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Jess Mathews: Cyclist/Activist

Jess Mathews absolutely, positively does not want the photo accompanying this interview to feature her on her bike.While so much of her public profile is filled with images of the lean local riding her bike around the city, leading 2 Wheels and Heels group rides, and shutting down a portion of Main Street for last fall’s inaugural Open Streets event, Mathews is just getting started turning Columbus on its commuter ear; the two-wheel activism is the trees, the urban environment is the forest.

Ordering a beer at The Market Italian Village turns into a mini taste-test as Mathews ponders the perfect brew for the moment. Sitting in the long window seat of the Summit Street eatery, she takes out her gum and sticks it on her hand. Tattoos of the Italian flag, her dad’s initials, a bike, all flutter as she moves her hands to the beat of her own speech. The energetic Mathews is all passion, all Italian gestures, and all conviction. The little curlicue of hair that sits on her forehead like Christopher Reeves’ Superman makes me wonder if she actually is a superhero, here to save us from an outdated urban philosophy.

Acknowledging her deep bench of beer knowledge, I asked Mathews the first beer she remembers making an impression on her. The first beer I remember, the first beer that came to me, was the Sam Adams Cherry Wheat. It was probably not when I was 21, but I was with my friend Omar. I popped it and was like, “Oh! This is pretty good. I think it was [my gateway beer]. I am a super fan of hops…I think it’s as simple as that for me. I’ve assisted in some brewing; I’ve never brewed any by myself. That’s a goal of mine. You know how people have bucket lists? That’s one of mine. I love the science behind it.

In her direct manner, Mathews asks me why she was chosen for The Interview issue. Of course, I turn it around and ask her why she thinks she was chosen. I think my name was thrown into the hat because two of my passion projects that simultaneously happened this year have the potential to be sustaining game-changers in our city.  Open Streets Columbus and the Columbus Parklet Project are initiatives that allow people to re-imagine our streets as public spaces, and that our streets have the potential to be so much more than just parking and traffic.  So much of our city and many other cities out there have been designed as cars-first—then people. We’ve designed our streets around “peak hours”—those are the two hours in the morning going to work and two hours in the evening leaving work.  After that, many of our streets are left empty and void of life, and I think that cities are finally realizing that’s not healthy. I want to live in a city that I help shape. That’s fun and exciting and interesting.  Prioritizing people and putting life back into our streets is what I want for my city.  You give people a fun and interesting space to gather, they’ll gather. Open Streets Columbus and the Columbus Parklet Project are just the tip of the iceberg for me.

As all good Columbus natives do, Mathews left her hometown for a spell, then boomeranged back to the city with new ideas and experiences. I went to art school in San Francisco. I wanted to do music videos and CD covers. What made me go to art school was seeing Tori Amos’s “Caught a Lite Sneeze” video, and she was doing crazy, unthinkable things in her music. She was the black sheep, in my opinion, of musicians, and when I saw her video I was like, holy shit. I like to use both sides of my brain; I started art out there and then when my dad passed, I went into science. I balance both hemispheres. I got a degree in nuclear medicine technology. I like the physiology of the body and I like technology, so I felt like that integrated both.

And, um, what are you doing with that? Nothing [laughs]. I keep my licenses updated just in case, but I love what I’m doing right now. I didn’t own a car in San Francisco. It wasn’t even a thought-process—access and convenience was in such abundance that it only hit me when I came back to Columbus of how deficient we were. When I use my bike here, it’s really unfriendly. After I got back, I just slowly started hearing about advocacy organizations and biking groups putting together these events to talk about making the streets more equitable. I became more passionate about it—seeing that there’s so many reasons why people choose different modes to move around, whether it’s economics or exercise, they just want to, or they just don’t want to default and get in their cars. There were very few women, it was super unfriendly…well, not unfriendly, but I was like, “Where the babes at?”

