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Summit Big Idea: Laughter, Obviously

Bikeyface [bahyk-e-feys] noun 1.The face you make unconsciously when you bike.

Bekka Wright coined the term, which came to be her bike-centric and hugely popular webcomic, in the summer of 2011. Wright’s background is in fine art painting — drawing cartoons was an after-thought, mostly a fun gift for family and friends. But not long after her move from Los Angeles to Boston, and her commitment to biking for transportation grew, Wright saw an opportunity.

The artist will be presenting at the 2015 National Bike Summit. Her big idea? Laughter. I spoke with Wright last week about Bikeyface and the power of making someone smile.

How would you describe “Bikeyface” to the uninitiated?

It’s an online webcomic.  It’s a first person narrative about what it’s like to bike for transportation in a city — it’s an irreverant look at getting around in a city.  

My background is in fine art painting. I’ve done comics for family and friends, which got passed around but never in any sort of dedicated or regular way. I started Bikeyface when I moved to Boston and was commuting by bike. When I got started I was discovering a new city, getting more experience with biking, and not knowing many people here. I started trying to reach out to bike communities about volunteering, but it was a bit hard and not all of it was, sort of, me. I’m an artist and sometimes that doesn’t apply — art is a solitary activity.  

So on a whim, I started a cartoon on local community bike site. The site all of a sudden was getting tons of traffic and I realized I was hitting on something people were paying attention to. So I started doing it more regularly and then branded it and got a website. It was sort of accidental and spur of the moment.

When did you start considering that bicycling could be your main mode of transportation? 

I commuted for about 6 months in LA in 2008. I started around Bike Month and was curious about it and started paying attention. Then I spent the money to buy a bike and jumped in. I was still somewhat limited at that time. It was hard. I think I’ve noticed this living and traveling in different places: Every city has similar rules but completely different unwritten rules. In LA there are no pedestrians, not many buses, not many things pulling over. It’s almost all vehicle traffic. Being the odd one on a bike– it’s difficult. 

In Boston, there are tons of peope walking, taxis and buses pulling over. No one in Boston is expecting to have a straight shot and is paying attention in a different way.  

Your big idea is “laughter” — why do you think something as simple and persuasive as this is so often overlooked?

It was sort of the reason I started Bikeyface. When I was new to biking, I noticed that some of the advocacy groups had a stuffy, institutional perspective on biking. And within same month of starting my cartoon blog, I had an advocacy group do a workshop at work. I saw almost all of the women walk out of it. It really turned me off.  I saw advocacy groups’ blogs be really negative. Some voice is missing here, I thought. I didn’t know what to do, but I started putting my self out there. Biking is fun, why aren’t the voices people are looking to fun? Why are they scaring people away and putting people off? To make biking accessible to the masses — I get that advocacy groups have to talk to politicians and community leaders — but for people on the street, it has to be accessible. They have to be able to break down negativity and the Us vs. Them mentality. I think that is why my blog started getting looked at.  This broader perspective can be used to make biking accessible and lighten people up a little bit — open the door to a lot of people and let them in.

Some of my personal favorites from Bikeyface relate to your adventures just being a woman riding a bike. What role do you see Bikeface playing there?

Being a woman, I don’t have another perspective to come from. Gender plays a huge role in my perspective, whether I’m going to a workshop and having men who display a certain kind of condescending feeling. Being a woman can’t be separated from my blog. It’s my perspective and I don’t necessarily want to make it all about the fact that I’m a woman, but at the same time I think having more diversity of voices or other diversity is very important to have represented out there. I think a lot about how we interact with the world and that comes into my blog as well. I have a lot more questions than answers. 

What do you ultimately hope to achieve with Bikeyface?

It’s one of those things where I have a goal, but there are some limitations with how much I can do as one person and part-time, since I work full-time.  My goal is to build and expand it.  My goal as of late has been, OK, it’s been a web comic for 4 years now. Web comics are good and easy to share with friends and to raise its profile in online discussion. My next goal is to think about how to make it more substantial and educational and include more advocay goals.  Compiling things on the web is mostly in draft form because do quickly and in the middle of the night. I want to distill the message better and put out books and other products.  My first book took me a while to get together. I did a small book on how to start biking. It’s simlar to what advocacy groups would put out, but from a cartoonist’s point of view — and with laughter.  I want to do a bit more of that. I plan to do more of these but in a short format and eventually build it up. 

Anything surprising that you’ve seen as a result of Bikeyface?

People shouting out “Bikeyface!” while I’m biking around the streets! [Laughs] The nerdy kid in me feels validated. I didn’t really expect it to get to a larger audience so the whole thing really surprises me.  

Want to hear more about Wright’s approach? Hear her presentation on laughter in person this March at the National Bike Summit. Register today!