Elly Blue - image courtesy of Caroline Paquette for Little Package
One of my favorite people in the bicycling advocacy world is Elly Blue, who coined the term “Bikenomics.” Her zine “Bikenomics: How bicycling will save the economy (if we let it)” is a compilation of 10 articles she wrote for Grist.org the first half of 2011, and is a delightful must-read for transportation planners and city officials – and anyone who works in the health industry, sustainability field, or who drives a car or rides a bike. In other words, everyone.
Blue, a Portland resident, co-runs PDX by Bike, a business that helps people find their way around Portland by bicycle, and the Portland Society, a business alliance for professional women who are passionate about bicycling. Her blog Taking the Lane is a blog about “bicycling, economics, feminism, and other cultural commentary.”
I had the pleasure of chatting with her recently, and here’s what we talked about:
AE: You’re always involved in interesting projects. What’s on your plate for 2012?
EB: Ouf. I'm trying to pare down and focus on just doing just a few things well. Right now that's writing and publishing work that will hopefully help keep bringing the conversation about bikes to the next level. I'm about to head on a speaking tour in the U.S. south with my partner Joe, who makes documentaries about bikes, and our friend Joshua who is a vegan chef. I can't wait! I'm also excited to put more energy into the Portland Society. This year I'd like to keep supporting our members’ professional development and also step out into the political and civic sphere.
AE: With a clear understanding of ecological economics, yet using layman’s terms to appeal to a wide audience, in your Bikenomics zine you do an excellent job of dispelling the myth of ‘free parking’ and detailing the societal costs of car crashes, sedentariness, and urban sprawl – and then contrasting these with bicycle transportation. Few political and business leaders understand the true cost of these problems, and I’m convinced if they did, more would work to improve them and see a bicycle-friendly U.S. as a smart investment. Considering the strength of the oil lobby and their related industries, do you think this is mostly a matter of ignorance and that better education can save the day?
EB: We're in an exciting cultural moment – there is a growing climate of openness to bicycling right now, just as we are with the food movement. More and more people and communities are discovering bicycle transportation and making it work for them in amazing ways and much of it seems to be economically motivated.
I'd rather talk about it in terms of inspiration instead of education. …When people work together and are inclusive and listen to each other, we've seen communities make huge changes for bikes, culturally and in infrastructure, in a relatively short period of time. For instance, I just spent the weekend in Seattle, which has become home to a booming bike movement in just the last decade. Their neighborhood greenways network, thanks to a powerhouse grassroots coalition, has gone from conception to implementation in just three years, which for transportation infrastructure is light speed. Within the next decade they'll have transformed the city, and there doesn't seem to be any controversy in store. When you build coalitions and forge ahead with determination, all this stuff really is possible.
AE: For those who have yet to read your zine, please explain what you see as the economic reasons a city should become bike-friendly.
EB: Car infrastructure is expensive and creates debt and other expenses which we can't afford, producing poverty. Bicycling, on the other hand, is a low-cost investment that pays off substantial dividends and helps everyone equally, so long as it’s done equitably, producing well-being. Also, bicycling is really fun. There you go, my entire argument.
AE: What are some economic reasons a small business would want to encourage its employees and customers to bike?
EB: It depends on the business, but employees who bike are in better mental and physical health, perform better, and have fewer sick days. Customers who bike tend to have more disposable income and likely live in the community, meaning greater loyalty. And you don't have to pay for parking for either.
AE: What are some successful examples of bike-friendly businesses you’ve seen?
EB: One of my favorite things is seeing new, bike-based businesses open up. Investing in a storefront is often risky or out of reach, but a bike-mounted coffee shop or taco cart or cookie delivery service (all real examples from Portland) requires less capital – that's one way bicycle friendly communities can create economic opportunity. Bike parking is something a lot of business owners have discovered is an effective and highly visible way to support (and benefit from) bicycling. A bike corral provides a tenfold increase in parking spots right outside your door and it's also like a billboard for the business, especially in a place where it's the only one. The standing stone brewery in Ashland is an example. Even if you don't know about their policy of giving employees bikes and financial incentives to ride to work, you immediately know that business will welcome you when you show up in dripping rain gear, and that's worth a lot.
AE: In your “Who Gets To Ride?” section, you get to the heart of why women make only 24% of bicycle trips in the U.S. You acknowledge that many women in the U.S. are low-income and that, on average, we still earn 77 cents for every man’s dollar, there’s a hiring bias against mothers and pregnant women, and we have a higher burden of unpaid labor – daily housework, errands, childrearing, and caring for elderly relatives. And then you brilliantly illustrate how this affects our transportation: “These kinds of responsibilities add up to more complicated transportation needs. Women make more trips than men, with diverse kinds of trips chained together. And twice as many trips are at the service of passengers – the school drop-off, soccer practice, and the play date wedged in there between the grocery run and commute to work.” You conclude that we can reach more bicycling equity if we reach more economic and social equity and if cities improve bike infrastructure. Given that city planners and engineers are – let’s face it – mostly middle-class white men who aren’t bike commuters, how can low-income women and mothers better get our needs met?
EB: I love this question, but there is no one answer. The first thing is to speak up and always keep your vision in mind. Maybe this means finding a cargo bike solution. Maybe it means renegotiating household duties within your family. Maybe it means working with your workplace or the local school to be more bike friendly, or working at the level of city government to fix a dangerous street crossing on your route to the store. On a more macro level, well, why don't we have an ERA? Why don't we have paternity leave in this country? Why aren't we funding education and incentivizing neighborhood schools that kids can walk to? There is plenty to be done. But the burden for doing it should not be entirely on the under served. I do think it's important for decision makers and activists to be aware of the privileges that might subconsciously inform their priorities and to actively seek out and listen to the perspectives of the people they're looking to serve.
AE: What do you think the bike movement in general needs to do better?
EB: The bike movement is used to being quite marginal, and I think it can be quite difficult for advocates and activists who have been working tirelessly for years at a seemingly impossible dream to suddenly have to shift gears and deal with success. We're a bit too used to asking for small, incremental changes, not stepping on anyone's toes. The time has come to dream big. That also means spending big, unfortunately, because we are up against some seriously wealthy, and scared, industries.
AE: What do you think is going well in the U.S. bike-wise?
EB: The movement is on fire. There is so much interest and momentum it really seems unstoppable. Besides being economical, healthy, and fun, bikes are a way for regular people to engage civically without wandering into political quagmires. It's something we can agree on across party lines. How rare is that?
April Economides is the principal of Green Octopus Consulting. She created the nation’s first bike-friendly business district program for the City of Long Beach in partnership with four business districts, as well as “Bike Saturdays” – the largest citywide discount program for bicyclists in the nation. She gives talks and develops bike-friendly business district plans throughout the U.S.