Mia Kohout: Cycling for better cities

The Metro Vancouver Bike to Work Week founder says protected bike lanes build communities, and that we need more of them

Nowhere in the job description for editor and CEO of Momentum magazine did it say you had to be an avid cyclist, hard-core bike commuter or even a helmet advocate. But, judging by Mia Kohout, 33, passion was a key requirement.

The hard-working cycling spokeswoman, cycling magazine co-owner and founder of Metro Vancouver’s Bike to Work Week has made riding a bike sexy, whether readers of her magazine were ready for it or not. She has also, through her choice of content, made it accessible — hoping to help others discover cycling by any means available. Even, possibly, the way she did.

Kohout was 26 when she had her epiphany. After graduating with a degree in political science from UBC, she travelled around Central America in 2005, and, when she returned, wanted a job that didn’t involve burgers and fries. Through a friend, the opportunity to organize events for Bike to Work Week Victoria arose, and the day she saw 1,000 new cyclists get on their bikes and ride, she was hooked.

By 2007, she had founded Metro Vancouver’s Bike to Work Week, which attracted more than 1,000 new cyclists itself in its inaugural year, and has grown to 3,243 active participants as of 2013.

When we caught up with Kohout by Skype, she was in Texas for the Pro Walk/Pro Bike conference and, in the past month, had already been to Washington, DC, for the National Bike Summit and Charlotte, North Carolina, for the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. After a stop back in Vancouver, she plans to head next week to San Francisco and Monterey, California, for the Bicycle Leadership Conference and Sea Otter race, and then, in May, Momentum is putting on a bike fashion show at Bike Expo New York.

Evidently, Spring is cycling season for more than just the cherry blossom chasers; cycling enthusiasts across North America resurrect the spoked wheel as soon as puddles stop plummeting from the sky.

And it’s a good thing they do. Cycling is not only beneficial for the environment, local businesses, your cardiovascular health and your thighs; according to the May/June edition of Momentum, it has serious mental health benefits as well.

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Mia Kohout

Without giving too much of the story away, in the upcoming Momentum feature ‘Can Everyday Cycling Make You Happier?’, writer Karin Olafson finds evidence that daily exercise can help people with anxiety, sleep disorders, addiction problems, moderate depression and dementia. According to the article, these studies highlight cycling as a gateway to happiness, the reasons for which are the subject of an ongoing genetics investigation by the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Calgary.

A second study, this by the Department of Geography at UBC, is researching how our method of commuting influences our emotional and mental well-being. Findings include that bike commuters “felt as though they were part of a community, making them more empathetic and less aggressive commuters” than drivers.

And this sense of community is a main reason why Kohout feels that the City of Vancouver needs to go further with its bike lane infrastructure. The benefits — better health, more engagement with businesses, increased opportunities for social interaction — outweigh the opposition, in her opinion.

“Our city does a lot for bicycle infrastructure — enough that people are up in arms about it — yet it doesn’t go far enough to actually make it significantly safer for people. Building a completely separated bike network is so crucial for the future of our city.”

She offers an analogy from Gil Penalosa, executive director of 8-80s — a non-profit for the creation of vibrant cities: “If you’re building a soccer field, and you build three quarters of the field, people aren’t going to play. You need to build the complete field.”

Kohout, who took the reigns at Momentum in 2011 after working her way up through sales and marketing, was recently named one of the top 50 influential women in the North American bike industry by Bicycle Retailer. Under her tenure, Momentum has shifted away from fringe lifestyle magazine to mainstream cycle chic.

And part of making cycling more mainstream lies in advocacy for the removal of mental and logistical barriers to the average rider. Kohout has written many editorials on the subject, but her most controversial was ‘Moving the Conversation Beyond Helmets.’

In it, she writes: “We don’t believe the law should require helmets for people over the age of 16. We believe that adults should have the right to choose whether or not they wear a helmet. It feels wrong and repressive living in a city where cyclists are targeted by the police and looked down on by other citizens for not wearing a helmet.

“At best, helmets may reduce the consequences of collisions, but they cannot stop a crash from happening in the first place. Helmet arguments focus much-needed energy away from what really matters in making cities safe for cycling: lower (and enforced) speed limits and separated and connected bike infrastructure.”

Helmets have been required by provincial law for the past 17 years.

Despite the refutation last year of a widely referenced US National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration statistic that claimed helmets prevent 85 per cent of serious injuries, ICBC spokesperson Adam Grossman says the insurance corporation still stands behind similar research, which indicates helmets provide a "63 to 88% reduction in the risk of head, brain and severe brain injury for all ages of bicyclists." (UPDATE: The original version of this article referred to a 2013 ICBC release containing the incorrect statistic.)

