MCBC Community Member Spotlight: Liz Canning, MOTHERLOAD Director
Each month, we’ll feature an MCBC member who showcases Marin’s celebrated bicycling culture and inspires us to get out and ride. Do you know someone we should highlight? Email email@example.com to suggest a member spotlight!
This month, we’re pleased to feature Liz Canning of Fairfax. Liz is the Director of MOTHERLOAD, a crowdsourced documentary about how cargo bikes will save the world. MOTHERLOAD premieres this weekend, May 4-5 at Doclands Documentary Film Festival in Mill Valley. Tickets are still available!
First off, congratulations on the film! We’re really looking forward to joining at the premiere this weekend. Tell us, how did you get started bicycling? When and how did you realize that bicycling was going to be an integral part of your life?
I was lucky enough as a kid to spend a month every year in a New England summer community where the speed limit was 20 mph and there were stop signs like every 20 yards! So as young as three or four, I got a taste of how empowering and liberating a bike could be. Back at home I rode around the neighborhood, but we lived in a sort of rural suburb where things were too spread out to make bike commuting feasible for most. In the ’70s, however, my Dad caught the fitness craze, started running marathons and began riding his bike 12 miles each way to work. People thought he was nuts but he loved it! So it felt pretty natural for me to ride everywhere through college in Providence and the ’90s in San Francisco: cycling was by far the easiest, funnest way to get around those cities.
It sounds like you’ve ridden for all types of reasons–for transportation, recreation, competition, etc.—and on all types of bikes. Tell us about your riding background.
Around 2000, I experienced a very painful breakup with boyfriend who lived in Fairfax and raced bikes. I was overwhelmed with sorts of unresolved emotional stuff from my childhood–just a depressed, anxious mess! I touch on this in the film. The only place I felt okay was on my bike. I’d been riding from San Francisco out to Fairfax regularly to see this guy and, in the wake of the breakup, I began exploring: Point Reyes, Marshall, Limantour, Tomales, up and down and all around Tam–I could not get enough! I vividly remember pedaling the climb from Alpine Dam to Ridgecrest, just weeping. The soothing redwoods, moss and ferns, then the heavenly feeling of soaring above the fog on the Seven Sisters, followed by the moment of total mindfulness flying down to Stinson or Mill Valley. There is no better therapy.
I treated my nervous breakdown with 300 miles a week, began racing, and moved to Fairfax. Those years of commuting to San Francisco on my bike (sometimes via Tam!) transformed my life. Totally forgot about the guy!
How long have you lived in Marin? What are some of your favorite rides here?
I moved here from San Francisco in 2000. Before we had kids, my favorite ride was Marshall Wall. I love that descent, and then zooming down the rollers on Route 1 with a tailwind to Bovine Bakery in Point Reyes. As a mom of twins without a lot of free time, I preferred the quickest bang for my buck: during the week, from my house in Cascade Canyon, up BoFax, down to Bolinas, and back–I might see 4 cars on the whole ride!
Even as someone who has done so much riding, it sounds like your discovery of cargo bikes changed your life. Tell us a bit about that.
As described in MOTHERLOAD, I rode everywhere until my twins were born. For as long as I could, I pulled them around in a bike trailer, but we live up a hill that is half a mile long, averaging a 13 percent grade and at one point hitting 22! The kids didn’t enjoy the trailer much, and neither did I.
Our first cargo was built in Portland to be light and ready to climb, and the kids LOVED sitting side-by-side in the front where they could see everything, and I could see them. Once we added an electric-assist hub motor, I was truly set free. The bike turned all the mind-numbing, endless errands of modern parenthood into adventurous explorations of our community–with bonus endorphin fixes for mom built-in!
At the same time I discovered cargo bikes, I connected with people–mostly parents–all over the world having a similarly transformative experience. They were blogging and chatting and Youtubing this hardcore, head-over-heels love for what the cargo bike had given their families. I saw that, once people give this lifestyle a good try, they generally go a little “nutso-evangelistic” about it. So I knew they would help me make a film, and I launched MOTHERLOAD as a crowdsourced documentary. People have been sending me cargo bike-inspired video content from all over the globe since 2011.
What are your recommendations for people curious about cargo bikes–and replacing car trips by bike? Do you have any specific recommendations for parents?
Don’t hesitate–a cargo bike will make your family so happy. If you are truly unsure, borrow one from a friend for a couple days (he/she will say “Yes!”–they all want to convert you). And/or go to a shop that specializes in utility bikes like The New Wheel in Larkspur. These folks take this purchase very seriously; they will assume you are (or could be) replacing a car. They will accompany you on a test ride(s). They will offer no-interest financing, unlimited tune-ups, and 24/7 nationwide roadside assistance.
Electric-assist is worth it. Kids get heavier, and so do their groceries and backpacks and playmates. Even if it’s manageable now, the day will soon come when carrying that much weight is no longer FUN, and you may find yourself listening to NPR, sipping coffee, stuck in the drop-off line in your air-conditioned SUV. Don’t tempt fate or yourself. These human/electric-powered bikes are incredibly efficient, you can use the motor as much or as little as needed, but having that option invalidates 99 percent of common excuses for using the car. Plus, it’s really fun.
