Costumes not commutes, and other tips to cultivate the ‘all powerful bike lobby’

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on March 3rd, 2014 at 1:58 pm

Source: BikePortland

"You don't create more riders with  suits and ties and spandex," reads a slide from Lily Karabaic's presentation. (Photos by J. Maus/BikePortland)

“You don’t create more riders with
suits and ties and spandex,” reads a slide
from Lily Karabaic’s presentation.
(Photos by J. Maus/BikePortland)

—BikePortland’s coverage from Washington D.C. is made possible by Planet Bike.

The National Women’s Cycling Forum is like a day-long master class in how to infect women and communities with the bicycling bug. For the hundreds of professional advocates and rising-star activists in attendance, there is a ton of great advice and inspiration being offered up. In one session this morning, Cultivating the All Powerful Bike Lobby, we were introduced to several women on the front lines of community-based bike advocacy.

The session was moderated by Leah Shahum, the 13 year veteran leader of the 12,000 member San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. She knows a lot about the bike lobby and the power that can come with putting it to use. Early in her career, Leah shared, she was “nervous” about the idea of power. It seemed like some sinister force and the idea of using it to her advantage was “difficult to grasp.” But years into her advocacy career, she’s figured it out. “I realized in the end that power is all about people… It’s about people’s stories and connecting people who make decisions with people in communities who have a different kind of power.”

But how can advocates for bicycling make that connection stronger?

Nona Varnado, NYC fashion designer-turned bike activist now based in Los Angeles.

Nona Varnado, NYC fashion designer-turned bike activist now based in Los Angeles.

Nona Varnado faced that challenge head on when she launched a bike fashion line in 2008. “I realized the market didn’t exist yet,” she told the crowd, “so I had to develop the market myself.” So Varnado went to work. She started The Ladies Program, a series of events “for people who don’t identify as bicyclsits” during bike month in New York City. By creating alliances and focusing on collaboration — not competition — with other groups, Varnado found her niche. She has since move to Los Angeles where she opened a storefront that serves as a community meeting space, gallery, and product pop-up shop. Now Varnado leads a new non-profit dubbed The Bicycle Culture Institute (FB) and she works with L.A. Bike Trains.

Along the way, Varnado learned a lot and had several several tips to share. Here are a few I wrote down:

  • Even if three people show up to your event, photograph the hell about if it.
  • Adopt a philosophy of abundance — give your time and experience to others who are passionate about the same topics.
  • Reject the idea that there’s only enough money, jobs, audience to go around. (This is the biggest problem advocates have.) A rising tide and a unified community floats all boats and grows beyond any niche.
  • Importance of participation. Unless people show up it doesn’t count. And the best way to get folks to show up is to show up to other people’s events. Support efforts beyond your circle and contribute to them financially.

Varnado is right. Getting people to show up to events is the building block of a healthy bike culture. And the best way to get people out into the streets — so says Portlander Lilian Karabaic — is to “put the fun before the wonk.”

Karabaic's irreverent and punchy presentation was a huge hit.

Karabaic’s irreverent and punchy presentation was a huge hit.

Karabaic (who also happens to be the producer of the BikePortland Podcast) wasted no time in getting the crowd’s attention. “We’re doing things wrong,” she said at the outset of her presentation, “If we were doing things right we wouldn’t have a women’s bicycling forum, we would have a National Bike Summit with equal representation of women and men.” Karabaic earned a hearty applause for that line, and it was the first of many during her very well-received talk.

Advocates spend too much time talking about wonky topics like infrastructure details and they spend too much time “guilt-shaming” people by touting bicycling’s many (and quite mundane) benefits. And Karabaic’s pet peeve is how much of the advocacy discussion revolves around commute trips (trips to work). Instead, she urged, advocates should spend more time on “bike fun.” “We should be talking about costumes not concrete,” she said. (It’s worth mentioning that Karabaic’s past jobs include organizing the World Naked Bike Ride and leading the Bowie vs. Prince ride during Pedalpalooza).

“Kids ride because it’s fun. In my case I rode to hang out with the cool kids… But how do we keep them riding? We won’t keep them riding bike talking about concrete and curb-cuts,” Karabaic said, “What keeps them riding is fun.” All the talk from the “helmet mirrors and padded buts crowd,” about gear, helmets, lane positioning, tire width and hand signals, she added, is doing nothing to get more people on bikes.

