will exist instead, with City Manager Greg Caton ensuring that the city will develop the hub to its proposed state in the years following the completion of the I-70 remodel.
“Following the New Mobility West plan advocates for the people of our town, and doesn’t let CDOT pave a freeway through the heart of our downtown,” Thomas said. “City Council is happy with the concession they have gotten from CDOT so far, and even though [the NMW plan] is unlikely to pass, it is important that they know there is a large group of riders who are advocating for improved bike and pedestrian facilities.”
Thomas steps up to the podium. He talks about the pedestrian-first feeling of Grand Junction that “we know and love.” He mentions GJ Bike Night and how many that attend only feel safe riding their bike in a large group. The beeps from the podium let him know he only has thirty seconds left. With the help of notes on his phone, Thomas hits the major talking points of his email before ending with thanking the council for their time, all three minutes and four seconds of it.
Wagner steps to the microphone next and proclaims he rides bikes “because it’s fun.” He then voices his concerns with the bisection of CDOT’s I-70 plan and how it would “decapitate” the downtown area.
In response, councilwoman Anna Stout reminds those opposed to think about “the needs of the city’s future.”
CDOT’s Phase 6 expansion passed 6-1.
Longtime councilman Rick Taggart was the only no vote.
“I voted no for several reasons,” Taggart said. “First, to have a six-lane highway go through the core of our city is counter to what most cities are doing. Most cities have and continue to invest in beltways around the core of the city. Second, and I too am a cyclist, a 6 lane highway is not bike and pedestrian-friendly. Third, the highway creates a significant barrier between the northern and southern cores of the city. Fourth, the separation of lanes has created isolated islands of land that can be difficult to get in and out of and this has created blighted areas in the core of our city.”
Taking notes at the council meeting, I realized two very different conversations were being had. On one end, advocates of multimodal transportation were reimagining a future where we relied less on cars and motivated the use of bikes, while also raising awareness for those that can’t physically use a bike because of ability or finance. On the other side, the future of Grand Junction was more about increasing capacity than ease of access.
City expansion includes considering details such as who gets priority to access the city. Admittedly, there is no practical way to remove cars from how American cities travel, but reducing our reliance on them is in the realm of possibility, especially for fledgling cities like Grand Junction.
This change in car reliance isn’t centered on an environmentalist perspective. Though carbon emissions contribute a great deal to Colorado’s pollution output, it’s not the argument to make against the car. Approximately 72% of Mesa County’s 3,309 square miles is publicly owned. With world-renowned public spaces around us, how much of it are we willing to sacrifice to access it? Not only is developing around a car-centric world a waste of space that could be better accessed, but it also is a poor business decision.
The 2018 Economic Impact of Mountain Biking in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre & Gunnison National Forests collected data from visitor expenditure across three study areas, one including Grand Junction’s immediate region.
The study approximated that the mountain bike industry alone produced a labor income of $2.6 million. Per visit, visitor expenditures within the Grand Junction study area averaged $385.73. Figures like this plus news like manufacturers moving to the Grand Valley area signals that the area will lead the state and potentially the nation in outdoor recreation, specifically related to mountain biking and other multimodal transportation.
Yes, there is a need to expand our road system. It’s natural for a city to do so when poised for immense growth. Yet, why did Main Street have to be the casualty of this process? The argument against the I-70 Business Loop expansion isn’t about having fewer roads. It’s about keeping the identity of how this region travels and recreates. More lanes mean fewer people having the courage to cross them while walking or biking. It means citizens that can’t afford a vehicle or cannot drive are left to the wayside. The amount of lanes isn’t inherently the issue. Rather, it’s the lack of lane diversity that raises problems.
Former New York City urban planning official, Vishaan Chakrabarti, coined the term “street equity” to describe how much space we’re sacrificing to the car. Farhad Manjoo authored this brilliant article in The New York Times detailing the future of cities and cars. In it, Manjoo details how moving 50 people by car requires 2,750 feet or 55 square feet per person. Yet, a bus takes only 9 square feet per person while 50 bicycles need 15 square feet per person. We wrongly centered the debate on how quickly and efficiently we can move cars, rather than how quickly and efficiently we can use our available space. The new fifth and sixth lanes of CDOT’s expansion call for a bus lane, giving GJ greater street equity… but only until traffic gets heavy enough to gift the lanes back to all traffic.
