Interview: Veronica O. Davis of Black Women Bike D.C.

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At the Women’s Cycling Forum that was part of the National Bike Summit last March, many of us were introduced to a founder of a movement that is helping to fill a crucial gap in cycling: Veronica O. Davis of Black Women Bike. Davis and two friends started the group as a local organization in Washington, D.C., and are building the foundation to take it to the national level. Davis’ efforts are a natural outgrowth of her professional life in civil engineering, which she believes involves “using transportation as a tool to positively affect people’s lives.”

davis1What was your purpose/inspiration/reason for starting Black Women Bike D.C.?

We really didn’t have one. How it all started… there’s this public housing complex in an area with a lot of new developments. And I was biking through there one day, and this little Black girl was like, “Mommy, mommy,” she was screaming at the top of her lungs, “there’s a Black lady biking down the street!” And I was like, why is she so excited? I mean, there’s a bike lane right there, so it’s not like she hasn’t seen cyclists before.

But then I thought about it, and I probably am the first person that she’s seen that looks like her. You do have black people in D.C. that bike but they tend to be males. So to see a black woman biking was probably a rare occurrence for her.

So I came home and was relaying the story to two of my friends over Twitter, Nse Ufot and Najeema Washington, and the three of us were having this conversation. And this was all right around the time—in D.C., bike lanes had become so racially polarizing. And it’s just a bike lane, right? But at the mayoral elections in 2010, it was just bad. Bike lanes became synonymous for “we’re going to move you out and put in white people.”

Gentrification, in other words.

Gentrification, exactly. And it just became this huge theme. One of the reporters referred to “myopic little twits”—the people who tweet, want bike lanes, cupcakes, and dog parks. All of that was synonymous for white people.

So we started using the hash tag, “#BlackWomenBike.” It was very in-your-face to the people who were playing up this theme of “biking’s for white people.” And then we started a Facebook group with the three of us, and we consider ourselves the three founders. From there, by the end of the week, we grew to 60 people.

Then we were in the Washington Post—the Post was actually interviewing me about something else in my neighborhood, and I mentioned Black Women Bike, and so they grabbed onto that story. I think the title of the story was “Black Women Take Their Place in the Bike Lanes.” And from there, it really just exploded. You know, once one person interviews you, everyone wants to interview you. We had all these other features, and so we’ve grown to 556 people.

Is the membership mostly locally based, or is it reaching outside of D.C.?

Mostly locally based, but we have one woman who’s in Japan, we have a couple in Portland, in North Carolina, in California, in Texas. One woman says, “Look, if you guys have a ride with 50 people, I’m going to put this bike on the back of my car, I’m going to drive up from North Carolina just to bike with you guys, because I have no one to bike with.”

It’s interesting that it started, as so many things do these days, via social media.

When I typed “#BlackWomenBike,” it really wasn’t an intentional thing, it wasn’t like—sitting down in a room and saying, “Hey, you know, we should do this.” This has been probably the most organic organization I’ve ever been a part of. None of this was intentional. It just started out as a way to point out that there are Black women who bike. It started out as, “Hey, I’m Black, I bike. Hey, you’re Black, you bike. We should bike together.”

What has the organization become now?

We have our regular rides, which average probably about 25 women per ride, and it’s amazing because, when we ride, we stop traffic. Even just 25 women is already a sight. Well, just 25 cyclists in the middle of D.C. is going to make people turn their heads. Then, it’s women, oh, and then it’s black women. People just stop. And they start honking at us or cheering at us.

The leadership of Black Women Bike is just showing themselves, in terms of the people who really care about this organization. Obviously, the three founders, we’re still very invested in this. And you know, we didn’t really have a vision for this. So now, it’s taking that step back to say, what’s our mission, and what’s our vision for this organization. And so we just crafted our vision, which I think is fabulous. Our vision is of Black women and girls of all ages riding their bikes for transportation, health, wellness, and fun.

That sounds great.

Our mission of BWB is to build community, and interest in biking among Black women through education, advocacy, and recreation. So now we have to put the structure to it, we have to come up with our strategic plan. We’re working with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association [WABA] to be a special project under them, until we’re big enough to be our own 501(c)3.

That’s pretty cool that WaBa is helping you guys out initially.

They’ve been a huge supporter of us from the beginning, and are really helping us get our name out there. And I think what the natural relationship with the two of us is that we’re not competing for people. We’re actually bringing them people that they couldn’t reach before. For example, I went to their Bike Fest last year, and I could count all the black people on one hand. Whereas this year, we brought twenty-something members, plus each of their guests. We brought this diversity that wasn’t there. So it’s just kind of this natural partnership.

Do you see, then, some of the people you’re bringing start to participate further, like in strategic discussions within WaBa, or in other ways that could maybe help bridge the gap—help prevent, for example, bike lanes only going in areas with white people?

