Radically sensible: 8 questions for Elly Blue, Portland’s pop bikenomist

Radically sensible: 8 questions for Elly Blue, Portland’s pop bikenomist

Cover of Bikenomics

As she writes in her new book Bikenomics, Portland-based bike writer Elly Blue backed into bike activism in her mid-20s, when she realized that bikes advanced so many of her other wishes for the country.

Almost a decade later, Blue has organized years of observations about the economic benefits of biking into a 194-page book of deeply rational arguments that’s poised to make a splash. It’s studded with stories from her reporting around the United States and anecdotes from her own life and work. Yesterday I talked to Blue, 35 (founder of Elly Blue Publishing, a columnist for Bicycling.com, self-publisher of the quarterly zine Taking the Lane and a former managing editor here at BikePortland), in an email conversation about the country’s most underrated biking city, one of her frustrations with this very blog, and that one time she finally learned to drive.

You’re the queen of bike statistics. Pick your favorite.
There’s this stat floating around that the average amount people spend on their bikes each year is $302. The source paper is actually a survey of self-identified bike commuters published in 1997 — who identify as mostly white, professional men, average age of 39 — a nonrepresentative sample if I ever saw one. They actually say they spent an average of $302 on new bikes alone each year. When they add up gear and maintenance, they spent more like $700 or $800. Transportation economist Todd Litman does a much better analysis, looking at the actual cost of bikes and maintenance each year — this is much more similar to the costs of driving analysis that AAA does — and the funny thing is he comes up with about $300 a year as the “true” cost of biking. So the wrong statistic is actually closer to reality. Actually, as I learned writing this book, statistics are really more of an art form than a science and any truth they represent is a function of this.

Elly Blue

Elly Blue in 2011.
(Photo: Michael Andersen)

One of my favorite passages in the book is a description of your learning to drive, at age 27. First of all, what on earth convinced you to do this? Second, what did you discover?
What can I say, people have done way sillier things in order to bond with their boyfriends. The thing that surprised me most was that driving and even parking in downtown Portland was the easiest for me — it’s chaotic, but everything happens at bike speed. Urban freeways and rural roads were the worst — you’re supposed to go really fast but there’s too much going on to really process. I’m sure like anything else it gets easier the more you do it, but I wasn’t willing to put in the hours. Anyway, there’s no need. When you have a car available, you come up with reasons to use it, but those tend to disappear along with the car.

Most people who would read a book about bikes already like them, and for fairly uncomplicated reasons. Why load our brains up with complicated arguments, too?
I cry foul on this question — have you been on the Internet lately? People love to make bicycling as complicated as possible. Most of us can’t just go for a ride, we have to get all worked up about the right things to wear and how to signal our turns and helmets and what kind of infrastructure and are bike share bikes dorky … I love it all. I have opinions on some of it, which I share in the book — there should be something in there to rile up everyone — but like most of the book’s core readership, I really do thrive on the debate.

That said, the powers that be have informed me that this book is being set up to be widely read by people whose relationship with bicycling is far more casual. I’m especially glad about this, because they’ll likely have totally new and exciting ideas to bring to the table.

Have you ever shared your key “bikenomics” arguments with people from bike-friendly countries? Do they tend to respond differently than Americans?
Not much. People from super-bikey countries often seem to only want to talk about how effed the U.S. is, which is not productive and kind of boring. I decided early on that this was a book about the U.S., our history, and our potential.

Your work takes you on the road a lot. What’s the most underrated biking city in the country?
It’s hard to pick just one. A lot of cities are really changing the game with bike share and big investments in new off- and on-street networks. DC is an example of a city that’s done all three and is winning big. In 2009, I thought it was the worst city I’d ever biked in (that was before I went to Vegas), and now it’s really fun and relaxing. You can tell when a city is having a moment, when a ton of people are biking, and progress is being made but not quickly enough, so everyone’s engaged and there’s this amazing energy. Seattle seems to be having that right now, and Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and both Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio.

I was surprised at how many Portland stories are in this book. When people from other cities tell you Portland is different and your ideas don’t apply elsewhere, how do you respond?
I ask for specifics, and they point out our weather, our topography, and our culture. Then I point out Seattle’s hills, Minneapolis’s winters, and… well, nearly every emerging bike-friendly city seems to be larger than Portland.

“If you’re creating an elite club that only can only really function in certain neighborhoods, what’s the point?”
— Elly Blue, author

You talk about race and class more than some bicycle advocates. Should more of us do so? Why?
It just kills me to hear people say — including on this blog, sorry guys — that bicycling is a civil rights issue, and in the same breath say that equitable access to bicycling isn’t an important issue*. It’s the only important issue. If you’re creating an elite club that only can only really function in certain neighborhoods, what’s the point? The thesis of Bikenomics is that access to bicycling — which means a lot of things — can transform the economy, your health, your safety, your community, your happiness. Why limit that access? Why limit who is involved in advocacy, who is reached out to and represented, who the movement is led by?

A lot of mainstream bike advocates in the last several decades have come out of the sports and recreational sides of cycling. Not everyone who is into that is relatively well off or white or male, but that’s the statistical tendency. And this comes with some major blind spots that are uncomfortable to have brought to light. Anne Lusk’s recent study finding that predominately male traffic engineers are less likely to consider the needs of slower transportation cyclists is a great example. So there’s this history of privileged assumptions — but that history is proving easy to get over. Which is good because this stuff is urgent, we all need it yesterday.

You also do web columns and a quarterly zine. What can print do that pixels can’t? What can a book do that periodicals can’t?
They can all do amazing things, but contrary to certain popular media narratives, old-fashioned mass-produced printed books are easiest to sell a lot of so they can get out there and change the world. Don’t worry, though: Bikenomics will also be an e-book.

Bikenomics will be available December 1st 2013 from “most any bookstore,” and can be ordered in advance at bikenomics.net.

*Note from the publisher: This site does not believe “bicycling is a civil rights issue” and that “equitable access to bicycling isn’t an important issue.”

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