Elly Blue at Santa Monica Spoke Dinner + Bikes event
My friend Grubby, an ex-messenger, urban cyclist, and writer, once expressed heartbreak over the rise in popularity of urban cycling. Although psyched to see more cyclists, he feels that, like punk rock, the DiY underground aesthetic of the urban cycling movement is being harvested by “a bunch of posers,” as 04 Jason, another bike friend of mine, once put it. I think Grubby would agree with that description.
While as distasteful as any social change movement laundered by corporate branding, the commercialization of urban cycling as a fashionable lifestyle locates an important moment: cycling is hitting the mainstream in the US. The issue is that hipster capitalism, rather than democracy, could overshadow the message of bicycling as a mass social movement. It is understandable that politicized urban cyclists are skeptical of branding that capitalizes on the movement, while offering little resources as a supporter. As a feminist, I am particularly watchful of the branding around women and cycling, especially the appropriation of seemingly feminist ideas in face-level marketing strategies.
Thankfully, many in the radicalized urban cycling movement are pedaling past their own reflections in the mirror and continue to work creatively to bring newly-minted urban cyclists to the advocacy table. Portland-based writer Elly Blue is one such activist. Along with filmmaker Joe Biel and vegan chef Joshua Ploeg, Blue is on the road with what the trio call the Dinner + Bikes Tour.
While devouring a heaping plate of Ploeg’s vegan kitchen mastery, attendees are treated to Biel’s well-crafted documentaries on bicycle culture and activism, as well as interactive discussions on what Blue outlines as a bike economy—a topic she has researched and written about not only for Grist, but her own zine, Taking the Lane.
Kent Strumpell (from LA-BAC), Cynthia Rose, & Bryan Beretta
I caught interview time with Blue before the Dinner + Bikes stop hosted by Santa Monica Spoke, a chapter of the LACBC. SMS members Cynthia Rose and Bryan Beretta set the ideal table for Blue and her cohorts. SMS could’ve raised funds with a door charge, but chose to keep it free. The patio-lined location and welcoming vibe of Rose, Beretta, and volunteer Alice Strong (West San Gabriel Valley Bike Coalition) encouraged attendees—riders and not—to interact over topics like sustainable streets, just the conversations Elly Blue hopes to ignite.
Rose & Alice Strong
Tell me about your bicycling journey:
I started biking for transportation at age 20. I had been traveling for a couple years, and, when I moved back to New Haven, I went into my parents’ garage and found the three-speed cruiser I’d gotten for my tenth birthday. It was too big for me to ride then, but as an adult it was just right. It was incredibly freeing. I was used to walking long distances and waiting forever for buses. The downside is that because of having the bike, I lost the habit of waiting patiently and never re-learned it.
Most of us that commute have a stable of bikes—what is in your stable?
An old purple Kona mountain bike with an xtracycle conversion is my main ride. I have a rotating cast of two or three other bikes that are usually on loan to someone. Joe and I bought a 6 by 4 foot bamboo trailer. When that’s hitched behind the xtracycle, it’s a bit of a spectacle, but I can carry anything–or anyone. Once, I carried two ukulele players as part of a live band karaoke bike ride!
What impact has the bike as transportation had on your life?
It’s been transformative. I think one of the reasons for the bike renaissance right now is that we’re all hungry for real actions we can take to be happier and less frustrated every day, but also to address the big picture crises that seem so out of our control, from climate to the erosion of civil society.
We’re told to deal with this by going out and buying new light bulbs, buying bamboo silverware, whatever. Bicycling is a different way of interacting with the world that can address all those things meaningfully and build new things. And, biking offers ways to meet and genuinely connect with people. It’s kind of sad, but that seems like almost the most revolutionary thing. Unfortunately, it’s the same reason the Tea Party movement is so successful—we migrate towards things where there’s a sense of purpose and a real community.
Were you involved in other contexts of activism first, or did it start with bicycling?
The political connection came about a lot more slowly. It must have been percolating for a while, but the first time I remember it being clear was in November 2004. There was a party to watch the election results, and it was pretty clear Bush was winning. People were saying, “I’m just going to move to Canada,” and I said, “Not me, I’m going to stay here and be a bike activist.” I have no idea where that resolution came from. I was pretty drunk. But that’s exactly what I did.
