Martina Fahrner is an evangelist and a visionary. A trailblazing business woman with a passion to get more families on bicycles, she helped to introduce new types of cargo bikes, not only to Portland, Ore., but the entire U.S.
Six years ago, with the opening of Clever Cycles, Fahrner began to change the retail landscape and provide new solutions for families like her’s. And, ever the optimist, where other’s see challenges, she sees opportunities.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Martina at various bike events and writing about Clever Cycles for Momentum magazine — and I couldn’t be more excited to hear her speak at the National Women’s Bicycling Forum.
Read more about her story in the interview below — and sign up for the Forum today!
Having grown up in Germany, did you ride a lot as a child / adult? Is the cycling culture here very different from back home?
I learned to ride a bike when I was 4-years-old. I rode to school, after-school activities and later even went clubbing by bike. I got my driver’s license when I was 18 but never owned a car. I also used a lot of public transport, which is normally discounted for students in Germany. There is no cycling culture per se in Germany. There are bicycle clubs for touring, racing or bike acrobatics, but a bike is just something you use to get around. Bicycle infrastructure is part of most streets and many country roads have separated multi-use paths next to them.
What a diverse background you have! What kinds of museums and web development work did you do before you got into the bike world?
I worked for the Museum of the City of New York after I moved to the U.S. I was always more interested in history than in fine art, so working in a history museum was a treat. In San Francisco, I started to write HTML while looking for another museum job. At the beginning of the dot.com boom I gave up my search and slipped instead into project management jobs at various IT start-ups. I found out that my training in iconography is easily translated into information design. So I focused more and more on human-computer interaction and user-centric design. Interestingly enough, I also acquired a good idea of product design. What else is the web about, if not the sale of products?
How did you end up in Portland? Was the bike culture a draw?
In the early 1990′s, my husband and I took a road trip to Portland and liked it. When we decided to leave San Francisco, it was either Amsterdam or Portland. Since my husband had a patent for an electro-assist for bikes, we figured it would be easier to stay in the U.S. So we moved to Portland. Since we are a car-free family, bike culture was naturally a draw. Three days after we had landed in Portland, we went bike-caroling.
What inspired or motivated you to start a bike shop?
Six years ago, we met our business partners kvetching at friend’s party about how hard it is to ride with small kids — we had one, they had four. We compared notes, they bought two of our electric-assist systems and we started talking. It was actually Rae Mullin, my business partner, who had seen a Bakfiets here in Portland. Somebody had brought it over from the Netherlands. We hunted the person down, tracked down a distributor and started importing them.
It must have felt risky to introduce bikes that were relatively new, not only in Portland, but the U.S.! What challenges did you have to overcome to make your shop a success?
Some of the European firms didn’t take us seriously (“Americans don’t ride bikes!”). Liability was a big problem. Luckily, we never had to use our insurance in five years of business. Amazingly enough, convincing people to put their kids on bikes was the smallest of all our challenges. So many people had seen our bikes in Europe. Other parents who used to be bicyclists before having kids, just wanted to get back to riding. I still feel challenged by the gaps in the American product palette. I see tremendous opportunities and under-served markets. I hope that I can help in my own ways to close them.
How is your shop different from the traditional bike retailer — beyond just the bikes that you sell?
We always talked about wanting to be like an Apple store. White doesn’t lend itself to bikes being pushed around, but we settled on bright colors, a spacious layout and a touch of a living room feeling. We have rugs in our show room and a chandelier made out of light bulbs. We try to cultivate a friendly atmosphere where everybody feels welcome and nobody gets overwhelmed.
What’s your biggest source of pride in how Clever Cycles has impacted the community at large?
It makes me incredible proud to hear from people that shops similar to Clever Cycles are opening all over the U.S. I also get really emotional when I run into somebody that I sold a bike to and they tell me that they love their bike… Best. Feeling. Ever!
In your opinion, how important is the availability of family / utility bicycles in growing the number of women who ride?
It is HUGE. I don’t want to disrespect the number of care takers and dads who ride cargo bikes, but just seeing other women on cargo bikes is an inspiration to women. It’s the light at the end of the SUV tunnel. Interestingly enough, blogging cargo-bike moms are the leading evangelists: women read the blogs, get inspired and start asking around. Often their questions end up in the Clever Cycle e-mail inbox. Sometimes I can’t recommend any good solution, which is heart wrenching. But, again, the challenge is to broaden the product palette: Why not have a trailer for older kids or for 3-4 kids? Why isn’t there a bike to which you can attach a child seat and a trailer bike? Cargo bikes for a women less than 5-feet tall? Helmets for women with braids or lots of hair! There is so much to do — I get dizzy when I think about all these opportunities!
As a mom, what do you tell other parents who say that they don’t have the ability to meet their family travel needs on a bicycle? What’s been your experience as a bicycling mom?
That’s a difficult question… The most important thing is to open yourself to the concept: Talk to biking parents, investigate your bike options, pick a short ride you can do. It can be to the library, in a park or on a trail. Vacations are a great time to start cycling, just rent bikes and explore. It sometimes seems easier to take radical steps: once your second car is gone, you just have to figure it out. It also makes the financial hit easier. Even if biking is much more economical than driving, it still costs money and bikes that can carry kids safely can be expensive. More opportunities in this area: We should think more about bike loans and bike leasing!
For non-cycling parents I try to introduce cycling as a viable transportation option by being courteous to cyclists, point out cycling families and encourage their kids to bike. Many of the parents I see during our “Safe Routes to School” month don’t normally ride, but they do it for one month for their kids — and that’s wonderful! If a family really wants to travel by bike, but can’t, perhaps it is also time to ask the big questions: Do we live in the right neighborhood? Can we make our neighborhood more bike-friendly? We chose where we live for jobs, schools, re-sell value. Why not for bike/walkability?
Meet and hear more from Martina at the National Women’s Bicycling Forum!
Carolyn SzczepanskiCarolyn joined the League in March 2012, after two years at the Alliance for Biking & Walking. In addition to managing the League's blog, magazine and other communications, Carolyn organized the first National Women's Bicycling Summit and launched the League's newest program: Women Bike. Before she crossed over to advocacy, she was a professional journalist for nearly 10 years.