A new transportation option coming to Birmingham features added technology that planners say puts it among few of its kind worldwide and will make Alabama a base for similar programs in the future.

This fall, the city's first public bike sharing program will go into operation using vendor Bewegen Technologies, Inc., officials with REV Birmingham, the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, the city and the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham announced Monday afternoon at Railroad Park.

Birmingham's program will make it the first city in the Western Hemisphere to use "electric-assist" bikes, or those that use electricity to help with pedaling in hilly terrain, according to REV Birmingham.

Bike sharing is a system featuring a network of docking stations where riders can check out bicycles for short periods of time, usually with cards activated through a low-cost subscription service, per-use rates or paid annual memberships.

The idea has grown in popularity among American cities in recent years as a tool for attempting to reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality. Estimates are more than 40 bike sharing programs are active in the U.S.

Across the Southeast, cities including Nashville, Chattanooga and Spartanburg, S.C., have programs, as does Montevallo, where the ValloCycle bike sharing program began in 2011.

How it will work

Birmingham began exploring the program in 2013.

A feasibility study found downtown's largely flat topography, wide streets and high concentration of jobs and people make the city a great candidate for bike sharing. Potential vendors made their pitches in January.

REV Birmingham will administer the program. The local bike sharing network will include 400 bikes and 40 kiosks placed throughout central Birmingham.

Among those, there will be 100 electric-pedal bikes. Those bikes were included to lessen barriers to using the system for people not as experienced with hillier areas of the city said Lindsey West, deputy operations director for the planning commission.

Riders can either buy annual memberships or use their credit cards to check out the bikes. Pricing details are in the works, but similar sharing programs have annual memberships between $50 and $100 per person. The Birmingham program would aim for the middle of that range for annual members, organizers said.

Memberships can be purchased through a website for the new program and a mobile app, both of which should go live this summer, according to REV Birmingham.

The pricing structure, along with GPS technology, will encourage riders to truly share bikes and return them, organizers said.

The station locations are being evaluated and include rider input. Sidewalk decals will be placed in areas across the identified region for the program -- roughly downtown from north of the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex toward Southside, and east toward Lakeview.

"If you build a strong system here, you can always tie to it," REV Birmingham CEO David Fleming said of whether the program could expand to other parts of the city.

The decals will feature codes for potential users to text their thoughts on station locations, Fleming said. REV will work with city engineers to locate where the kiosks will go.

Fleming said the goal is to grow membership every year, and the data that will be collected from the GPS-equipped bikes will help determine where growth is happening and what cycling infrastructure is needed.

The city received a $2 million congestion mitigation/air quality, or CMAQ, grant to start the program, which required a 20 percent local match. The City of Birmingham provided the local match.

"This BikeShare system is another forward-thinking program we're implementing in our forward-thinking city," Birmingham Mayor William Bell said in a statement. "It will provide a fun transportation option for our citizens, and for visitors here on business and pleasure."

The Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham provided funding for site planning work and beginning operations.

Sustaining the program will rely on user revenue, grants and corporate sponsors. Those sponsors will be announced at a future date.

Taking a brisk Monday afternoon walk through Railroad Park, Harriet Lewis said though she doesn't ride a bike, she thinks the sharing system will be good and convenient for the city.

"A lot of people come to the park and ride ... that way they don't have to carry their bikes here," Lewis said upon hearing of the program. "They already have the trails, so it's a good idea."

Work for Alabama

Bewegen, based in Quebec, was one of the vendors who responded to a request for proposals from the planning commission.

Braunyno Ayotte, marketing and communications advisor with Bewegen, said he noticed when scouting out the city that bike sharing is a perfect fit with Birmingham.

"There's just so much hype to the city, you see that it's vibrant, that it's up and coming and a lot of investment going in," Ayotte said. "To be honest, I wasn't expecting that when I first came to Birmingham. This is a city where bike sharing will work."

The company has committed to building the kiosks for Birmingham's system here in Alabama. The work will be contracted through Alabama suppliers, Ayotte said.

Bewegen also will build in Alabama the kiosks the company would need for systems as it expands to other markets in the U.S., Ayotte said.

via AL.COM

Q: Every day, I travel Valleydale Road from U.S. 280 to Jaguar Drive. Since the repaving work, the traffic backup has been awful! I think this is due to the traffic lights not having been reset. For example, going toward U.S. 280, there usually are several cars turning left onto Inverness Parkway, and cars going north could keep going the same time cars turn left. Sometimes, only three cars have gotten through the intersection before the light turns red! This happens at every light between U.S. 280 and Jaguar Drive. What's going on?

A: It's a problem with the loop detectors, or the wires that run through the pavement at intersections and are tripped by the presence of vehicles.

When they're tripped, they let the traffic signals know a car is there, waiting to go.

As a main artery linking U.S. 280 and Interstate 65, Valleydale Road (Shelby County Road 17) kind of skips in and out of Hoover city limits in this area.

The part between U.S. 280 and Caldwell Mill Road, while some of it is in Hoover, has been resurfaced as part of a county project.

