A cycling renaissance is taking place throughout North America and across the globe. One need only do a search on Instagram for ‘bikes’ or ‘fixie’ to find limitless images of young urbanites the world over connecting with one another while utilizing cycles as part of their daily social routine. Automobiles are on the decline, as cars are increasingly viewed as impractical modes of transport within the city. Light rail, bus, and bicycle mode shares are on the rise. These are encouraging trends for those concerned with the livable streets and the climate crisis. In what will hopefully become an ongoing series, I asked three women whom I respect and admire a great deal for their thoughts on this cultural shift: Janel Sternbetz currently traveling, replied from New Orleans, Joliene Adams based in Eldorado Springs, CO, and Jakkz Raines who lives in Oakland, CA.
REBEL METROPOLIS: How would you describe yourself?
Janel: Worldly, optimistic but realistic, passionate about reducing suffering for all.
Joliene: Alive. Awesome. Capable of more. Driven by a belief in basic human kindness. Happiest when I’m on my bike. I’m compassionate, a bit scatter-brained. Aside from being vegan, I’m not a picky eater. I’m easily frustrated by laziness and apathy. I’ve a strong belief that use of one’s hands and providing radical self reliance are intrinsic forms of human intelligence.
Jakkz: I’m a cis queer-identified feminist animal/environment-loving cyclist who works in mental health. I love to explore the world by bicycle, make music, immerse myself in nature, whether urban, wooded, alpine, or oceanic. I’ve been called quirky, stubborn, and passionate a time or two.
RM: What is your relationship to cycling as a social movement?
Janel: The bicycle is my main mode of transportation, and as such, I’m compelled to make cycling a safe way to get around if not for my own self preservation. I believe in the bicycle as a means of solving many modern issues. This has inspired me to study bicycle infrastructure and policy around the world, while working in and with city governments, as well as other strategic organizing. I was involved in a direct action that shut down a British Petroleum station during the Gulf Oil disaster in the summer of 2010. We blocked motorists from entering the station with our bodies and by creating barricades of bikes locked together.
Joliene: I’m a member of Boulder Community Cycles and am involved in their Earn-a-Bike program which educates people by showing them how to fix their own ride rather than taking it to a shop. I’m also a self-trained mechanic and welder of mutant bikes. I consider my use of regular clothing items and zero unnecessary gear or flash-wear a component of my bike advocacy. On the same note, owning and carrying the tools necessary for fixing on-the-road problems is also key to pushing the movement forward. Attending city meeting relating to bike infrastructure and following the minutes from such meetings are another component.
Jakkz: Like many, I started cycling as a child to explore, to get around, to be free. I remember spending an entire day on two wheels, pausing to collect fallen leaves or pick flowers to press in the books I’d check out of the library. I bicycled for short trips as a young adult, getting around my college campus by bicycle. In graduate school I began to neglect my car, opting for a mix of bicycling and public transportation. Mid-way through I realized there was no point in keeping my car, so I sold it. When I moved back to Los Angeles last year, many people gave me looks, commenting that I “should have kept the car a little longer”. I was pleased to find LA much improved in terms of cycling infrastructure and mass transit. I definitely didn’t miss driving!
Cycling fosters a type of civic engagement built on social interaction, 1 part fun (ok, 2 parts) and 3 parts cause. I initially connected with other cyclists through party-themed rides. It’s the classic bait and switch; you’re having fun and engaging in an environmentally conscious way. Cycling became a natural way to connect because you can communicate directly with other participants:
“Hi my name is Jakkz, I commute to work by bicycle, do you?”
“I hadn’t thought of it, isn’t it inconvenient?”
“Well actually, its pretty easy, here’s what I’ve found works. Oh, by the way did you hear about this new measure they’re trying to pass that would limit funding for striping new bike lanes?”
As I’ve more fully integrated cycling into my life, I’ve come to participate in advocacy efforts online and in person to get more people riding through groups like the East Bay Bicycle Coalition and Bicycle to Work Day, as well as energy production issues through the Bicycle Music Festival. I’ve also been part of events aimed at redefining relationships between streets and the people inhabiting them via Sunday Streets in Berkeley or CicLAvia and OAKlavia.
RM: Are there aspects of bike culture that you feel are not inclusive enough or appreciative of women? If so, are there methods of organizing around the bicycle that you feel can overcome such issues?
Janel: I haven’t experienced exclusivity because of my gender, but I have lived mostly in progressive places.
