WESTWARD WHEELS

WORDS: NICOLE STANTON

IMAGES: CHARLIE HOCKETT & NOAH LEBEAU

VIDEO: FRANKIE ROSSI

On June 1st, 2015, two childhood friends left New York City on their bicycles, headed for Long Beach, California. Charlie Hockett and Noah LeBeau have fused their passions for cycling and sustainability into a journey of unbelievable physical, emotional, and mental endurance. We were lucky enough to snag an e-interview with the two of them, our questions answered at roadside breaks and from inside of tents. Westward Wheels has come up with a splendid formula to explore sustainability, one we hope intrigues you as much as it has us.

 1. You mention in your mission that "sustainability" is a problematic word. How does your project call attention to the problems with this word? What are the problems with this word?

What we have recognized is that the word "sustainability" means different things to different people. Staying conscious of the environment with the use of sustainable techniques is more than a positive or fringe idea, depending on the audience. A sustainable lifestyle is one that accommodates both the needs of the individual and the community and has practical benefits for society, the economy, and the environment. Through our project we intend to help highlight the work that communities are doing, all across the country, to be sustainable in their own contexts and to encourage living with an eye to the future.

2. When did environmental issues become tied in with your passion for bike riding? How do you see those two as intimately related?

For both of us, our passion for bike riding came at a very young age. Much of our childhood was spent riding in the streets of Long Beach together either for fun or as our primary source of transportation. As we got older and conversation about the treatment of our environment became more commonplace, the perspective we had on our bikes evolved. Riding a bike prompts you to really pay attention to the environment that surrounds you, and being exposed to the elements while covering distance at a slower speed has built a relationship between the road and us.

We still have fun on our bikes, but have learned to recognize that riding is also a way to positively contribute to the physical and social environment of city. Bicycling does not pollute, does not degrade roads as quickly and minimizes our reliance on fossil fuels. This means less money spent on road maintenance, less land used for parking, and better air quality. Studies have shown that people who ride bikes spend less money on transportation, meaning more money spent at local businesses. They are more likely to stop at a new business, talk to people on the street, and generally feel more connected to their social environment.

3. What do you consider a "healthy" city? Have you learned anything about "healthy" versus "unhealthy" parts of the United States thus far? Why is biking a great way to learn about the health of a place?

Here is what we have observed: a healthy city allows its people to move with bikes, bike lanes, public transit, and easy access to everything by everyone. A healthy city eats fresh, locally, and at reasonable prices, which spurs the economy while keeping people healthy. Finally a healthy city is inclusive of its residents, we are finding that the local population often knows what's best for their area, if people feel they have a voice they are more likely to participate towards the common good.

We are learning that like the definition of sustainability, what constitutes a healthy city is a matter of context. We want to try to find the common ground between all of the things we have heard. So many areas we have visited have nothing but unhealthy food to buy and are nearly impossible to get around in without a car. We've spoken with some about "the ideal city" and people have told us that it would be dense enough to have an effective transportation network so that people can move around on their own volition, on their own schedule, and without an impact. It really seems that people need to both learn what healthy foods are while also having access to them.

Biking is a great way to explore the health of a city because you pass through the streets slowly and with more time to notice things that are lost when driving. On the one hand we can immediately feel how bike friendly the area is (which we believe is symptomatic of health) but you also get a feel for how socially healthy a city is. How many cars honk at you? How many people say hello? Are there people walking around? Are the restaurants crowded? What type of grocery stores do we see? All of these questions can be considered when biking because you are exposed and have time to think about them.

4. What has been the greatest challenge thus far?

It has been challenging to ride across areas that have little to no support for anyone who is not in a car. There are some cities where the roads are in terrible condition, people driving cars do not know how to interact with people on bikes, and there is almost no where to buy healthy food. It is a strange feeling to be cycling in a place where every aspect of the road discourages you from doing anything but driving. We have really come to appreciate bike lanes and smooth roads.

Also, the logistics of our day to day can be tiring. From navigation, to finding a place to sleep, where to buy food, and where to use a bathroom, we really rely on help from strangers. Although we sometimes feel like the road does not want us on it, we have also met some of the most kind, generous, and helpful people. Although we may have different backgrounds and opinions than the people we meet, we have been really lucky to have connected so quickly with so many people.

5. Lastly, have you met any characters? Any good anecdotes to share?

We have only been on the road for three weeks and have already met more characters than I could begin to describe. But what has blown us away is how helpful and kind people have been when we really needed it. Whether it is buying us lunch, giving us directions, or even giving us a few words of encouragement, the people along our route have kept us going. Maybe it is because we are on bicycles that people understand we are vulnerable and unthreatening, regardless, time and time again people have offered us help and shared a bit of their lives with us.

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