Kohout, a proponent for the impending bike share program, argues however that more cyclists on Vancouver streets means safer streets for cycling and healthier citizens, and that the helmet law acts as too great a deterrent.

In ‘Can North America Become a Civilized Cycling Society?’, she writes that the solution to the helmet debate lies in creating safer means for cycling.

“Too many politicians and city leaders have yet to understand that creating safe bike infrastructure requires building a complete network as well as altering laws to favour travel by bike, foot and transit. There is a glimmer of hope in cities like New York and Chicago, but elsewhere change is too slow, too small, and often completely non-existent. Forcing riders to compromise their safety in order to share space on our streets with drivers will never lead to civilized cycling.”

Chicago added 43.5 kms of protected bike lanes in just two years and has ambitious plans to reach 160 kms by 2020. New York launched North America’s largest bike share and within the first month sold more than 100,000 daily, weekly, and annual memberships. Even European superstars Copenhagen and Amsterdam, cities with cycling models often scuttled as unattainable, had a degree of car-centric culture in their not so distant past.

Kohout points to the Spanish city of Seville as a winning example of modern conversion. In six years, this late-blooming paragon of cycling has achieved what very few cities in the world can boast, a tenfold increase in trips by bicycle. Since 2009, Seville has built 120 kms of separated bike lanes. Vancouver, by comparison, has added six in the same period.

But Vancouver was one of the first cities in North America to create a cost-effective, low-impact network by putting bikeways along residential streets with relatively light traffic volumes — a system then copied by Portland, Oregon.

Ricardo Marques Sillero, co-founder of Seville’s cycling group A Contramano, has been quoted as saying that a cycle route is “only as safe as its most dangerous part, and people will only use a route if it is safe from the beginning to the end of their journey.”

Along those lines, Kohout says it’s time to retire the car versus bike rhetoric. In fact, in an attempt to settle the long-standing feud, a 2013 Portland-based study of 2,026 intersection crossing videos found that 94 per cent of people riding bikes in the four Oregon cities sampled stopped for red lights. Optics aside, in theory, Vancouver can’t be too far off.

“Start looking at everyone as people,” says Kohout. “Sometimes we drive, sometimes we bike, sometimes we walk, sometimes we take transit. It’s about appropriate use of those methods and not pinpointing the argument ‘us versus them.’”

Kohout makes the point that nobody uses the term “avid walker”, so why is cycling singled out?

“I actually hate the word avid cyclist. I detest it. Because to me it sounds so hard-core. I’m just a person that rides a bike. It’s one of the tools for me to get around. When I’m riding, I love it and am passionate about inspiring others to try it too, but I’m not an avid cyclist.”

But in saying so, Kohout admits that, perhaps, she is a rarity still amongst her industry.

“Even sometimes now I don’t feel accepted. I feel like I stick out on my way to work: I have a pretty upright bicycle and sometimes bike in heels. I don’t wear a helmet. These are things that make me feel like I stand out, even now.”

Still, since discovering cycling seven years ago, Kohout’s journey has been as much about inspiring others to ride as it has been exploring why people are drawn to the lifestyle.

“Our goal and mission is to showcase cycling as a fun and easy, sexy, normal way to get around — by doing it, by sharing products that make it easier for people to adopt bicycling into their everyday life, and by sharing the message that you don’t have to do this all the time. You don’t have to be hard-core. If it’s raining and you don’t want to ride in the rain, don’t ride in the rain. I don’t ride in the rain,” she laughs.

“What I’ve witnessed, particularly over the last three years in a city that’s done such a great job improving its infrastructure and building more, is that there has been a cultural shift. Those hard-core commuters are still there, but a lot more people who live close to the seawall, or close to their jobs, or the café, or their friend’s house have started riding bikes.”

Bike to Work Week runs May 26 to June 1. Find cycling FAQs and tips at BikeToWorkMetroVan.ca.
And to read more about global cycling culture and “smart living by bike”, check out MomentumMag.com.


Where Mia goes for gear:

Denman Bike Shop (710 Denman; 2607 Main)
JV Bike (929 Expo)
The Bike Doctor (137 W. Broadway)
Reckless Bike Store (1810 Fir)
West Point Cycles (3780 W. 10th)

Custom builds
Kissing Crows Cyclery (4562 Main)
Dream Cycle (1010 Commercial)

Clothing & accessories
Raiment (247 W. Broadway)
On the Rivet (8 E. Broadway)

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