Veronica Davis: Of Course People of Color Bike, But Decision-Makers and Advocates Don’t Always Listen

The co-founder of Black Woman Bike DC and nspiregreen spoke candidly about inclusion at the Colorado Bicycle Summit.

Photo: Jack Todd
Photo: Jack Todd

People from all walks of life use bicycles for transportation. But there’s a widely held perception in the United States that biking is a status symbol for elites in Spandex with absurd gear.

Informing this stereotype is an assumption that people of color and people without much money don’t bike. There’s the affluent road warrior, yes, but go by the Denver Rescue Mission any evening and it’s obvious that people got there on two wheels. Biking is inexpensive and convenient, and that appeals to people of every race and across the spectrum of economic status.

Yet elected officials, transportation planners, the media, and even bike advocates perpetuate The Bicyclist stereotype — in part because they’re not engaging with communities of color, young people, and low-income residents, says Veronica Davis, co-founder of Black Women Bike DC and nspiregreen, a city planning consulting firm. And that can do lasting harm, stifling broadly beneficial changes.

Davis’s firm does “environmental urban transportation planning and public engagement — meaningful public engagement,” she says. “So if someone just wants to check the box, I will turn down the project.”

Davis spoke at Bicycle Colorado’s Colorado Bicycle Summit on Monday. As an engineer who works on city projects, a bike advocate, and a black woman who regularly bikes around her home city of Washington, DC, she had a lot of insight to share. Here are a few highlights from her talk. The text comes directly from Davis’s presentation, edited and condensed for clarity.

Connect bike projects to broader community needs

One of the things that one community was concerned with was crime. We connected the bike lanes [we were trying to install] by saying, “Hey, if we can get more people biking, that’s more eyes on the street.”

But the challenge that I also found with the bike advocacy groups was… they weren’t listening to the community. It was the focus on creating this protected bike lane, but they never actually went out on their own to work with the community and figure out how to move this project forward.

It really is about starting with the issue and then showing how a bike can be a solution.

Listen to minorities and teens

For Vision Zero DC, we had a teen summit. We had 300 young people in the room… and we had them do things like redesign an intersection. We had them come up with policies. We had them evaluate their safety concerns. And one of the things that was so powerful that came out of this session was the fact that their voices weren’t really being heard.

A lot of people wanted to do a jaywalking law where police officers would go and enforce. And one of the things that the young people said was, “You know, I understand you guys don’t want me to jaywalk. I understand you guys don’t want me to do these things. But sometimes I’m just worried about my personal safety. I’m 16, I’m a young black man. If I’m going to a different neighborhood, I’m worrying about being jumped. So for me, my personal safety is going to trump all those other things.”

If we hadn’t heard that voice, we would’ve made some very different policy decisions.

“The bike community” versus people who bike

We use the bike community to represent everyone, but this is a very specific group of people. I know that if I have a public meeting for any of my projects in DC, they are gonna come out. I don’t have to put in much effort to get them to come out. I know that one email, one tweet, they will be there.

But there’s also people who bike. We have anecdotes about this group, but we really don’t know… because we don’t really count. Because a lot of times they’re not really moving during rush hour. They’re not moving downtown. They’re moving at these off hours. So we don’t really have a grasp on just people who are biking.

What about “Bike to the Grocery Store Day?”

This is my pet peeve. I think the challenge with how we think about our transportation planning is that we… [measure] all of our trips from home to work and work to home. We really need to be thinking about some of those off-peak trips. They’re not moving during rush hour, but they are on bike and they are moving.

And then for the bike advocates, Bike to Work Day is great and you should totally continue doing Bike to Work Day. But it is very hard to get people to bike to work — it’s a lot for some people. But there are so many other trips that people have to make that are lower stress, and we never focus on that. What about Bike to Grocery Store Day? Bike to Church Day? Bike to Your Friend’s House Day? Bike to Brunch Day? These are all trips that we make that are usually under a mile. And it is so much easier to wrap their mind around getting on a bike and going a mile than it is to bike to work.

How bike lanes are connected to changing cities — and how they aren’t

I hate the word gentrification. It’s like nails on a chalkboard to me, because I feel like we oversimplify what it really means. When I think about DC, for example, there is classic gentrification. I live in the Navy Yard. The Navy Yard was public housing. The Navy Yard was strip clubs. They Navy Yard was gay bars. And all of that was wiped out for the baseball stadium, for luxury apartments. There is a 300-or-so-unit deficit of low-income housing that was never replaced. So to me that’s a classic example of gentrification.

As it relates to bike lanes, it’s a red herring in my opinion. I don’t feel like bike lanes cause gentrification. I think part of what’s happening is that as our city changes, I think that there’s a lot that our city didn’t do in order to let all boats rise with this tide. All we did is just bring in bigger boats. And people got left behind as a result.

An interesting thing: Even though the black population [in DC] is decreasing percentage-wise, the black population is still increasing, and part of that is people like me who moved into the city. But we still have a black population that is being left behind. There is no job training, there is no adult literacy programs or education. I think at the end of the day, do bike lanes cause it? I don’t really think so.

Engage artists, immigrants, and people without homes

One of the things that we did for the Move DC Plan was we were very intentional about engaging homeless service providers, people who work with immigrant communities, people who work with low-income communities. And that was a very key group. The thing about the homeless is, they’re part of the transportation system. And one of the things you see in DC is that a lot of them bike. If you go to any homeless shelter in DC, you will see bikes on bikes on bikes on bikes. And part of it is, is that it’s cheap for someone who is homeless to be able to get around. A lot of them do have jobs — sometimes even full-time jobs, and so biking is a way to get to and from work.

The art community — we’ve never really engaged them, and I don’t understand why. A lot of artists bike. That’s how they get around. One of the things we have been doing in the District is we have rides where we go to different art installations. So you’re getting people biking, but it’s not a bike ride. We’re going to see art. And then the artists have an opportunity to talk about their art, and their experience. So as we’re thinking about who’s not at the table, let’s think about how we can get the art community to work with us on some of these things.