Monday, February 6, 2012

Elly Blue's Bikenomics

Elly Blue - Bikenomics

Within the world of bicycle writers, there are few figures that have been more influential to my own thinking and writing than Eleanor Blue, based in Portland, Oregon. Elly was a long time contributor to the Bike Portland website, has written a number of column pieces for the popular environmental website Grist, and contributed to a number of print magazines like Momentum, and non-bikey publications as well like the feminist magazine Bitch. She has also become a creator of her own zine publications and is now pursing book projects.

Eleanor Blue Of, Portland Oregon
(Elly Blue giving a keynote speech at LA Bike Summit)
My engagement in the world of bicycle activism and advocacy really took off around the time of the first LA Bike Summit (now the LA Street Summit) where Blue was a keynote speaker. I think everyone who made it out to that summit can attest to how transformative a moment that was for the growing LA bicycling community.

Since that point I have gone through a breadth of reading, writing and research that has been radically expanding my horizons and world view on bikes, urban planning, transportation, and more recently global energy issues as they relate to all of the above. Along the way there were moments where ideas had loosely come together in my mind, but somehow Elly would often write what I was thinking more clearly than I had been able to yet.

The concept of bikenomics, a phrase Blue coined and used in a popular series of posts for Grist, put a laser focus onto the role of bicycling in economics, but in an accessible style unlike so many drab data reports put out by consulting agencies and advocacy groups. Preceding the bikenomics series, Elly's first column for Grist explained why placing an additional road tax on bicycling would be unfair, which is a must read rebuttal for a very common argument lobbed at bike riders.

Reading of the failings and slow going of bicycle advancement of years past, it occurred to me that bike advocates where not emphasizing the right things to break ground politically. As I came to understand the inherently cost inefficient nature of automobile oriented development versus communities better suited to biking and walking, it started to click. Discussing bicycling as a tool for local economic development might be the clearest way into the hearts of politicians and businesses that care more about the green of dollar bills, than going "green" for the planet or improving health.

Often times I feel people in various advocacy movements shy away from discussing money issues, although the Occupy Wall Street movement has started to bring finance back to the center stage. I think some of this reluctance comes from the guilty baggage of money being used as a corrupting or corrosive force in society when greed gets out of hand. But money is simply a tool representing value, and what we do with that value can be bad or good or somewhere in-between.

If we want our money to be spent wisely and humanely, we need to get in the trenches of discussing how and why we invest our society's money and resources in some ways and not others. We have to reveal the externalities, subsidies and trade imbalances that drain value out of our communities for the benefit of automobile and global oil company interests. We need to illustrate the power of bicycling to save government revenues, boost local scaled economies, and create new business and job opportunities.

Bikenomics - Car Parking Versus Bike Parking
(My photo contribution to the bikenomics presentation)
Using the power of twitter hashtags, Elly also turned #bikenomics into an online community exchanging ideas. Launching the hashtag into greater prominence, she hosted a live, if somewhat chaotic, online conference and Q&A over Twitter. Taking the idea from online to offline, bikenomics became a talk shared in communities across the country as part of the Dinner And Bikes tour. This event hosted by chef Joshua Ploeg, publisher and filmmaker Joe Biel, and of course Ms. Blue, hit Santa Monica last year. Her next adventure in talking bikes over dinner is being organized now, and will hit the American south this time around.

Collaborating with Joe Biel, founder of Microcosm Publishing, Elly spun off the bikenomics concept into a print zine, a predecessor to bigger ambitions for a book. The zine, Bikenomics: How Bicycling Will Save The Economy (If We Let It), serves as a great primer to the subject of bicycling and the economy, and should be read by anyone passionate about bikes and strengthening the economic resilience of our communities in a time of great financial uncertainty.


By saving the economy, Elly is not necessarily talking about preserving the scale of our economy as measured in the flawed metric of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). She is talking about bicycling as a component in improving the qualities that really matter to our lives. Improved health, ecological sustainability, greater social interaction, and a scale of business and commerce which is local and enduring, not big box and throw away.

Further out on the horizon, Bikenomics is to become a full fledged book. I can't wait to read it when it comes out, and expect that it will flesh out a few gaps in the existing literature on bicycling. The vast majority of books on bikes seem to focus on the individual learning curve and motivations to ride, or the athletic and physical side of bicycling. We need more literature placing bicycling in larger sociological and economic contexts, and Elly Blue is just such an author with a fresh perspective to help do the job.

Having met Elly a few times in person now, I can attest that in addition to being a talented writer, she is also just an awesome person. I wish her all the best on her present and future endeavors. If you aren't following her work already, I highly recommend you start. Her blog is Taking The Lane, which is also the title of her collaborative quarterly zine, focused on the intersection of bikes and feminism.

You can help support Elly's next batch of zines on Kickstarter, nabbing some for yourself in the process, and generally keeping her employed contributing awesomeness to the bikey world. Her zines can be bought individually or through subscription on her web storefront as well. Support the makers and doers pushing the bike movement forward, and it benefits the bike economy for us all. Now that is bikenomics.

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