Q&A with Elly Blue, Feminist Bike Activist and Independent Media Titan

Elly Blue’s latest publication, “Bikes in Space,” is a feminist sci-fi zine about her favorite mode of transportation. “I realized that because I work for myself, I can do anything I want,” she says by way of explanation. The amazing truth is that she makes a living writing whatever strikes her fancy about the intersection between bicycling and feminism.

Elly Blue is currently on tour, feeding people a delicious vegan meal and talking about how biking will save the economy. What could be better? Photo: Momentum

Elly is such a fixture of the Portland biking (and blogging) scene that I always figured that she moved there specifically to be part of it. Actually, she moved there for college and didn’t really start riding much until her senior year (at the age of 27 — she started late). In 2004, when President George W. Bush got re-elected, her friends all started threatening to move to Canada and she said, “Not me! I’m going to stay right here and be a bike activist.” She hadn’t really meant to say that, but then she realized it made sense. That drunken pledge has become her life’s work.

Aside from her quarterly zines, Blue published her first book, “Everyday Bicycling,” in December, 2012 and is eagerly awaiting the release of her second book, “Bikenomics: How Bicycling Will Save the Economy.” We caught up at her Dinner & Bikes event in DC this week, part of a month-long, 27-city tour through the Northeast and Midwest.

Tanya Snyder: This is the third year you’re doing this tour. What’s the mission of the tour; what are you hoping to accomplish aside from having an awesome trip?

Elly Blue: Aside from having an awesome trip, the goal of the Dinner & Bikes tour is to feed people a really inspiring meal and bring together people in the community who are passionate about bicycling, often in very different ways from each other, often who don’t know each other. I want to create an atmosphere where people can learn and talk and meet each other and feel inspired and feel like they have the power to make big changes and pursue whatever their vision is for bikes.

TS: You said this is the first time tour has come to the east coast. Have you sampled our bike infrastructure and bike culture?

There’s suddenly this culture rising up around women and cycling that’s bringing something new and fresh and not even engaging in old, stale debates like whether we should have bike lanes or not.

EB: We don’t get to sample bike culture as much as we’d like to, in part we don’t have bikes and in part we’re on the move all day, every day. But I’m from the east coast. I’m from New Haven. We were just back there a few days ago; we did an event there.

I started riding a bike in New Haven when I was 20, and for a couple of years I rode pretty much everywhere I went, and I rode on the sidewalk. I remember having really funny encounters with police where I’d say, “Am I doing something wrong?” and they were like, “We don’t care.”

Then, once, I rode with Critical Mass. They happened to be riding on my commute path. There were nine of us, and it was a completely transformative experience. Being able to ride in the street and feel safe meant so much to me, because it hadn’t even occurred to me to do that. And then it didn’t really occur to me to do that again until I moved to Portland.

So I would say east coast and west coast culture are fairly different, but not as different as you’d think. I’d say the culture is more different between different types of cities than different coasts.

TS: So you’re this one-woman media empire now. How do you do that, financially?

EB: I have spreadsheets and spreadsheets. I’ve been cobbling together making a living through a variety of things, mostly related to bicycling and writing and publicity and blogging and such. 2013 is the first year that this is pretty much all I do; I’m a writer, and I go on tour and speak at events.

I started when I first got out of college, writing for my friend Jonathan’s blog, Bike Portland, because he asked me if I wanted to write an opinion column sometimes and I said, “Oh boy, do I ever have opinions.” It slowly grew into a career from there without me even really pursuing it particularly.

TS: But somehow it earns enough to live on?

EB: I earn almost enough to live on.

TS: And considering that your expenses are lower than somebody who owns a car.

EB: Yes. I don’t have a car, and I don’t have kids. I hope someday to be able to buy a fancier bike.

The bike movement has taken so many turns that I never would have predicted. Like bike-share? Who knew that that would become The Thing?

TS: You were doing this women and bikes thing before anyone else. Now everyone is doing it. But it seems like any time I try to talk about any specifically female issues related to bicycling, I end up in sexism or at least gender essentialism. “Women are more concerned about safety,” or “Women have kids and domestic duties.” It’s all so fraught. How do you talk about the connection between women and cycling, or feminism and cycling?

EB: The big connection is because the bike world has been — The scales have been tipped for so long, that it is mostly men doing it, bicycling as a sport is mostly welcoming to me, the way streets are designed — they’re designed by men for men. I don’t think it’s gender essentialism to say that statistically, women have more of the errands and labor. And in a city that’s not designed to do that by bike, women are going to be less able to ride, unless they have an awesome cargo bike.

