The Deadly Nightshades are convinced that the bicycle is magic. When they're out as a "roving midnight bike gang," in seafoam green jackets, the seven women are a bewitching sight, mixing cycling, art and fashion.
They are at the forefront of a larger movement in North America. Bicycle culture has caught on, spearheaded by the millennial generation, who prefer the cheap transportation, do-it-yourself repairs, and the independence the bicycle affords. It also helps that the bicycle is becoming a token symbol of cool urban culture -- the same culture that is increasingly shunning automobiles as a mode of transport.
"We [Millennials] want to travel, we want to buy cool clothes and eat good food, we don’t want car culture anymore," says Meg Orlinski, one of the seven Nightshades and a freelance marketing consultant. Fellow member and photographer Kirsten White adds that riding a bike is "a freedom thing, it's totally my choice and powered by me."
Orlinski and White, along with Laura Mensinga, Irene Stickney, Cat Essiambre, Patricia Youn, and Niamh Mcmanus make up the Deadly Nightshades; a design collective with roots in fashion and a shared obsession with the bicycle. Together, the Nightshades have created and exhibited eco fashion lines at Toronto Alternative Fashion Week, produced the Toronto Bicycle Film Festival and curated many arts and cycling events throughout the city.
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In 2011, the Nightshades screened their first film Fabric Bike with the festival. Recently, they uploaded their follow-up, Paint Bike on Vimeo. "It's about how bikes can be purely ridiculous and fun," says Mensinga.
The emergence of a bicycle culture coincides with a move toward sustainable living. Millennials face insecure employment, often working contract or short-term positions, and enjoy flexibility in their career. Buying a car is an enormous investment, so alongside the movement toward bicycles, there has been a surge in demand for car-sharing options like Autoshare and Zipcar. Meanwhile, the Bixi bike sharing business has taken off in Canada, operating in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.
Richard Duench helps dealerships market cars for Oasis Auto Complete in London, Ont. "If I’m finding one thing in the industry, it’s that dealerships are scared shitless of marketing to this generation." he says of the Millennials. Despite efforts to market bright, affordable and gadget-laden cars to the Millennials, the bicycle is an easy solution that offers Generation Y freedom to get where they need to go without worrying about insurance payments down the road.
The world of cycling is changing. Developing bicycle infrastructure is a priority in most major urban centres in North America. Canadian cities that invest in bike lanes have seen marked growth in ridership. In Vancouver, bicycle trips went up 26 per cent between 2009 and 2012 according to TransLink, and Montreal saw similar growth, with people making 35 to 40 per cent more bike rides between 2008 and 2010.
Despite this, there’s still a large gap between the number of women who cycle compared to men. A 2010 City of Toronto study found that 62 per cent of cyclists in the GTA were male. The Translink study saw the gap increase dramatically in Vancouver, with women making up only 28 per cent of cyclists in 2011.
The Deadly Nightshades have set out to even the numbers. Part of their mantra is to encourage women to get out and cycle more. How? The collective were named Canada’s most fashionable biker gang by The Genteel, setting an example that women can ride together in groups safely, and they can look good while they do it.
"You don’t have to look BMX or like a roadie, you can look however you want," Orlinski says. The Nightshade's line at the Toronto Alternative Fashion Week was all about functional, eco-friendly riding gear that is comfortable and fashionable. As Orlinski points out, it's easier to bike in heels than to walk in them, "and you can eat more and have a better butt!"
Whether they're riding for fitness, financial or environmental reasons, students are a large component of those biking the high road. Kevin Yaraskavitch is the president of Purple Bikes, a campus bicycle sharing and repair service at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. The program has gained momentum since it started four years ago.
Many universities have started bicycle shops that offer repairs as well as workshops on do-it-yourself maintenance. The Bike Kitchen at the University of British Columbia accepts donations of used bikes to refurbish, and will help students build their own bicycle. Many of these programs also have bicycles available to rent.
Although he holds a valid license and a bus pass provided by the university, Yaraskavitch, gets around campus on bicycle because it's more convenient, and more fun. And as more people are riding bicycles, cycling is losing the notoriety of being a dangerous method of transportation.
Brendt Barbur slammed against an open door of a taxi a decade ago. The New Yorker's friends had little sympathy for his injuries since they considered cycling in the city a dangerous endeavour. "They all reacted like it was my own fault, like I did something wrong." Barbur says. Barbur, like the Deadly Nightshades, wanted get people aware of and talking about bicycles in a constructive way.
In 2001, Barbur founded the Bicycle Film Festival to help spark dialogue between bicycle communities. The festival has been to more than 50 cities since -- including Montreal and Toronto. Barbur says that their main patrons are between 18 and 35 years old.
The Deadly Nightshades have been on cycling trips all over North America, living the millennial dream of travelling and staying with friends. "For our demographic it’s fun to go and explore new communities and meet new people," Mensinga says.
Nightshade Irene Stickney, who owns the Make Den, a craft and sewing studio that was recently nominated for best DIY workspace in Toronto says that, "the sense of community is like nothing else. The arts community is great, the fashion community is great, but the bike community goes over and above, it’s like a family."
This feature was produced by Amelia Brown, a student in Ryerson University's School of Journalism, in partnership with The Huffington Post Canada.