The loop detectors were put back in, but something was off with the connections between the detectors and the signals said Scott Holladay with the county engineer's office. That caused the signals to go on a kind of auto-timed changing schedule. The contractor began correcting the issue on Friday, Holladay said.

Think ahead to 2040: What roadways, trails, freight connections and transit does Birmingham need in the next 25 years?

Here's your chance to weigh in. The Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham is forming its required 25-year plan, which helps prioritize transportation projects in Jefferson, Shelby and southern Blount and eastern St. Clair counties through 2040.

There's a public involvement meeting set for midday Wednesday in conference room 310 at 2 N. 20th St.

Be there. If not, the presentation will later be put online, as will other ways for you to give input for a few weeks afterward. Do it. That way, you have an idea what's being talked about and you can give your ideas and opinions -- rather than waiting until it's almost construction time to speak up.

U.S. 280 commuter service: The Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority's service launches Monday, with two commuter buses inbound from Walmart near Alabama 119 to downtown during morning rush at 5:45 a.m. and 6:30.

Two outbound buses will go from downtown to Walmart during evening rush. Fare: $1.25. For more information, check schedules at


BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- Though details are still being worked out for a direct transit link between Bessemer and Hoover, there is strong support for a bus connection that would get people between the two cities in one-quarter of the travel time, a transit official said.

The route is one of two main traffic corridors on which the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority plans to soon put some of seven new 25-passenger commuter buses into service.

BJCTA purchased the buses through a federal grant that specifies they must be used for commuter-type routes, or ones with fewer stops.

The buses are diesel-powered and Wi-Fi-enabled.

Two buses each would be used along two main commuter corridors during morning and evening peak traffic periods, with the seventh bus used as a spare.

The idea, BJCTA officials said Tuesday evening at their second meeting on the topic, is those amenities would help commuters rededicate time they would lose driving in traffic to more productive uses such as continuing to work, or preparing for or relaxing from their day.

Discussions are under way to partner up with the "guaranteed ride home" service through the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham's Commute Smart program, meaning users would be provided options to get back to their vehicles during emergencies.

Alabama 150 would be the route linking downtown Bessemer with the Galleria in Hoover, according to BJCTA's plans.

For MAX bus passengers today, getting between the two cities means boarding a bus for MAX Central Station in downtown Birmingham, then transferring there to a bus bound for the other city.

That can take about two hours for a one-way trip said Henry Ikwut-Ukwa, the transit authority's planning and development manager.

A transit authority survey of Bessemer riders showed about 70 percent said they would take advantage of a direct link with Hoover, he said.

"We believe that this proposal will take maybe 30 to 35 minutes," Ikwut-Ukwa said of the new commuter route's travel time. "That will basically address that need," with a chance to grow the service to meet demand, if needed.

Transit officials continue to talk with leaders in both cities to work out potential locations for end-of-route parking areas, Ikwut-Ukwa said.

The other commuter service routes -- U.S. 280 and a dedicated route between downtown and Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport -- also were discussed Tuesday night.

This past week, BJCTA officials had a similar meeting for "Route 201," the set of commuter buses scheduled to begin traversing U.S. 280.

For the U.S. 280 route, proposed stops would include Walmart -- which would be a park-and-ride site for the service -- The Summit, St. Vincent Hospital, UAB and the downtown business district.

BJCTA officials estimated the service could take half as long as the existing regular bus route along the corridor.

The transit authority has proposed beginning the U.S. 280 route as early as November.

The Alabama 150 route likely would begin in early 2015.

BJCTA also is working with tourism and hospitality interests and the airport to develop the downtown-to-airport connection. That one likely would run all day, Ikwut-Ukwa said.

Among the views expressed by attendees at BJCTA's meeting Tuesday night was whether the commuter buses would take alternate routes. For example, using roads along the U.S. 280 corridor would minimize the amount of time the buses are in the main flow of traffic and potentially make other stops at nearby businesses, they said.

Ikwut-Ukwa said side routes were evaluated. Since those all eventually lead back to U.S. 280, especially to cross the Cahaba River, going on and off the highway doesn't speed up the trip.

They also asked if larger buses could be used. Ikwut-Ukwa said demand will drive the service. As a pilot project, that demand will be evaluated as the program goes into effect.

Michael Crump, of Birmingham, said he would like to see similar service expanded to other long-distance routes. However, he said the express routes only address a portion of what's needed to elevate area transit including more reliability and Sunday service.

The commuter services are a good start, he said.

"But like all good things, they all have good starts," Crump said. "But every good start needs a good finish."

Other meetings are planned as plans develop for the Alabama 150 and airport routes, Ikwut-Ukwa said.


CommuteSmart Partners with Enterprise

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The Birmingham CommuteSmart Vanpool program is pleased to announce its new strategic partnership with Enterprise/Rideshare, as their Vanpool provider. This strategic partnership ensured cost savings for all its vanpool participants in the Jefferson and Shelby County areas.

Enterprise/Rideshare tailors its vanpool program to meet local market needs and brings a dedicated experienced two person team made up of Kelli Davis and Stuart Watson.

