Nyla Thursday was working 60 hour weeks as a waitress at a diner in Madison, Wisconsin. The days were long and she needed a change. She decided to start riding her bike to work downtown. The Lake Monona Trail provided a safe, protected, car-free route. She fell in love with biking on those commutes. “Biking is my time and no one else’s,” she says.
At the age of 20, Nyla wanted to leave the Midwest to see mountains. She told her parents she was driving west to Washington. Nyla settled in Bellingham and quickly experienced the dangers of biking in different parts of the city.
For a time, she commuted on Lakeway to work for City Parks at the Operations Center. “I always knew I’d get hit on Lakeway,” she says. Sure enough, as she was riding west below Yew Street, a car clipped her elbow. She crashed and the car stopped. “Clarence was the nicest guy,” Nyla remembers. “He asked me if I needed a ride to the emergency room.” She was bruised and shaken, but got right back up and kept riding.
Nyla describes riding down a fast gravel trail with a basket full of groceries on her handlebars. She hopped a curb and bailed from her bike. To illustrate the story, she shows me her shoulder where a large scar protrudes above her clavicle bone. “I was riding on the gravel way too fast,” she explains. I get the picture. Nyla is not risk averse. “I don’t mind talking about bike crashes, because they don’t stop me,” she dares.
Presently, Nyla’s a program specialist with Bellingham Public Schools (BPS), involved with programs that teach kids to ride a bike safely, cross a street, ride a bus, and navigate our city autonomously. She’s filled to the brim with ideas.
During her time at BPS, she has supported balance bike trainings at every city elementary school for use with kindergarten to second graders. She’s also coordinated mountain bike use by the middle and high schools. Nyla’s grant-funded position specifically allocated $3,000 for a covered bike parking structural design, which she hopes to figure out before her position ends.
She organized a bike summit with Let’s Shift Gears, Vamos Outdoors Project, March Northwest, WMBC, community volunteers, and donors, thus connecting the biking community to BPS and pushing for more equitable access to bikes for women and minorities. Let’s Shift Gears just completed their annual bike swap at Boundary Bay Brewery, raising money for their programs. Their goal is to get more people out of their cars and onto bikes or walking.
Nyla is also involved with SmartTrips and RRAD to ‘hurtle kids over the confidence barrier’ to ride a bike to school. Bike rodeos take place for all 3rd to 5th grade classes at every elementary school in Whatcom County.
With Nyla’s input, BPS changed their transportation page to provide guidance for families on how to walk, bike, bus, carpool, and drive to school. Educating the parents about transportation options is just as important as teaching the students. “Parents need to feel that their kids are safe riding bikes – oftentimes to a greater degree than the kids themselves,” Nyla says.
It takes curiosity and desire to find the best and safest route. Route finding is a barrier for many who might be more risk averse than Nyla. “I have friends who ride mountain bikes on Galbraith,” Nyla says. “They’re really good riders, but they feel uncomfortable biking in traffic.”
Nyla is pushing towards a fundamental change to get kids, school staff, and parents to realize the advantages of biking as a form of transportation. And she is not alone. Whatcom Middle School Principal Jeff Coulter has a dream of providing a bicycle library where kids can check out a bike, helmet, and lock. This idea would provide students with equitable access to bikes.
In her time off, Nyla plays as hard as she works. She and her boyfriend, Riley, love going on road trips together — always with bikes. Last summer they circumnavigated the contiguous U.S., mixing it up on dirt trails, gravel roads, and cityscapes. They biked a section of the Maah Daah Hey trail in North Dakota and biked all over Madison. Nyla rode on a 250-mile gravel tour around Vermont (which included 13 breweries on the way), rode the Minuteman Bikeway from Bedford to Cambridge Massachusetts, used Bixi rental bikes in Montreal, and roamed around D.C., Asheville, NC, and Flagstaff, AZ.
“I love the freedom of biking across fields at a free campsite in Montana to watch a sunset, dodging cars on busy city streets, roaming through the green mountains of Vermont, and trailing behind Riley on downhill mountain trails,” she says with a smile. “We rode all over Rockport and Gloucester where my mom grew up and never saw another person on a bike. I’m fairly certain my family thought we were nuts to ride bikes there.”
A group of Nyla’s girlfriends are currently planning an island bike excursion. “I am always inspired by these women,” she says. “[They are] totally hardcore!”
Nyla also loves going on solo trips. “I took myself down to Oregon two summers ago to mountain bike in a few spots on my own,” she says. “It was empowering and a ton of fun.” Last fall, she caught a train to Eugene from Bellingham – with her bike, of course – and spent the weekend visiting friends. The freedom to explore was unfettering.
Nyla is making a difference by promoting healthy transportation, which benefits all of us. Create a better way of life, try your commute by bike (or walk or bus). You might just go car-free. Nyla did.