Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Women Bike PHL Interview #4: Ashanti Martin

Ashanti M. Martin works at the University of Pennsylvania and is mom to Silas, with another one on the way. She is currently on hiatus from biking during her pregnancy, but hopes to start again in a few months.

How did you learn to ride a bike?
I was about five or six years old, my dad taught me. I grew up in Yonkers, New York, and my friends and I rode a lot around the neighborhood, but I didn't start biking as an adult until 2009 when I was living in New Brunswick, NJ. I lived really close to my job, it was a 3-5 minute drive, and a 12-15 minute bike ride. A couple of years after getting married to my husband, Craig – who has lived here for 20 years – I moved down to Philly in 2011, just before my son was born. Once I got a job and was settled, I started thinking it would be really cool to ride a bike again. I was seeing so many people riding bikes, and a lot of good bike lanes, and believe it or not, cars really do share the road. Especially on a nice day, there are a lot of people on bikes, and it made me say, "there's no reason I can't do this."

So I got my bike tuned up, and started riding to work. I don't know why I didn't do a test run, I was just like, “It's Monday, I'm going to ride my bike.” I was nervous because it had been a while since I had been riding regularly. I regained my balance and speed after a day, and after a few weeks I was practically riding with no hands, but that first day or two I was really shaky. I got to work and I thought, “I can't believe I just did that!”

You were using the Spruce and Pine bike lanes?
That was a big reason why it immediately became a permanent thing. It's so easy, because I take Spruce to 24th, down to Lombard to take the South Street Bridge, and then take Pine back. I knew that the South Street Bridge had a great buffered bike lane, but recently I've been walking across the Walnut street bridge and their bike lane is better than I thought. So I probably would try Walnut Street again.

Can you talk about your experience buying your bike?
I bought my bike at Kim's Bike Shop in New Brunswick. I love them, I'd recommend them to anyone in the area. I also really love Bicycle Revolutions across the street. The girl who works there is awesome. I really like going in there and being able to interact with a woman.

I was a little nervous. I wanted to look at single speed bikes because they are supposedly lighter, but at Kim's all the single speeds were big, they were for guys, and they were heavy. I felt, “This is not going to work.” I told the guy that I needed something light because I lived on a second-floor walk-up, and I needed a commuter bike. He said, “Well, try this!” It was a 2009 Specialized Vita and I loved the way it looked, it was a metal lavender color, and when I lifted it up it was like lifting nothing. And between that and the way it rode I decided to buy it after a couple of rides around the block.

Can you talk about the difference between your first day commuting and how that changed once you got in a groove?
I think eventually you get to the point where you're not scared to go anywhere, and that's what I like so much about riding a bike. At first I was only going to use the bike lanes, and for commuting in the morning that's what I would do because it was quick. But I was more willing to go anywhere, up and down any street.

My first commute I was very much following people on their bikes. And I was nervous, but I thought, “I'll be good as long as I follow that person!” And then that person would make a right when I was supposed to go straight and I'd be like, “Now what?” Obviously now I'm much more comfortable leading and passing people. I just love the feeling of being able to pass a bunch of cars.

Logistics: Do you change, how do you make sure you look professional?
The main reason I ride my bike to work is time. It takes 40-some minutes to get to work using Septa. It takes 23 minutes, without fail, on my bike. You can't have a more reliable commute than that. In the summer when it's really hot, I'll wear a tank top and workout pants, and I am fortunate to have my own office. I close my door, take an extra ten minutes to cool off, and then I change my clothes. I'll have extra deodorant, a towel if I needed it, baby powder. It sounds gross, but eventually you get used to and accept it. This is my commute, this is what it is. And it's fine.

I have puffy hair and it doesn't lie flat. There are certain ways that I can wear my hair and it lies flat and a helmet fits nicely over it, but in general I had a hard time finding a good fitting helmet. I just kind of adjust expectations and make do. I am lucky that I have a job where I can close the door and refresh. If employers are going to encourage bicycle commuting, you need to be a little flexible. It would be great to have a shower on site for those August summer days.

Do you bike through the winter?
Yeah. I didn't think I would. People told me I would stop, but honestly there is nothing I like more than to bike in the winter when it's freezing cold. You get on your bike and two minutes later you're warm. Sometimes I would layer up and get on my bike for three minutes and I'm pulling off my scarf and gloves and layers. It's better than in the summer because I wouldn't be sweaty when I got to work. I could wear the clothes I would wear in the office that day – cute riding boots, leggings, dresses, sweaters. It's so much better riding in the cold than sitting and waiting for the bus in the cold. When I first stopped riding when I got pregnant the first few weeks were horrible. The idea of having to wait to get where you're going, I hate it. I still don't like it, I like being able to jump on my bike and go.

