Thursday, April 5, 2007

Meet the Founder of Consider Biking - Meredith Joy

A good friend of mine is on the faculty of Ohio State's Department of City and Regional Planning, and she let me know about the independent project of her student Meredith Joy. Meredith is in the process of putting together a website called Consider Biking (the site is currently under construction, but she'd be happy for you to check out some of the things she's offering). I was impressed with the focus and breadth that the site seems to be taking and Meredith was kind enough to submit to an interview. I'd like to share that with you now.

Meredith would like to announce, before I get started, that the website will be officially opened on Earth Day (April 22). Also, Consider Biking will have a booth at the Goodale Park Earth Day event, so look for her there!

And so, without any further ado, here's Meredith!

First, please tell us a bit about yourself and what you've been studying at OSU in regard to planning.

Hello! I'm Meredith Joy and here's a bit about me: I grew up in Pataskala, Ohio, just east of here, and went to the University of Pittsburgh for undergrad, where I got my BA in Philosophy in 2001. Immediately afterwards, I went on a 3-month road trip with my college roommate (on September 11 we had gotten as far as Indianapolis!) all throughout the south and up the coast of California. Then, when I was broke and tired, I came home to Pataskala to stay with my parents for a while and regroup, and worked at a battered women's shelter and the Newark Advocate.

In early 2003, I moved to Columbus and got a job working for the Executive MBA program at the Fisher College of Business. After a couple years, I decided to quit that job (suits don't suit me) and do freelance writing and editing...which ended up sucking a whole lot, actually, and I only did that for one year. As of September 2006, I took on a part-time job with one of my clients (writing federal & foundation grants for healthcare organizations) and enrolled in the Master's of CRP course at OSU.

I just recently started the program so I'm still in core courses, but I plan to study energy & transportation issues and policy. And all my independent studies will be around commuter cycling, which will be the topic of my thesis as well. Outside the program and my job, I live in Clintonville with my kick-ass boyfriend (a programmer who is building my site) and we try to generate community wherever we can. We host a monthly conversational salon and he’s part of the arts scene and I’m starting this bike group, and…etc., etc….

What kind of bike(s) do you ride? Are you primarily a commuter or recreational cyclist?

I ride a Specialized Sirrus road bike. It's comfy and sturdy and light—nothing super-duper special, but I give it high marks! I rarely ever ride recreationally b/c I'm all about commuting by bike, reducing reliance on the auto, you know. Plus I freeze up when contemplating a ride with no destination!

What challenges do you see for cycling as an accepted mode of transportation in Columbus?

Well, there are several challenges we’re up against in Columbus, as I see it.

First, we’re a car town in a car culture that is already challenged by high rates of obesity and inactivity. I’m certainly not the only one out there trying to figure out how to get people to be more active—it’s tough. Especially when commuter cyclists are out in the real world, outside of gym environs, and may be a bit sweaty when they get to where they’re going! There has to be a culture that supports sweatiness (so to speak), and right now in Columbus there isn’t, so people who bike can be seen as somewhat “X-treme” or weird. It’s not mainstream to bike, and people can feel threatened by that.

Second, to cycle for transportation is to add yet one more element of planning to a day, because cycling requires special prep for weather, errands, hauling things, etc. It’s not as easy as, “well, just hop on a bike and do it!” I mean, of course in some sense it is just that easy, but what if you have kids? What if you work in Dublin? What if you’re in sales and need you need to look polished all day? These are real considerations that can be addressed with thoughtful planning, but the cycling lifestyle does take some work.

Third, the infrastructure in this town is insufficient to support large numbers of cyclists, and probably won’t be in place until a large number of cyclists are already riding on the roads and begin to demand changes. So the early renegades are going to have to deal with poor conditions for a while. Soon enough, this will change, but in the meantime we must be hardy and diligent!

And finally, people are scared. They don’t want to go it alone for the first few times and come within 12 inches of autos with hostile or inattentive drivers! And there has been no real community devoted to making it comfortable for them. Which is completely valid—cycling can be dangerous, especially if you’re new to it and biking improperly. So we have some work to do in the area of outreach to new cyclists so that they can be safe on the roads.

What are your goals and expectations for Consider Biking?

What I’m out to do here is create a culture in which people are informed and confident enough to “consider biking” when making a local trip that they would otherwise have used their auto to accomplish. I think a lot of the commuter cycling world focuses on the commute to work, but the fact is that if people were only using their cars to get to and from work, we wouldn’t have nearly the problem we do today with oil demand. So I want more people to bike, more often, to more places, as they are able to. I think my vision and mission statements really capture what I’m up to in that regard.

But I also plan to facilitate community among cyclists in this town, because my experience has been that it’s a fragmented community and not one that is particularly welcoming. I plan to focus on outreach and education with Consider Biking, and I don’t think that has been a common focus among cyclists historically. On a related point, I’ve actually heard from several planners that one of the problems with cyclists is that they don’t speak with one voice. Some want bike lanes, some don’t; some prefer paths while others want to be on the roads…so I hope that once we reach a critical mass (ha, pun intended) of bikers we can address these differences on a grander scale and among a more diverse population of bicycle commuters.

Tell us a bit about your website and the features it has/will have.

The website will feature the tools you’d expect of a commuter cycling site—community resources, links to relevant info, maps, discussion forums, etc.—but also some multimedia stuff that really elevates what is possible using an online community-building tool. For example, we’re going to feature:
  • local bikers in a section that has an audio interview with them playing as a photo slideshow of their image (ala the slideshows on The New York Times website)

  • the opportunity for bikers to upload videos or photos of the things they do to accommodate cycling in their lives

  • a buddy system, whereby experienced riders can volunteer to ride with newbies until they feel comfortable on the road or people can organize “bikepools” to/from work

  • community-generated content (moderated, of course) in which people can contribute articles or tips as desired

  • interactive Google maps whereby people can submit routes, find stores (and rate them!), and pinpoint where their bikes were stolen

  • a personal membership account that allows people to register their bikes in case they are stolen or otherwise compromised
Plus more, no doubt, as people make suggestions and we move this along!

What aspect of this project excites you the most?

I think the part that excites me most is that I sense this kind of "click" with my project and what's going on in Columbus and the world in terms of waking up to our impact on the environment, and to how our over-reliance on resources can make us weak and unstable. In terms of Columbus specifically, I have felt a shift even in the past couple of years with respect to the general "buzz" about sustainability issues—certainly Mayor Coleman has been at the fore of some of that. There is now the sense that big things can happen here, that we can be a model city for green issues. I happen to believe that my project is unique in all the country and I would love to be a model for organizing other towns' cycling efforts. I think that's a realistic expectation for Consider Biking, because it has been our intention all along to create a site that is exportable. So there are Big Things ahead for me and for Columbus, which is so great. I love the idea of staying here to build something awesome, as opposed to relocating to San Fran where it’s all set up for me. More people should consider that, and stick around for a while!

2 comments:

  1. I'm dropping in to say hello. I read a couple of your entries and really like much of the critical mass post.

    I visit Columbus occasionally for US qualifying games at Crew Stadium.

    See you around.

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  2. I wish I could do that = I don't want to do that.

    It's amazing people staring at a shortened life of diabetes or at risk for a stroke worry more about getting hit by a car.

    I let them know I'm happy to help if they ever decide to try it.

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