In 2011, Veronica O. Davis was out for a bike ride around Potomac Gardens Apartments, located in a predominantly black DC neighborhood, when she heard a little girl squeal, “Mommy, look at that black lady on a bike!”
In the time since then, Davis’s group, Black Women Bike DC, has united a once-unnoticed contingent of cyclists in the DC metropolitan area. What started as an effort on social media to demystify the notion that black women ride bikes eventually turned into a movement that has grown more than 1,500 strong.
According to Bicycling Magazine, bicycle ownership has doubled in the District since 2009, making it one of the top five cities for cyclists. While many District residents extol bicycling’s increasing popularity, the activity has become the de-facto symbol of an urban renaissance that has attracted an influx of younger, well-to-do white transients and pushed poor, black residents into the suburbs.
For many longtime residents, the erection of each bike stand represents the whitewashing of what they once knew as “Chocolate City.” In the bike boom of DC, black people have been left largely out of the picture, even as the trips taken by bicyclists of color across the country have increased by 7 percentage points in the last decade.
That’s why Davis told ThinkProgress that she hopes to expand Black Women Bike DC’s membership and ensure that women of color have a voice at the table during a time when District lawmakers are recognizing the bicycle as a legitimate form of transportation.
“When Black Women Bike DC started, there was a need and desire for women to bike,” said Davis. “Women came to us. We didn’t do much promotion. Now we’re at the point that we have to do more promotion so we’re reaching out to women who haven’t been on bikes in 10 years. We want to expand our reach in the region, increase our advocacy and get to the point where we’re truly counted as cyclists in the District.”
Today, Black Women Bike DC’s membership transcends industries. Judges, consultants, nonprofit managers and people from a host of other career fields often sport their orange and purple jerseys during group rides throughout the city. Two members also sit on the DC Bicycle Advisory Council, a group appointed by the DC Council to tackle issues related to biking in the District.
But despite the group’s success, Davis often admits that she finds it difficult to connect with DC’s lower income black residents.
“We do tend to be on the high educational attainment, middle-class side,” said Davis. “We’ve done some work in low-income communities but it’s still a challenge. I don’t pretend to know the answer. For many people living in those neighborhoods, it can serve as a transportation option but some have never thought about biking across the city. Maybe they’ll bike for fun but they’ll never bike for transportation.”
Some factors seem to be beyond her control. Biking doesn’t appear to be a viable option for those living in some of the District’s predominately black neighborhoods, for example; only two bike lanes currently exist east of the city’s Anacostia River, an economic and racial divide in DC.
But for many people, it’s never too late to learn. Novice cyclists can use Black Women Bike DC’s online bike-buying guide that includes information about how to enroll in DC’s bike sharing program. The group also hosts events during the year that allow guests to become more acclimated to cycling in the city.
“I like the freedom of a bicycle. It’s my psychiatrist,” Lesly Jones, lifelong cyclist and member of Black Women Bike DC’s leadership team, told ThinkProgress. Jones, who joined Black Women Bike DC in 2012, said she covers 50 miles on her 1970s era old steel frame bicycle each week. The activity gives her a sense of calm in a fast-paced city.
“If things aren’t going the way that I want them to, riding my bike allows me to clear my head of all the clutter and move forward with something positive. I actually find it relaxing which is why I don’t think of cycling of my form of exercise. ”
Regardless of its purpose, biking poses many health benefits for women of color, a demographic often plagued by a host of ailments including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. Biking serves as a means of alleviating some of those conditions. Pedaling at a rate of 12 to 14 miles per hour burns nearly 500 calories in an hour. The activity also reduces fatigue, strengthens muscles and joints. Perhaps the greatest long-term gain for ardent riders lies in the reduction that one will develop heart disease, designated as the leading cause of death for American women.
But many women of color across the nation, particularly those who live east of DC’s Anacostia River, haven’t taken on bicycling or any physical activity for that matter, in great numbers. Previous studies ascribe the low levels of exercise among the demographic nationwide — standing at lower than 20 percent — to childbearing responsibilities, lack of a safe place to exercise, and the burden of a woman having to redo her hair after exercising. The lack of exercise in tandem with high food insecurity, poverty, and crime can make for a deadly combination for residents.
City leaders seem to have taken notice of this problem. Earlier this month, DC Department of Transportation officials unveiled a 25-year bicycling infrastructure plan they said will connect geographically and socioeconomically divided parts of the city and improve multimodal transportation.
The plan, touted as the “Move DC 2-Year Action Plan” outlines a host of short-term goals that include the construction of a new bridge and improvement projects for bike trails located east of the Anacostia River. Officials also hope to have 15 miles of on-street biking facilities installed as part of an effort to separate bicyclists from vehicular traffic.
But some people — including DC Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) — say the plan doesn’t go far enough. During an interview with ThinkProgress, Wells highlighted the need for fully separated bike pathways on bridges that connect Southeast DC with the rest of the city.
“When you have a bicycle and you’re making the minimum wage, the second highest costs are transit costs,” Wells, a member of the DC Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment, said. “By not providing a safe pathway from east to west of the river, we’re disadvantaging those who want to reduce their transit costs.
“Even for rides around the neighborhood, we would like to have more infrastructure that creates confidence among seniors and children that they can bike safely,” Wells added. “That means putting bike lanes in between the sidewalk and where cars are parked so that cyclists don’t have to go through major thoroughfares.”
Black Women Bike DC members like Anna Bavier share Wells’ sentiments. Bavier, who joined the organization in 2013, rides a total of 8 miles per day from her Southeast DC home to her job, located near the U.S. Capitol. While Bavier said the cycling has reduced her stress levels and allergies, she admits her frustration with the limited access that people living east of the Anacostia River to safe roads and pathways.
“Traffic’s so heavy and drivers get pretty aggressive,” Bavier told ThinkProgress. “I try to get on the sidewalks but not many pedestrians are used to walking alongside moving bicycles. I remember someone once yelled ‘this is not a bike lane’ from the middle of a walkway. I had to tell him that the middle of the street wasn’t either.”
Since joining Black Women Bike DC, Bavier attended a class during which she learned how to safely navigate the city on a bicycle and later accompanied the instructor on a group ride. She also purchased her first bicycle, a Schwinn. In recent months, Bavier and other Black Women Bike DC members have appeared on radio shows to spread the message about equal access to a broad range of transportation options, including biking.
“Seeing other women of color bike has been cool and empowering,” Bavier said. “It makes me feel like this activity is really for us. The city should focus its attention in places without much visibility or commerce. If you look at much of the infrastructure east of the river, there’s not much to accommodate bikes. It’s affected everything, from the levels of community awareness to the ways that the bike lanes are set up.”
For now, the fight to expand biking options to residents east of the river and resolve an ongoing conflict between cyclists and drivers continues to rage on. DC Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) recently proposed a bill that would extend the law against bike riding on the city’s sidewalks to areas where bike lanes are in the streets. The proposal angered many people, including members of Black Women Bike DC, who say it doesn’t take into consideration the dearth of bike lanes in predominately black neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.
Veronica Davis, however, still remains hopeful that women and girls of color — especially those living east of the Anacostia River, like the one who was surprised to see her back in 2011 — can be fully integrated into DC’s biking culture.
“I think that DC is in a transition phase in biking infrastructure,” said Davis. “We’re in the forefront of the new innovations for North America. Some of the infrastructure may not be as intuitive, but it’s easy to learn. It’s a chance for both motorists and cyclists to understand how to work together.”