Black women take their place in D.C.’s bike lanes
By Vanessa Williams,
Veronica Davis bikes almost everywhere, except to church on Sundays.
She’s a member and frequent user of Capital Bikeshare and has testified before the D.C. Council in favor of more bike lanes in Southeast Washington, where she lives and owns a small business.
Yet some people pause and look again when they see her gliding along on two wheels. “Mommy, look at the black lady on the bike!” a little girl squealed one day as Davis rode past the Potomac Gardens housing project.
It’s that kind of reaction, Davis says, that makes Black Women Bike DC the perfect name for the group that she and two other women launched after chatting on Twitter about their participation in Bike to Work Day last spring.
“It’s a tongue-in-cheek comment: ‘No, see, we do bike,’ ” Davis said.
Biking took a beating in last year’s mayoral election. For some political activists and residents who had soured on former mayor Adrian M. Fenty, the freshly painted bike lanes spreading along major streets around the city became a symbol of the young white people pushing longtime black residents out of the District.
The backlash came at a time when researchers cite an explosion in cycling around the country, as new residents pour into revitalized urban communities and look for cheaper, greener ways to get around. The District is at the vanguard of the cycling boom, with the percentage of workers who commute by bike nearly tripling over the last 20 years, rising from 0.8 percent in 1990 to 2.2 percent in 2009. That rate puts Washington among the top 10 U.S. cities.
But the racial gap for cycling is huge, both locally and nationally. Cycling advocates and enthusiasts say groups like Black Women Bike DC, which launched on Facebook six weeks ago with three women and now has more than 60 members, could encourage more African Americans to consider biking for transportation and recreation. Those pushing to expand biking infrastructure throughout the city hope that more participation by black cyclists would stem opposition to bike lanes, racks and bike-sharing facilities.
Najeema Washington, another co-founder of the group, is game for the challenge. She is not the cycling activist that Davis is; she resumed riding in earnest earlier this year “for fitness and fun.” She thinks the group has the potential to be empowering for black women.
Black Women Bike has attracted women with varied interests and skill levels — from triathletes, to women who are returning after years away from cycling, to women who don’t even own bikes yet. About 20 of the women recently got together for a happy hour at the Liaison Lounge on Capitol Hill.
“We talked about equipment, we talked about fears of riding in the road. And we talked about hair,” said Washington, 33, a federal government analyst. “There always seems to be an attack on black women — we’re not attractive or we don’t exercise. We are dispelling myths about black women. We are carving out our own niche. Who said riding a bike had to be a white thing?”
* * *
Statistics suggest that biking is not as popular with African Americans as it with whites. A report released this spring called “Bicycling Renaissance in North America?” found that cycling has grown significantly in the past decade. However, most of the growth is among middle- and upper-income white men, said John Pucher, a professor of urban planning at Rutgers University and one of the authors of the report. Moreover, almost all of it is in cities and concentrated in gentrifying neighborhoods.
The report notes that the census tracts in Washington with the most bike usage “are the neighborhoods of Capitol Hill, U Street, Adams Morgan, and Georgetown, which are relatively high income, gentrified, and centrally located.” Those communities also boast the highest percentage of usage in the city’s Capital Bikeshare program. Capital Bikeshare has recently added stations east of the river, but bikes there are used much less often.
Davis, 32, watched last fall’s political bike-bashing with dismay. But she understands why some residents of neighborhoods east of the river argued that they needed jobs, not bike lanes.
“I think it comes down to, if there’s gonna be a financial investment east of the river, there’s a view that bike lanes are a luxury and not a necessity,” she said. She thinks that residents are being shortsighted about the benefits of biking and worries that the loudest opponents will shout down efforts to bring more bike lanes and other improvements to underserved communities.
Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclists Association, was worried, too, when the rhetoric lingered after the election and residents showed up at hearings to protest bike lanes and trails planned for areas east of the river.
“Some of the political conversation during the election seemed to try to paint cycling as a one-demographic activity,” Farthing said recently. “We wanted to show that people of all races and all economic backgrounds do bike and can benefit from bicycling.”
In the spring, WABA started holding classes in neighborhoods in Wards 7 and 8 to teach people to ride, and the group also offers free bike repair clinics.
A clinic was held a few weeks ago at the Skyland Shopping Center, near where Davis lives, and she rode over on her bike to report on it for her blog, Life in the Village. Her observations aren’t limited to the political battles over biking. “In case you’re wondering, the ’fro does fit under a helmet,” she wrote, referring to her thick crown of hair. “A squished ’fro is better than a squashed brain (just saying).”
* * *
While the percentage of black bicycle riders is small, there are black cycling clubs around the country, a number of which are named in honor of Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor, who in 1899 won the world one-mile track cycling competition. He became the second black world champion athlete, the first being bantamweight boxer George Dixon in 1891.
Although there are a few black cyclists who compete nationally today, including Rahsaan Bahati, who won the Athens Twilight Criterium last year, no young, contemporary black cyclist has emerged to challenge the perception of racial exclusivity around cycling in the way that Venus and Serena Williams did for tennis and Tiger Woods did for golf.
Bruce Woods, president of the National Brotherhood of Cyclists, which has two dozen chapters around the country, mostly in major cities, said there are very few women-only black cycling clubs. Within the national organization, there is a women’s club called the NBC Queens of Cycling.
He chooses his words carefully in trying to explain why women are slower to get onto bikes. “My wife outrides me,” he says up front. Then he continues: “It can be intimidating. . . . It takes a lot to want to put that helmet on and to put the spandex on. . . . But once you get them past that, in terms of ability and skills, they are just as excited about riding.”
* * *
Late last month about a dozen members of Black Women Bike DC got together for a clinic and ride on the Metropolitan Branch Trail. Madeline Jackson Williams came and brought along her daughter, Madison. Williams, who works for the National Academy of Sciences, grew up in the District riding bikes that belonged to her brothers or other children in the neighborhood.
“I don’t remember ever owning my own bike until I was an adult,” Williams said. “My daughter has been riding for about five years now. She has had a bike all her life.”
Williams, who lives in Ward 7 and is training for a triathlon, connected with Black Women Bike through a Facebook page for Tri Unify, a group of triathletes of color. She said she’d passed other black women cyclists on the street and, like her, they were usually riding alone. “I was just excited to see all the other black women who bike in the area,” she said. “I thought it would be a good way to get some riding in without the pressure of it feeling like a workout and I could bring my 10-year-old daughter with me.”
Black Women Bike’s membership has grown primarily through word of mouth and Facebook. But perhaps the most inspired connection has to be with Marya McQuirter, a historian who lives in the Petworth section of the city. Years ago while working on her dissertation on the social history of blacks in D.C. during the first half of the 20th century, McQuirter came upon an article about five black women who biked from New York City to Washington in 1928. She is trying to gather as many details she can about their three-day, 250-mile trip. Her goal is to recruit four other women and re-create the ride next year.
“I’ve been riding on and off all of my life,” McQuirter, 45, said, recalling how when she was young, her family lived in a large apartment building just across the District line in Takoma Park. “There were loads and loads of children, and even if you didn’t have your own bike, somebody else had a bike and would let you ride.” Now, she doesn’t own a car and uses a bike as her main mode of transportation.
“You know they’re out there,” McQuirter said, referring to black women cyclists. “But if you have a group of women who ride regularly, there’s something powerful about that. It’s a mantra in your head — ‘Yeah, black women bike.’ ”