The CommuteSmart programs ultimate goal during this process was to provide a smooth transition for its current vanpool participants, while continuing to provide them with the high level of customer service to which they are accustomed to receiving from CommuteSmart.

CommuteSmart Enterprise/Rideshare Vanpool participants will continue to receive the same program incentives including the Emergency Ride Home benefit as well as more extensive fleet options!
We welcome the opportunity to speak with you about how CommuteSmart Enterprise/Rideshare can work together to assist your organization with offering transportation options and provide parking solutions by supplying your employees with great benefits.

Call 1-800-VAN-4WORK to get started!

What is vanpooling?
A vanpool is a group five or more riders who want to save time, save money, and reduce stress on the way to work. They voluntarily travel together to and from work in a shared van and they all share in the cost of their commute. Vanpool management and operations for CommuteSmart are contracted through Enterprise Rideshare.

Who drives the van?
A vanpool coordinator is a voluntary role and they take responsibility for the vanpool, arrange have the vehicle serviced, and is the point person between the vanpool and CommuteSmart. The vanpool coordinator is also the primary driver, but most vans have two to four people share driving duties.
All drivers must be 25 years or older and meet minimum driver requirements, which vary by state. As part of the Enterprise Rideshare driver application process, each driver's motor vehicle record is checked annually to ensure that it is in compliance with our policies.

What are the driver's responsibilities?
Drivers must provide a safe, dependable commute by driving defensively. They pick-up and drop-off passengers according to the schedule set by the group, insist that everyone wear their seatbelt, and clean the van on a regular basis.

What are the passenger's responsibilities?
Each person should be at the pick-up point on time, share in the monthly cost of the commute in a timely manner, discuss and agree on rules for the van, provide 30 days' notice of their intention to leave the group, and wear their seatbelts. Two to four passengers will also need to be approved as alternate drivers to fill in for the primary driver when he or she is ill or on vacation. All participants should work with the vanpool coordinator to help recruit passengers to maintain a full van to keep the cost as low as possible for everyone.

Why Should I Vanpool?
Vanpooling saves the average commuter 50%-75% versus driving alone, plus it saves time and is less stressful. It also reduces the number of cars on our roadways, saves thousands of gallons of fuel, and drastically reduces air pollution on an annual basis.

How Much Does it Cost to Vanpool?
Pricing varies based on the size of the van, the round-trip distance, and the type of equipment in a van. Compared to the cost of driving alone for long distance commutes, vanpooling will save on average 50-75%. The monthly cost of each vanpool is shared among all the participants in the vanpool.
The cost to vanpool is often comparable to what you pay for just gasoline. When you consider the wear and tear, maintenance, tires and the entire incidental costs associates with driving alone, vanpooling is very economical. Call 1-800-VAN-4-WORK for specific pricing.

What Types of Vehicles are Used?
We offer a variety of late-model vehicle options for vanpools including minivans, passenger vans with standard bench style seating or fully converted passenger vans with individual reclining captain's seats. We also offer a line of crossovers and SUVs.

How is Vehicle Maintenance Handled?
The vanpool contractor, Enterprise, covers both minor and major repairs, as well as all scheduled servicing. Each vanpool van is delivered with a maintenance card. Appointments for service are arranged at a vendor location convenient to the vanpool coordinator. The vendor performs the work requested and invoices Enterprise for the service/repair. If the van needs to be kept in a shop overnight, Enterprise will provide a loaner vehicle in most instances. There are no "out-of-pocket" expenses as the repair shops bill Enterprise directly.

What Type of Insurance Coverage is Provided?
Our comprehensive insurance coverage is provided through the contract for vanpooling and includes "1 Million Combined Single Limit Auto Liability, Comprehensive/Collision, and Uninsured Motorist" coverage.

What else should I know?
CommuteSmart Commuter Services also includes an Emergency Ride Home Program to help get you home in the event of an emergency. You have made the wise choice to leave your car at home and we want you to feel comfortable having made that decision. The Emergency Ride Home Program will provide you with the confidence you need to continue vanpooling.

Tax Advantages to Vanpooling. The IRS enables employers to provide up to $130.00 per month per employee toward the cost of vanpooling or riding mass transit (bus, train, rail). This benefit is tax-free to the employee and tax deductible as a business expense to the employer.

Reducing Air Pollution. It is no secret that the City of Birmingham has experienced its share of air quality issues; though improvements have been made over the years the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is continually strengthening the standards. A leading contributor to bad air quality or "smog" is auto emissions so utilizing CommuteSmart can help our community reach these standards. And, unfortunately, Birmingham ranks second in the nation in vehicle miles traveled per day! Only folks in Atlanta drive more than we do! While everyone cannot be expected to give up his or her car, if you are commuting to a heavily congested area, there is a good chance that someone else from your neighborhood is doing the same thing. We all need to do our part to reduce Single Occupant Vehicle (SOV) traffic and reduce air pollution. Jefferson and Shelby Counties are beautiful areas; we want to do everything we can to make sure it stays that way!

