Meet Original TA Activist Mary Frances Dunham

Mary Frances Dunham is a world traveler, a prolific letter-writer, a seasoned cycling advocate, and the proud rider of a Dahon “folder.” She’s a mother, a grandmother, an ethnomusicologist, and coauthor of the first English guidebook to Dhaka. Once called “a bicycle woman with a conviction” by a Bangladeshi reporter, Mary Frances has shared the joy she finds in biking throughout her travels and life.

Mary Frances has been involved in Transportation Alternatives’ (TA’s) work since the late 1970’s. In those days, a small group of bicycle enthusiasts were meeting in a bike shop after hours to work on their bikes and share stories, inspiring a more overt advocacy effort as the need for visibility and infrastructure became apparent. 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. In the 1987 demonstrations protesting Mayor Ed Koch’s proposed ban on cycling in Midtown, Mary Frances was part of the TA team who took the city to court and made the mayor revoke his ban. When Mayor Koch’s successor went on to restrict bike access to the Queensboro Bridge, she again joined marches that blocked traffic weekly and led to the arrest and acquittal of six TA members and the ban’s reversal. She was also an early volunteer in the fight to reclaim Manhattan’s waterfront and helped envision New York’s now-beloved network of greenways.

Born in 1932, Mary Frances first rode her bike as a child growing up in France. She has been riding ever since, and in every city she’s lived in, preferring the independence granted by a bicycle. She and her husband, Daniel C. Dunham, met aboard a transatlantic ship in the summer of 1951. The first years of their marriage were spent in Cambridge, MA and London; then in the 1960s, the couple lived in Dhaka and Kolkata. After moving back to New York City, Dan’s work took them to countries all over the world including China, Mauritania, Jamaica and Belize. Mary Frances’s joie de vivre and curiosity allowed her to immerse herself in each of these places. In her time in Dhaka, she fell into the world of Jarigan song, which inspired her to pursue a degree in ethnomusicology and ultimately publish a book on the subject.

Throughout her travels, Mary Frances became well-known for toting a folding Dahon bike, surprising locals by pedaling among Bangladeshi rickshaws, Indian cows, Parisian traffic, and tucking it, folded, into its homemade bag on visits to the bank. A 1991 Calcutta Telegraph profile of Mary Frances was so taken by her “magic bike” that the journalist opined that considering “the hike in petrol rates and the daily headache of traffic snarls in the city, this bike could well be the answer to one of the many problems that face us Calcuttans.” Meanwhile, back at home in the States, locals were equally flummoxed by her many “bus-and-bike” trips around the region with her folding bike. She loved the independence and freedom granted by her “folder.” Her first was bought in 1984 for a trip to visit feuding relatives in Detroit; rather than ask them for a ride from one family to the other on opposite ends of the city, she preferred to make the 12-hour journey through the heart of Detroit on her own. Ever since, Mary Frances has seized any opportunity to sing their praises, going so far as to once offer her phone number in TA’s City Cyclist magazine for anyone seeking recommendations.

Ever the scholar, she has chronicled her many journeys through letters, articles, and opinion pieces published as widely as The New York Times, Bicycle USA, the Dhaka Daily Star, and the Shanghai Daily. A 1988 feature in the City Cyclist captured the pleasure of biking in Kunming, China during its heyday and foretold the growth in car ownership and corresponding decline of cycling in the following decades. On a trip back to Bangladesh in 1990, Mary Frances was dismayed to find that the pleasant multimodal bustle from her time there thirty years prior had been replaced by clouds of diesel, car-clogged streets, and the inevitable pitting of sidewalk-users and bike-riders against each other. Frustrated, she made a tour of local newspapers. She walked into each newsroom with a stack of literature and her folded Dahon, using the novelty of the tiny bike to get through the door to preach her pro-bike gospel.

At age 74, Mary Frances followed her daughter’s family and moved to Shanghai. During her eight years there, she wrote pro-bike letters to local newspapers, including one that proclaimed, “Only snobs think that cars are class and bikes crass.” She continued to ride, inspired by an interaction with a 95-year-old woman on a bike who stopped next to her at a Kunming intersection in 1988. When her Parkinson’s disease impeded her ability to walk, she found that she could still pedal with ease, and when her Dahon was no longer practical, Mary Frances allowed her grandsons to carry her around on a rehabilitated Chinese recycling cart that the family called their “Lamborghini.”

These days, Mary Frances is heartened by the multitudes of New Yorkers who have embraced biking. She advises the new wave of advocates to keep up the demonstrations. Her life of international adventures has taught her that it is possible for a city to change its attitude towards bicycles and to start promoting policies to encourage and facilitate biking for everyone, much as Paris and Bogota have recently done. As neatly summarized by a sign carried by Mary Frances at a 1990 Queensboro Bridge rally organized by TA, we need “less cars, more life!”

In a 1989 feature in Bicycle USA, Mary Frances reflected on how far the cycling movement in New York City had come, and how far there was left to go. Citing the dangers of traffic violence, bike theft, and the lack of parking facilities, she wrote “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.” Her activism, her willingness to speak out, and the joy she found in being a spectacle on her Dahon has made this city and countless others safer and more joyous places to ride.

Join us in honoring Mary Frances Dunham by making a donation to the Mary Frances Dunham Fund at Transportation Alternatives and/or by riding a bike whenever you have the chance.

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Transportation Alternatives is your advocate for walking, bicycling, and public transit in New York City. We stand up for #VisionZero & #BikeNYC.