And Karabaic raised an important point about the focus on commute trips. Not only is commuting to work inherently not a fun activity for most people, but, Karabaic said, “It’s based on a privileged perspective.” “It’s a luxury that you live close enough to bike to work.”

Why is all this important to the work of getting more women on bikes? Because women are more likely to be interested in social activities and they tend to take on more childcare responsibilities in the home. “If we focus on the journey to work we’ll never have an equal number of women riding bikes as men.”

The ideas shared by Karabaic, Varnado and all the other thought-provoking women here at the Forum have forced attendees to think. Similar to last year, the ideas and energy at this event have a newness and urgency that the more formal National Bike Summit seems to be lacking these days. To the League’s credit, the Women’s Forum is capturing a movement that is growing right before our eyes. And the women involved in it are giving other advocates a lot of ideas to steal and take back to their respective communities.


While it may not have been the object of the reporting done here, it certainly seems as if much of the advice given at this Cycling Forum had the flavor of a small business owners convention. Is that really what cycling is all about? It would seem so. Karabaic appears to be on to something, but not in the way she probably intended.

Much of what I ever hear from so-called cycling advocates is indeed about the details of infrastructure and not enough about “fun“. But I attribute this to two things:

  1. Males then to dominate the discussions and of course their strengths are in “all things technical”
  2. But cycling advocacy (at least to me) appears to be more about “show business” or “fame” than much of anything else.
I Vacuum Copenhagen

I Vacuum Copenhagen

Mikael Colville-Andersen is wrong about there being no cycling community, at least here in America. We do not really get the idea of having a movement that is essentially leaderless and less focused on the bicycle as an object of worship. Instead our activists are all about getting their faces seen and their names recognized. Next time you read an article about a local group trying to effect change be careful to note how many times pictures of the “group leaders” are shown.

American cyclists are far more like teens who aspire to get onto American Idol than anything else. Is this a phase? Is the movement so young that all we can contemplate is how to get on the nightly news? Is it really necessary that our cycling advocacy groups spent so much time and effort sending out press releases?

One would almost get the impression that the best people to hire or at least recruit for the cycling movement are those who worked political campaigns. This is a far cry from the idea of cyclists and their community as being all about vacuuming.

We Are Our Own Worst Enemies

Because personal recognition is so very important inside the movement it means that lots of effort is expended trying to soothe rather large egos. Everyone is out there hawking their own ideas. In fact the one thing that shows most clearly is that we are disjointed in the message we send out to others. There is the notion that we are much like the last group of GOP Presidential Candidates who spent their time a few seasons ago being “flavors of the month” to quote their former VP Candidate, Sarah Palin.

As a matter of fact we seem to have adopted the dysfunctional approach of not only the GOP but in point of fact that of their hard line group as represented by the Tea Party. And look where that has gotten them. They are disjointed in their message and divided in their aims and yet no one stops to try and understand why.

One group in the GOP is fixated on derailing any efforts at Immigration Reform. Another is all about trying to recruit women and people of color to run for office through the party. Yet another is bound and determined to overturn the Affordable Care Act. And yet another has split off and decided to do anything possible to thwart the advancement of Gay Rights. So you end up with the kind of internal squabbling that surrounded the eventual veto of a stupid bill in Arizona that was supposed to allow small businesses the right to reject customers whose “lifestyles” offended their religious sensibilities.

But before you start chuckling at this, think long and hard about all the fractiousness that surrounds the cycling movement.

You have the group that wants to remove Lycra and Spandex from the American vocabulary in favor of “body art” or “no clothes at all“. You have the groups that want to “Take the Lane” versus those who “want their own lanes and to have no one else in it“. You have movements where everyone wants to own a GoPro camera in order to “record their enemies“. And then there are the groups whose primary concern is “trails“.

Some Urban Cyclists in fact think that where you live and ride makes all the difference in helping to define who the “real cyclists” are. Some groups are all about declaring how dangerous cycling is. Still others have decided to emphasize how safe it is. Yet another wants to shove all cars down sink holes and pave them over. And then you have the groups that cannot make up their minds whether parking is too little or too much in a given area.