CommuteSmart's Vanpool Program is a service of Enterprise Rideshare which is supported by funding from the Alabama Department of Transportation and the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham. The program is intended to reduce single occupant commute trips in and around the Jefferson and Shelby County areas. This information is provided as a guide and may be appended, modified, or changed at any time without notice. -- October 2014

visit the CommuteSmart website

Ridesharing in Birmingham: 15 years and growing

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BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- City council adopted a revised transit code Tuesday that officials have said will allow app-based companies to do business in the city.

Representatives with one app-based commuter service company, Uber, have said the revisions make it difficult for them to operate.

While it isn't clear whether new rules would prevent Uber from ever coming to Birmingham, figures show the metro area's 15-year-old public ridesharing program is growing.

About 20,000 people who live or work in Jefferson and Shelby counties now participate in CommuteSmart, which began in 1999 and is administered by the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham.

Modified programs also exist in Huntsville, Mobile and Montgomery.

CommuteSmart matches riders with similar commutes to take advantage of alternative transportation including carpools, vanpools, bus rides and biking to reduce the number of vehicles on roadways.

Riders work out travel arrangements among themselves and share the costs of their commutes. CommuteSmart is a public service and participants aren't paid.

Compensation has been at the heart of a nationwide discussion in recent years about whether services such as Uber, with paid drivers, count as ridesharing programs.

Changing the definition, some say, would have unintended impacts on public programs by adding requirements for participants.

CommuteSmart is funded through the Federal Highway Administration as a ridesharing program.

Riders can keep track of their alternative commuting miles and earn incentives. Costs are shared among vehiclepoolers. For vanpools, that includes insurance for the vans, which are provided by a contractor who performs background checks.

In 2013, the Birmingham-area program added more than 4,000 new riders, growing by about 20 percent figures show.

In fiscal year 2013, the program reduced vehicle miles in the metro area by 15.2 million -- about 10.5 million through alternative forms of transportation and about 4.7 million through vanpools, records show.

The figure translates into about $6.3 million in savings and a carbon dioxide emissions reduction of about 6,000 tons, according to program figures.

The added benefit is that vanpool miles are reported to the National Transit Database, a national logbook used to allocate Federal Transit Administration funds said Scott Tillman, planning and operations director for the regional planning commission.

The planning commission gets a reimbursement for vanpool miles. That money is used for area transit, Tillman said.

Last year, the reimbursement totaled about $400,000, he said.

If the ordinance had changed -- especially grouping Uber under the rideshare definition -- planning officials fear that would have made it difficult for participants to continue using CommuteSmart.

Those changes, Tillman said, would have required drivers to get permits, business licenses and extra insurance.

Tillman said companies such as Uber are helpful because they add options for commuters.

"We are all for different transportation options as long as they fall within the guidelines of city codes," Tillman said.


Shelby County Park and Ride Lot Open to the Public

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Commuters can now utilize the Shelby County Park and Ride lot which is located adjacent from the Shelby County Airport. This lot features 125 to 130 parking spaces for commuter to to link up and share the ride. Shelby County officials expects most people utlizing the Park and Ride lot will be heading into Birmingham or Montgomery to work.

Federal money under MAP-21 was used to build the lot was approved by the Bir­mingham Metropolitan Planning Organization with Shelby County paying the local match. This project was completed because Alabama Department of Transporation (ALDOT), Shelby County, and the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham all worked together to move this forward. Shelby County has now joined Blount and Chilton counties in hosting park-and-ride lots just off Interstate 65.

County and state officials expect this lot to start out as a spot for carpooling, but have hopes that the lot could become a spot for other forms of mass transit. Visit to begin receiveing incentives to carpooling or vanpooling during your work commute!

May is National Bike Month and CommuteSmart celebrated National Bike to Work Day on May 16, 2014. The CommuteSmart team welcomed 63 bike commuters who made the choice to cycle to work. This year, instead of having a fun ride around the city, CommuteSmart hosted 7 "energizer stations" around the Birmingham region. CommuteSmart's goal was to celebrate commuters taking a healthy alternative form of transportation to work while also reduce traffic congestion and vehicle emissions. Local coffee shops around the city posed as "energizer stations" and donated a cup of coffee and provided an opportunity to meet up with other riders who biked to work. Those who biked to work were rewarded with free coffee at various coffee shops around Birmingham, as well as free t-shirts and bike gear.

"We've done this 11 or 12 years now and usually see about 40-60 cyclists participate," explained Lindsey G. West, Deputy Director of Operations at the RPCGB. "In the past, we've done a group ride in the morning, but instead of a group ride this year, we're doing the energizer stations at the coffee shops so it will really be a bike-to-work because people don't have to worry about doing one specific ride."

Special thanks to Lucy's Coffee & Tea, O'Henry's Coffee, Urban Standard, Crestwood Coffee, Church Street Coffee & Books and Starbucks in Irondale for participating this year. Also a special thanks to Redemptive Cycles whom provided free bike tune-ups to those who biked to work that day.

RPCGB hopes to expand Bike to Work even further into the region next year, please reach out to Jeniese Hosey at if you are interested in getting your community involved in 2015 and visit the Bike to Work website at for more information!

