Why I Ride: A Conversation with Paul & Pam Sotherland
by Lisa Montanaro of The Bike Campaign
May 23, 2023
When Paul and Pam Sotherland celebrated their 40-year wedding anniversary in December 2022, they decided to extend the celebration to an entire year by visiting bike-friendly communities to soak up inspiration and bring it back to Kalamazoo, Michigan, their hometown. They kicked off their Anniversary Cycling Tour in April 2023 with a 5-day visit to Davis, California, where their two-wheeled perspective provided a lot of a-ha moments that they hope will help their Midwest community become even more cycling conducive.
After disembarking from the plane at Sacramento airport, and taking the Yolo County bus to Davis, their adventure began as soon as they set foot on the UC Davis campus. As they walked late in the evening to their downtown Davis hotel, they saw cyclists rolling by everywhere and convenient bike racks full of bikes. Instantly, they knew that they were in a cycling community. They attributed some of that feeling to the Davis cycling infrastructure, which they studied carefully to learn how to replicate aspects of it back in Kalamazoo. Their hometown, along with Portage, its neighbor to the south, is becoming a haven for bike riding. But the region needs to develop a more robust and interconnected infrastructure inside the cities as well as in the surrounding rural areas. Hence the desire to visit similarly sized communities in the United States to inform the conversations happening in their area among city engineers, the Kalamazoo Bicycle Club (of which they are long-time members, volunteers, and leaders), and community members.
Paul noted that some aspects of the Davis cycling community cannot be replicated when building an infrastructure for cycling back in Kalamazoo. “Davis has a relatively flat topography and it has weather that invites year-round cycling.” But other aspects may be easier to imitate, including pervasive bike lanes, traffic calming techniques, and more. “It’s one thing to hear Kalamazoo’s traffic engineer advocate for these things; being immersed in it in a community like Davis really helps solidify whole-body feelings for what a cycling conducive community can be. So powerful!”
Pam added, “Davis feels like a human-level city where cyclists and people roll and walk, and motorists defer to people. That was reinforced throughout our visit. Davis has a very calm feeling to it; relatively low speed limits, a lot of stop signs, and not many traffic lights all seem to contribute to this perception. Motorists simply can’t go too fast.” When they arrived back home, they said it was shocking how much faster the cars traveled and how many more traffic lights there were. “Even with zillions of bikes zooming by in Davis, everyone and everything flowed. It felt very welcoming to be a cyclist -- like an open invitation to ride your bike, like you belong there. That feeling was immediate.”
Where did they get their two wheels while in town? They connected with Maria Contreras Tebbutt of The Bike Campaign, who provided bikes for them to use during their visit. They enjoyed riding on the 12-mile Davis Bike Loop, visiting the US Bicycling Museum, and joining the Davis Bike Club for a donut group ride. But the highlight of their trip was seeing so many children riding their bikes to school. “That was a revelation! We were so surprised to hear that there aren’t any school buses. Riding a bike to and from school helps kids develop a sense of independence and confidence.” They loved attending one of The Bike Campaign’s Bike Skills Training Programs for the fifth-grade class of Korematsu Elementary School. They were very impressed with that program and how quickly the volunteers from The Bike Campaign got the kids geared up and riding. Pam and Paul shared how they watched two boys, who appeared to be nervous about riding, become more confident about riding a bike after the volunteers worked patiently, gently, and persistently with them. After only a brief session of mentoring, one of the boys had a big grin on his face and exclaimed, “I can ride a bike!”
Recalling their own childhood, Pam and Paul shared that they both started riding bikes when they were kids. Pam remembers getting her very first 10-speed Schwinn. “It was green!” Paul grew up riding bikes with his brothers. One of those brothers, John, has owned a bike shop in Wisconsin for over twenty years, where he builds bikes under the name Sotherland Custom Bicycles. So now Paul and Pam get to ride bikes with “Sotherland” emblazoned on the down-tube of their bicycles. Both of Paul’s and Pam’s sons are avid cyclists, and their eldest son is the Active Transportation Coordinator of Orange County, California, a role which includes promoting bike-friendly infrastructure. You might say cycling is in this family’s DNA!
Where are they off to next on their Anniversary Cycling Tour? They plan to stay in the Midwest so they can drive and take their own bikes while visiting Madison and Milwaukee in Wisconsin, and Carmel and Bloomington in Indiana. They hope to learn even more ways to build a bike-friendly community that provides a safe, pleasurable cycling experience for the entire Kalamazoo region.
This article was written by Lisa Montanaro, commissioned by The Bike Campaign. For more information about how to “Drive Less. Ride More.”, contact Maria Contreras Tebbutt at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.TheBikeCampaign.com.
Lisa Montanaro is the author of the book The Ultimate Life Organizer and is a freelance writer for print and online publications. Her debut novel will be published in 2024 by Red Adept Publishing. When not writing, Lisa helps organizations and people be more productive. And when not working or writing, Lisa can be found on two wheels cycling!