Joliene: It gets old when you tell a male friend that you weld bikes and you basically see their boner before you even hear the words “You weld?! I’ve never known a chick that welded, that’s way hot!” It’s not hot. It’s a passion and its perfectly normal. There are aspects of just about every culture, especially athletic and mechanic related cultures that aren’t appreciative of women. Even bigger than the issue of not being appreciative of women is the issue of cultures of intimidation towards women. It takes guts to enter into that culture, to go on that ride, to be the only one – or maybe only 1 of 3 women in a shop wrenching on her own. But there’s also pride one can take in that. Bike-dance troupes like the Sprockettes and calendars featuring female cyclists are wonderful things, but there’s a risk of female cycling or related events being sexualized. Those woman involved are certainly smart enough to know this. There is nothing wrong with this either. Male sexy bike calendars are sexy, too, but there’s always more of a farce to it. It includes too much of a play off of the actual sexualized stereotype of women being the object of fantasy. Again, there is nothing wrong with this, per say. Nor is there even with nudity. It’s the balance and the disparate message and meaning of a woman in skivvies on a bike.
Jakkz: I’ve read that the majority of folks who integrate bikes as their prime form of transportation are male identified, and this has really irked me. Though it’s slowly shifting, in the U.S. men represent the majority of folks who use bicycles for transportation. Womyn ride, but I think gender-normed societal expectations around being ‘put together’ and what that means, looks like, blah blah, are a serious deterrent to womyn riding as a primary source of transport. Infrastructure also plays a part in this. What I’ve observed to be consensus, and was summarized in an article by Jenifer Joy Madden, is that women will adopt cycling if it is “safe, communal and inclusive.” The beautiful thing is that women have such history with cycling. Historian Sue Macy chronicles much of this in her book Wheels of Change. My personal experience has been one of respect from other cyclists. Motorists are often another story, but I’m convinced they just need to get out of their cars and feel the wind in their hair.
RM: People are driving cars less, and choosing more often to live in denser, more connected neighborhoods. What would you attribute this trend to, and how do you think cycling plays a role in this?
Janel: I think many people are waking up to what it means to live a good life. Having the option to safely walk or bike to fulfill daily needs increases quality of life greatly. The challenge is to ensure these favored places remain accessible to all socio-economic stratas.
Joliene: People are tired of traffic jams, they want less time wasted in the car. Some places like Boulder county in Colorado have protected open spaces, so building within the urban space we have is both necessary and desirous for the city to grow and fulfill its capacity. It makes complete sense to me that if we’re going to build things, we should be building for density and including amenities like eco-roofs. We need more public transportation and bike share programs. People are interested in a more accessible, community oriented lifestyle. Cuba has engineered many creative transit solutions that are a testament to human ingenuity. I experienced this personally while staying there for 4 months hitchhiking the country. That’s not to say Cuba has all the answers, but they do demonstrate what humans are capable of when they have little material wealth but plenty of human imagination to work with. Havana in particular is one of the most potent examples of successful ‘Organopónicos‘ (urban gardens) to date.
Jakkz: Great question! I think people are pulled to live more compact lives, they want to be able to walk/bike to eat, to buy groceries, to enjoy entertainment within a smaller radius than sprawl-developed suburban settings impose. Cycling plays a huge role in making these aspects of life accessible while providing a greater diversity of experiences.
RM: What are some of the ways you’ve used the bicycle to create community?
Janel: I’ve organized rallies to raise awareness about the dangerous state of our streets, resulting in safety improvements and community connections. Engineers are normally taught to design streets primarily to ensure automobile traffic flows freely, which compromises the safety of other street users. Providing safe passage for cyclists reduces traffic congestion, which in turn makes streets safer and more pleasant for everyone while helping the environment.
Joliene: Sharing my knowledge with others. Participating in and promoting rides. Also, by visiting local bike shops to see how they engage with community. We should all holler, smile, and ride with joy just because we can. Get a cruiser, attach an old tape casette player or some speakers to it and ride along a nice rolling hill and your heart will grow. Fun bells and handlebar ribbons help too.
Jakkz: I enjoy participating in social rides embedded in fun, in civic engagement, in gender rights. Recently, FWOD decided to amend an alley cat race. One of our members organized it to be a fundraiser for a female cyclist who had been assaulted on her bike to help cover medical expenses. This was a great example of civic engagement – supporting a fellow cyclist while also building awareness around similar issues related to cyclists’ rights and ways in which our legal system needs to improve.