RPCGB hosts Leadership Alabama Bike Tour

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Leaders from all over the State of Alabama visited Birmingham this past week and toured parts of downtown Birmingham on bike. Lindsey West, Deputy Director of Operations, led the group of more than 60 riders on a 5.5 mile tour of the city center. Starting at the Uptown District, the route took the riders through the Civil Rights District, Railroad Park and Regions Field, Pepper Place and Jones Valley Teaching Farm before ending back at Uptown. Presenters, such as Camille Spratling, Cathy Sloss Jones (Class of VIII) and Frank Stitt (Class XXI) and Grant Brigham were onsite at each of the locations to present to the Leadership Alabama Class of XXIV. The growth and support of the cycling community and the Birmingham Bikeshare discussions prompted the tour to be taken via bike.

Michelle Roth, Leadership Alabama Program Manager, coordinated the event with RPCGB through, Leadership Alabama member and RPCGB Executive Director, Charles Ball. According to the website, "Leadership Alabama gives established leaders across Alabama exposure to the broader fabric of the state. It develops a network of relationships and provides a structure for this network to seek mutual understanding of problems and priorities for Alabama's future. Leadership Alabama encourages its members to act, individually and in concert, to move Alabama forward to help our state reach its full potential."

The ride began with a bicycle safety instructional from Stan Palla, with Alabike. Guides along the ride included: Clay Ousley, Mike Kaczorowski, Jana White and Shannon O'Dell. Bikes and helmets for the riders were rented from Cahaba Cycles and marks their largest group rental to date.

View pictures from the ride here.

National Bike to School Day at Bluff Park Elementary

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(BPES) - Bluff Park Elementary School held a bicycle parade in partnership with Children's of Alabama, Safe Kids Alabama and Safe Routes to School Central Alabama on May 7 as part of National Bike to School Day.

The celebration began at 7:15 a.m. with a morning arrival parade of students riding their bikes from Shades Crest Baptist Church down Park Terrace to Bluff Park Elementary. An afternoon dismissal parade rolled out of the school at 2:45 p.m. as students returned to Shades Crest Baptist. Bluff Park Elementary was selected as the site of the event because a large number its students ride their bikes to school each day.

The purpose of Bike to School Day is to educate children and their families about how to ride a bike safely, encourage them to always wear a bike helmet and to promote good health by exercising. In the week prior to the event, safety experts from Children's conducted puppet show and other demonstrations to teach safe biking habits to Bluff Park students and distributed bike helmets to those who didn't have one. Last year, 28 children were treated at Children's of trauma injuries sustained in bike wrecks. A trauma is a life-threatening or life-altering injury.

Earlier in the school year, Bluff Park Elementary hosted several Walk to School Day events in partnership with Safe Routes to School of Central Alabama which utilized a Walking School Bus, supervised by adult volunteers, that followed three neighborhood routes. Several hundred students and parents participated. Safe Routes to School is a movement to create safe, convenient and fun opportunities for students to walk and bike to school.

Children's of Alabama has provided specialized medical care for ill and injured children since 1911, offering inpatient and outpatient services throughout central Alabama. Last year, families made more than 670,000 outpatient and nearly 14,000 inpatient visits to Children's from every county in Alabama and from 45 other states and four foreign countries. More information is available at

Safe Routes to School of Central Alabama is a joint initiative of United Way of Central Alabama and the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham. It strives to accomplish several objectives including increased safety, physical activity, traffic mitigation and improved air quality. Safe Routes to School partners with schools to educate and encourage students to walk, and works with cities to improve infrastructure to be more conducive for walking and biking. More information is available at

More information about Bike to School Day is available at See PHOTOS from today's event here.

via Hoover City Schools

Every time he braked for a group of cyclists, the pastor would pound on his steering wheel.

This is dumb--you're in the way! Why are you on the road?

He would hover behind the last rider in line, fuming until he could pass. Then he'd stomp on the gas and roar by the riders, inches from bare elbows. If they cringed, too bad. It served them right. They didn't belong on the road.

Then last March, Jason Williams began a journey to the other side of the windshield. There, somewhere along the edge of the asphalt, the youth pastor discovered, to his own surprise, that bikes do in fact belong. It just took a few miles on two thin wheels to figure out how, and why.
It had nothing to do with cycling.

It had everything to do with change.

"I was inspired by a young man who I mentored," says Williams, who founded Aspire, a mentoring program for kids. His inspiration, 11-year-old Xavier Taylor, was overweight and out of shape. "I wanted to tell him he needed to eat healthy, work out and take care of himself."

But the mirror showed a 36-year-old mentor who was also overweight and out of shape. Kids will learn more from us modeling than telling them what to do, the pastor told himself. So he started walking. Walking progressed into jogging. Then running. Then cycling, to give his knees a break.

A year later, Williams found himself fitter, healthier and 110 pounds lighter.

He had discovered a new community. He had met new friends on nearly every ride. He had rediscovered on the bike a childlike joy, and he chased it 75 miles a week. The wide-open view framed by handlebars was so different from the one through the windshield.