Really? When I think of bike advocacy in town, I think of you and Catherine Girves from Yay Bikes! That’s a great compliment because that says a lot. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to balance that inequity of gender and just make women and mothers more comfortable to take their kids out and create, hopefully, this domino effect. When I do the 2 Heels on Wheels rides, I get emails and comments like, “I have learned and explored so much of this city because of your rides.”

What was your first bike? Dude. A friend of mine that I was interning with let me use his bike; it was an oversized 10-speed framed bike, but I needed a bike, and it was great, but it was too big. It did the job. It was red and yellow.  Now, I have this cute one-speed Fuji, she’s got a basket in the front, a removable back rack, she has fenders…her name is Suzette. It just sounded like a badass name. All the names of my bikes begin with S—I had a Schwinn named Stella, a Bianchi, her name was Sophie, and I have the Fuji, Suzette. No rhyme or reason.

You’ve been car-free for five years now, are you comfortable biking around the city? I can be categorized as one of the fearless, but that doesn’t mean I’m not scared. There would be times when I would be at Seventh Son and have my bike, I would be dreading biking home because my direct route would be taking Summit over 670 onto Third and through downtown. And I would dread it because of the nighttime, the speed, and I wouldn’t want to bike, but I would do it anyways because I feel like it’s my obligation to be seen using an alternate mode of getting from A to B. So I do. While I bike on any street, it doesn’t mean that I feel safe—it means I’m doing it because people need to see bikers on every street, not just f*cking High Street.

I ask Mathews what she would do for Columbus if she could wave a magic “no-red-tape” wand and the ideas flowed quickly. Aside from the “slow zones” and protected bike lanes I mentioned, I would completely reconfigure Broad Street. No downtown street should ever be 88-feet wide. That’s freeway width. I would remove east and west lanes and put in continuous pedestrian islands where people could sit and gather and walk up and down safely in the middle of the street.  While I wouldn’t want to imitate, think of NYC’s High Line just to give people a vision. Then put something like that in the middle of Broad Street…put life in our streets where people want to be. I would convert Rich Street to two-way. I would implement a “green wave” on High Street. A green wave is when the traffic lights are timed to a bicyclist’s speed—say 14 miles per hour.  So, if the people riding bikes on High Street maintain a 14-mph speed, they’ll hit every green light.  This will also make cars slow down if they want to make every green light. Lastly, I would create pedestrian alleys. There’s an alley in the Short North that I’ve been dreaming about converting for a few years.  It’s just screaming to become a pedestrian alley so stay tuned on that. I want to continue to open people’s minds up when it comes to changing the way we use our streets and how we can more effectively use them so that our quality of life is richer.

Did your family come to Open Streets? My mom and sister came to Open Streets. They were just so proud—they knew what it meant to me. They just loved hearing people and them not knowing who they were. I don’t think that they quite knew what to expect and then that light bulb for them went off and they realized how awesome it was. They loved it. I come from a family of leaders and not followers. And that’s how I live my life—it’s that being authentic thing. My mother is the hardest-working woman I know. I wish I could make a lot of money and have her not work. Or run for office and give her a job.

You’ve thought of running for office? I applied for City Council. There was a vacant spot and it was open to the public to apply. I applied, got an interview. It was good because they got to see my face and that’s what I wanted. We’ll see what the future holds. I think I am meant to lead. I’m okay with being disliked for the good of the community. I am willing to piss people off for the good. I just feel there should be change. I have a big mouth. I struggle with that. People get…not intimidated by that…but they get nervous about people with big mouths. And that makes me second-guess myself, but I’m like, “Screw that.” Just because I have a big mouth and I’m vocal about things doesn’t mean I’m unprofessional, you know? So when I start second-guessing myself about that, I’m like, “No, I’m not going to shut up about it.” We’ll see what happens. I was talking to a friend and I said, “I’ve even got a slogan, dude: Stop Talking and Grow Some.” I even had the facial expression for the photo—the whole smirk thing. Stop Talking and Grow Some.

For more of Mathews, visit her blog, cbuscyclechic.wordpress.com, where you can find more information about 2 Wheels and Heels, the Columbus Parklet Project, and Open Streets.

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