A Conversation with Tucson Velo
Last week, I had the opportunity to meet with Mike McKisson, the founder and publisher of Tucson Velo. Tucson Velo is a news site that focuses on bicycle-related stories in and around Tucson, Arizona. I wanted to meet with Mike to learn more about the importance of bicycle-focused journalism, which I view as an important aspect of utility cycling as it helps to examine and discuss bicycle-related issues within the community. The utility of bicycle-focused journalism is enormous for bicyclists and non-bicyclists alike, as it provides a forum in which to discuss, examine, and solve bicycle-related issues. While Tucson Velo itself does not focus specifically on utility cycling forms of riding – the topics range from infrastructure issues to rider-of-the-week to local bike policy to local cycling events to stolen bikes and much, much more – it has a great deal of utility for the general act of riding a bike be it for utility, for sport, or for recreation. (Header photo by Mike McKisson).
A Brief History of Tucson Velo
Mike McKisson came up with the idea for a website like Tucson Velo in mid-2009, approximately two years after he rediscovered cycling as an adult. Mike took an approximately 10 year hiatus from riding a bicycle from the ages of about 16 to 26. However, during a vacation to Oceanside, CA, with his wife, he rediscovered cycling when they rented two beach cruisers and went for a spin along the water. Mike returned to Tucson where he immediately bought a bike (with a little encouragement from a friend who also rode). Over the course of the next year, Mike lost about 135 pounds and found a little competitive edge by riding with the same friend who encouraged him to buy a bike in the first place. Shortly thereafter, he and his wife relocated within Tucson to a home that enabled them to have a more car-light lifestyle.
The more time Mike spent on the bike the more he loved riding, and after a year or so the idea for Tucson Velo started bugging him. Mike has a degree in journalism from the University of Arizona, where he also teaches, and has also worked for a local newspaper in the online department. Mike felt that stories in the local newspaper and other local media sources generally had little coverage of bicycle-related issues, and when they were did, they were often brief, one-sided, and generally not enough to quench Mike’s desire for local bike news. Mike found himself constantly drawn to cycling-focused websites published locally, such as Tucson Bike Lawyer, for his local bicycle-focused news. He also found a lot of inspiration from the website Bike Portland, which is well-know for its extensive coverage of cycling news in Oregon, as well as Streetsblog, which does extensive bicycle-focused journalism in multiple U.S. cities.
Mike and his wife head out for a ride on their anniversary (photo by Matt Fischler)
However, it took the arrival of two long distance utility cyclists to push Mike over the edge and launch Tucson Velo. In January 2009, Russ and Laura of The Path Less Pedaled stayed with Mike during their visit to Tucson, and they encouraged and inspired him to finally start the site. Within a few months, the site was relatively well-known throughout the Tucson region, and it has continued to grow steadily.
Currently, Tucson Velo is one aspect of Mike’s already busy life. The site was launched around the same time as the birth of his daughter, who is now 10 months old. As if a growing news site and a family were not enough, Mike also holds a full-time job at the University of Arizona, so it is definitely a challenge to keep Tucson Velo steadily plugging forward. Ideally, Mike hopes that, in time, he will be able to reduce his job to part-time in order to focus more on Tucson Velo. But for now, it is a true labor of love, and one for which the Tucson cycling community is grateful!
A participant in Tucson Cyclovia (photo by Mike McKisson)
Features of Tucson Velo
Tucson Velo has a wide assortment of different features and article types, which make it friendly to cyclists and non-cyclists alike. Tucson Velo is set up as a blog, so the benefit of its format is that it allows for comments from readers, which contributes to community building and dialogue about the issues being reported on the site. The blog format also allows for the wide range of posts from a short snippets to announcements to in-depth coverage on a larger issue. Mike also does video posts on occasion, such as this one on bike sharing.
The UA Tricats team pedals to raise money for nationals (photo by Mike McKisson)
Due to Mike’s high journalistic standards and training, he works to maintain a very balanced, unbiased perspective on the stories that he covers. He explicitly told me that Tucson Velo is not an advocacy site; it is a news site. Like any good journalist, Mike’s goal is to be a watchdog and report on a wide range of issues. Mike also hopes to help educate cyclists and non-cyclists about the issues they both face. That being said, Mike certainly does love cycling, and he is not afraid to say that he doesn’t feel there are too many issues in the world that can’t be solved by riding a bicycle.
In addition to news pieces and feature articles, Tucson Velo has a number of other features, including a forum, a place to list stolen bicycles (and so far, one post has lead to the recovery of a stolen bike) a section for reader photos, a calendar of local events, and my personal favorite, a map collaboration feature. The map collaborations are based on Google Maps, and they are used as a place for people in the community to identify and discuss local issues. Currently, there is a map collaboration for locations in Tucson with inadequate bike parking, as well as one that documents the locations of all of the Tucson ghost bikes.
Thoughts about Bicycle-Focused Journalism
There is a great deal of utility to bicycle-focused journalism. News, analysis, and features on cycling issues that are reported in a balanced and objective manner can have a significant impact on local attitudes towards cycling, from both the perspective of the cyclist and the non-cyclist alike. By bringing bicycle-related issues to light, sites like Tucson Velo, Bike Portland, Streetsblog, and many others, help to – at the very least – make bicycling more visible in the local area. And this visibility can help to contribute to the notion of “power in numbers”, which can, in turn, help to encourage more people to ditch the car and hop on a bike. Or, at the very least, help people to better appreciate the issues that cyclists face.