Episode Seven – Elly Blue

Woah! We’ve made it to the last in a series of independent mechanics interviews of Portland, Oregon. This one isn’t of a mechanic per se, but of a bicycle activist who does a lot for PDX in terms of cycling. From her website on feminist nonfiction about cycling:

I’ve been writing about bicycle transportation since 2006, and my work has appeared in Grist, Bitch, BikePortland, Momentum, Reclaim, and elsewhere. I co-founded PDX by Bike, a business that helps people find their way around Portland by bicycle, and a nonprofit business alliance called the Portland Society. My first book, Everyday Bicycling, came out in December, 2012. My next full-length book, Bikenomics: How Bicycling Will Save the Economy, [more here] comes out in February 2013. 

Read on to find out more about Elly Blue and her participation in, and thoughts around, Portland’s ever-growing cycle scene:

How did you get into bikes/cycling? Would this count as your Portland background, too?

I was lucky enough to be in Portland and on the alert for what I wanted to do with my life just as the bike scene was starting to blow up. I’d already been riding a bike for transportation, but my heart was in walking and I was increasingly obsessed with transit. Bikes, bike events, and learning about all things bike took over my life before I quite realized what was happening. It was heady to be in the midst of all the changes and creativity going on.

What I do now: I write quite a bit, mostly about bikes, and at the moment mostly for enviro weblog Grist.org. I also publish a feminist bike blog and zine, both called Taking the Lane which is a great creative outlet. I can sort of scrape by enough with writing to still have some energy to put into other projects, like my new business, PDX by Bike and the Portland Society.

What do you do that’s bike related (and/or activist)? Do you see much crossover in Portland between bikes and activism? Would you say you have a political outlook?

Being able to ride a bike has been transformative in my life and in my community. In my work as a writer, I take this as a baseline assumption and then try to push the boundaries of the discourse about transportation and community life as far as I can. I am lucky to work with some amazing editors and publications who hand me a megaphone to say that we should remove freeways from cities and that cars contribute to poverty and inequality. It’s amazing how many people feel free to make these ideas their own, once I’ve put them out there. You know what’s also amazing? The most controversial things I say are more along the lines of “sexism exists.”

So that’s half my working life, getting to write these out-there things that are actually pretty common sensical, particularly from an economic perspective. The other half is PDX by Bike, a business my friend Meghan Sinnott and I are launching to help people visiting Portland enjoy the city by bicycle, whatever that means to them. I don’t think of it as activism, but I do hope it helps more people get on bikes and love it.

Regarding what you do, could you speak more about the Portland Society?

This is one of my favorite projects right now. It’s a nonprofit business alliance for women who are into bicycling. We have two events a month, a morning meeting focused on professional development, and an evening happy hour focused on networking. We’re a year old, have over 40 members, have started a scholarship fund, and from what I can tell and what I’ve experienced myself it’s provided people with a lot of useful skills, ideas, and contacts, as well as a more nebulous but maybe even more important sense of empowerment. I get this high at the morning meetings when everyone goes around the room introducing themselves and talking about what they do. We’ve been surrounded by all these amazing women all along, but many of us tend to get drowned out in the male-dominated bike industry and business community.

Have you seen more involvement of women and acceptance by men in the bike world…more sectors than others (say bike rides vs bike shops)? Are there many ‘biketivists’ in Portland and is it male dominated? Has there been a strong feminist critique of the ‘scene’ made?

There are a lot of amazing, active women in all parts of Portland’s bike scene. In some sectors, like advocacy, gender doesn’t seem to be as big an issue as in others, like mountain biking. Bike shops seem to be starting to open up a little — there’s at least a dialogue about gender, even if some of the ways it’s approached are clumsy. The sports side of things is going to thaw for women a lot more slowly than the advocacy side. On a cynical day, I’d say the parts with the real money are the most closed.

photo credit to sara stout

How much bike-related stuff that you do is enmeshed with Portland’s bike infrastructure? 

The infrastructure makes a huge difference. It’s not everything, but when it feels like you have a real place on the road, even if it’s something as tenuous as a bike lane, it makes for a much better riding experience and encourages a lot more people to get out there. We’ve been lucky in Portland because people working for the city have put down a lot of paint letting us all know that the roads are for bikes, too. But it’s also not that much. We’ve spent, over twenty years, less on bike infrastructure than we’ve spent just on preliminary studies for a new freeway widening project that may never be built, or at least I hope it isn’t.

How do you get funding for your projects?

There always seems to be money for bike stuff — or at least, there’s always someone happy to donate beer to bike events, and that’s easily convertible into money. It doesn’t have to be alcohol. One group I used to be heavily involved with, Shift, consistently raises more money than it knows how to spend by screenprinting second-hand t-shirts for their events and selling them for $5 each. I love that because the screenprinting process brings a lot of volunteers together to learn a new skill and do something concrete — those are the best parties.

What are you trying to engender through your work? And is this mainly for women?

I want to empower people.

I also read an article partially written off of an interview someone made about you, called ‘Advocacy, Women and Cycling, and the Shortcomings of Portland.’ The article reminded me of a workshop done earlier this year on young women and cycling (which brought up ideas of femininity, fashion, body image). What are your thoughts on this?

Ha. That’s a really good question. I disagree with proponents of “cycle chic” who think that in order for women to want to bike we have to know that we can look hot while doing it. Unfortunately, there’s some truth in that, but bicycling can also give us an opportunity to buck the absurd double standard for the way women are supposed to present ourselves. If bicycling were to become truly mainstream, then the mainstream will have become a new and unrecognizable reality in which natural hair, lack of make up, the occasional grease stain, and even, oh horrors, sweat, were totally normal.

That workshop and others (like one about how we get funding) was part of a weekend gathering of diy and grassroots bike groups in the UK. Have you  heard of, or been to, similar gatherings in the US?

There’s a huge network of community bike projects similar to 56a in the U.S.. They have an active wiki, a national conference called Bike Bike, and smaller regional conferences. Many of them have a strong feminist component.

I would love to be more involved in this some day — it’s one of the most hopeful things going on out there.

Thanks Elly!

Elly can be found on twitter @ellyblue

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