Cycling to Get Places: Fionnuala of Women BikeDC
Mostly, I ride because it’s my favorite way of getting around. I like seeing street life and buildings as well as the landscape and nature at the pace that I can take them in. I also enjoy the chance everyday encounters as I travel around the community. This isn’t to say you won’t find me ferrying teenagers around the suburbs in my mini-van. But I like to arrange my life so that, when I can and as much as I can, I bike instead.
For today’s Women BikeDC interview, we’re going out to the Virginia suburbs to talk with Fionnuala. I’m surprised to note that I’ve never met Fionnuala in person, but have come to know her over the years through the excellent transportation advocacy work she does on behalf of cyclists and pedestrians in our area.
I’m excited to feature Fionnuala for this series. Her knowledge of urban design and infrastructure, as well as her years of riding in different cities around the world, give Fionnuala a unique perspective on what it’s like to ride in the D.C. area.
Tell me a little about yourself and when you started riding.
Back when I was eleven years old, we had a nine-week bus strike in Dublin and I started bicycling the four miles to school. But it really wasn’t until college that I started biking absolutely everywhere in my hometown.
After I arrived in the U.S., one of the first things that I went out and bought was a bicycle. While I rode it intermittently to work in the center of Philadelphia, I found the bicycling experience was surprisingly different and not in a good way.
A few years later, as I moved into my new husband’s place, someone smashed my car windows and stole my bike: American husband – 1, favorite bicycle – 0. By the early nineties, we were living in suburban Fairfax and soon had a garage completely occupied on one side with all sorts of bikes and bike attachments.
Then about a decade ago, the road next to us was widened. This transformed my local biking options and allowed me to cycle from my house instead of driving the minivan.
What sorts of things do you do by bike?
During the week, I show up for lunches, meetings, and appointments around the Fairfax area by bike. On those days when I go into D.C., I combine my folding bike with local buses to access the Orange or Silver line.
I get off at Rosslyn and bike along and across the Potomac into D.C. Metro rules allow carrying folding bikes on at any time so I’m not limited by peak restrictions on bicycles.
I also have my bike to get around without worrying about having to leave by a certain time. When I metro back home again, the folding bike allows me to catch any of several buses that get me to within a few biking miles of my house.
On weekends, you’ll find my husband and me at the grocery store filling our panniers or biking one of the gorgeous trails that we are so lucky to have in our region.
How has riding a bicycle influenced your life?
Bicycling puts you in direct physical experience with the shape, form and design of our built world. I’m inclined to view the world spatially and riding a bicycle is a great way of taking a close-up look at how we put together our infrastructure and our land uses.
I have a dislike for inefficient or poorly thought out design but unfortunately, you get to see quite a bit of that traveling from A to B by bicycle.
The act of bicycling has made me passionate about expressing how built infrastructure could be improved for everyday living, how those charged with installing and looking after the facilities need to be thinking about cyclists and how we should all speak up about future plans for the community.
I work and speak on these topics so the bicycle has certainly facilitated much of what I think about every day.
What features do you think make a city bike-friendly and why?
I cite my experience in Vancouver as an excellent example of experiencing a bike-friendly city. Moments after arriving downtown and running late, I took off from my hotel with some basic directions and managed to easily find my way to an event six miles away. The connected cycle track network helped me find my way stress-free in a city that I had never previously visited.
For any city, there are numerous features and operational aspects that go into being bike-friendly. It’s a whole package including political will, strong advocacy and community engagement. Bicycle-friendly details that help are dedicated facilities, slower speeds, signs, small-turning radii, and space on bridges. It really helps if the needs of cyclists are also considered during temporary situations such as construction, delivery and large events.
A bikeshare system with close-together stations is another amenity that makes a real difference. Widespread quality bike parking facilities supplemented with the likes of bike corrals and bike valet services at big city events are more of what contribute to being bike friendly. I could continue at length on this topic.
What do you like about riding in the D.C. area?
D.C. is a world-famous place and bicycling is simply the best way to experience and appreciate it. As I ride the Mt. Vernon Trail boardwalk, I marvel that I am less than a mile from the some of the most iconic spots in the world. It’s pretty hard not to get excited crossing into D.C. on the Arlington Memorial Bridge, rounding the front of the Lincoln Memorial and stopping for a few moments to think of famous moments in American history.
Biking down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue towards the Capitol, I think of the presidential inaugurations and funeral corteges that have traced this same route. While dodging the U-turners, I’m biking where others marched to fight for women’s suffrage, and civil rights.
Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House is on one of my routes home and is always full of drama: protests, school groups, secret service, sudden street clearings, dancing, etc.
Bicycling adds adventure and exhilaration to everyday life far more than my mini-van ever has but the most ordinary rides in D.C. have the added dimension of sharing space with historical memory and new history in the making.
How could the D.C. area improve for cyclists?
For the overall cycling environment to improve, we need lots more folks on biking and those on bike need to look more like the general population (all ages and backgrounds, women, families, teenagers, children).
