Through our education programs, community initiatives, and inclusive events, we’re helping to make Mary Frances Dunham’s vision of a better world for cyclists and pedestrians a reality—and every day, we’re helping more people experience the joy, freedom, and connection that comes from a life of extraordinary rides.
Mary Frances Dunham
Mary Frances Dunham was an urban cycling pioneer and forceful presence in the New York City bike advocacy community. In light of her recent passing, Ms. Dunham’s family has requested that donations be made in her honor to Bike New York.
Every cause needs a champion.
Mary Frances first rose to prominence in NYC’s cycling advocacy scene in the 1970s, when she and fellow members of the newly-formed Transportation Alternatives took the movement for better bike awareness and support from meetings in bike shops to streets across the five boroughs. Alongside her TransAlt colleagues, she was an instrumental player in some of the city’s most pivotal moments for street users’ rights: When Mayor Ed Koch proposed a ban on cycling in Midtown, Mary Frances was part of the TransAlt team that took the city to court and won the case to stop the ban. She was an active participant in heated protests against restricted bike access to the Queensboro Bridge until victory was claimed and the ban reversed. And the thousands of New Yorkers who rely upon greenways for transportation, fitness, and enhanced enjoyment of their city can look to Mary Frances as an early advocate for reclaiming Manhattan’s waterfront.
Mary Frances recognized the immeasurable impact that access to a bike—and the knowledge and support to ride it with full confidence—has upon a child’s life; her own cycling life began at the age of 5 in France. These early rides and formative experiences no doubt shaped her eventual leadership within TransAlt’s Education team.
In a recent reflection on her life and impact, Transportation Alternatives described her foundational role in the organization:
“She went on to serve as TA’s Education Coordinator, publishing recommendations for how to teach children and adults to ride, and urging the city to incorporate riding lessons into school curricula. Her dedication and regular involvement in pro-bike events helped build the organization and increase support early in the bike movement, particularly in working to unite pedestrian and cyclist groups.”
Some of our biggest victories for bike education, including the launch of our in-school bike education program, were built upon the groundwork of Mary Frances’s efforts to urge the city to embrace the benefits of non-motorized transportation—and, in doing so, create a human-centered urban environment that welcomes cyclists and pedestrians.
“We city cyclists may be mavericks, but we are certainly justified in our determination. More properly, our cause lies near the center of mankind’s deepening concern for a healthful environment and a society built to human scale.”
—MARY FRANCES DUNHAM IN A 1989 BICYCLE USA FEATURE
WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM MARY FRANCES:
TAKE THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED (AND WHERE THERE IS NO ROAD, MAKE ONE)
Mary Frances’s love of the ride took her beyond the boundaries of the ordinary—a woman whose visibility in the cycling world helped push back against the gender gap in ridership, and whose commitment to speaking up for human-centered urban design was grounded in first-hand observations in cities across the globe.
BE A LIFELONG LEARNER
Between her husband’s business travels and her own desire to better know the world, Mary Frances and her family traveled broadly, spending time in China, Mauritania, Jamaica, Bangladesh, Belize, England, India, and the US, among other countries. Her profound curiosity manifested in cultural immersion rooted in deep respect for social and artistic tradition—perhaps most notably, she became one of the foremost Western scholars of Bangladesh’s celebrated Jarigan.
GO YOUR OWN WAY
A love of adventure is best experienced on two wheels. In Mary Frances’s case, those wheels were found on a convenient, durable, and decidedly foldable red Dahon bike. In Kolkata, Shanghai, and Paris, around Dhaka and through Detroit, she defied expectations of what a woman and her bike could do.
PASSION IS PERSUASIVE
An early adopter of multimodal transportation, Mary Frances eschewed the burgeoning dominance of car culture—once famously quoted as saying, “Only snobs think that cars are class and bikes crass.” Not only was she a prolific author of bike-powered travel accounts published from The New York Times to the Shanghai Daily, she was an agent of local-level advocacy known for bringing her “pro-bike gospel” into newsrooms as she strove to launch dialogues about the role of two-wheeled transportation in the urban landscape.
Bike New York wishes to acknowledge the generosity of the Mary Frances Dunham Foundation’s grant to sustain and fortify our education and community programs. With thanks to Katherine Dunham, the Dunham family, and Transportation Alternatives for the media, quotes, and excepts found on this page. To learn more about Mary Frances, click here.