Women Bike PHL
From the interviewer's seat
Claudia Setubal has been our interviewer for the Women Bike PHL interview series. She reflects on the stories she has heard and the doors that bicycles can open.
I started volunteering with the Bicycle Coalition in March, right around the time they launched the Women Bike PHL campaign. I’d started commuting by bike less than a year ago, and like any new convert, I was eager to share my newfound excitement about cycling. The BCGP gave me the opportunity to conduct interviews with women who bike, and for the past four months I’ve been riding around Philly and meeting some amazing women who shared their stories with me.
It only seems fitting to share mine as well. For as long as I can remember, my dad has biked to and from work everywhere we’ve lived, through the Seattle rain and in the Brazilian heat. My first bike was pink and purple, and I’d ride around with the neighborhood kids who were all older. One day I realized none of them had training wheels, so I marched home and insisted that my dad take mine off.
Fast forward to 2008, when I moved to Philadelphia after college. I was given a free old Schwinn and started doing a little bit of urban cycling. I was terrified of riding in traffic, and my bike kept getting flats and having issues with the gears. I felt pretty dumb every time I went into a bike shop, and it seemed like more trouble than it was worth, so I gave the bike to my brother and kept taking the bus.
Last summer, I moved from Center City down to Graduate Hospital, and discovered that my commute on SEPTA went from 20 minutes to 45 on a good day. One Friday afternoon I sat on the bus as it was stuck in traffic on the South Street bridge and watched as cyclist after cyclist passed by. That same weekend I dragged my boyfriend to Firehouse bikes and emerged with a bright orange 80’s Diamond Back. I named her Tangerine.
The hardest part of commuting was figuring out the logistics. I live about four miles away from work and I can get there mostly on trails, but I don’t have access to a shower. That’s why I’ve asked everyone that I interview what they wear when they bike, because it took me so long to figure it out. At first I would take a sink shower and bring a change of clothes, but as the weather got cooler and I got into better shape, I was sweating a lot less and was able to just wear my work clothes. I used to wear a lot of pants, and I’ve transitioned much of my wardrobe to knee-length and longer skirts, because they are so much more comfortable to wear while biking. I never thought of myself as a person who would bike in a skirt, but there you go.
It took a good year of trial and error (and accidentally biking through a couple of snowstorms) to feel fully confident in myself as a cyclist. Along the way I transitioned from being terrified of cars to being comfortable taking the lane and navigating traffic; I took a Neighborhood Bike Works class, and learned to fix a flat and adjust my brakes (but I’m still going to Janique for anything more complicated than that!); and I got more involved in the cycling community by becoming more aware of the advocacy and policy side, and talking to women who use bikes in very different ways.
I think biking can open a lot of doors and be a gateway to bigger things. Once you get hooked on it, you can’t imagine getting to work any other way, and you start looking for ways to expand your horizons. The Women Bike PHL interviews gave me a new perspective on cycling, not only from my conversations with women who cyclocross and race and bike with their kids, but also because I met them in coffee shops all over the city, in neighborhoods that I might never have visited if I didn’t have a bike.
I’m wrapping up my internship with the BCGP to start a Master’s in Public Health, and I’m interested in studying how cities can encourage more people to bike by creating the infrastructure and policies to support cycling as a viable mode of transportation. A common theme that resonated in my interviews is that you need a combination of infrastructure and community support. Some women I talked to had only started biking after the Spruce and Pine bike lanes went in. Others had a friend group or significant other that encouraged them to buy their first bike. Everyone I interviewed had some kind of support system and people with whom they share their cycling experiences, whether that was friends, colleagues, a team, or children.
More than anything, talking to so many women has given me an appreciation and understanding of the complex and interwoven ecology of the Philadelphia cycling community, which includes messengers and triathletes and weekend warriors and commuters and bike shop owners and teenagers and parents and advocates, none of whom exclusively define themselves as cyclists. They are volunteers and moms and teachers and business owners and drivers and pedestrians, and what they have in common is that they have found joy while riding a bike.