by Alessandra Wollner
“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling,” Susan B. Anthony told New York Times reporter Nellie Bly. “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
That was back in 1896, when feminists called bicycles “freedom machines.” At the time, for women at least, bikes were kind of a big deal. They offered mobility and ushered in an era of vastly less restrictive ladies’ attire. Bloomers, y’all.
But somehow, as the years revolved, bike culture became the provenance of dudes. Dudes wearing caps with tiny bills, walking bowlegged on ripped calves. The era of Susan B.’s freedom machine may be over, but a bike-powered women’s revolution is alive and well in the work of Jess Mathews, who gave a 2013 TEDxColumbus talk about the integral role women play in creating bike-friendly cities.
On the day that I met Jess Mathews, she rolled up on Suzette—that’s her Fuji hybrid—with a copy of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please in a wicker basket attached to the handlebars, also tricked out with a hot pink little bell. Suzette’s pedals are electric raspberry blue, her saddle striped down the middle with leopard print fleece. Laminated cards with pictures of bikes twine through the spokes of her back wheel, and stickers for various causes wrap her peach sherbet frame. It’s a bike lovingly customized by a woman as free and untrammeled as they come. No doubt, Jess Mathews is the kind of bicycling woman Susan B. would rejoice to see.
Jess has always been vocal about women and biking, lobbying the local government for infrastructure that makes women and children feel safe to ride. And though she is fiercely dedicated to this work, it’s just a spoke in her wheel. One speed out of ten. A single stop on a long and comprehensive tour to transform Columbus into a leading center not just in bike friendliness, but in the creative and civic-minded use of city streets.
Because Jess’ work ranges all over the city, I asked her to tour me through the sites of her greatest successes, and take us through Columbus’ best examples of bike-friendliness and worst instances of bike-indifference. On bikes. Duh.
A number of places we pedaled by were sites of the Columbus Parklet Project and Open Streets Columbus, both initiatives under Transit Columbus, which “champions an integrated public transportation system for the people of Central Ohio to improve the safety, health, environment and economic vitality of the entire Columbus region.” The organization launched both Open Streets and Columbus Parklets in 2015. “I’d been talking and dreaming about these projects for four years,” Jess explained as we cruised down Grant Street through a golden October afternoon. “Then finally, this year, it all just came together in a beautiful way.”
Jess, the project lead, and a very dedicated team of volunteers launched the Columbus Parklet Project outside Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace on 4th and Cherry last summer for a 30-day trial. Parklets—sidewalk extensions providing more space plus amenities—help people understand that streets are more than byways from Point A to Point B. Streets are gathering places, Jess says, and using them as such makes for healthier, more vibrant cityscapes.
“That first parklet was a huge success,” Jess tells me as we straddle our bikes curbside in front of Dirty Frank’s, where the parklet once stood. On its heels, The Columbus Parklet Project installed a second, permanent parklet in Franklinton during this summer’s Urban Scrawl festival. A third parklet, hopefully permanent, will go in front of Café Brioso on Gay Street in Spring 2016. Jess explains all this as rush hour traffic whips by to our left and my stomach churns. But Jess believes that streets should feel safe for riders and pedestrians alike. We stay put.
This is one of the most fascinating aspects of Jess’ activism: it’s doggedly honor-bound, her convictions stronger than Everclear. Jess Mathews rides in whatever clothing to prove women don’t need special “gear” to get on a bike. She takes whichever street to prove there’s no need to feel cowed by the presence of cars. Interestingly, Jess rarely wears a helmet, so strong is her belief that city streets should be safe enough to ride without them. “All ages, all wages, all stages,” Jess says, a mantra for who should feel comfortable on a bike, and who streetscapes should be designed to serve.
Which brings me to the other big project with Jess at the helm: Open Streets Columbus. Open Streets is a national movement that shuts down stretches of city street for a day. People—on bikes, blades, and two feet—have the run of the asphalt, at least for awhile. “It can transform cities,” Jess says, “it’s an incredible petri dish that can get people reengaged with their cities, using streets the way they should be used.”
The first Open Streets Columbus happened Sept 13th on Rich Street downtown. The second followed the next weekend on a section of 4th between Main and Broad. Among other carless wonders, the Open Street events featured PoYo (pop-up yoga), a human-sized Scrabble game, and some impressive bike dancing. Jess and her team have a third Open Streets in the works for the same 4th Street location in 2016, with a possibility of adding a second event if funding comes through.
I wasn’t in town to see either Open Streets, but I did make it to this October’s 2 Wheels & Heels ladies bike night. Jess plans and leads these rides the last Wednesday of every month to get women hooked on freedom machines.
Because some serious rain had eased up just hours before this month’s ride, this 2 Wheels & Heels was intimate, only six women. But that was OK. The ride fell on the cusp of Halloween, and we were a band of witchy, bike-straddling, suffragette superheroes Two women showed up in onesies (ok, one was me, in leopard print). In solidarity with the ride’s namesake, the other onesie woman, an astronaut in an orange jumpsuit with pink hair, rocked a pair of black heels.
For this ride, Jess planned a six-miler dedicated to testing some newly installed infrastructure—a series of two-stage left turns along Spring Street, and the new bike lane on the notoriously busy/scary/bike-unfriendly 4th St corridor, a route Jess irritably called “a f-ing joke.”
Jess is passionate, but she burns a quiet fire. “How did that feel?” she asked the group after we’d ridden each new piece of infrastructure. The women agreed: we were glad to have a chance to ride these new facilities with a guide. That way, we actually understood how to use what was meant for us, especially those somewhat abstruse but very helpful two-stage lefts. As we spoke, Jess listened quietly, intently.
Larry Smith, famous six-word memoirist and TEDxColumbus alum, loves Jess’ fervor. “Jess is great at what she does because she’s 100% convinced her ideas are gonna work. Her total faith is what makes her stuff happen.”
Although 2 Wheels, the parklets, and Open Streets are up and spinning, they still require buckets of sweat equity—a whole bunch of hustling, organizing, coordinating, volunteering, recruiting, speaking out, showing up, and riding, riding, riding.
As Jess told me outside Dirty Frank’s, “I know people will get behind this once they see all it implemented later on down the road.”
Or, more aptly, the street.
Alessandra Wollner is a third year MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at OSU.