Back to Bike Night
If there is one thing that GJ Bike Night has taught me is that we must remember to enjoy the present a bit more.
Within the confines of the amorphous bike gang, there are stories to be told, hearts to pour out, and laughs to be shared.
Sometimes, you’re at the front of the autobus, but other times you fall to the back. Up and down you go as all ride on, hopping from conversation to conversation in the meantime. Some chats are very much just chits. Other talks are philosophical, only breaking the flow of conversation when tires almost bump or cars honk.
My poserdom is challenged with each conversation I have. People I’ve never met strike up a conversation. People I kind of know pull up next to me and we chat about work, life, our craft. I’m alone with only my thoughts to keep me company. I enjoy the moment. Fifty or sixty bikes making that fishing reel sound. I lean back in my tiny sports seat, two fingers always on the handlebar, and I rediscover what it’s like to let your shoulders down. For the first time in a long time, I feel honest.
“The first goal is and always will be to have a damn good time! Instead of people spending their Friday night inside doing unhealthy things, they now have a space to meet others, be in a crowd, and take part in a large movement of people,” Thomas says.
In my car and my work life, I feel so passive. Rarely do I wave at other vehicles. Rarely do I let my guard down. But at GJ Bike Night, I’m finally living in the city. It’s common to hear “I’ve never been down this road in my life.”
As the insurgency of bikes rides, we pass groups of people eating, unloading groceries, playing, just hanging out, and they stare at the rattling line of bikes. They stop what they’re doing and just stare. Those in cars peek their heads out the window to see us. Even in the low light of dusk, you can make out their eyes wide. Some cheer; others just watch as a parade of bikes, of people having a pleasant time, pass them by.
One time, a boy on his BMX was on the sidewalk facing us as we pedaled by. At first, he stopped to stare at us just like those not at GJ Bike Night do, but then he turned his bike around and followed us to wherever we were going. His too-cool-for-school pose was so ironclad in self-belief that he convinced me that maybe he is just who he says he is. And maybe I can be too.
Here lies the beauty of Bike Night. Whether it’s because you want something to do to kick off your weekend, or you want to ride off a particularly droning week at work, or if your friend roped you into it, or if you just really like bikes, there’s space for you.
When I first set out to write about GJ Bike Night, I wanted to write a love letter. It’s the highlight of my week and I know this feeling is the same for many that go. Getting on a bike and riding around the city, with strangers and friends alike, showed me how to be engaged in the area I live in, how to feel like a part of the city’s narrative. As I wrote the first draft of this love letter, more and more details revealed themselves. It’s about yearning for a sense of community and finding it. And now, with changes coming to the city fast and furious, a genuine threat is posed to the locals. Yet, no matter how many lanes a road expands to, there will always be a community that fights to remain intact.
We’re a mechanomorphic superorganism composed of rad bikes and imperfect people. You show up to GJ Bike Night for the bikes but you keep coming back for the people and what you learn about them, the most important of which is yourself.
GJ Bike Night is a defiant movement, an immortal howl at the moon, so long that there are people devoted to having a good time.
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Here are some more excellent works regarding transportation:
I’ve Seen a Future Without Cars, and It’s Amazing - Farhad Manjoo, Opinion Columnist at NYT
What's Up With That: Building Bigger Roads Actually Makes Traffic Worse - Adam Mann, Wired reporter
We Are the 25%: Looking at Street Area Percentages and Surface Parking - Charlie Gardner, Old Urbanist
Was the Automotive Era a Terrible Mistake? - Nathan Heller, New Yorker contributor
Economic Impact of Mountain Biking in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre & Gunnison National Forests - JAMES N. MAPLES, PhD & MICHAEL J. BR ADLEY, PhD