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September 30, 2013

ALL ABOARD THE L.A. BIKE TRAIN

WOMEN BIKE
by Carolyn Szczepanski

As part of our Women on a Roll series last week, we showcased the importance of confidence in getting more women on bikes. In our live webcast, we delved into the impact and influence of educational outreach — providing relevant and welcoming classes and programs that provide women the skills and self-assurance to ride (and wrench!).

But confidence extends beyond the classroom, co-op or the bike shop.

Out in Los Angeles, Nona Varnado is “conducting” a different kind of outreach to encourage hesitant riders to give biking a try.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to catch up with Varnado at Interbike — but she’s certainly not new to the scene. She’s been focused on increasing the number of women on bikes through her fashion line, mentorship, and advocacy for years. Immediately, two of her (new) projects stood out to me as particularly innovative and promising when it comes to increasing confidence and community among women: LA Bike Trains and an art gallery focused on cycling.

In this Women Bike Q&A, Varnado shares some insight on how she’s helping to drive the exciting bike scene in the City of Angeles.

1) You fairly recently moved across the country from New York City to Los Angeles — what was that transition like and how would you describe the bike community in LA? 

Even before I set foot in Los Angeles, I was given a call by a fantastic community organizer named Patrick Miller who spent two hours on the phone with a stranger telling me how supportive the local political scene is (coming from the NYC cycling advocacy world I was immediately jealous); that biking in LA was all about big, non-competitive rides based around creative themes; that there are bike co-ops all over the city and the most interesting groups and personalities are headed by women. He then took me on my first Passage Ride, re-introduced me to TJ Flexer at Orange 20 Bikes and several leaders of the LA bike community.

It’s only in the past few years that women have started to equalize or exceed men in advocacy or planning. But in LA you see the Ovarian Psychos, The Bodacious Bike Babes (BBB!) in the community, Ma Bell holding it down at the Bike Kitchen and an overwhelmingly female staff at the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. It creates a different kind of atmosphere that’s more social, welcoming and complex. We all have our place and there’s plenty of space for everyone. Which is not to say there isn’t the usual bike drama. That totally happens. But more relaxed.

2) One really exciting project you’ve launched is LA Bike Trains. Tell us a little bit more about that. What is it and how did it get started?

When I moved to LA I discovered a whole new social bike ride culture. Giant or small groups that would meet up around a theme, usually at night, and ride as a moving party. I had heard of Midnight Ridazz, but it seemed very strange to me that people, even within the city, would drive their bikes to a mellow ride and then drive home. In New York City, and other places I’ve lived in, riding a bike in a city is pure transportation (or sport), so I recognized that as a key cultural difference. At the same time, I almost became a car person because riding around LA seemed so terrifying. I realized that there’s a complicated series of things that a potential bike commuter/city cyclist has to learn in order to ride safely (or at least confidently) and the only way to do that is to ride and learn from other people who have that knowledge and experience. Google maps might help, but only if you’re already there in terms of experience.

From my friendship with Kim Burgas who runs bike trains in NYC, I realized the combination of social rides for transportation could be a serious game changer for a place like Los Angeles. I saw what has traditionally been small friend/co-worker groups as a scalable transportation model that can be flexible enough even for the complexity of a megalopolis. I’m usually opposed to phrases that have become popular business jargon, but in this case it’s completely appropriate: empowering a huge number of people too afraid or uncomfortable to bike, even occasionally, is something that can show the world that sprawl is not something that we as a society have to turn our backs on. And if Los Angeles can do it – anyone – at any time can do it. So far the response has been fantastic. People were waiting for something like this. We’re currently 10+ routes and looking to find a way to raise money in order to expand.

3) You’ve gotten a lot of press and interest even in the first few months of the Bike Trains — what have been been some of the challenges and successes?The biggest challenge has been being turned down for fiscal sponsorship. I’ve put in a year of work and it’s emotionally hard to pack it in and keep going without support or a financial path forward. Everything costs money. The success and reward comes constantly from working with a team of volunteers who are the best and brightest in the cycling advocacy community, continually impressing me with their creativity and generosity.