Yeah, I definitely do. I’ll give one example: WABA is working on their Women’s Initiative. Some of our members had been at the table for those discussions, and it hasn’t always been me. So that’s been good in terms of the natural relationship. One of the things that we really want to do with Black Women Bike—our goal is just to get women on bikes. And understanding you don’t have to put on Lycra and go a hundred miles to call yourself a cyclist. You can get a Capital Bikeshare bike, and go two blocks to go to the grocery store, and you’re a cyclist. That’s kind of the attitude we bring to it—I want to get people biking and understanding that it’s a mode choice. You don’t have to wait 30 minutes for a bus that’s not coming, you can jump on a bike and be there.

And gain some independence and freedom.

Exactly. So what we’re doing now, with WABA, is getting some of our members certified to teach the Confident Cycling classes. We happen to know WABA is always trying to get instructors, so it helps expand their instructor capacity, but then it also allows us to work with WABA to go into different communities, where maybe WABA doesn’t have that same level of access.

So about your rides—how often do they happen? What kind of ride is it, where do you go?

We have our regular scheduled monthly ride, and that’s the third Saturday of the month. Our goal with that ride, because it is very much mixed-level, is to really help the nervous Nellies get used to riding on the road, riding in D.C., understanding the rules of the road. So we’re helping people gain that confidence, because at the end of the day, a lot of people don’t feel comfortable riding on the roads. And the best way is to do it is to do it in a group, so that you start to get comfortable, you start to understand, you start to get used to biking with a car driving next to you.

And then in addition we sometimes supplement that with more advanced rides. That’s a little bit more organic. We may do a hill ride, or a very long ride—those tend to be probably a little more intimidating. But for our regular rides, we try to keep them challenging enough that it helps the new people do what they think is impossible, but not so challenging that they get discouraged. And we never tell them how far we’re going—we tell them after.

Are you planning to offer anything else?

We did a workshop on how to find the right bike. And again, it’s understanding—we started from, “What are people’s concerns?” and then, “How do you work around that?” So for some people, it’s “How do I buy a bike? I think this bike is pretty, but is it functional for me?” So we had a whole workshop on how to find the right bike.

Then we had a workshop on how to fix your bike—basic things, like how to change a flat tire, how to lock your bike. And it seems kind of silly, but these are real concerns that people have. If I’m biking, I don’t want to be stuck somewhere if I don’t know how to change my tire.

But it’s tough to try to understand what the challenges are and how we start breaking down those challenges. And this is also where advocacy comes in, because what a lot of women say, for example, I want to bike to the grocery store, but there’s no bike racks at the grocery store. All right, great! So here’s who you need to call. That’s a problem we can solve.

So you mentioned that you’re car-free now. How did you get into biking in the first place?

It was kind of a two-fold thing… In 2010 I quit my job and started my own company, Nspiregreen [a sustainability and environmental consulting business]. It’s the changing financials of being self-employed, and really putting a lot of my savings and investing in the business. I had to start cutting in other areas. Around that same time, that’s when gas prices shot up. Plus insurance, plus a new clutch, brakes… it started adding up, even though the car was paid off.

The Capital bikeshare program started around that same time, and we had a station installed my neighborhood, and I became a member. So I started parking my car in the parking lot and biking and bussing everywhere. I would drive maybe on the weekends. It got to the point where it was my dominant mode of transportation.

I gave up the car recently in June—there was the Tour de Fat, by New Belgium Brewing Company, and they had a “trade in your car for a bike” contest. So I thought, “Why not?” I had been thinking about selling the car. I put together my video and I won, and so my car was auctioned off and the proceeds went to WABA, and then they gave me money to spend at the bike shop of my choice, so I got a brand-new bike that I love! It’s my first brand-new bike since I was eight years old.

What do you think that advocates can do, specifically, to make sure that they’re addressing the needs of everybody in their community-not just preaching to the choir or getting the typical middle-aged-white-male participation?

What I find is that to really get people talking about biking, it has to happen at a hyper-local level. For example, in my neighborhood, if you talked biking five years ago you probably would have gotten yelled out of the room. But now you have residents saying, “This is a bikeable, walkable neighborhood.” I almost fell out of my seat when one of my neighbors said it, because I’ve been in meetings that have gotten ugly.

For advocates, you really have to be involved in your community and you have to be visible in your community. When my neighbors see me biking to community meetings, and biking to events, and I’m involved, and they care about me because I’m their neighbor, it’s very hard to say, “No, we don’t want bike lanes” and “Just let the cyclists get hit.” It changes the relationship…it’s not just this other person, it’s this neighbor that I care about. Makes it something you can relate to.

