A cultural classroom on two wheels

While most 68-year-old political science professors  are content to teach in front of a blackboard, J. Harry Wray often does it on a bicycle.

Wray's course, Biking and Politics, orients incoming DePaul University freshman to their new city, and offers a street-level view of how politics, culture and urban planning shape Chicago.

Each day, the students and Wray explore those issues on 30-60 minute bike rides throughout Chicago. 

The bike "makes one more aware of the environment," Wray says, because it draws the rider's attention to cars, pedestrians, the weather, and other riders. 

In the class, Wray talks about bicycles and bike riding in relation to health issues, climate change, and societal trends. 

"Nothing says 'me' like a car," says Wray. "And nothing says 'we' like a bike."

Wray has been researching the reasons behind America's transportation choices for years. 

Originally from Los Angeles, Wray began biking as a means of transportation while at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for his PhD. 

A few years after completing his doctorate, he came to Chicago to teach at DePaul, and suddenly found himself riding for the first time in a dense urban setting.

"At first I was scared," he says.

So he started, like so many novice city bikers, riding on the lakefront trail and in forest preserves. He began think about how government decisions on things like bike lanes, paths, and traffic laws affect cyclists. 

"It occurred to me that someone was making biking easier," Wray says. 

After realizing this, Wray proposed a course at DePaul on that very topic: "Biking and Politics."

"For the first ride, we do the entire Lakefront. That's about 38 miles, from Hollywood to 71st," Wray says. 

The second ride, a 30-miler, focuses on the South and West sides. 

"I'm always stunned by what happens," he says. 

The students, often slightly anxious about riding through more culturally and economically diverse neighborhoods like Pilsen, Chinatown, and Bronzeville, are often quite surprised by their experience. 

"The first week of the quarter, [the students] journal about the rides and many of them say that they enjoyed the South side ride more than the later North side rides," Wray says. 

On the South and West sides, he explains, people are friendlier. 

Often, kids from those neighborhoods will ride or run along with Wray and his students, 

"The North Side," he says, "is more car-dominated."

Wray recently published  Pedal Power: The Quiet Rise of the Bicycle in American Life, a book exploring many of the same themes addressed on the rides.

During and after the rides, some students find their perceptions of freedom and convenience changes. 

"I was surprised how I spent so many years isolated in the suburbs viewing driving in cars as a source of freedom," says Karalyn Lathrop, 20, a former student.

Discuss

CAROLE SNOW, 07-08-2008

I wonder what the waiver looks like for this class! This is pretty awesome.

GEOFF DOUGHERTY, 07-08-2008

Makes me wish I could sign up for college again.