At Philly Bike Expo, a look at how women led the biking movement in the suburbs

Organizers, active in the suburban cycling community, discuss their grassroots projects during a panel at the Philly Bike Expo on Saturday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Organizers, active in the suburban cycling community, discuss their grassroots projects during a panel at the Philly Bike Expo on Saturday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Kimberly Bezak says creating the Narberth Cycling Club came out of an “ah-ha moment.”

She was leaving a meeting one night in the Montgomery County town and headed toward her bike when a local mom stopped her.

“[She said] ‘I see you biking around all the time. I am so curious about what you are doing, but I am terrified about getting on my bike,” Bezak recalls.

From left, Rebecca Kreck, Alexandria Schneider, and Kimberly Bezak speak at the Philadelphia Bike Expo panel on suburban cycling advocacy. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

The occupational therapist by day said there’s minimal bike infrastructure — bike lanes or bike racks — in Narberth. To start Narberth Cycling Club — founded on Earth Day 2017 — was a way to advocate for better bike access, while simultaneously bringing the community together.

Their first group ride brought out 100 people.

“We just about fell over,” Bezak said. “We weren’t expecting 100 people to show up. It was incredible. So we knew, ‘Oh my gosh, we are tapping into something in our community that people are begging for.’”

NCC now has over 400 adult members — many of whom bring their kids along for the ride with cargo bikes or large bucket panniers. Every Monday, you can see some of the NCC crew shopping at the local grocery store. Other trips made in the past to make biking more than just recreation included a ride to IKEA trip in Conshohocken, which Bezak noted, was mostly a trail-based ride from Narberth.

Bezak was one of five women who spoke on a panel Saturday morning at the 10th annual Philadelphia Bike Expo at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Alicia Fields-Murphy, founder of the Hammonton Kickstand Crew, speaks about her program during the Philly Bike Expo panel discussion on Saturday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

When the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia was organizing a suburban bike advocacy panel for the convention, it was quickly made clear that most of the grassroots efforts to make cycling accessible for all in the ‘burbs were made by women.

This brought out people like Josie Marsh, who founded Bike Kennett in August 2016. As the national political climate was shifting, she felt the need to make a difference in her rural Chester County community.

Marsh said before Bike Kennett, there weren’t many group riding clubs in the area. Now the group hosts three to four group rides per week. April through October, they run a weekly 10-mile-ride at 10 miles per hour for beginners, and on other nights Bike Kennett organizes a 25-mile-ride at 18 miles per hour for more experienced cyclists.

She was lucky to start Bike Kennett with the support of Kennett Township in Chester County, as the local government was working on its active transportation plan. Beyond group ride rides, Marsh said they also encouraging cycling newcomers through bike donations. Bike Kennett has given out roughly 125 bikes over the past year through help from Trek Bicycle Wilmington, a bike shop in Delaware.

Those donated bikes have often been a help to Kennett’s large migrant worker population who work on the town’s mushroom farms. Marsh says many of the people in that community bike out of necessity.

The group also donated 125 helmets in the past year.

Josie Marsh, founder of Bike Kennett, talks about the cycling club. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Though advocating for people to ride more is a big part of Bike Kennett’s efforts, advocating for policy change plays a big role in Marsh’s work too. She’s working closely with Kennett Township and Kennett Borough to install trails, bike lanes, and sidewalks to create better bike and pedestrian safety on many of Kennett’s rural backroads.

Marsh says her interests at the intersection between advocacy and biking comes from her desire to help people.

“I frequently see the workers who come from Mexico riding on the sidewalks with no helmets and I just think, ‘Who is speaking for them? Who is looking out for their safety and well being?’” Marsh said.

Bicycles on display at the Philly Bike Expo on Saturday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Another key indicator in what inspires many of the women on the panel to advocate for suburban biking is changing the way some people are thinking about climate change.

In Bezak’s work in Narberth — a densely populated community of over 4,000 people — she tries to combat a generational divide of how people use their cars. She says some younger families in the town don’t have a car, while her own family has stayed committed to one car because of their cargo bike use.

In the Narberth Cycling Club’s advocacy, they frame the conversation around a simple idea: stop using the car for local trips. Instead of hopping in the car for a cup of coffee or to buy a loaf of bread down the street, hop on your bike.

“The thing we hear a lot from the older population is, ‘Bikes belong on sidewalks, bikes are for trails, bikes are for recreation,’ so we are pushing up against a little bit of resistance,” Bezak said. “But the more we have folks on the road, it’s a ripple effect.”

She says during some recent grocery bike rides, older Narberth residents have stopped her out of curiosity — then asked if they can join in themselves.

Audience during a panel at the Philly Bike Expo on Saturday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

And for some on the panel — getting the little ones interested in biking as the main mode of transportation can have a big impact.

Take Alicia Fields-Murphy, the founder of the Hammonton Kickstand Crew, a social riding club in South Jersey. She founded the group from childhood memories — riding your bike around town with your friends as a kid.

Although the group also hosts rides through the region’s wine country and to local breweries, they also have a focus on rides that bring the kids along.

Fields-Murphy is currently working with the Rotary Club of Hammonton to have them purchase bike lights for children to give out to elementary school students on Bike and Walk to School Day next year.

“We want to be advocates for the kids and be showing them that going out and riding a bike instead of getting in your car is really not that difficult,” Fields-Murphy said. “This fun club has become more than just fun and has become a bicycle advocacy group and I’m really proud of that.”

Rebecca Kreck, chair of Bike Gloucester County, speaks about her program during the Philly Bike Expo panel discussion on Saturday. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Other panelists included Rebecca Kreck of Bike Gloucester County and Alexandria Schneider, the former regional chair of Bike Montgomery. Schneider also helped organize a group ride during Pope Francis visit to Philadelphia in 2015 through the secured area. Unexpectedly, 3,000 people turned out for the ride. 

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