Do you have any special gear you would use in the rain or cold?
No, since my commute was 20 minutes, unless it's a steady soaking rain it never was that bad. If it wasn't raining hard when I left the house, it probably would not be raining hard when I got to work. If it was, well, I was only stuck in it a few minutes. My coat is just a wool coat, it would never really be soaked. I never really had anything special for the rain. I'm really low maintenance, the less I have the better.

What about clothes to change into? Would you have them with you? Leave them at the office?
I would bring them with me. Whatever I am using for a meeting or something is what I want to have on my commute. I would wrap up my clothes, put them in a plastic bag or backpack, and put them in my basket. When you're a mom you have a lot of clothes you don't need to iron!

Can you talk about biking and being a mom? Do you get to share that part of your life with your son?
My husband and I tend to be very risk-averse when it comes to Silas, my son. We are a little nervous about putting him on a bike seat, since most of my biking is done in center city. My husband doesn't ride, so we don't really ride recreationally, which is fine with me because I get enough biking time during the week. So we haven't put him on a bike seat yet. We’ve been talking about moving to Fairmount, and if we do, I would definitely use Fairmount Park more, use the trails, Kelly Drive, something that we're all a little more comfortable with. And I definitely look forward to getting the boys their own bikes with training wheels.

Does your son know you bike?
Last summer he and his dad would go to the playground and be there when I would get home from work. I would ride down from 4th street and cruise into the park, and all the kids at the park would be all, "Oh, that's a cool bike, can we ride?" That was actually one of Silas’s first words, “bike.” I'd lock it up in the park and he'd run over to it and say, “bike, bike!” and touch it all over and get his hands filthy with the chain. He was definitely very aware.

Do you use your bike beyond commuting, to run errands, etc?
Yeah, I would do that a lot in the evenings and weekends. When it came to things, say we wanted to make a salad but didn't have any lettuce, I would be able to just hop on my bike and go get it and be back in 10 minutes. I’m pretty great at stuffing my basket with as many groceries as can fit.

Do you miss biking now that you're not able to do it?
I miss it so much. I don't even like to look at my bike now, I can't. Physically, the muscle tone in my thighs is gone. It was awesome to just have great legs without having to work hard at it. Now I try go to the gym three times a week, and I have to work extra to get exercise. Another big reason I started biking was that before I had my son I was really active, and once he came, time was gone. If I get time to myself I want to hang out and just read a book or listen to music. Once I started biking to work, that was my exercise, and my legs and arms were in really good shape. Biking is great for the triceps! I hadn't run for a year, and I went running once on a lark after I had been biking, and it was like nothing. I had cardiovascular and muscle endurance, I felt like I was in really good shape.

Anything cool about your commute that you wouldn't get to see if you weren’t on a bike?
My husband has lived in Philly for 20 years, and I've lived here for two. I started to learn so much about the neighborhoods that I was biking through that I'd be telling him about things that he didn't know about. I really liked biking across the South Street bridge, riding across the water in the morning and coming back home when the sun was setting, seeing the reflection of the sunlight on the skyline, or the skyline against a starry night

There's this kids store on Pine, they have a sale every Tuesday, if you are a member you get 20% off Melissa and Doug stuff, so every Tuesday I'd ride by and think, "Maybe I'll pick something up for Silas!" And now I don't get to do that anymore. Little things like being able to patronize businesses that you like. Plus people recognize you with your helmet.

Do you ever get the chance to engage with other people who bike in Philly, be part of the biking community?
There are a lot of people who bike at work, we have a little group. But I don't bike to be a part of something, I just ride my bike. I do definitely keep up on what's going on. I'm into the advocacy side of it, I encourage all people to ride bikes. I'm not the person hanging out at the bike shop, but I pay attention to policy stuff and will lend my support.

I've always known someone who's started biking because I was. My old neighbor in New Jersey started biking not long after I did. My co-worker lives in West Philly and would always complain about SEPTA, so I asked, “Why don't you ride a bike?” And now he does.

This interview is part of our Women Bike PHL Campaign. If you are, or know, a woman who would be a good subject for a profile, contact Katie Monroe at katie@bicyclecoalition.orgInterview conducted and transcribed by Claudia Setubal. Photos by Claudia Setubal.