Earlier this year, we were excited to see Action Wipes garner a mention as a "must-have" by Author Emilie Bahr in her new book, Urban Revolutions - A Woman's guide to Two-Wheeled Transportation. Emilie is smart, funny and has written a great guide for any woman cyclist. We caught up with her in the first of 3 part interview. Read on!
As an introduction, please tell us a little bit about yourself and your family
I’m a writer and urban planner living in New Orleans with my husband, Beaux. We are both very active and love to be outside. We like to run, hike, dance, paddle in the bayou, go to the many and varied festivals that happen in our city, and - of course - we like to bike. Biking is far and away our favorite way to get around our city.
How many miles do you normally ride in a week?
Although I do the occasional bike tour, I’m primarily a utilitarian cyclist. My ride to work is about four miles each way. I try to bike to work three days a week, so when I hit that goal, that’s about 24 miles a week.
When did you realize there was a need for your book, Urban Revolutions?
In 2007 I was writing for a local magazine and I’d heard the city planned to start installing its first bike lanes on roads that were being rebuilt in New Orleans post-Katrina. My first reaction to that news was: “Who would be crazy enough to bike in New Orleans?” My second thought was that I needed to find the people who were and write about them!
Not long after that, I started riding my bike to get around during Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest after realizing there was an alternative to dealing with the hassles of driving to and parking at these events where crowds are thick and parking is very limited. Pretty quickly I became hooked, and before long I was enrolled in graduate school to study urban planning. There I learned about the serious discrepancy in the U.S. between sexes where bike commuting is concerned. Even as biking is catching on, especially in large urban centers across the country, it turns out only about a quarter of American bike commuters are female, and I became really interested in why this was.
I noticed among my own female friends there was plenty of interest in biking, but many of them were kept out of the saddle by a wide range of concerns. Many of these concerns were familiar to me from when I started out, from how to ride safely in traffic and how to bike with kids, to how to bike to work and still look professional. Because they knew I used my bike for transportation, I started fielding \ questions about how I did it, and I wound up doing my graduate research on factors that promote and discourage transportation bicycling.
When I started writing this book, it was only intended to be a short little guide to bicycling that I planned to circulate among friends. But soon I realized this was something that could be useful to a much broader audience, given the dearth of material out there like it specifically geared toward women. I found that what started as a simple how-to guide was becoming much bigger than I initially intended. One of the people who wrote a blurb for the book described it as "a how-to guide and a why-to manifesto," which I think is a great summary.
What advice would you give to those who think bicycle commuting is dirty, dangerous and difficult?
There certainly are very valid concerns about the safety of biking in a country that hasn’t done a great job of prioritizing safe accommodations for anyone traveling by means other than automobile in recent history. Many of us also live in places that are far-removed from our jobs, making it hard to fathom biking to the office, or find that showers and other amenities that are common in more bike-friendly environments are lacking. So I won’t say the barriers to biking aren’t real, but I’d also point out that in a society where car crashes and diseases related to inactivity are among top causes of death- cycling can go a long way toward remedying these problems.
One of my favorite things about biking is that it’s a way to get in exercise relatively easily while getting where I need to go anyway. Even if you don’t feel like biking to work, there are lots of other, potentially shorter, trips that might be better places to start. For someone leery about distance, I would advice biking to your neighborhood coffee shop, grocery store, or park on a weekend. Usually people who are worried they're not in shape enough to ride will find it's much easier than they think.
It’s also important to recognize there is a portion of the population that is simply not going to be convinced to ride a bike – and that’s ok. Some people aren’t able to bike, whether because of some physical limitation or because they live in places this country has built that make it next to impossible to bike. Some are just not at all interested in hopping onto a bike to get around. (Though I have a feeling that a good number of those falling into this latter category may change their minds as they continue to see their neighbors, friends, and coworkers taking to the saddle.) But what the research shows – and what excites me – is that most Americans are interested in biking, even if they haven’t done it since they were 10 years old.
Since you are also an urban planner, what can communities do to help their towns realize the importance and economic benefits of more cyclists and better cycling routes?
I heard a guy once describe bike lanes as billboards advertising the desirability of a town, and I think that’s panning out. There are lots of studies out there pointing to the value of biking in communities, but even more compelling is the number of cities that have implemented bike- and pedestrian-friendly policies that have seen great success in countless areas of civilian and professional life. These cities attract and retain residents and businesses, improve the safety and diversity of their transportation networks, and generally make their communities more vibrant and desirable. The Millennial generation, which has now outpaced baby boomers as the most populous in the country, is especially interested in places that offer alternatives to driving everywhere- although this trend is increasingly appealing to the aging baby boomer population as well. Even in places that wouldn’t seem the most likely candidates for bike-friendly investments, policymakers are starting to realize the value in making places walking- and bicycling-friendly. These investments are now viewed as necessary for creating viable cities in the 21st century. I also think it’s worth noting that there are lots of communities in this country doing really progressive things where bike infrastructure and policy are concerned, so places interested in becoming more bike-friendly aren’t the first to the start line. Whether it’s separated bike lanes or road diets (where roads of several lanes are whittled down to make room for a bike lane), there are countless success stories to look to in cities across the country that can help mitigate people’s concerns about changing the status quo.
What are some actions cyclists can take to help their communities inspire action?
Advocates can join and contribute to local bicycle-advocacy organization, or start one if it doesn’t already exist. Speak up to your town council and planning entities about your interest in making your community more bike-friendly. When you hear of a road project in the planning, find out if there are plans to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians and if not, whether this could be factored into the plans. Investigate whether your community has a complete streets policy, which requires policymakers to consider all users in road projects. If not, work to get one adopted. Perhaps most importantly, ride your bike and encourage others to join you!
You can find out more and purchase Emilie's book here.