#001 “Welcome to Biketopia!” — Interview with Elly Blue

Welcome to Biketopia!

This is a cross post from solarpunks.tumblr.com where I interviewed Elly Blue about her newest Kickstarter campaign (details at the bottom of this post)

@solarpunks spoke with Elly Blue who is the co-owner of Microcosm Publishing. Where she publishes books about the feminist bicycle revolution among many other topics related to self-empowerment. She’s the author of several books including Bikenomics; How Bicycling Can Save the Economy. She lives in Portland, Oregon, USA, which isn’t really the bicycle utopia everybody thinks it is.


SPS! What is about physical publishing that excites you in 2017?

EB: Oh, I love it. Everything about publishing excites me. It’s a big, complicated puzzle and there is no limit to how much you can learn or what you can accomplish. My favorite part, if I had to pick one, is seeing the way people respond to our books and zines in our store and at events — like they’ve been hungry for a long time and have just spotted some really delicious food. That’s what’s most fulfilling: producing books that speak to people and help them imagine the world and their lives in different ways.

SPS! Your first kickstarter was back in 2010. Since then you have launched at least 23 campaigns to get various zines and books printed — It’s obviously a sustainable model to get things done/published:

Is your goal to build a movement, grow a community, or both?

EB: Both! My official job title nowadays is “marketing director.” For a number of years I was a bicycle activist in Portland, and marketing is nearly identical to activist movement building. For either one, the community has to exist first, or at least enough people who would be part of the community if they knew it existed. Having good literature that represents that movement and its debates and brings it to a wider audience can help a community grow and help members find each other and see the bigger picture.

If you were starting a zine for the first time in 2017 would you still use Kickstarter or use another platform — Patreon etc? or do something else?

EB: Funny you ask — I’m actually bringing Taking the Lane zine back this year. I gave it up for books for a while, but honestly, zines sell better. They feel more special, I think. People seek them out and are really stoked to get their hands on them. Publishing books is great, but the stuff I do under my feminist bicycling imprint doesn’t really fit on any shelf at a bookstore, so I’m dialing a lot of it back to the underground. But to answer your question, I’m planning to keep using Kickstarter to fund the zines. And I’m getting ready to open a Patreon later this month! Microcosm, my parent company, just launched one, and I’m learning a lot about how to use it. https://www.patreon.com/microcosm

SPS! Theoretically, do you think there is any utility in small scale niche publishers/zines who rely on their community for support to publish their accounts?

EB: Sure. But it’s the other way around — the community support is what demonstrates the utility and justifies doing this stuff in the first place. I see the zines and books as a service to the community and a way to focus it, amplify it, and grow it, rather than the community being a separate thing or an appendage of the publications. What I choose to publish, and who contributes, and how it’s positioned, all of that happens in response to what the community is doing, and also to looking at the community and thinking about who is and isn’t represented.


SPS! Your first ‘Taking the lanezine was called ‘Sharing the Road with Boys’ with writing by you on sexist encounters in cycling and what to do about it. Apart from society’s background misogyny/sexism, how did that zine and subsequent series come about?

EB: I spent a year as the managing editor at BikePortland.org and one of the last things I did there was write up a big blog post about the overt sexism I’d encountered while covering the bike industry, particularly on the sports side of the industry but also in advocacy. The response was tremendous, and Jonathan Maus, the blog’s publisher, advised me to keep writing about that. I did keep writing, but I didn’t have anywhere to publish it — so when my partner, Joe Biel, invited me to join him on a book and zine tour, it made sense to flesh it out and turn it into a zine. I didn’t have enough money to print it, but a friend told me about Kickstarter and I was off and running. I had no idea what it would turn into.

The initial focus on sexism was a good way to start off the series. People were indignant and inspired to share their own stories and it was a rallying cry that was easy to put out there. But the reason I stuck with it is because when people started sending me their own submissions, mostly personal essays, they were almost never about sexism — they were about the hard work and challenges and joys and difficulties the contributors faced that they simply hadn’t had an outlet to write about because most bicycle-oriented publications are so macho and/or focused on professionalism and expert culture. So instead of having a publication focused specifically on “women’s issues” in cycling, it became a venue for writing that isn’t sexist or racist… it’s as simple as that.

SPS! Ever since I was a little hardcore punk kid, feminism and bicycles have gone hand in hand (at least for me). In your opinion, what is it about cycling that brings people passionately together?

EB: I love that you connect feminism, bicycling, and punk! It’s funny, because I always felt the same way and it didn’t occur to me that someone wouldn’t until I dipped into that sports side of bicycling. That’s where I first had the experience of talking with someone who was just as passionate about bicycling as I was, but for completely different reasons — like competition or athletic achievement or signalling of wealth — and who wore different clothes, biked in different places and at different times for different reasons, and even rode entirely different types of bikes. Meanwhile, I would show up to cover the race in my jeans and t-shirt on a clunky cargo bike and have to leave early to go to a meeting about organizing a traffic safety event. There are so many reasons to be into cycling that sometime the basic form of the bike itself is the only common denominator… well, that and the fears of what can befall you on the road. One of the things that amazes me about publishing — either a blog or print — is that it has so much power to bring these widely divergent groups together into common cause and help them see into each others’ worlds.

SPS! Historically, cycling was seen as an emancipatory technology for women. In an intersectional sense do you think the bike is still an emancipatory technology, helping people escape the implicit politics and unseen assumptions of their local infrastructure and built environment?

