The first time Jennifer Klausner spoke up on behalf of bikes was at a Santa Monica City Council meeting in the early '90s. It was also the first time the avid cyclist and star member of UCLA's racing team learned that not everyone shared her love of two-wheeled transportation.
"I got berated on the steps of City Hall," she recalls, "by a woman with the keys to a Volvo in her hand, who told me, 'You'll never have a real job you can ride your bike to.' And I was, like, 'You watch me.' "
Sitting in her cramped downtown office at the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition, Klausner laughs at the memory. "I hate being told I can't do something, for whatever reason: You can't do it 'cause you're a girl, you can't do it 'cause you're not old enough. I have a real personal need to overcome that."
Since the West L.A. native became the coalition's executive director in 2007, politicians, city planners and community leaders all over the county have learned that it's not advisable to tell her what she can't do. The coalition has grown into a savvy advocacy group, with 1,500 dues-paying members and a staff of 11. Its biggest event, the annual Los Angeles River Ride (on June 9 this year), now attracts more than 2,000 cyclists.
Thanks in large part to Klausner's efforts, Los Angeles has a highly ambitious plan for encouraging bicycle use, with a long-term goal of adding more than 1,300 new miles of bikeways by 2045. When Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced the plan in 2011, Klausner was at his side, her hair dyed traffic-light green and a twinkle in her eye that said, "You watch me."
Klausner didn't start out to make cycling advocacy her life's work. When the coalition was founded in 1998, she was getting her master's degree in business administration at USC. She later rose in the toy industry, first at Mattel and later at Nakajima, where she oversaw U.S. marketing of the Hello Kitty brand. She was thrown into a career crisis when she came to believe that the company's manufacturing practices were below par.
"What I saw was a level of corporate irresponsibility that was unacceptable to me," Klausner says. "I'm sorry, but when you're selling products to children, make sure they're safe. So I left without anywhere else to go and said, 'I'm just gonna be a free spirit and ride my bike for a few months until something comes to me.' "
That something eventually came from a former UCLA cycling team buddy, who forwarded her the executive director job description. "When I read it, I was, like ..." Klausner slaps her hand on her desk, as if to say, "Done!" "They were looking for someone like me."
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More than just adding bikeways, Klausner wants to change Angelenos' "incorrect, preconceived ideas about who cyclists are."
In a way, she's still debating that Volvo-driving lady on the steps of City Hall.
"Obviously, what we do is somewhat political — yet if you look at who's actually riding bikes out there ... it's everyone. Riding bikes is nonpartisan. I really think that what we're working toward is a better city, a friendlier city, with a better quality of life for the people who live here. And that is for everyone."