Anica Allen, right, and Arnetta Davis study a trail map before a ride with… (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE…)
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?”
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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.