Monday, September 28, 2009

Tom Owen: Adovcating by Example (and Sometimes a Blow Horn)

I met up with Louisville, Kentucky 8th District Councilman Tom Owen last Thursday at his office in Metro Hall in downtown Louisville. I worked for Tom for nearly 4 years prior to my relocation with the Planner Guy to Flagstaff. When in initial doubt last year of my ability to bike 5 miles to work in response to the soaring gas prices, I only had to think of Tom, now in his late 60's, who has been a committed bike commuter for over 15 years. Here's a little background:

Anyone who lives in Louisville pretty much knows about Tom Owen. "You mean the skinny 60-something guy with the white beard who rides a bike everywhere?' Yeah, that guy. He and his wife downsized to one car sometime in the 1990's. Phyllis mostly does the driving while Tom likes to walk, ride the TARC bus, hitch rides with friends and coworkers, or walks.

Tom's commitment to bike commuting and alternative transportation are strongly tied to his feelings about neighborhoods and community. The 8th District, more commonly known as the Highlands, is traditional neighborhood district. Made up of a series of old historic neighborhoods bordering Frederick Law Olmsted parks and the commercial corridor, Bardstown Road, the Highlands is densely populated, with houses and apartments that sit close together and close to the street, usually hugged by over-grown, romantic gardens. The Highlands is admired locally as a walkable and bikeable community, and Tom is often seen biking through those streets on his way to work, meetings, or home. Being on his bike so often makes it easy for him to stop for impromptu chats with area residents since seeking out a parking space is not much of a problem. Additionally, I always felt that since Tom is on a bicycle he appears immediately more approachable. All one has to do is stop, wave and call out "Hi, Tom".

Louisville weather can be best described as hot and wet or cold and wet. Really, there are only two seasons. The rain and high humidity were always a significant barrier between me and bike commuting. (For this reason, I applaud Mayor Abramsons plans to build a bike commuter station downtown!) Tom rarely lets bad weather stand between him and a good bike ride, however. He usually travels with rain gear that keeps in good and dry. Being a very sensible person, he also carries a change of clothes and keeps a suit in his office for Metro Council meetings where it is important that he looks more statesman-like.

Safety is important to Tom and TOM'S FAMILY. He always rides with a bike helmet, a reflective vest and red blinker lights. Tom attached a rear view mirror to his helmet, which I think is a good idea since he is often riding on busy city and neighborhood streets between his house, downtown an University of Louisville where he works as an archivist and historian.

As part of Tom's job at U of L, Tom does bus and walking historical tours of Louisville and southern Indiana. He has also produced several DVDs of walking tours of historical Louisville neighborhoods, all of which are ideal for shopping, garden scoping and coffee sipping by bicycle. A large microphone horn accompanies him on every tour and he often has it in his saddlebag, along with a pack of bus schedules bound with a rubber bands.

Tom would love to see more people taking their bicycles out of the garage and riding them to work or just 2 miles to the hardware store. Nonetheless, he understands people's concerns about sharing the road with cars and tries to use the outlets provided to him as a Councilman as forums to give people information about getting where they want to go safely. He offers tips on biking on his Council webpage and last year created a Bike Safety 101 tutorial for Metro Louisville TV, which is also linked to his website.

Tom Owen is without a doubt Louisville's favorite and most visible bike commuter. While he tends to dismiss the notion that he inspires anyone to ride his or her bike to work or give the bus a try, the fact that Tom actually stuck to bike commuting because it was enjoyable and life enriching definitely influenced me in my decision overcome my personal barriers to bike commuting. While it is important to consider one's carbon footprint and reduce our personal dependence on gas, lectures from politician rarely effect much change. On his bike, Tom gets to observe his community a bit more closely and participate in it in a more immediate, personal way. He has had an opportunity to talk to many more members of his constituency than he have had he been within the confines of an automobile. That connection with community is something many of us wish to achieve no matter where we live. Observing Tom on his bike for so many years showed me one way to make that happen in my life.


rcp4 said...

Really enjoy reading about biking in different cities of the U.S. and the various riders you encounter.

In talking to people about commuting and alternative transportation, have you met people who use folding bikes? Have you ever ridden any folders? Does Flagstaff have shops that carry these type bikes for people who want to travel and take a bike with them?

Dottie said...

I really enjoy reading these profiles! Tom seems like a very cool guy. I agree with you about people on bikes automatically seeming more accessible.

She Rides a Bike said...

I've never ridden a folding bike but I've seen a couple around town. Absolute Bikes might have them but I'm not sure if they have any to rent. This is truly more of a mountain bike and triathlon bike kind-of-town.