[Here we’re interrupted by a worshipping fan asking Elly for an autograph]

EB: I was getting long-winded there as a way to just say: Because so many more women are bicycling suddenly, that’s where the new energy in the movement is. That’s where the new ideas are coming from.

It’s not that women are going to have completely different ideas from men. There’s suddenly this culture rising up around women and cycling that’s bringing something new and fresh and not even engaging in old, stale debates like whether we should have bike lanes or not.

TS: So how do you talk about how to get more women bicycling, how to get over one-fourth, without falling into that trap? As a new mom, there are new issues that come up for me, but are those women’s issues?

EB: Those aren’t women’s issues, but women are the ones who are willing to bring those issues up right now. And that’s good for men also. It’s good for everybody.

TS: Bikenomics is another thing you’ve been talking about, and now it’s the theme of the Bike Summit, it’s the new way that we talk about cycling. Is that an effective lever to change the conversation about bicycling? Is that the goal?

EB: Yes, the goal is to change the frame around the issue of cycling. The conversation has, for so long, been around safety and the environment and health and fitness. And I think those conversations are really important, but from a purely political, cynical perspective, those are no-goes.

But talking about money, talking about the economy — that’s something everyone can relate to. I’ve had people come up to me and make all my own talking points back to me as though they’ve thought of them themselves — which clearly they have — and then explain that those are their feelings as members of the Tea Party. This is one issue where the right-wing case for bicycling is better than the left-wing case for bicycling.

Elly Blue's partner, filmmaker Joe Biel, shows his 2030 vision for bicycling in the poster for his movie.

TS: I liked [your partner] Joe [Biel]‘s 2030 vision for bicycling, on the poster [left] for his movie [Aftermass: Bicycling in a Post-Critical Mass Portland, screened at the Dinner & Bikes event]. What’s your 2030 vision?

EB: I don’t have a utopian vision. I’m just really excited by watching things emerge. The bike movement has taken so many turns that I never would have predicted. Like bike-share? Who knew that that would become The Thing?

TS: What did you think of it when it first started?

EB: I first heard about the Vélib’ program in 2006 or 2007, and I thought it was really exciting but I thought no one would take that on here. And suddenly everyone was at once. That was a really exciting year.

TS: I still don’t really use it here. I have to admit that I’m used to the way my bike feels and I don’t really want to ride other bikes. Do you have things like that that are still intimidating to you with bikes?

EB: Some days it’s really hard to get on a bike and go anywhere. I have days when I feel like, wow, that sounds terrifying. And then I go out and do it anyway and usually it’s fine.

I have high road-rage days and low road-rage days. Some days every little thing gets on my nerves and I make bad decisions. Car traffic is a pretty intense environment to be in, I think. It’s pretty hostile to anyone who’s not in a car. And anyone who is in a car. We’re driving on this road trip and it’s just unbelievable how stressful it is.

TS: Did you drive all the way from Portland?

EB: We took the train to Chicago and we rented a car.

TS: So you’ve decided to drive a car for this trip –

EB: I sit in the backseat. We have a roadie who drives.

TS: Do you not drive?

EB: I do drive; I have a driver’s license; I have driven. I try not to drive, ever. It’s not fun. We’re going to try to figure out how to do the tour on Amtrak next year.

TS: It’s interesting to hear you say car traffic can be really stressful. I think a lot of people who are trying to convince others that biking is great are sort of like, “No, it’s not problem.” But car traffic is a huge problem. And so we need dedicated space… though the vehicular cycling debate still rages on Streetsblog.

EB: I promised myself I would not engage on this topic anymore. But I can say I am really inspired by the vehicularists, that fact that a small group of five to 20 people really can change the world and have a major effect on society. I’m inspired not to retard progress but to make progress. But it’s amazing how much you can accomplish if you just believe in yourself that much.

TS: But you believe you can induce more demand for biking with good bike facilities.

EB: Yes. Even if you have bad bike facilities you can induce more demand. We went to Austin, and everyone was talking about how great a bike city that was, but we were pretty unimpressed. And [fellow tour member, vegan cook extraordinaire] Joshua [Ploeg] said, “Yes, from the most fit to the least fearful, anyone can ride on Austin’s streets!” We thought we’d donate that slogan to the vehicular cyclists.

If you want to have one percent of the population ride a bike, then sure: Education, and convincing people to get out there, is the way to go. But if you want it to be a real mode of transportation, it’s not enough. Not at all.