"You get a brand-new perspective on a bike," Williams says. "You take in a lot more things."

Williams shared what he learned with Xavier, who started eating a little differently and moving a little more. Last November, the pair learned to mountain bike. Xavier struggled up the hills. Williams encouraged him. And somewhere along the 2.4-mile trail, the pastor rediscovered the bike once again: this time as a tool for ministry, a vehicle for life's lessons.

A vehicle for change
Stories like this play out every day across Alabama. On the road and on the trail, on cruisers and hybrids, kids and adults are rediscovering something nearly lost for a generation. Their stories illustrate why bikes matter, even in a state where riding a bike is still miles away from mainstream.

Alabama is ranked No. 49 among bicycle-friendly states, with scarce infrastructure, dismal funding and few legal rights for cyclists. The state's drivers include kind and courteous people unaccustomed to seeing bike on the road, and who sometimes drive -- intentionally or not -- in ways that put them in danger. Which is why Alabama is the fourth-deadliest state for pedestrians and cyclists. And why we're ranked dead last in the nation for walking and biking to work. Nearly two dozen states require cars to give cyclists 3 feet when they pass, including Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana. Alabama has yet to pass the 3-foot law.

You could look at these numbers and see hopelessness. But cyclists lean towards the sunny side of the street (blame the endorphins), and a lot of them see opportunity. Alabama is ranked No. 42 in inactivity and No. 46 for obesity, with 33 percent of the population considered overweight. And the bike is one of the most accessible, affordable and practical tools we have to change that.

"Biking is a sport that you can easily do into your 70s, and it is also a great family activity," says Doug Brown, a retired corporate insurance broker working to get more kids on bikes. "There are now several organizations that refurbish and recycle old bikes, and everyone should be able to afford one."

Despite considerable obstacles -- few protected paths, non-existent bike lanes and roads with little or no shoulder -- the local cycling community is thriving in spite of its challenges. The Birmingham Bicycle Club counts 230 members. More than 750 women have joined Magic City Cycle Chix, a nonprofit group that hosts women's rides and clinics. Dan "Dirtdog" Watson's weekly cycling dispatch has 1,000 email subscribers. You can join a group ride any day of the week, and in it you will meet the broad spectrum of people who make up this friendly community. They are doctors, mechanics, artists, students, scientists, teachers, pastors and more.

"It's a community of diverse people with diverse occupations," says Sonja Rieger, 61, an art professor at UAB. "You can start a ride with a person you've never met, and by the time you finish, you've made a new friend."

One of the most surprising advocates in the state is Bo Jackson. After hip surgery ended his professional career, Jackson discovered cycling as a low-impact way to stay in shape.

"It's a very social exercise," says Jackson. "I've been riding bicycles since I was 4 or 5 years old. I have really gotten into cycling in the past [few] years from the standpoint of physical fitness, because I don't run any more. It's another way to keep my legs and back strong."

When Jackson created an event to raise money for Alabama tornado relief, he could have centered it around football or baseball. Instead he chose cycling, one of the few sports at which he is not off-the-charts exceptional.

Bo Bikes Bama drew nearly 800 riders from 24 states and raised $700,000 in 2012 and 2013. It gave everyday athletes the chance to ride shoulder to shoulder with ESPN's Greatest Athlete of All Time, who struggles up hills just like the rest of us, joking breathlessly, "Bo and hills do not get along."

This is one of the signs across Alabama that the bike is emerging not only as a means of health and fitness, but also a mode of transportation, a social vehicle and a source of tourism and economic development. From scenic country roads to rails-to-trails paths to an expanding network of mountain-bike trails, the nation's second unfriendliest bike state (on paper, at least) is becoming a surprisingly popular place to pedal.

"I have ridden in 35 states, I don't find our state any less friendly than any other state," says Stan Palla, 58, executive director of AlaBike, an advocacy group. "I ride 5,000 miles a year, and I don't have that many issues with drivers. We are starting a new campaign that Alabama is bicycle friendly."

Trails to dollars
On any given Saturday, the dirt trails at Anniston's Coldwater Mountain are buzzing with bikers from several states. Some of them have driven a few hundred miles for a taste of the Alabama singletrack -- dirt trails just wide enough for a bike -- that's drawing national attention in publications like Bike magazine, DirtRag and A short pedal from downtown, Coldwater's 4,000 rolling acres were acquired by the Forever Wild land trust specifically to build a mountain-bike park. With 25 miles of purpose-built trails that ride like roller coasters of dirt -- and plans for 50 more -- it is a key piece of Anniston's blueprint to become "the Southeast's most bicycle-friendly community."

Between the topography of the Appalachian foothills and the mild winters of our Southern clime, Anniston has the makings of a four-season biking destination -- something even the Whistlers and Park Cities of the world can't claim. To get there, Anniston is investing in ways to make getting around by bike convenient and enjoyable: adding bike lanes, connecting Coldwater trails to downtown and completing the last stretch of the Chief Ladiga trail, a former railway converted into a flat, paved path. It links with Georgia's Silver Comet trail, which stretches all the way to Atlanta.

