Portland bike advocate Elly Blue to speak in RVA

Think bicycles aren’t economically feasible? Think again.

“Think big. Don’t compromise. Don’t ask for too little” is the advice Elly Blue has for Richmond.

Blue, bicycle advocate and author of Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy, will talk more about how Richmonders can advocate for bicycles as part of the Dinner & Bikes tour, which also features California chef Joshua Ploeg and documentary filmmaker Joe Biel.

Blue’s path to bicycle advocacy began while attending college in one of America’s most bike-friendly cities. “When I moved to Portland, I got involved in a bike-fun organization,” Blue said. “It was all about going on fun bike rides. Sometimes you wear costumes, sometimes you go party under a bridge…”

But in between those fun rides, Portland bicyclists discussed ways to make the city more bike-friendly. “A lot of people were interested in bike activism and the politics of bicycling, so we spent a lot of time talking about it amongst ourselves and sharing ideas…”

Instead of going on to study anthropology in graduate school as she had planned, Blue stayed Portland and became a bike activist “because of the people I met,” she said. “I just got really interested in studying the minutia of the law and the history of how things got to be the way the did. It’s a passion that’s never really left me.”

That passion led to a regular column at Grist, an environmental news organization. “I was getting ready to write something…on ‘How to Lock Your Bike,'” she said. “It was really simple and it was boring me to tears, honestly.”

Instead of writing about simple, utilitarian bike topic, Blue wanted to write “something that would change the way people see [the bicycling infrastructure] issue.” Instead of writing about how to properly lock you bike, she decided to make an economic case for bicycling. “It turns out the case is really, really, really strong, and much stronger than I thought,” she said. “It was so exciting discovering that, and people responding really, really strongly to that. So I kept going [with the column] and it became a book.”

“There’s this myth that cars pay their own way, that when you’re driving a car, you’re paying gas taxes, you’re paying all these fees. So there’s this idea that…all of that money goes to fund roads that you drive on,” Blue said. “But when you actually break it down, when you look at the externalized costs like the health impact, the congestion impact, the loss of space in cities or community life that we give to cars, cars end up being the most subsidized form of transportation.”

Many car-related subsidies go into building and maintaing roads, which aren’t good investments. “Every time you build a road, it actually loses money very quickly. It immediately depreciates and you just basically have to pay even more to build it again,” Blue said.

Bicycles offer an economic alternative. “I don’t think the bike is the end-all-be-all, everybody should ride a bike,” Blue said. “But what I do see is that bicycling is the one kind of transportation that, when cities invest [in them], they actually make their money back instead of continuing to have to spend more and more.”

That money comes back in several ways. First, bicycles “don’t put wear and tear on the road” like cars and trucks, and so bicycle-specific roads last much longer than their big brothers,” Blue said. “A lot of [the earned-back money] is the money that you don’t have to spend over and over and over again on bikes.”

But the cost-savings go beyond the road. “When people have the opportunity to bike more, it’s been shown they take up much fewer public health care dollars and personal health care dollars,” Blue said. “They have more disposable income. They are healthier, they are happier, they miss less work. They’re more effective at work.”

She said some employers are using bicycles to their advantage. “There are actually companies who are paying their employees every month to commute by bike because the health care savings are about four times the amount they pay out.”

Good bicycle infrastructure even helps make roadways more safe. “When you build good bike infrastructure, it actually increases road safety for everyone on the street, not just people on bikes, but also people walking and driving,” Blue said.

On June 16th, Blue will use her portion of the Dinner and Bikes event at the Robinson Theater in Church Hill to teach Richmonders how to advocate for better bicycle infrastructure. “I’m going to talk about the power of people doing activism in the streets with bicycles. I’m going to talk about the different political strategies for making changes happen for bicycling, with bicycling,” she said.

Although tickets for the dinner portion of the event are sold out, tickets to hear Blue’s presentation are $5 and available for purchase online.

The day before the Bikes and Dinner event, filmmaker Joe Biel will screen his latest film, Aftermass: Bicycling in a Post-Critical Mass Portland, about the bike activism behind one of the nation’s most bike-friendly cities. “You’ll be surprised and shocked, it’s actually quite amazing and scandalous,” Blue said about the film. The screening will take place at the Scott’s Addition location of Lamplighter at 8:00 PM on Sunday, June 15th.

When asked how Richmond can become the next Portland, Blue said the city’s aspirations should exceed her home city. “Think big,” she said. “Think bigger than Portland.” Although the city has many great bicycle-friendly locations, “a lot of problems” still exist there. “It’s still not totally easy and awesome to ride a bike in Portland.”

She said the biggest asset people have in advocating for better bicycle infrastructure are the bikes they ride. “A bicycle is a really good tool anybody can use to improve their community and improve their city,” she said.

“You don’t have to be a city planner, you don’t have to be a political leader. You can be a business owner, you can be a regular person who just rides around and you can use the bicycle to make a huge positive impact on your community,” she said. “I would urge everyone to keep that in mind and be aware of their own power.”

Bikes and Dinner will take place on Monday, June 16th at the Robinson Theater (2903 Q Street) in Church Hill at 7:00 PM.

photo by Michael Anderson

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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