Riders on an adaptive bike at a 2011 Portland car-free streets event Credit: JONATHAN MAUS / BIKEPORTLAND.ORG

Although Rudy Winfrey says he’s “blind as a bat,” he regularly experiences the joy of cycling. Winfrey, a 72-year-old clerk with the Chicago Department of Streets & Sanitation, lost his sight in the 90s to retinitis pigmentosa. Andy Slater, the visually impaired musician profiled last month in this column, has the same condition.

Like Slater, Winfrey frequently navigates the CTA, but he also often takes pleasure rides on the back of a tandem bicycle as the “stoker,” with a sighted “captain” steering in front—usually his friend Jerome Hughes. Together the pair have completed five of the annual RAGBRAI bicycle tours across Iowa.

“Bicycling feels so exhilarating,” Winfrey says. “I can do it without opening my eyes and seeing what I can’t see. To feel that surge and that type of authority—’Look what I can do!’—it makes you feel like a superstar.”

People with other disabilities can also enjoy the physical and mental health benefits of cycling by using adaptive bikes. For example, handcycles allow paraplegics and amputees to pedal with their arms instead of their legs, and adult tricycles are great for people with balance issues, such as those with multiple sclerosis. The late Sheldon Brown, the patron saint of DIY bike mechanics, got around on a trike near the end of his life as he battled MS.

However, while the national bike-share revolution has made cycling accessible and affordable to a wider swath of the population, municipal rental networks have been geared almost exclusively toward able-bodied riders. That’s about to change in June, when Portland, Oregon, will launch an adaptive bike rental program as an extension of its Biketown bike-share system. Detroit is currently planning a similar approach. Local disability and bike advocates say Chicago should also get with the program and add an accessibility component to the Divvy network.

Most U.S. bike-share networks are heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars, so advocates, citing the Americans with Disabilities Act, argue that there should be an accessibility component from the get-go. “When the city gets involved in any type of public service, they have an obligation to make sure it’s accessible to people with disabilities,” Disability Rights Oregon director Bob Joondeph told BikePortland last year. As was recently reported by Streetsblog USA, this became a political issue in Portland in a campaign where city council candidate Chloe Eudaly, whose son has cerebral palsy, defeated incumbent Steve Novick, who was born with no left hand or fibula bones in his legs. Before Novick lost last November, he lobbied the local transportation department to make adaptive bikes available through the Biketown system.

The city of Portland partnered with advocates and local bike shops to host an adaptive bikes clinic where people with disabilities could take test rides. Based on input from disabled residents, who said they were interested in taking longer recreational rides on trails rather than the short trips and errands on city streets associated with traditional bike sharing, the transportation department came up with a new approach. Biketown-branded tandems, handcycles, and trikes will be made available for rent at shops near bike paths, at affordable prices. The budget for the pilot project is $30,000, which is coming from the department’s discretionary funds.

Inspired by Portland, Detroit plans to launch an adaptive bike rental program after its MoGo traditional bike-share system debuts later this month. The city has already held a focus group and conducted a survey to find out what the local disability community wants from the accessibility program.

So how about making adaptive cycles available for low-cost rental from Chicago bike shops via a Divvy-sponsored program?

“I’m sure Chicagoans living with disabilities would appreciate the opportunity to use their city’s bike-sharing program. I hope the Divvy program looks into the possibility.”

—Senator Tammy Duckworth

“That would be excellent,” Winfrey responded when I floated the idea, adding that it would be great if the city could help set up a network of volunteers to captain the tandems for blind stokers like himself. (He added that he’s always looking for sighted people to ride with. Hit me up on Twitter if you want to get in touch with him.)

Adam Ballard, manager of organizing and policy for the Chicago disability rights group Access Living of Metro Chicago, says Portland’s strategy seems to be a good one. “Our first rule is, if you’re not listening to the disability community, you’re not doing it right, but it sounds like Portland did it right,” Ballard says. “We’d definitely support this.”

Likewise, Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke says his organization would get behind a plan to make Divvy more accessible. “A publicly supported system should be available for people living with disabilities,” he says. “We’re eager to learn from the experiences of Portland and other cities that are piloting similar programs to help determine the best approach, and then work with Chicago Department of Transportation to make that happen.”

Paul Kozy, owner of the eponymous local bike shop chain, with locations spread across the city from Avondale to Bronzeville, says he’d welcome an opportunity to partner with the city on offering low-cost rentals as part of the Divvy program. “It’s an admirable idea,” he says, adding that his stores currently rent tandems and trikes at market rates.

So far, so good. Everyone I spoke to says adaptive cycles would be a worthy addition to the Divvy fleet. The fly in the ointment, however, is that CDOT seems a little wary of the idea.

“It would be a challenge to incorporate the variety of highly specialized adaptive cycles into our automated bike-share system,” says spokesman Mike Claffey via e-mail. “But we are going to continue tracking Portland’s efforts as they move forward this year to see if there’s lessons to be learned for our program.”

Fortunately, a heavy hitter in Illinois politics just so happens to be an avid handcycle rider. Freshman U.S. senator Tammy Duckworth, a military veteran who lost both legs while copiloting a helicopter in Iraq, has used an assistive bike to compete in four marathons. Just last week she pedaled a handcycle in the ACLI Capital Challenge, a charity race in the Washington, D.C., area.

“I’m sure Chicagoans living with disabilities would appreciate the opportunity to use their city’s bike-sharing program,” Duckworth said in a statement. “I hope the Divvy program looks into the possibility.”

Since a Wounded Warrior who helps make decisions about federal funding—including the grants that have funded Divvy—thinks making the network accessible is a good idea, maybe it won’t be long until CDOT gets rolling on this.   v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.

Correction: This post has been updated to correct an error in the caption. The riders pictured are at a car-free streets event, not a cycling clinic.