Some advocates are so passionate about positive social change that they start planning their next project during their current one. Melissa Wenzel is one of these “bicyclists with a mission.”
Melissa has participated in several Slow Roll St. Paul rides, especially those held on the East Side of St. Paul, where she lives. She was also the first-ever East Side advocate for Women on Bikes.
“I participated in a few rides that Women on Bikes/Smart Trips hosted,” she said. “Then I heard they were deliberately going to be on the East Side. I’ve been riding through some of the neighborhoods. Living on the East Side is different from riding through it. I also wanted to get to know my community–the people, the neighborhoods–and not just the roads.”
The goal of Slow Roll St. Paul is to highlight vibrant communities by bringing people together through biweekly community bicycle rides. The purpose is to create community spaces within St. Paul that uplift the people reflected in those neighborhoods, incorporating the arts and cultures of black, brown, indigenous, people of color, and building with both bike organizations, non-bike organizations, and local businesses. Slow Roll St. Paul rides are a collaborative effort between Cycles for Change, St. Paul Women on Bikes, and St. Paul Smart Trips/Transit For Livable Communities and are held in the Frogtown and East Side neighborhoods of St. Paul during the months of June-September.
As a newer resident of the East Side neighborhood, Melissa wanted to get to know her neighborhood better while riding her bike and going at a slower, more relaxing pace.
“I follow every rule of the road to a fault,” she said. “I’m glad I do–I’m visible, I’m respected, I don’t have a lot of tension with drivers. I model good behavior. I like that the Slow Roll leaders stress rules of the road, too. I bike for transit primarily, so being on an organized ride is a completely different experience than biking for transit. I love it. It lets me relax and someone else gets to be in charge. I get to see the neighborhood and learn about the challenges that other people have when biking. I realize that I’m not alone and we are a community of people who want to bike for recreation, for transit, for work, for school. Every Slow Roll ride reminds of that.”
Biking for transit is something Melissa has been doing for ten years, and Cycles for Change (C4C) played a part in that.
“I’m a newer winter rider. In the last ten years I’ve slowly become a year-round rider,” she said. “I lived in downtown St. Paul for about ten years, about the same time C4C moved here. They helped me become a street rider, a transportation rider.
“I work for the state, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. I’ve been there for 15 years. We have a pretty strong advocacy group for transit. Our bike lockers are full; people want to ride. I bike to work three days a week and telecommute two days a week. I shifted my schedule to be able to do this. It’s about 15 miles roundtrip. I also bike to doctor appointments and to the grocery store.”
And it’s true that she has a pretty strong advocacy group at work for transit, advocating for Metro Pass subsidies, connecting bike trails to transit, and hosting classes on biking in the winter or maintenance 101.
“We even had C4C participate in a mobile repair shop for Earth Day a few years ago,” Melissa added. “We lead rides for Earth Week to different places in St. Paul, and we’ve adopted the Slow Roll model for it. [Because of this,] other employees have participated in Slow Roll rides and have even been ride marshals. I’d like to see more state employees on the [Slow Roll] rides.”
Everyone is welcome at Slow Roll St. Paul rides. The rides take it slow so that there’s never any pressure to keep up and so there’s plenty of time to meet other riders and see the city. It is a no-drop ride, which means no one will be left behind. People of all ages and skill levels are always welcome on every ride.
“Slow Rolls for me represent community,” Melissa said. “Some of the people who join us for rides are the fast cyclists, who can go 20 mph for 30-40 miles. And people like that enjoy these rides with community. I see people carrying their kids or their pets or coaxing their grandmother to join the ride. And they do join. It’s all inclusive–it feels safe in the community sense, in the transit sense, in senses I’m not able to fully describe in words. It’s a unique way to get to know neighborhoods you might not know, as well as parts of the city that have unique characteristics that may bring a rider back on their own one day.”
There is a particular part of the East Side of St. Paul that Melissa is advocating for better bike infrastructure because it has unique characteristics that she wants other riders to experience one day.
“When I moved to the East Side, I was very disappointed that one of the main trails that connects to downtown St. Paul–the Fish Hatchery Trail parallel to Highway 61–has eroded away. It’s along the bluff line. The city decided to close the trail because it’s unsafe. My city council member asked that I organize a meeting to elevate the seriousness of this. [Because of that], not only has the DOT (Department of Transportation) stepped up and recognized it’s their responsibility, they are also trying to find funding for the project and the city is posting progress updates on it’s website. I am just a single person advocating for more bike amenities, but I know I’m not alone. I see an unfair, inequitable situation in the neighborhood because the trail will be closed for a long time, and I know I need to speak up for bike improvements.
“To be honest, I wanted a break in advocacy because I do it a lot in my day job. So when I moved into my first home, I wanted to take the season and get to know the neighborhood and learn to do things like plant a native plant garden. But this need came up and because of places like C4C and Women on Bikes, I knew how to advocate and this broken trail needed leaders and I knew how to lead. It got me to meet my city council member, who has voted against some bike infrastructure before. Truthfully, she needed help having a voice and I was able to help her find a voice. The state is looking into short-term fixes [for the Fish Hatchery Trail], like a boardwalk, while they find a way for a permanent fix.”
And while this permanent fix is in the indefinite future, Melissa is already thinking about what next steps are for this trail after that fix is made.
“The bad news is that I found out this trail was never maintained in the winter,” she said. “The state fixes and builds the trail and the city maintains it. There can be a way to plow snow on the adjacent road–Highway 61–and not have it dumped on trails. My next mission is to make sure this doesn’t happen once this trail is back open and to make sure this trail is maintained year round. It’s a gorgeous trail along the river, with deer and turkeys, and people [should be able] to recreate and commute through it.”
One of her favorite parts of Slow Roll St. Paul rides is how Melissa has been able to connect with her neighbors.
“On almost every ride there are people who don’t know what we’re riding for,” she said. “They’ll ask if we’re riding for a charity. And when you have a dozen people [on the ride] who shout out that were riding for fun, people have puzzled expressions like, you ride for fun? But then on the same ride a couple blocks later, there are little kids riding and they’ll point to tell a parent or sibling that they see us and that they like it and that they are happy. We make a positive interaction with people as we ride. It’s really fun to interact with kids when they are on their own bike. It’s an instant, neat way to positively interact with the community. We are the same–me on the Slow Roll ride and the kid riding his bike on the sidewalk. We’re both peaceful, we’re both respectful.”