Feature: The Linchpin Ladies

Words: Jessica Glenza
Photos: Cole Wilson
Published in Bicycle Times Issue #39

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If you eye a motley crew of ladies biking New York City, two dozen strong and high-fiving all the way, there’s a good chance you’ve bumped into WE Bike NYC or a group they’ve inspired.

The all-ladies biking collective has toured the five boroughs for three years now, teaching mechanics classes, holding cold weather clinics and popping off for hot cocoa. And the nonprofit that started as a bicycle mechanic’s graduate thesis has gained some serious street cred.

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In March, the group members presented their own flavor of activism on a panel at the National Bike Summit. In September, members ceremoniously painted green New York’s 1,000th mile of bike lane. WE Bike, according to bicycling community observers, is a “linchpin” in a new wave of feminist activism that has turned an eye toward leveling the gender gap in bicycling.

Founded at the start of a new grassroots push to get more women on two wheels, WE Bike (or Women’s Empowerment Through Bicycles) encourages urban women to join their male counterparts who commute, race and fix bicycles.

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The group doesn’t advocate one kind of bicycling, but holds events to introduce women to every sort imaginable. Classes teach riders how to fix a flat tire, introduce them to scenic road routes near New York and offer tips for riding in the frigid weather, to name a few.

WE Bike’s current leader, Casey Ashenhurst, joined in the group’s early days, about three years ago. Ashenhurst had lived in New York for three years in 2012, when she saw a WE Bike NYC flier in a shop window.

Her first thought: “I need to go to this party.”

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“I literally bought the T-shirt and was like ‘Where can I sign up? I want to get involved,'” she said. “I got really jazzed … The people that I met who were representatives of WE Bike, they encouraged me to come out, they said, ‘Sign up for our newsletter, here take a sticker, put on this temporary tattoo,’ and really made me feel part of it.”

By her second meeting with WE Bike, she volunteered to be team captain in a five boroughs tour, helping organize other members for the ride. Now, she heads up WE Bike as resident organizer, but is quick not to take too much credit.

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“We wouldn’t exist without all of the other people,” Ashenhurst said. “Our ride leaders, and just random stuff … We have people that help our Moms on Wheels initiative, our website stuff, all kinds of random things—special events.”

Other grassroots organizations have sprung up almost simultaneously. On the East Coast, women-specific groups are organizing around locations, such as Women Bike PHL in greater Philadelphia, and around identities, such as Black Girls Do Bike in Washington D.C.

The more established advocacy organizations are getting on board as well. Over the last two years, the League of American Bicyclists has given away more than a half dozen “mini-grants” of $3,000 to support women’s cycling programs around the country. The Bicycle Transportation Alliance launched a “Women Bike” campaign in August 2015, and women’s advocacy is now a key fixture at the annual National Bike Summit.

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“Lots of people around the country look to WE Bike as an example, as ‘How did you do this?'” said Carolyn Szczepanski, who works as a consultant with New York’s pedestrian safety Vision Zero program and the Alliance for Biking & Walking. “They’ve really been kind of a linchpin of the women’s bike community.”

WE Bike NYC’s founder, Elizabeth Jose, is now the membership coordinator for the Southeast Seattle Tool Library. She moved west in 2014, two years after forming WE Bike NYC as an outgrowth of her graduate thesis at New York University.

Her interest in biking started as an undergrad at the University of California at Santa Cruz in roughly 2006, she said, where a bicycle provided freedom on the hilly, 2,000-acre campus.

“I was using my friend’s little brother’s mountain bike, and I’m not a short person, and that was not a good solution,” said Jose. When a neighbor gave Jose a bike (missing pedals and a seat) she brought it to the campus’ volunteer-run bicycle shop, The Bike Church, for help.

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That free bike, and the freedom it bestowed, was the beginning of a long relationship with two wheels. Jose biked across the country in 2008.

“[I] learned the bike mechanics out of sheer terror because I was going to be riding across the country, and what if something went wrong?” she said about how she learned the trade. Later she commuted to work on her bike in Boston and when she moved to New York to attend NYU. When she got a job as a bike mechanic, she assumed there was a ready community of female cyclists in the city of more than 8 million.

“There’s a competitive pinball league and it’s full—and I was like ‘Of course there are probably a zillion lady bike groups operating in the city, and all I have to do is find the one that meets my needs,'” Jose said. “So, I started Googling and there was nothing.”

“I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe there were no groups for riding bikes, as ladies,” she said.

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At the same time, Jose was shopping her thesis focused on a girl’s biking program, titled “Strong Women Start on a Bicycle,” to different nonprofits. Most of the responses she received said no one felt ready to teach the class, but instead wanted to take one. She sent out the first WE Bike NYC email a few weeks later to 30 “bikey” friends.

Sixty people emailed back.

“When women’s [biking] was organizing WE Bike back in 2012 it was really at the start of a visible movement around gender equity in bicycling,” said Szczepanski.

New York, it turned out, was a perfect petri dish for testing how to engage women to ride bicycles. It included demographic subgroups likely to ride bicycles, but not readily depicted in popular biking culture.

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At the time she wrote the thesis, women in New York were less likely to be white (44 percent versus 72.4 percent), and more likely to be poor (16.2 percent versus 10.1 percent) than the national average, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Women in New York are also more likely to be the head of household (18.7 percent versus 12.6 percent), meaning they need practical advice on how to link trips—for example, from the pharmacy to day care to the grocery store.

So, after the first meeting of about eight bike riding New York ladies, the group formulated a plan. Materials in Spanish addressed the needs of Latinos, while playground meet-ups allowed moms to test each other’s bikes and carriers and discuss the safest routes for family riding (with more bathroom breaks).  The Latinos engaged by WE Bike’s Spanish language materials are now thriving, according to current members. Mujeres en Movimiento (Women in Motion) are semi-independent and based in Queens. Moms on Wheels continues to bring moms out in the city to socialize on bikes.

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“The women’s movement in cycling didn’t just materialize in the last 10 years, or five years,” said Szczepanski. “But, there’s been a recent resurgence in organizing around identity in gender.” Ashenhurst said when she looks at all the new bike organizations and campaigns springing up everywhere from Boston to San Diego, her enthusiasm is hard to contain.

“I’m like ‘Yes! We need more!'” she said. “All women–I want all the women–to be able to ride bikes together.”

 

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