Still others like BikeShare while others think that the bikes are too clumsy or slow or whatever. Opinions are like anal orifices. Everybody has one. I am always interested in listening in on the discussions on a cycling forum when the subject of electrical assist bicycles comes into play. There are those who actually use the word “cheat” in describing the use of such bikes. Clearly there is a segment of the Cycling Movement that has no interest in accommodating the less than able-bodied rider. Why? Who knows?

Summits Appear To Be A ‘Waste Of Time’

It would be far more accurate to describe bicycling summits as political conventions. These are instances in which more personal networking goes on than anything else. There are greater exchanges of bodily fluids and liquor than much of anything else. And everyone like it this way. You get to arrive and schmooze and then return home with your camera loaded with “selfies” that you can use to prop up your candidacy for whatever suits you back home.

But what does attending one of these events mean for furthering the cause of cycling? Not a great deal. The speakers are far more interested in scoring points with the crowd. Nothing sells your personal branding like having folks write about you on their blogs or for their news outlets back home.

And if you really want to come of age in the Cycling Movement you need to make a pilgrimage to Amsterdam or Copenhagen and get the blessings of one of their hucksters before returning home with more selfies of you and them.

Getting More Riders?

Chicago's Cycling Movement Issues A Leftist Manifesto

Chicago’s Cycling Movement Issues A Leftist Manifesto

It’s been my experience that you really can’t sell an idea that isn’t somehow beneficial to the target audience. Like the GOP we have “ideas of the month“. First it was getting recognized as intended users of the roadway. Then that gave way to having a dedicated space on the roadway, just for us. Then when we hit a roadblock in getting that slice we claimed that we were merely interested in “safety“. But when that seemed to narrow a focus, we decided to justify our demands by claiming that “all segments of the traffic landscape would simultaneously be safer“.

But someone decided that the data did not bear out this promise so the labels on the “snake oil” were swapped out to read “bicycle comfort“. And then we fell to arguing over whether to use “green” or “blue” paint on our lanes. Now we have those who advocate for special stop light covers to signify that the turns at that moment are for bikes only. We have people who are fiercely protective of who can use “their bicycle lane“. One wag even suggested using Tasers on pedestrians who might wander into their lanes. Yikes!

And of course you knew that someday someone from the so-called Cycling Movement had to publish a manifesto of sorts. And still we wonder why we are not getting “more customers“. It is a bit like the GOP wanting to keep gays, blacks, women and Hispanics at arms length and then putting out feelers to increase the scope of their outreach. Well my question to them would be, who’s left? You already have all the angry white males and their spouses.

So where is the “new blood” going to come from?

But think about the stumbles of the Cycling Movement. It cannot seem to find the right tone when it comes to cycling in Communities of Color. It is no secret that gentrification is rampant in areas where bike lanes are installed. And yet the participants in the Cycling Movement try to convince themselves that this is not true. So they install some BikeShare stations as far into the brown and black parts of town as their re-balancers are willing to visit. But then they cannot explain why such stations only work for folks with credit cards.

They invite women of color to engage with their nearly all-white audiences at summits in Chicago aimed at women. But then they criticize people from communities with which they are not familiar for being too Conservative in their suggestions of how to dress. That would be like inviting a speaker from a strict Muslim community to speak at a conference and then complaining that she suggested riding in a burka. What on earth would surprise you about that?

Well-meaning Liberals see nothing wrong with holding a Muslim-Jewish Bike Ride and then shouting out (as they pass by taverns) that there is another “house of worship“. That makes about as much sense as inviting a group of Mormons on a Christian-Mormon Bike Ride where the mid-ride luncheon is to include a Brewery Tour. But this is how tone deaf we are as a movement.

We want more people to join us in the bike lane, but they had better not be wearing traditional religious garments or riding bike with electric-assist technology. We do this because our movement is more about our personal needs and wants than it really is about the wants and needs of the general population. We think riding naked to protest oil usage is just fine. But we never stop to think how this plays in subcultures where such things would be anathema. Go figure!

We are no doubt doomed to remain a fringe group so long as we continue to emulate our GOP and Tea Party brethren.