The potential payoff is multifold: enhanced lifestyle amenities for residents, a quality-of-life differentiator for companies looking to relocate, and an economic boost for local businesses. The city already reaps great benefits from its annual cycling events. The 100-mile Cheaha Challenge ride draws 500 to 600 participants, and the Sunny King Criterion race attracts downtown crowds as big as 7,000. Those visitors spend money at local restaurants, shops and hotels. That's a big deal to a town of 25,000.

"We compare it to a ski mountain -- downtown would be the ski village," says Mike Poe, a financial advisor who is a driving force in the city's bike events. "The demographic of mountain bikers is similar to skiers -- educated, affluent, like to travel. But you don't have the overhead of the lifts, personnel, having to groom the slopes. And it's year-round."

Coldwater is the latest blue-chip in Alabama's singletrack portfolio, which includes several state parks: Oak Mountain, Tannehill, Monte Sano, Ft. DeSoto, Guntersville and Chewacla. You'll also find great riding in Syacauga, Trussville and Tuscaloosa. This embarrassment of riches could be the making of a "trail of trails" that is the mountain-bike equivalent of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. "We are passionate about partnering with the biking community to create the next generation of state park customers and advocates," says Greg Lein, Alabama State Parks director.

One such partnership is to thank for the crown jewel of Alabama mountain biking. The world-class trails at Oak Mountain State Park are the result of a public-private partnership between Shelby County and the Birmingham Urban Mountain Pedalers, a nonprofit club devoted to building and maintaining trails. Together, BUMP and Shelby County have won more than $400,000 in trail-building grants over the past five years and built nearly 30 miles of trails of all flavors and levels, including a pump track and a downhill flow trail. As a result, Oak Mountain has joined Whistler and Moab on a short list of the world's best trails. It is one of 54 spots around the globe awarded "Epic Ride" status by the International Mountain Bike Association.

On weekends, Oak Mountain's South Trailhead is a sea of roof racks and bikes. During events, the park brims with athletes who come from as far as California to race on nationally renowned trails. The Xterra off-road triathlon pros call Oak Mountain "the best bike course on the circuit" and return every May for the Southeast Championships. On May 31 and June 1, the BUMP 'n' Grind mountain bike race will draw 500 competitors. Team Magic hosts three multi-sport events in the park throughout the summer, all favorites of triathletes from here and around the region.

"The beauty of those events is, people visit the hotels, the restaurants, get gas and sometimes come in a few days ahead of time to practice," says Shelby County events planner Chris Hershey. "I wouldn't be surprised if they brought in over $1 million collectively."

While hard numbers on the economic impact of cycling in Alabama are difficult to come by, other areas have research that shows the vast potential. One study calculated the economic impact of bike recreation and tourism in Wisconsin to be more than $924 million in 2006. Jackson Hole, Wyo., found that its trail system generated $18 million of economic activity in 2010.

Urban riding Every Tuesday at 6 p.m., a motley peloton of riders gathers in front of the Silvertron Café in Forest Park. It's the meet-up point for Le Tour de Ham, a 10-mile social cruise that invites riders of all backgrounds and abilities for a taste of city riding. This is one ride where you won't find a peloton, or pack, of skin-tight shorts and funny shoes. Street clothes are the norm, and any old bike will do (as long as you have a helmet).

"People who have not ridden in years actually get a bike to join our tour because they do not get intimidated like they do with all the other 'geared up' rides," says co-ride-leader Veronique "Vero" Vanblaere, 42. The artist and gallerista at Naked Art Gallery leads the ride with Palla of Alabike. "No Spandex allowed. Slowest rider sets the pace. No one is ever left behind," Vanblaere says.

The ride, which draws as many as 80 riders in the summertime, shows new riders how it is possible to get around by bike in a city without much bike infrastructure. It's a glimmer of encouragement, along with programs like CommuteSmart, which offers incentives (as much as $1 a ride) to use a bike as transportation.

"I ride my bike to work and back every day, saving over $35 per week in gas alone for the 14-mile commute," says Brian Toone, a computer science professor at Samford University and a 37-year-old father of two who rides 450 miles a week. "Yes, there are dangerous elements to riding with so much traffic in the Birmingham area, but most of the drivers I encounter are courteous."

For many would-be commuters, it all comes down to safety. And while the law gives cyclists the same rights and restrictions as cars, many riders would feel safer on protected bike paths physically separated from traffic.

That's the promise of the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System, a network of interconnected bike and pedestrian paths that, after years of planning, is becoming a reality. Ryan Parker of the Freshwater Land Trust says there will be 29 miles of trails and bike lanes completed by the end of 2014, and within five years there should be 50 miles. The trail system emphasizes connectivity, linking parks and green spaces -- including Railroad Park and Red Mountain Park -- with communities across Birmingham.

This is a huge step in making the city bike-friendly, a change that will benefit people from all walks of life, neighborhoods and socioeconomic backgrounds. For someone who cannot afford a car, the bike can open up job opportunities farther than walking distance from home.