RM: What are some of your personal favorite regular rides you’ve participated in, and what are the focus of those rides?
Janel: Bike Party! and Critical Mass. These are both mass bike rides that are similar, but Bike Party is more planned and there are dance/party stops along the pre-designated route. They both increase visibility of cyclists, encourage cycling and improve navigational skills.
Joliene: Any ride that takes me to new place or is activist oriented. I did’t attend, but the ‘Worst Polluters Tours‘ in Portland are some of the most informative and necessary rides I’ve heard of. I once enjoyed the “Independent Bookstore & Publishing House” ride. It helped provide me with a sense of empowerment not only as a female cyclist, but as a writer looking for places to reach out to for support. Meeting other like-minded sorts on rides is a major bonus. Just riding a bicycle, by self or with friend, is always a favorite ride, too. Spontaneous exploration rides to old haunted places are a great idea, too. I sometimes print copies of Mark Twain’s Taming the Bicycle and post them on telephone poles for people to find. The best stories we should be telling are ones about the sense of accomplishment and freedom that comes from getting on a bike. It makes people realize they’re not alone out there.
Jakkz: While living in LA, I got connected with folks in the community via the Bicycle Film Festival. My friend Lane gave me a rundown of all the rides to make, among them the West Side Mosey. In truth, I’m a huge fan of any of the night rides, which revealed a side of Los Angeles that was so far removed from the stereotypic smoggy gridlocked prison one might expect to encounter. There is a quiet intensity, a beauty enhanced by dim streetlights and shadows cast by art deco apartment buildings or abandoned factories – sometimes that waft of a sea breeze on the air that is enhanced in the dark coolness.
When I moved Oakland, a partner recommended I check out FWOD – which originally stood for Fix Without Dicks, but now has become inclusive of any female-identified rider. The ride meets every Wednesday at the Lake Merritt BART station (meet at 6:30PM, roll by 7PM). And of course there’s the yearly pilgrimage up to Portland for Pedalpalooza. My favorite rides up there are the Park 2 Park Rides, and of course who can say no to WNBR?
RM: We’ve seen bikes play a key role in street protests, especially since Occupy began. Where do you see the bicycle in the future of social activism going?
Janel: I think the most powerful and revolutionary acts are those that are positive all around. They provide a means for a positive future, and they are also just as enjoyable if not more so than the current way of life. The bicycle landscape is like this in some places, but unfortunately the majority of them don’t provide the necessary infrastructure to be the preferred option.
Joliene: To continue much on the path it has, but my greatest hope is that we push for pedestrian and bike-only streets. The High Line project in NYC is brilliant example of such a place. Spaces like that could be created just for bikes. The further advancement and placement of bike stop-in centers rather than just bike shops could be a component too. Urban projects like those of City Repair which often have things like tea kettles or books installed at street corners for community use could also include bike tools. My dream is to see the bicycle in the future of social activism being understood by a majority of people as being far better in the world’s interest than a Prius or car-share.
Jakkz: The bicycle will play an increasingly central role in social activism. Bicycles make things accessible both to activists and to the public at large. Activism on two wheels makes things more personal, the ’cause’ becomes more than a cause, it becomes a movement. Beyond weekly rides like FWOD, groups of women, womyn, trans, and queer folks in Atlanta, Toronto, New York City, Chicago and recently Oakland have followed the path that the beautiful Ovarian Psycos Cycle Brigade paved with last year’s Clitoral Mass rides. The focus of these rides is to connect with and empower ourselves, our bodies, our bicycles, and each other. I took part in the first Oakland Clitoral Mass ride on 25 May 2013, where we engaged in a civic and social demonstration of ourselves and our power as individuals and as a collective.
RM: What city truly deserves the title as North America’s cycling capitol?
Janel: I haven’t visited enough places to say, but cities that are installing physically separated bikeways are high on the list.
Joliene: It depends on criteria. Boulder has tons of cyclists, but the majority of them ride fixies purchased via Urban Outfitters, and 60% them won’t look me in the eye when I ride my mini-mutant tall bike. Portland’s got it going on in terms of the amount of cyclists and diversity of crazy hand-built bikes. I’d have to hand the title to the Twin Cities though, because it’s cold as shit up there, yet people bike year round.
Jakkz: As I don’t feel I’m in a position to name our cycling capitol, I’ll just tell you some of my favorite cities to ride in: Portland, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles. I’d like to visit Chicago, Vancouver, Minneapolis and D.C. by bicycle sometime soon.