Twenty-four-year-old Cincinnati native Nern Ostendorf admits that it was with reluctance that she moved back to town early this year. After studying sociology at Northwestern University, she spent time working on farms in New Mexico and North Carolina until a back injury caused her to return home.
But the Walnut Hills graduate, who spent most of her adult life outside of Cincinnati, says she was quickly charmed by the city's energy and found herself becoming increasingly involved with enthusiastic young people, including the folks over at MoBo Bicycle Cooperative in Northside.
“I came back begrudgingly and now I can't stop talking about how great Cincinnati is and how glad I am to be here,” she says.
In September Ostendorf was named executive director of Queen City Bike, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting cycling as a safe and healthy means of transportation and recreation activity. The part-time position involves managing the organization's Bike Friendly Destinations Program, which works with businesses and organizations on ways to make it easier for people to reach and use their facilities on a bicycle.
CityBeat caught up with Ostendorf to check in on her first full month in office and see what she envisions for the city's cycling future.
CityBeat: What first interested you in becoming involved with Queen City Bike?
Nern Ostendorf: I heard about the position through email and the minute I read it I was really excited about it. I've worked for small little independent collectives and cooperatives for the last five or six years in various levels of leadership, and I found myself taking more of a back-burner role in those things, plugging in what I was particularly excited about but not taking extensive leadership. When I saw this position I thought, 'This is great — this is exactly the kind of work I want to be doing around bicycles.' It really was the perfect fit for me where I'd have the legitimacy of the organization, my expertise as someone who was a bike commuter and involved in bike organizing in Chicago and Santa Fe, N.M., and being able to give back to my city.
: How has the job gone so far? Any surprises?
It’s been incredibly exciting and really fun. I’d say all the surprises have been good surprises. In general, people have been wonderfully receptive to building bike resources in the city and there’s a lot of energy here, more than I would have expected, and we need to just not rag on this town so much. There’s a lot of awesome people here doing really great work and I think we just need to stay connected and work together and we can do really great things. I’ve been surprised and impressed by how close-knit, strong and formidable the bike scene is here. It’s small but it’s mighty.
: What are your goals for Queen City Bike?
:What I would like to do is give people more choices about how they get from Point A to Point B, and make those choices enticing and enjoyable and therapeutic. One of the main things I think we need to do here is to better integrate our bus system with our bike routes. A lot of the reason I think it’s hard to get people on bikes is that they’re afraid they’re going to get stranded if they get a flat tire or stuck if they find a big hill or it’s a smog day and they’re worried about being outside. I think you really need to give people the ability to integrate the bike and bus into one fluid way to get around town. We’d like to create a comprehensive transit map that really focuses on communities that are more isolated and are more likely to become transportation deserts.
: Do Queen City Bike’s goals go beyond cycling and involve other issues?
:Health and wellness issues are really great ways for us to get people on board. We do a lot of education with our Bike Friendly Destinations program about how encouraging employees and giving them appropriate incentives to bike to work will decrease the number of sick days employees take off on average and improve the quality of work they do. The more you exercise, the higher your quality of life and your health, so we do a lot of outreach in those areas as well. We’re expanding to include pedestrian resources, so we can tackle obesity issues as well.
: Queen City Bike has many of its membership meetings at bars and often includes snacks. What’s up with that?
:I think it was a really natural fit for Queen City Bike for a lot of reasons. First of all, we want it to be fun. We want bicycling to be fun, therefore we want talking about bicycling to be fun. Queen City Bike is a really laid-back organization in the best way possible. We have really hard workers working for us, but we’re bike commuters — we’re not going to be all buttoned up. We’re gonna be sweaty and we’re gonna want a nice cold beverage when we meet, and that’s kind of the atmosphere we represent. I personally felt right at home with Queen City Bike because of how laid-back and approachable we are, which is probably one of the most important things we can do.
It also gives us an opportunity to support some of the Bike Friendly Destinations we've enrolled. There's usually 30-something people at a meeting and most everybody buys something. That's a decent evening for a small business.
: What are some of the exciting things happening in Cincinnati’s cycling world?
:There is definitely energy and interest in putting together some sort of interactive bus/bike map, which I’m pretty pumped about. We are looking to make Bike Month bigger and better than ever this year with lots of educational, exciting, fun and entertaining things going on in May.
Last year was the first year for our Bike Friendly Destinations program. We’re getting a lot of momentum this year so we’re getting an lot more muscle, like “Look at these 40 businesses that are enrolled, so you should join and show your support.”
CB: What do you see as Cincinnati's biggest obstacles to creating a bike friendly community?
NO: On my list one of obstacles is changing people's frames of mind. There are still way too many close calls where a car gets hostile toward a cyclist on the street, passes them without adequate space or yells something at them when they're actually making the road safer. When you have cyclist on the street it's not only decreasing the traffic on the road, it's slowing the traffic down, improving the quality of the neighborhood and making it safer. When people are locked up in their cars they can't engage with their surroundings. When you get cyclists and pedestrians on the street you get more of that accountability. That's where we really need to reach people. When you see a cyclist on the street you should thank them for being there. They're making your neighborhood safer and doing really important work. Too often these days people see cyclists on the street and think they should be on the sidewalk. It's dangerous for the cyclist.
We're also really looking for those gaps in our transportation infrastructure so you can get anywhere you need to be safely and easily without a car, and that's gonna take work. It's gonna take work from the city. We can only advocate so much, but Complete Streets initiatives and investing in bike lanes and road repair are important things that really need to be taken seriously if we're going to keep on the trend of creating a healthier and stronger and more vibrant and diverse bicycling community.
: What advice would you give to those interested in making cycling a bigger part of their lives?
:I would say to start small. Bicycling should be fun — it shouldn’t be something you’re doing because you feel bad. You should be doing it because it’s a beautiful day outside and you want to get some sunshine and get some breeze blowing through your hair — under your helmet, of course. I guarantee that the more you get on your bike, the more you will get on it in the future. You just need to enjoy yourself. You don’t need to go gung-ho and sell your car in one day. That’s not a realistic expectation, especially in a city like this. My No. 1 piece of advice would be to do it for yourself and have fun.
QUEEN CITY BIKE’s monthly meetings are held the first Monday of the month, usually at bars. For more information, go to www.queencitybike.com.