Miami University president, Dr. Gregory Crawford, rides his bike on Miami's campus, in Oxford, Ohio.

Team puts the “fun” in functional to encourage active transport

A block in the Uptown business district of Oxford, Ohio. Pictured businesses include Kofenya coffee shop, Doughby's calzone and cookie restaurant, Quizno's sub shop (which is closed), Krishna Indian restaurant, and Chase bank.
Miami University professor Helaine Alessio and her team are working with business leaders — including the owner of the Kofenya coffee shop — to bring functional bike rack art installations to Oxford’s Uptown business district.

There’s little debate about the benefits of active modes of transportation. Walking and biking are better for the environment and they’re better for human health. But they aren’t always the most convenient ways of getting around.

Helaine Alessio, a professor and chair of Miami University’s Department of Kinesiology and Health, often rides her bike to work, and she laments the difficulty she faces if she makes plans to have lunch or meet up with friends on her way home.

“There are no bike racks outside restaurants Uptown,” she says, referring to the business district adjacent to Miami’s campus. “So I have to jerry-rig my bike lock around a tree, meter, or plant outside. It doesn’t make sense. Plus, it’s not very secure.”

Despite its rural setting, Oxford’s population density is more typical of urban areas. The town’s seven square miles accommodate 18,000 Miami University students, 5,000 permanent residents, 4,700 daily commuters, and 300,000 additional visitors annually. Along with this urban-like density comes urban-like traffic.

One obvious solution to helping mitigate congestion on Oxford’s roadways is encouraging people to get around town by bike, rather than by car. But as Alessio’s experience illustrates, the feasibility of that solution depends in part on proper infrastructure. In the absence of designated, secure bike storage, few people will hop on their bikes when they want to run errands or grab some lunch, because there is no place to “park” their bikes.

Looking to change the situation in Oxford, Alessio has teamed up with departmental colleague Bob Feldman, a mountain bike instructor, and Rod Northcutt, an associate professor of art whose specialty is sculpture. They are using a $3,000 grant from the Oxford Community Foundation and working closely with the City of Oxford’s Planning Commission and local business leaders.

In the first phase of the project, Alessio, Feldman, and several graduate and undergraduate students met with three vendors who expressed interest in having bike racks installed outside their establishments. These locations – outside the Oxford Community Arts Center, coffee shop Kofenya, and chili parlor Skyline – were supported by the City of Oxford’s Planning Commission. The team is focusing on the first two locations for this spring.

The vendors have been working with Miami University artists – led by Northcutt’s student, David Stellmach, a senior majoring in art – to develop designs for bike racks that will be both functional and reflect the businesses they stand next to. Alessio and her students, Ross Simonson, Tori Reed, and Leah Grandy will study how the bike racks are used.

The plan is to install the racks near the end of spring semester, so that Alessio and her students can collect data on how they are used over the summer. By analyzing this data, they should be able to determine whether the bike racks contribute to increased use of active transportation in the Uptown district.

If there does seem to be a connection between the bike racks and increased bicycle usage, Alessio hopes to leverage her team’s preliminary data to seek additional funding – perhaps from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) – to expand the project in Oxford and to other communities.

“The point is to be more active transport- and bike-friendly,” Alessio says. “And if you have bike racks that are both functional and fun, they may be appealing and could even be a point of interest or a destination for bikers and non-bikers. The art and the usefulness of the racks are likely to add to the look and feel of the Oxford community.”

Attracting more visitors while avoiding the complications of increased motor vehicle traffic is the dream for virtually every business district. Thanks to Helaine Alessio, Bob Feldman, Rod Northcutt, and their students, that dream might soon be a little closer to reality.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Photo of Miami University president, Greg Crawford, on his bike by Jeff Sabo, Miami University Photo Services. Photo of Uptown Oxford by Miami University Photo Services.

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