Rachel Hollar Umana noticed Macon was not always bike or pedestrian friendly, so she created a nonprofit organization to start changing that.
“I just feel glad to be acknowledged as one of those people who is doing something transformative, and it’s nice to see Macon on the map for being a city that’s trying new things,” Umana said.
After graduating as a triple-major in psychology, Spanish and social entrepreneurship, Umana taught English in Thailand for a year with Teach Thailand Corps. That was her first experience living somewhere without a car and getting everywhere by walking or using public transportation.
When she came back to Macon, she wasn’t sure of her career path but knew she wanted to work with nonprofits on social issues. She took on jobs at Riverside Cemetery Conservancy and then Susan G. Komen Central Georgia. After participating in a community biking event during the Cherry Blossom Festival, she was motivated to buy a bicycle and start biking the 1-mile distance to work.
Umana said she experienced the challenges of biking in a city where the streets are built around car transport and noticed that there wasn’t an outlet to share her ideas. Around this time, a study revealed that one in three people in Macon-Bibb County didn’t have driver’s licenses and relied on other forms of transportation, and the county was in the news for having one of the highest pedestrian fatality rates in Georgia. In addition, more people were moving to downtown Macon and interested in using their cars less.
“Bike Walk Macon came at an important time. There was really a need for it and a new interest in it,” Umana said. “I wanted to grow this community voice to speak up for transportation improvements in public.”
Umana applied for the Emerging City Champions Fellowship, funded by the Knight Foundation and hosted by Toronto-based nonprofit 8 80 Cities, and founded Bike Walk Macon in 2015 with the $5,000 grant she received. Since then, additional funding has allowed it to grow into a nonprofit with a small staff and a board of directors.
“It started as very passionate people who wanted to see changes,” Umana said. “As we kept doing the work, it connected to so many things. That’s why we’ve been able to grow so quickly in a few years.”
Bike Walk Macon hosts a lot of free events, including group rides and walks, to teach people how to safely walk and bike on the streets and get more comfortable doing so. The organization provides education on bike and pedestrian laws and how drivers can look out for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Bike Walk Macon’s biggest program is Open Streets Macon, during which a 1- or 2-mile stretch of a street is shut down to car traffic for four hours on a Sunday and opened up to the community for walking, biking, running, skateboarding and other activities. The program started out as one big, annual event and has transitioned to a few smaller events per year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The nonprofit also focuses on advocacy, and its initiatives have resulted in the passing of new policies by the local government. Less than a mile of bike lanes existed in Macon-Bibb when the nonprofit started, and now there are 8 miles, Umana said.
In July, the Macon-Bibb County Commission unanimously passed the Complete Streets Policy, which requires new roads to be designed with alternative transportation methods in mind. Bike Walk Macon worked on this project for five years, and Umana called it her biggest accomplishment.
Through grants and funding, the organization has created more pedestrian shelters and painted bike walk lanes and crosswalks in areas where they were needed. The group has been leading traffic calming projects in which local artists create colorful designs for crosswalks, which helps to slow drivers down and make them more aware of pedestrians.
Earlier this year, Historic Macon Foundation hired Bike Walk Macon to paint two crosswalks designed by a local artist on Oglethorpe Street. In December, they will work with the Society Garden and an artist to paint two crosswalks in Ingleside Village.
In May, Bike Walk Macon completed a separate, year-long artistic project called “My Bike Photo Series,” which featured portraits and profiles of Macon residents who ride bikes. The photographs were displayed at Mercer’s McEachern Art Center as part of its “Summers of Service” exhibit.
“I’ve learned that transportation connects to almost every social issue, whether it’s our local economy or accessibility or how to reduce our carbon footprint,” Umana said. “I know that Georgia and Macon have had a lot of challenges. Going down the Georgia Trend list, it’s great to see someone there who’s dedicated to improving transportation.”
Next year, Umana and Bike Walk Macon will focus on increasing traffic calming projects as well as educational programs. A grant from the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety will allow for more classes. In addition, the organization is working to publish a traffic calming toolkit that provides details on how to implement neighborhood projects.
“My long-term goal is that anyone can get anywhere they need to go in Macon through any mode of transportation,” Umana said.