Women’s (Bike) History: Amy Walker
Before there were hundreds of women’s bicycling blogs; before there was a growing number of books and zines and publications showcasing the diversity of bicyclists, there was Momentum magazine. Established in 2001, Momentum has become a growing voice for the cycling lifestyle, putting particular emphasis on women and families and folks who ride for transportation. Amy Walker was one of the key founders and initial owners — and answered a few questions on the start and evolution of the magazine… and the everyday biking movement it’s helping to propel.
What’s your biking background — how did you get into riding?
I biked as a kid and had parents who biked. In the early 1980s, my dad would take my sister and I riding across town by way if the portside roads in Vancouver. These were the DIY bike routes of the day. On the way from East Van to the Stanley Park Seawall he’d teach us how to shoulder check, cross railway tracks safely and be mindful of traffic. He went traveling in France by bike (which seemed very cool) and was a cycle commuter. My step dad was also a cyclist and had taken several cross-country bike trips and was a regular bike commuter. I was quite lucky that I had people in my life who were role models, but I don’t remember them ever being prescriptive or preachy about biking. They just did it. Later on, in high school, I was involved in an environmental conference and I learned about cycling as a form of environmentally friendly transport. I started riding to school (45 min each way) and over the years my relationship with cycling deepened.
What inspired you to even *think* about starting a magazine? Who else was involved in this adventure?
When I was a little kid I remember making fake newspapers. I would write the headlines and make photo-collaged illustrations, then draw in lines instead of story text. I’ve always enjoyed magazines and all forms of visual communication and I loved poring over books of illustration and cover art as a teenager. I was working as a graphic designer in the mid-’90s and I started picking up a free publication called The Spoke ‘n’ Word. It was the newsletter of an organization called B.E.S.T. (Better Environmentally Sound Transportation) and it had an artful style, featured real people who biked and highlighted some of the important issues in bicycle advocacy. Two of the key people involved in that publication were Carmen Mills and Terry Sunderland. When the Spoke ‘n’ Word folded, I met with Carmen and we started planning a new magazine that was for and about “self-propelled people” (the initial local, non-profit, newsprint incarnation of Momentum, 2001-2003). I learned a ton from Terry Sunderland about creating powerful images and Carmen was a true mentor. She is a brilliant organizer with lots of heart. From Carmen I learned about setting a tone that was celebratory, paradoxical, and peppered with “mind bombs.” She also taught me not to get bogged down with wonky policy details that would put readers to sleep. (You can read Carmen’s Blog at bicyclebuddha.org.) In 2005, I wrote a business plan and relaunched Momentum on my own. Among the wonderful collaborators for the next phase were Colin Mackenzie, Terry Lowe, Chris Bentzen, David Niddrie, Tania Lo, Mia Kohout and so many other wonderful, creative people. Momentum is a group effort. It exists because of the wonderful people that work together on its creation.
What was your vision for Momentum — and how did it change (if at all) as it gained, uh, momentum?
The vision has always been to reflect real people riding bikes and the transportation bike culture that exists on our streets: to give everyday cyclists a voice and a public image and to de-mystify cycling for the bike-curious. The vision was to create a “lifestyle” publication but one grounded by the knowledge that cycling is not just a passing consumer fad, but really a panacea to so many ills: obesity, pollution, traffic congestion, urban/suburban sprawl, the high cost of private car ownership and even the winter blues… The vision evolved over the years. When we started distributing to cities across North America, we included a city profile in each issue. These were intended to create awareness and dialogue about the bike-friendliness of the places where we live and to encourage people to explore other cities by bike to experience, compare, enjoy, and commiserate about the state of infrastructure and affairs across the continent. Momentum also started producing fashion shows in 2008 and that has become a big part of its bread and butter ever since. The original vision for that was to show “real people wearing clothes, on bikes” and develop a vision beyond the Goretex/spandex stereotypes perpetuated by the sports side of the bike industry, which still dominates in sales and in attitude. The clothing component has really taken off and I think Mia Kohout and Tania Lo (the magazine’s current co-owners) are really having a field-day with it, but its important to realize that that’s only the frosting on the layer cake that is Momentum.
What was the biggest challenge in starting the mag?
The biggest challenge in starting the magazine, and the biggest ongoing challenge, is funding. It is costly to print and distribute a physical magazine – so sharing our vision and gathering the support from advertisers is crucial. In those early days, we were so unique that the companies we approached were often unwilling to take a risk. We worked really hard for every dollar and we were always very frugal in how we spent that money. Momentum has contributed so much to cycling’s evolution and rising profile in the wider world and I am very proud of that — but I know that those of us who have done and continue to do this work are not getting paid adequately for it. This is a systemic problem that affects cycling advocates in the private and non-profit sectors in the US and Canada: we are “too cheap for our own good” and this needs to change.
What was one of your proudest moments — when did you know this effort was making a difference?
Every time someone comes up to us and says, “I ride my bike because of your magazine!” which does happen pretty regularly. When you hear that something you’ve done has helped someone make a positive change in their life, that is the most rewarding and gratifying feeling imaginable.
At what point did you begin thinking about writing a book or moving on to other pursuits?
Momentum was approached by New World Library about producing a “50 Ways” type of cycling book. I left the day-to-day operations at that time and started work on editing On Bicycles – 50 Ways the New Bike Culture Can Change Your Life (I didn’t write it all – I had 32 other people on my team!). I am really happy with the book: it’s a very accessible sampling of bike culture intended as a conversation-starter and an introduction for newcomers to transportation cycling.
What do you think the impact of Momentum has been in encouraging more women (and men and families!) to ride?
I know Momentum has encouraged more people to ride and to ride more often. Women in particular see the magazine as filling a cultural void: “Finally a bike magazine for me!” they say. It’s important to have magazines (and books, movies, TV shows, etc.) that portray everyday men and women and children cycling because that helps to “normalize” this wonderful way of getting from A to B. When we see ourselves reflected in popular culture, we feel included and accepted and that is a very important element of our social well-being. Women in particular pay attention to social and behavioural norms and tend to seek social support when making their decisions. Momentum has the familiar and comforting packaging of a glossy lifestyle magazine – and it also contains some fairly radical and powerful ideas, such as, “Perhaps you’d like to leave your car at home and take your kids to school in a Bakfiets. Here’s how!”
Since it is Women’s History Month, what woman has been your mentor or inspiration when it comes to biking?
My inspiration for cycling has been my mom, Kate Walker. She rode bikes a little bit when I was growing up, but she really committed to riding once I began working on Momentum (she also helped by delivering magazines to retailers on the Sunshine Coast, donating thousands of dollars and talking up Momentum to anyone who’d listen). Although she used her car for work (she ran a book rep company and had to carry boxes of books all over town) in the evenings and on weekends she’d run errands on her bike, ride to yoga, to church and to pick up all kinds of supplies from gallons of paint to groceries. She retired last year has barely used her car at all. She rides or walks almost everywhere. I am surprised by how much she chooses to ride and I have great respect for her. I am so proud of her and glad that she enjoys riding so much and she makes black and red raingear look gorgeous.