We’ve become a team that several organizations look to in order to advance policy, outreach and community development in just a few months. When one of our conductors got harassed by an uninformed highway patrol officer, it became such a viral issue that we could bring the LAPD into conversation. That’s amazing. On an individual level the conductors all agree that it’s the direct impact we have on specific individuals. For example: When you see someone go from barely able to ride through an intersection without freaking out, to showing up with a brand new bike and telling you about how they ride to work even when there isn’t a bike train. We’ve had conductors fix up bikes, help riders get into better shape, get people educated about bikes and local resources and begin to develop a whole new demographic of confident, happy bike commuters.

A lot of our riders are people that the rest of the bike industry doesn’t want to address: adults who don’t race, don’t understand anything about bikes, don’t identify themselves as cyclists and don’t yet understand why a bike should cost more than $150. By the time they’ve participated even just two times most people start to get it. Our biggest supporter is Orange 20 Bikes, an independent shop in East Hollywood that’s very mission aligned with LA Bike Trains. They’ve supported us financially, provided logistical support as well as being the first shop to offer a package deal for LA Bike Trains. The goal with that is to help get people on a quality geared road bike with a helmet, lock and all the support of a local bike shop for an affordable price. We’d like to work through as many barriers to participation as we possibly can.

4) Your not just a conductor, but also a curator too. Why did you create R5Y7?

I have been producing a line of women’s urban cycling apparel since 2008 and struggled with connecting to potential customers. I saw that two things were necessary: We need more women riding everyday and I need to be able to interact with the public in an open environment where conversations can happen organically. No woman is going to buy pants on the internet unless the return policy is as free, easy and well known as Zappos. A small brand can’t afford to do that, so you’ve got to be in a spot where people can find their way to you, touch things, try them on and give feedback.

In working on problem #1 (not enough women riding bikes everyday), I saw that the ‘retail’ solution would also be an excellent advocacy tool. No one really knows how to effectively bring in non-cyclist to talk about bikes. But what if we had a really awesome gallery that just happened to revolve around bikes, able to frame the conversation to the art/design community or education and entertainment demographics? R5Y7 is an experimental lab: We can see what works — and what doesn’t. We’ve found new ways to engage a sleepy and disparate local network with informative lifestyle workshops. The gallery installations appeal to other media outlets and visitors. The ability to do fancy product launches for a fraction of the expected cost means more sexy bike brands can access the LA market – and that LA will respond by showing up and doing what other cities have:make cycling desirable.

I love being able to go back to my roots as an artist through curating shows. The workshops are immediately gratifying and much easier, but there’s a transformative power that objects have. It gets boring talking all the time. Visual experiences are key.There’s also the constant sense that it’s impossible and just when I’m afraid that I may have gone too far people respond to artist calls, journalists show up to parties and people some times even buy things. It’s wild.

5) How do you think the Bike Trains and R5Y7 tie into your overarching goal with The Bird Wheel — to create a more welcoming bike culture for women?

I think the most important part of reaching out to women is to do so from an authentic and creative voice that acknowledges that things aren’t perfect. But that imperfection, exploration, trying things out is inherently interesting and rewarding. LA Bike Trains is partially a tool for someone to have a non judgemental guide help become knowledgeable without embarrassment (a process many women feel more comfortable with) as much as it is a breakfast club. R5Y7 is similar: We try to provide interesting or beautiful experiences without requiring anything more than showing up – but if it resonates than it can become a lifelong interest or passion.

The Bird Wheel was always intended to bring a female perspective to a wide range of timely subjects. At the same time I try to be transparent that I’m not unbiased. The most rewarding experience that I remember having from writing The Bird Wheel is when the amazing Laura Solis biked from the Bronx to an event I held in Brooklyn (and on a workday!) to thank me for introducing her to all the amazing advocacy and culture groups she’s at the forefront of… through reading the blog. I never knew!

Bookmark The Bird Wheel to stay up-to-date with all of Varnado’s efforts.

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