EB: In the 1890s, bicycling is famously remembered as an emancipatory technology… for upper class white women. The lesser known piece of that history is that this first golden age of cycling wasn’t pushed aside by the automobile — the craze ended when safety bicycles became widely affordable and “wheeling” was no longer a compelling elite pastime. So today, in an intersectional sense, I see bicycling as having emancipatory potential — and also the very real potential to reinforce social divisions. We’re seeing a lot of city leaders embrace bicycling for its enhancement and symbolism of gentrification — and we’re seeing a lot of pushback against that as well. At the same time, a very large number, maybe even the majority, of people who use bicycles as transportation in the US aren’t having their needs met by even the most bike-mad planners and advocates. The good news is that we’re seeing more and more bicycle groups that represent communities of color and marginalized neighborhoods, and it hopefully won’t be possible for them to be ignored by the powers that be for much longer.


SPS! In your book Bikenomics you have the phrase: “Food, bicycling + changing the world are a great combination”. What other combinations of interests get you excited about the future?

EB: I get pretty excited about bicycles and dismantling capitalism.

SPS! Galina Tachieva in her book Sprawl Repair stresses the importance of accessible infrastructure, the return to walkable neighbourhoods and that these plans be integrated into policy at the city scale. How can activists of all kinds engage with their local municipalities to ensure they have a voice?

EB: By talking to and listening to each other, building strong coalitions, and putting the needs of the most disenfranchised among us front and center — that’s often the missing piece, but it’s how we win.

SPS! We just posted a thing about worker-owned composting collectives that collect food waste by cargo bike. In Bikenomics you have a whole section on reducing traffic and pollution etc in urban areas by encouraging bike freight use to solve ‘last mile’ delivery problems. Are there any other collectives or businesses the solarpunk community should check out?

EB: I really enjoyed that post. It reminded me of a little kid in Traverse City, Michigan who had started a compost by bike business. Now he’s 10 and has a staff of other kids. https://carterscompost.com/ In my opinion, the most solarpunk bicycle operation out there is the loose global network of bicycle collectives / bike projects / bike coops. It’s this incredible ecosystem of businesses, organizations, and people just building bikes in a shed, all with the mission of helping people no matter what their income or background get bikes and learn to work on them for free or super cheap. A lot of them are led by the communities they serve and combine bicycle repair education with youth outreach, violence prevention, community activism, and other social services / social justice work.


SPS! Biketopia! is the 4th volume in a now more-or-less annual ‘bikes and sci-fi’ series. How did the series get going and has the genre’s popularity surprised you at all?

EB: It started as an issue of Taking the Lane. Someone asked for a fiction issue, which I didn’t love until it occurred to me that it could be sci fi. I loved science fiction and fantasy as a kid — it was really formative — and getting to work on it as an adult has been really satisfying and fun. It’s not the bestselling thing I do, but it’s definitely the thing that reaches the most people outside the “bike bubble,” and I enjoy it the most so that’s worth a lot. The first two volumes were published as zines, #3 and #4 were books that are being sold into bookstores, and I’m bringing them back to zines with #5 — which has a call for submissions open till March 1, by the way.

SPS! Biketopia! will feature the solarpunk story “Riding in Place” by Sarena Ulibarri. From what have seen, what’s your opinion of solarpunk as a genre?

EB: I did a bunch of research on solarpunk when I was planning this book, and what I found is that the genre is still mostly underground — there aren’t a lot of comparative titles by mainstream publishers. So that’s exciting, it makes the discovery of new books and blogs more of an adventure, and it makes us pioneers to some extent. A year ago I would have predicted that we’d see a lot more of it in the future — you’d be wading through some dubious offerings by major houses by 2020 — but now with Trump’s election it seems more likely that science fiction will take an even more dystopian turn. Solar panels feel so, I don’t know, Democratic.

SPS! Our Tumblr’s tagline is “At once a vision of the future, a thoughtful provocation, and an achievable lifestyle. In progress…” Do you think if everything we need to do gets done. Is there reason to be optimistic about humanity’s future?

EB: Yes. I’m optimistic, but that’s mostly because I try not to have a fixed idea of what needs to happen for the future to be worthwhile. When I put out the call for submissions for Biketopia! it was for stories that were either extremely utopian or dystopian. And interestingly enough, the utopian stories were the ones that scared me the most. Reading them, I wondered: where were the non-perfect people? Whose stories weren’t being told? Whose labor built these shining solar structures? One thing I love about Sarena’s story, and the reason it opens the book, is because she gets into those complexities. There’s another story, by Cynthia Marts (she talks about it a bit in the project video), that focuses on one of the worst dystopias in the book, but if you read between the lines you can see it actually was conceived as a utopia by its founders, and probably still is by the husbands of the main characters. Meanwhile in all the dystopian stories, there are real heroes — scrappy fighters, people working together and finding commonality across their differences in order to survive and create their own life. And maybe this is fucked up, but I find that way more hopeful for the future of humanity.

Kickstarter: Welcome to Biketopia!

This is the 4th volume of the more-or-less annual Bikes in Space series.
Here are some dilemmas you’ll get to face alongside the characters in these stories if this project is funded:
In the solarpunk future, will robots have rights, too?
When your health is closely monitored during a pregnancy, who gets to decide if bicycling is healthy or dangerous for your unborn child?
How do you survive the day to day in a community where you have zero freedoms, including freedom of movement?
When your agrarian society relies on bikes and now you’re at war with the city where the factory is, how do you replace your broken spoke?
What is the secret behind some people’s seemingly random plague immunity, and is it okay for them to take your bike?
Is the sexy stranger who rode into your desolate desert oasis a man or a woman or does it even matter?
The book also contains reviews of more science fiction books, stories, and TV shows.
(This project will only be funded if it reaches its goal by Thu, Mar 2 2017 4:48 PM GMT.)
(via Biketopia: Feminist Bicycle Science Fiction Stories by Elly Blue — Kickstarter)