We had a couple meetings that came up, and I reminded WABA, do not send in the cavalry—you can’t send in people from outside the neighborhood to come and talk about biking, because it’s just not going to work. You really have to build your advocacy at the neighborhood level. This is where Black Women Bike comes in, because a lot of us do live in these neighborhoods and it’s up to us to be visible. Even for other communities, Latino, even women, we have to be present and visible in our neighborhoods.

What do you say, though, if there’s a community that simply isn’t interested in biking? Is it a solution that’s not for everyone?

I don’t think it is. You almost have to think of it like a bell curve. There’s the upper 10 percent— they’re doing it. There’s no need to preach to that choir. There’s that 10 percent that are never going to do it, for whatever reason—it could be physical inability—but there’s no desire to do it, and that’s cool. There’s that group in the middle—we still have 80 percent of the population that are all potential bikers.

You’re going to have to do baby steps. One of the things that we did, we partnered with the Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church, and we had a cycling class. And we had a woman who was an adult that had never been on a bike before, and was willing to bike for the first time. So sometimes just baby steps like that—you know, working with the churches to reach some of these populations.

To me, the market is so wide-open, that for every person that doesn’t want to do it, we can find eight other people that are at least willing to try.

What’s your ultimate goal with Black Women Bike D.C.?

My ultimate goal is for it to be just Black Women Bike—obviously D.C. being the mother chapter. But starting to get to the point where we have the numbers in D.C. that are actually counted. Right now, we don’t even know what the percentage is. We know that Blacks only make up 10 percent of cyclists in D.C., and so we’re even a smaller number.

So, one, get ourselves up to a number that it’s felt and it’s seen and it’s not this rarity. And also working to empower different income echelons. Because the reality is right now, we are appealing to the Black middle-class. Our members are probably very comparable to WABA’s members—it’s Black women, but it’s the highly educated, white-collar professionals.

So now, how do we reach those other groups of Black women that are there? How do we reach that woman who may be a service worker who has to take a bus at five o’clock in the morning, when a bike would get her there so much faster?

And then, once you have a model here that works, how do you then begin to move this around the country?

The challenge—that’s everywhere. Biking makes so much sense for basic transportation for a lot of people, and how do you spread that message? How do you make it accessible and help make it work for people?

Right. And you know—I’m going to put my little urban planner hat on—there are a couple challenges that you end up facing. One—it’s an infrastructure thing. So someone may say, hey, I would bike, but there’s no bike racks. So OK, great, that’s easy to fix, let’s get some bike racks wherever you need them to go. That part’s kind of the low-hanging fruit.

But the challenge is, particularly when you’re dealing with mothers—I have to get my child to school. But what you have in D.C. is, particularly in some of the Black neighborhoods, you have mothers taking their kids to school halfway across the city. And now that changes it—if I have to travel seven miles to get my child to school, I’m not going to bike, plain and simple.

And that’s where the role of schools becomes important, and it’s a longer-term thing. It’s work. But it’s doing two things—making sure that schools are at the transportation planning table, but then also making sure that transportation advocates are at the education table. Because if you have strong neighborhood schools, then mothers and fathers can bike or walk with their kid to school, and then bike to work or wherever they need to go.

I think that what’s really key is getting the leadership of the city to embrace cycling as a mode of transportation. I think that attitude definitely reflects leadership. I think the key is for decision-makers to cycle. Not that they have to do it all the time, but I would like to see the decision-makers of the city, even if it’s during bike-to-work day or a car-free day, to bike around the neighborhoods that they represent so that they can understand what it’s like on a bike.

I’ve had leaders say strange things, like “I see motorists obeying the law.” Well, it’s a lot different when you’re in a vehicle, versus when you’re on a bike and you have a bunch of people operating two thousand pounds of machinery around you. It’s a very different perspective. And so I think it is important that decision-makers to understand the perspective of cyclists.

That was mentioned at the national Bike summit—inviting your local and state, and even national, representatives to go on a bike ride. If you can get a city councilperson to go on a bike ride with you, that can go a long way.

I also think that the bike shops have a role to play in cycling. For most people, the bike shop is that person’s first introduction into cycling. If I’m a newbie and I decide to go get a bike, the first thing I’m going to do is go to the bike shop. And that experience is going to dictate whether I continue to bike or I walk away.

Many bike shops are fighting for the same 10 percent of the market share, the people that are all Lycra’d out that want the fancy road bikes. But understanding that there are people who just want to go from point A to point B is important. The bike shops have a role to be accommodating to people, and to really educate people. It’s a two-fer: the educational piece, and the understanding of what their real needs are.

I’m very thankful that when I got my bike, as part of winning the contest, the bike specialist sat with me for an hour to figure out what was going to be the best bike for me. The bike shop that I used—Bicycle Space—they get it. They’re building their business by reaching that average citizen. When people love their bike, they’re going to bike.

 

 

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