To that end, Bici Bicycle Cooperative is a non-profit community bike shop dedicated to providing affordable bikes, maintenance and education to everyone. Its Highland Park shop, open Monday and Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m., provides volunteer mechanics who help riders fix their bikes for a suggested donation of $5 an hour and accepts donations of used bikes and parts that they redistribute to the community. Bikes sell for $75, but purchasers must put in work with the mechanics to get their "new" bikes rideable. Redemptive Cycles, another community shop in downtown Birmingham, has an earn-a-bike program for those who can't afford to buy one.

"Each year we get busier and busier," says Bici Coop co-founder Anna Carrigan, "which I think is a great representation of how cycling is growing as an activity in Birmingham."

The future, on wheels
About two Saturdays a month, a van with 10- to 14-year-old kids pulls into a field at Oak Mountain. The kids spill out and run, hooting, to a fleet of mountain bikes laid out in the grass by their host group, Trips for Kids. A national non-profit with a 1-year-old Birmingham chapter, Trips for Kids partners with youth-development programs such as Boys & Girls Clubs and the YMCA to reward at-risk kids for good grades and behavior by taking them on a joy ride.

"Many of the children we serve rarely have the opportunity to go biking at a state park," says Todd Love, 51, director of public housing for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Alabama. "Many would probably never set foot on a bike if it were not for programs like Trips for Kids."

After being fitted with helmets and matched with a bike, the kids get a lesson in basic skills like braking and shifting by trained coaches. Then they embark on a short but transformative journey along some of the prettiest trails in the state.

Programs like this aim to revive the childhood experience of riding a bike, with all the freedom and joy it entails. Bikes may have gotten fancier in the last few decades, but the joy of the ride never changes.

"They always leave these events in awe," Love says. "It's like they can't believe this world (park, bikes, kind people) really exists. Inevitably the first question I get asked when we leave is, 'When can we come back?'"

Doug Brown, the executive director of the Birmingham chapter of Trips for Kids, hopes to expand the program to include a bike re-cyclery and earn-a-bike program so kids who fall in love with bikes have a way to move forward. He also hopes the program can feed the ranks of a new high school mountain-bike program launching soon in Alabama.

The National Interscholastic Cycle League announced in April that Alabama is the next official league, slated to launch a statewide high school mountain bike program in the spring of 2015. With an estimated 4,000 kids racing in 13 states, NICA unveiled a Tennessee league last spring and will launch a Georgia league this fall.

"We think of this as a youth development program," says Eddie Freyer, 42, director of the Alabama NICA league. "We're helping them
develop a strong mind, body and character through a sport they can enjoy their entire lives."

Life lessons
"Life is like riding a bicycle," Albert Einstein told his son in a letter. "To keep your balance, you have to keep moving."

The bike has wonderful lessons to teach.

They have nothing to do with cycling.

The boy named Xavier pedaled along in the back of the pack, behind kids who seemed to float up the hills like butterflies. Xavier struggled up every rise, feeling miserable and breathless and hot and unsure he could finish. His mentor, Pastor Williams, told him he believed he could. Xavier kept pedaling and kept breathing. He finished.

At the end of the trail, having sandwiches under the shady pines, the pastor and the boy talked about their journey. It was only 2.3 miles long. But it carried them much farther.

"This is just a metaphor for how life is gonna be," the pastor says. "There are times we want to give up and quit. But you finished the ride. You didn't think you could do it. How does that feel?"

Xavier smiled.

"I'm tired."

Join a club

Birmingham Bicycle Club

Magic City Cycle Chix

Birmingham Urban Mountain Pedalers

Get a bike

Cahaba Cycles
(Homewood, Vestavia, Pelham,

Bob's Bikes (Homewood)

Bike Link (Hoover)

Birmingham Bicycle Co. (Crestline Park)

Edgewood Cycles (Homewood)

Brick Alley Bikes (Hoover)

Bici Bicycle Cooperative (Southside)

Redemptive Cycles (Downtown)

Alabama cycling, by the numbers.

No. 49 Bicycle friendly states (League of American Bicyclists)
(Source: ASTHO and United Health Foundation)

No. 42 Inactivity; 27.2 percent
(Source: ASTHO and UHF)

No. 50 Biking and walking to work
(Alliance for Biking and Walking)

No. 47 Fatality rates for cyclists and pedestrians (AB&W)

Need to know

• Bicyclists are legally allowed on the road. Considered non-motorized vehicles, they have the same rights and obligations as cars.

• Cyclists have the right to ride two abreast.

• Giving a cyclist a 3-foot berth when passing is not yet law, but cyclists (and their families)
appreciate it.

Need to know

• Bikes have the same obligations as cars. Which means running a stop sign, or a red light, is break ing the law and can earn you a ticket.

• Alabama law requires cyclist riding at night or before dawn to have a red rear reflector visible from 500 feet when headlights shine upon it. A blinkie may not legally qualify unless it also has a reflector.

• Alabama is one of two states with a contributory negligence law. That means if you are 1 percent at fault, and that 1 percent contributes to a crash, the vehicle may not be legally responsible.

By Kim Cross via Birmingham Magazine