How has bicycling shaped or impacted your experience as a parent? Have your children caught the bicycling bug? Surely you must have some adorable anecdotes from your time hauling the kiddos around.
I do miss the days when we rolled through town like one very happy three-headed animal. Back then there were maybe two other cargo bikes in town and everywhere we went people smiled and waved and asked about our bike. The kids named our box bike “Lucy-Mopsy” after their two favorite dogs, and thought of her as always knowing which way to go, and having the power to fly or float (very much like the magical car in Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang). Sometimes we would wander into the neighborhoods, off the beaten path, wonder if we might be “lost,” and then, with much excitement, find that Lucy-Mopsy knew the way home all along.
We also had a tradition of delivering gingerbread cookies at Christmas time while singing about Rudolph and pretending the bike was Santa’s sleigh.
The kids started riding themselves to school and back on their own last year. I am so grateful that we live where kids can do this! Study after study shows that kids today need more exercise, less technology (I would include time in cars here), and more “free range,” as in unsupervised time when they are responsible for their own decisions. With traffic, climate change, and the pace of modern life being what they are, I don’t know why so many parents are ready and willing to drive their kids all over Marin! We are so privileged that bike commuting here is doable and enjoyable for everyone, and I wish more families made this a priority.
In making MOTHERLOAD, you met extraordinary people from all over the world who are shaping the bicycling movement and industry. What was your favorite story and/or what was the most profound thing you learned from one of these leaders?
I don’t want to give away too much of the substance of the MOTHERLOAD, but I can say that:
Mikael Colville-Andersen made me realize what a powerful invention the bicycle was and how it changed our sense of time, place and scale, liberating the poor, empowering the Suffragettes, and transforming society as we knew it.
Professor Ellen Garvey pointed me to Bicycling for Ladies, a how-to guide written by Maria Ward in 1898. I was shocked at how perfectly sections of this book describe my own feelings about cycling: “Riding the wheel, our own powers are revealed to us, a new sense is seemingly created. …The system is invigorated, the spirit is refreshed, the mind, freed from care…is filled with new and beautiful impressions. You have conquered a new world and exultingly you take possession of it.”
Joe Breeze taught me that patience is key: just because the Golden Age of Bicycles 2.0 is taking a long time to come, does not mean it won’t happen!
Ole Kassow (Danish founder of Cycling Without Age), and Anne-Marj Berendsen (Dutch importer of European family cycling gear to the US) helped me understand that there is more than one way to react to our fears. The Amsterdam of the 1970s was overrun with cars and endured a rash of cyclist and pedestrian deaths. Widespread, organized outrage eventually resulted in state-of-the-art bike infrastructure and a thriving mainstream bike culture. As Ole says in the film: “Risk is a part of life, full stop. But if you take it away, you take away what life is all about.” From our political culture to parenting to our inability to Share the Road, it’s clear this is a lesson Americans have not learned. US cycling fatalities are blamed on the victims and seem to result only in more people retreating from public space into cars.
I learned so much from Ross Evans, founder and CEO of Xtracycle. Since taking on this project I’ve had many dark moments of doubt and Ross was great at reminding me–in the words of William Hutchison Murray: “…the moment one definitely commits oneself….all sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred….all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way….’Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!’”
Joel and Barb Grover of Splendid Cycles told me that “Bikes are a great social filter (meaning through bikes one generally meets good people), but cargo bikes are the BEST social filter!” I would have to agree. The MOTHERLOAD Kickstarter was a case in point. I had been working on the project for about three years without pay and I was terrified to launch the crowdfunding campaign, but I could not continue without funding. The next thing I knew I was overwhelmed. With enthusiastic backers, product donations, press inquiries and encouragement from every direction. Several companies donated complete cargo bikes, even electric ones, to the campaign. MOTHERLOAD could not have happened without this incredible community.
Is there anything else you want us to know about you, the film, cargo bikes, or anything else?
I have to thank my husband, Adam Smith, whom I met riding bikes. He knows me so well. For years I cycled through ideas for films, eventually rejecting everything. When I suggested cargo bikes, Adam is the one who said, “YES. Make that film. Don’t question it, just make it.” He has supported MOTHERLOAD innumerable ways since then. He is an Executive Producer, and probably more excited than anyone to see it completed!
What’s your vision for bicycling and transportation in Marin?
I am still puzzled by the number of hardcore, super fit and enthusiastic road and off-road cyclists who have zero interest in pedaling to work or school or the supermarket. With the cargo and electric options available now, this makes less sense than ever.
Fairfax certainly has come a long way since I started this project, particularly with the advent of family cycling and cargo bikes. This is especially important because, as I learned in making the film, parents–and particularly moms–carrying kids on bikes, in traffic, are like the “indicator species” for the safety of the streets. These families can function as mobile billboards, advertising the practicality, accessibility and low risk of bike commuting. I’d like to see MCBC and Safe Routes to School continue to lead this movement: given our weather, our politics, our geography and the ridiculous traffic, Marin families are far more car-dependent than we should be.
Thanks for your time, Liz, and congratulations again on the film!
MOTHERLOAD makes its premiere this weekend, May 4-5, at Doclands Documentary Film Festival in Mill Valley. Click here to watch the trailer and purchase tickets.