Somehow, we need to communicate that biking is not a difficult feat as well as how well biking serves the short everyday trips of normal life. Significantly higher participation rates would catalyze necessary changes (design, maintenance, driver awareness, enforcement, cultural, etc.).
What do you think prevents more women from riding?
Each form of transportation involves it’s own particular knowledge and culture. Historically, we have not had a well-developed bicycling travel culture for women: mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and neighbors did not bike as a matter of course for their everyday travel.
Right now we have a broader society that does not particularly support this form of transportation, especially for women. However, these factors are primarily cultural, and culture is always changing and can be changed.
Having role models within daily life seems to go a long way towards enabling women to consider bicycling and having other women to help fill in the small details that all goes into the cultural knowledge helps.
I recently watched the Danish TV series, Borgen. Careful bike-watchers, such as myself, can’t help but note that the principal female characters use bikes to get around during the show. This includes their prime minister and a famous TV news presenter: they do not wear special clothes to bike nor is it even of remark as part of the story lines.
We are far from that type of bicycling culture for women but change is in the air. The low-level barriers that seemed to impact women’s bicycling rates are coming down readily through the likes of the Women & Bicycles program.
What suggestions do you have for employers who want to be bike-friendly?
Once they focus on what’s needed, it is relatively straight-forward for employers to become bike-friendly and they will be rewarded with healthy, happy and productive employees.
A few of the things employers can do include:
- Parking (short term, long term)
- Providing incentives
- Providing changing facilities
- Relaxing clothes policies
- Celebrate Bike to Work Day
- Apply for a Bike Friendly Business award and get feedback on what else they could be doing.
How does it feel to be a woman who rides in an area where women are less than 26% of the riding population?
The rate of women cycling for transportation is likely way below even the 26% in the Fairfax suburbs. The act of cycling has gone from being completely unremarkable in my Dublin days to where it can, at times, cause me to be regarded as almost the seventh wonder of the world when I arrive on two wheels instead of four. I aspire to the day when arriving by bike is no longer of note.
What are the issues you deal with as a woman cyclist, or is it something you think about?
The issue that I probably think about the most is the low rate of participation by women in the suburbs. My most ordinary of trips are short and readily bikeable by women of the basic abilities and yet so few seem to consider traveling around my suburb the way I do. That leaves me to stand out when I know many could enjoy and benefit from this means of travel.
However, there are really no issues that I have to deal with as a women in particular riding a bicycle. If anything, the only thing I might suggest is that occasionally bike parking facilities are designed assuming upper body strength that I don’t possess.
Tell me about your bikes…
I have a Trek hybrid for getting around locally while I use a Brompton folding bicycle to connect with the transit system and get in to DC. Prior to Capital Bikeshare coming to town, I was strictly a one-bike person but riding the new-fangled CaBi’s altered my life-long single-bike loyalty.
I came to the realization that a folding bicycle would allow breaking trips into various elements: minivan, bus, and train pieced together with the folding bike. The folder allows me to ride to several different suburban buses that connect into the metro system: I could compensate for their infrequency by covering a wider radius and reaching more bus routes.
It turns out that I really enjoy the riding the folder: it is comfortable and nippy around the city. The smart design is satisfying while the compactness is critical for hustling onto rush hour trains. Upon request, I perform folding demonstrations on platforms and on the streets of D.C. The folder is also a great out-of-town bike and I miss it terribly when I don’t bring it along on trips.
Which bike accessories do you consider must-haves and why?
- Lights: You never know when you may get delayed and lights are an imperative for interacting safely with motor vehicles.
- High-powered rechargeable lights: These are a suburban must-have because of the need to light our way as well as be seen.
- Quality lock: Just never go anywhere without a decent lock.
- Bell: Because of the nature of our facilities around here, we do a lot of sharing with pedestrians and audible warnings are necessary. The bell supplements calling out and works better for some noise situations.
- Rear rack (or equivalent): It’s always easier to carry stuff with wheels but you need to have something to attach to.
- Under-seat bag: There are a handful of things that should always along and having them permanently under the seat means rarely having to think about them.
- Bottle cage: This is the easiest way to carry water, a necessity in some months no matter how short the trip.
What’s one of the best adventures you’ve ever had on a bike?
Hard to say because riding a bicycle adds adventure and drama to every trip. A favorite biking day was a beautiful climb up and over the mountains, followed by a seven-miles coast down to the Pacific. Then we rode south along Pacific Coast Highway hunting for an art gallery belonging to the uncle of one of my pals here in Virginia.
We found his lovely gallery overlooking the sea in Bodega Bay (where The Birds was filmed). After our visit, he loaded up into his truck and delivered us back into the mountains equipped with winery and eating recommendations. Not so much an adventure as an all-around fun day by bicycle.
How would you summarize your bicycling experience?
I come from sensible stock and cycling feels like the practical way to get places. The bicycle itself is an impressive device and, with all the parts at work, it leaves you feeling like a more competent and capable person for having gotten yourself somewhere.