RATs help Ride Illinois educate and advocate for safe cycling across the state

RATs help Ride Illinois educate and advocate for safe cycling across the state

A late May request from Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi's (8th-IL) office may have distressed some nonprofits, but not Ride Illinois, which is cushioned by a volunteer program launched in 2020.

Krishnamoorthi presented a $330,400 ceremonial check June 11 to Streamwood trustees to construct the Madison Drive Bike and Pedestrian Trail, part of the October 2022 Bartlett and Streamwood Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan. It's one of 15 Illinois 8th District community projects funded via last December's legislation that averted a federal government shutdown.

In late May, congressional staff requested help from Ride Illinois, a statewide nonprofit biking advocacy group, to organize the ceremony. Executive Director Dave Simmons, however, was due to be in Kewanee June 11 to kick off the five-day Grand Illinois Bike Tour, the group's annual major fundraiser. Self-cloning needed?

Mikie Swier and Kim Messina volunteer at the Streamwood Educational Environment Day event April 29. Courtesy of Ride Illinois

No problem - Ride Illinois' dependable "RAT" in Streamwood, Mikie Swier, made arrangements, coordinated officials, recruited a local bike shop for tuneups and designed a bike route for an end-of-ceremony ride.

Per Terry Witt, Bartlett resident and veteran biking advocate who attended, Swier "did a fantastic job."

Regional Action Teams

Swier joined a Regional Action Team (RAT) two years ago, assisting at various Ride Illinois activities: "Bike ride events, bike helmet fittings, ride marshal/escorts with kids and adults. Also at community events staffing tables and booths, in general, promoting who and what Ride Illinois does."

That last phrase summarizes a RAT member's role - expand educational, advocacy, outreach and communication efforts of Ride Illinois to make Illinois better through biking. Besides Swier, 62 advocates volunteer across four Illinois regions.

The Northeast region, with 36 volunteers, offers the most outreach opportunities given the numerous municipalities, bike clubs and other biking organizations in the nine-county area. Upcoming events include a Waubonsie Valley High School event, Deerfield Police bike safety booth, Elmhurst History Museum's "Bike Bonanza," plus biking events in Chicago.

Chris Valadez, Northeast Regional Action Team chair, promotes safe biking at a Ride Illinois table at the September 2021 North Shore Century Ride hosted by Evanston Bicycle Club. Courtesy of Ride Illinois

While local groups contact Ride Illinois, RAT members also generate suggestions for staffing events. Chris Valadez, RAT member since 2021, Active Transportation Alliance board member and Cycle Brookfield president, chairs the Northeast region, encouraging volunteers at quarterly virtual meetings.

"We ask RATs to bring us events happening locally," Valadez said. "It's just hard to know all that's happening across Illinois related to biking. If a RAT volunteer can't attend an event in their own community, we encourage others."

Passionate about biking

These volunteers "come to the program with enthusiasm and a desire to advocate for biking," Valadez said. "These are biking advocates, passionate about what they are doing."

Many like Swier believe in Ride Illinois' mission, having been members prior to volunteering.

A certified instructor by the League of American Bicyclists, Swier believes, "Biking matters ... more ways than I can count. It's good for you. It's good for the planet."

To anyone considering it, he said, "Do it. Volunteering is great for you and the organization."

Kim Messina, longtime Elmhurst Bicycle Club member and Advocacy co-chair, said, "Everyone benefits when it's safe to bike in their neighborhoods. Bike education is the most economical means of bringing awareness to all road users. This is something I can do to make a positive change."

Messina has assisted with Glen Ellyn's bike rodeo, Crystal Lake Girl Scouts' bike safety program, New Lenox Health Expo, plus other events in her two years, helping one to two times monthly besides serving as a LAB League Certified Instructor.

Favorite task? "Representing Ride Illinois. I love one-on-one conversations with event participants. I feel connections are made when I encourage them to take the Bike Safety Quiz, emphasizing the importance of bicycle safety education benefiting all of the community.

"It's a very rewarding opportunity to make a positive difference in your community, to encourage healthy lifestyles through safe cycling."

"It's really powerful to talk with another advocate. One has a sense of urgency and of owning the bike advocacy mission," Valadez added.

Ride Illinois provided bike safety and advocacy information at a June 10 Aurora bike tuneup and youth activity event, co-sponsored by Tracy McGinnis, Realtor-RE-MAX and First Centennial Mortgage. Pete Essling of Pete's Wheels tuned more than 50 bikes that day. Pictured, from left, are: Rose Bukowski, Tracy McGinnis, Kevin McQuillan, Kelly Butler and Dave Simmons. Courtesy of Ride Illinois

While a Ride Illinois member less than a year, Kelly Butler discovered the volunteer opportunity through her involvement in the Adventure Cycling Association and Rails to Trails Conservancy. Starting in April, Butler has already staffed events in Aurora and Morris.

"I believe in volunteering, and I'm passionate about biking, so it seemed like a natural fit," she said.

"At the Rough Road 100 in Morris, it was cold, windy, and raining, but the event still happened. I had an interesting conversation with a councilman from Morris who was looking for resources on how to add bike lanes to their downtown core."

Familiarity with the various Ride Illinois safety and education programs is important, although, "Being an expert at biking is far from required," Butler said. "The skills you need are the ability to talk to anyone and a positive attitude. You never know who's going to approach your booth."

'Pinning' road safety risks

Illinois Department of Transportation is extending availability of its interactive GIS mapping tool ( until June 30 to allow more time for vulnerable road users (VRU) to identify unsafe roadway locations throughout Illinois.

Anyone not in a vehicle, "biking, walking or rolling," (motorcyclists excluded) are urged to help IDOT generate safety risk data as input for its VRU Safety Assessment, required by 2021's federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The deadline is Nov. 15.

Map "pins" provide IDOT's safety bureau with specific locations - intersections, curbing, crosswalks - that individual bikers and walkers, based on experience, find unsafe. Not intended to highlight past crashes, pinned locations will help IDOT assess safety risks so future crashes can be prevented.

• Join the ride. Contact Ralph Banasiak at

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