Lumo (City of Santa Monica) picking up lit and stickers on LACBC
I wasn’t an activist before at all. Other social justice areas have theoretical appeal for me, but there’s always something I can’t quite get behind, whether it’s a dogma or internal politics or just not particularly clicking with the people. In bicycling, the movement is emerging so quickly and it’s so widespread that it really can be what anyone makes of it, with whatever politics and style and ideas they bring. You can just get on your bike and ride it, that’s the beauty of it.
Tell me about Taking the Lane zine: when and how did it start? Why the zine form as a mouthpiece?
TTL started because I needed to keep writing but didn’t know how to find work doing it that wasn’t a capital “J” job. This was one of the things I tried, and it stuck. Zines are cool because anyone can write one. Creating connections with people who read my zine and write me a letter or email has been one of the most rewarding parts. When you can respond to someone’s personal story on a personal level, you’re equals. We need more opportunities for that.
You wrote a series called Bikenomics for Grist. How did your thinking around a bicycling economy evolve?
When I first started writing about the bike economy, I could hardly believe what I was finding. Portland’s entire world-class bikeway network that was developed over 20 years cost the same amount as one measly mile of freeway? That’s not even as unbelievable as the hidden costs of car ownership. I mean, parking is expensive, especially if you get tickets, but we collectively pay over $4,000 per vehicle in the city just for on-street parking.
You relate similar issues to your focus on problemitizing gender in relation to the bicycle—what you view as a gender gap in cycling. When did the relationship between feminist discourse and cycling as a movement come together for you?
Previously, I had a more post-feminist attitude—it’s easy to ignore or excuse a lot of shit, especially if you have a social bubble where things are truly more equal. The more I looked into the numbers, the more I was convinced that access to transportation is a civil rights issue.
Women aren’t the only demographic that have expensive, unhealthy transportation constraints imposed on us, but we’re the largest. Women who are caregivers for kids or elderly relatives are penalized by lack of options, particularly when we live in suburban or rural areas or urban areas without central business districts.
Folks browsing zines at indie publisher Microcosm's merch table
So, part of it is when you have no choice but to drive—and to pay those costs—that sucks. But, also, riding a bike is an opportunity for empathy. Anyone who rides a bike, no matter how privileged in every other part of their life, will probably experience harassment, marginalization, assault, unfair treatment by the law and the press. That’s the first step towards understanding what other people might go through in other circumstances.
It could be argued that your writings on the topic emphasize that the focus on safe infrastructure to attract women cyclists is somewhat paternalistic—that it simplifies the issue regarding the lack of women cyclists compared to that of men. You emphasize the economic issues raised by feminist discourse as the key. So, what advice can you offer a new bicycle advocacy group setting goals to get women on bikes that goes beyond infrastructure?
We need safe infrastructure. Women need it, men need it. But, if we want equal access, then we must to pay attention to what else people need.
The stereotype is that women are more risk averse. But saying we’re afraid is self-defeating, because it assumes that barriers to bicycling are internal and inherent to different kinds of people, rather than external and societal. I wonder sometimes, if men had equal childcare and unpaid household duties and the transportation needs that go with those—more and farther trips, carrying stuff and people—would the bar be higher for what’s considered a safe or reasonable road to bike on?
Also, if we are thinking about how to convince people to get on a bike, there’s something wrong. As many as 60% of people in the U.S. say they want to bike more, but there are all these constraints. When we address the constraints, a lot more people will be free to make that choice, and I don’t think many people will need convincing.
Blue at the Microcosm table
Tell us a bit about cycling in PDX. Here in LA, bike advocates are working for the day we have at least a taste of what has been happening in Portland (and Vancouver, etc). So, give us something to dream about.
Biking has transformed Portland culturally and economically. It’s funny because even though our city is one of the best in the world for bicycling, outside of Northern Europe, we still have a long way to go. We still spend too much on building unbikeable, unwalkable, unlivable roads. Any other city could have what Portland has within just a few years. Look at how far New York has come, or Minneapolis.
The challenge is to make streets bike friendly without singling out already privileged groups to lavish with bike infrastructure. It has to be for everyone. That’s an area where Portland is struggling.
Finally, any new publishing, events, anything you want to share with links?
Thanks for asking! Meghan Sinnott and I are launching a new business, PDX by Bike . We give people tools and information for discovering Portland by bicycle. Our website isn’t quite up yet, but our zine is out there in the world getting nice reviews.
Check on the Dinner + Bikes Tour stops & dates