Official website for the City of Aurora, Illinois. Mayor Tom Weisner

This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on September 21, 2005 and was written by free-lance writer Amy Fischer Roth.

Inspectors trade 4 wheels for 2

Until a little more than a week ago, Chet Donelson hadn’t touched a bike in nearly 40 years.

Now Donelson, 55, is pedaling around Aurora as part of his job as a city inspector.“I just wanted to get out of that car,” Donelson said Tuesday, showing off the leather tassels he has attached to his handlebars. A well-designed bike seat and amply padded bike shorts have made the transition from car to bike easier, he said.

Donelson and Jeff Chesnutt, both property maintenance compliance officers, are pumped up about a new “cars-to-bikes” pilot program aimed at putting inspectors in closer contact with communities they serve, cutting vehicle fuel costs and getting workers in better shape.

“I thought I could be more effective on a bike,” Chesnutt said as he and five other city employees discussed why they volunteered to give up their cars for bikes, weather permitting.

“I'm saving gas and getting rid of a little belly. I feel more energetic,” said Chesnutt, 43, who revealed a square patch on his chest beneath his city-issued bike shirt.

“I went on the [nicotine] patch today,” said Chesnutt, who smoked on and off for about 12 years. “I decided I’m going to be riding a bike and I’m going to be getting healthy.”

Allen LaFan, downtown historic district inspector, spearheaded the effort to get inspectors and other city workers on bikes.

Mayor Tom Weisner liked the idea.

“I think employees will have much better contact with residents in the neighborhoods. They will be much more connected and able to do the job,” Weisner said. “This is a pilot program, but I anticipate seeing many more employees of the city on bicycles. I may even ride one from time to time.”

According to Dan Peterson, past president of the American Association of Code Enforcement, there are no other cities in the state and very few across the country that send city workers in similar jobs out on bikes.

“There are some very good points to it,” said Peterson of Hoffman Estates. “It gets inspectors into the community on a more personal level. I think they may be able to develop better rapport with the community.”

“The only drawback I could see is it might be hard to have the tools and equipment you need in case of an emergency. Inspectors carry cameras, flashlights, forms, and clipboards.”

The bikes are equipped to hold all the equipment, LaFan said, including clipboards and, in the future, laptops.

The employees said they will ride the bikes even as fall turns to winter, but they will be prohibited from riding them in snow.

LaFan got his bike in April, and as others saw him using it for work, they became interested.

The six had health checks and were trained on the bikes by Ed Barsotti, League of Illinois Bicyclists executive director.

“There are 20 people in the department, and now 10 are either on a bike or interested in being on a bike,” LaFan said.

As many as eight more employees probably will get bikes next spring.

Two parking-meter checkers and supervisor Gil Gonzales also are using bikes instead of cars for work.

Meter checker Gabriela Maya, 30, said using the bike “minimizes honking on the street” because her bike doesn’t block traffic like her three-wheeled parking enforcement vehicle did.

Each bike costs about $900, LaFan said. Three were bought with city funds and three were provided by the Aurora Police Department.

Adam Garcia, code enforcement supervisor for Elgin and president of the Illinois Association of Code Enforcement, said he will be watching Aurora’s pilot program.

“I think it would be very good for public relations with the community,” he said. “Allen [LaFan] mentioned that any time he gets stopped on the bike, people that previously were adversarial have something new to talk about—the bike.”

LaFan said the bikes are more than just conversation pieces. They will easily pay for themselves after just a few months of riding.

“With the price of fuel, we know we can save money by utilizing bicycles instead of cars,” Weisner said. “We’re also setting an example in reducing emissions.”