Biking While Black?
"It's not that deep," says Veronica Davis. "All I said was black people don't like the cold."
But the blog post in which the Greater Greater Washington contributor (and Life in the Village blogger) made that observation brought on some criticism. "I was basically called racist," Davis says. In her Monday post, Davis sought to explain why Capital Bikeshare usage is low east of the Anacostia River. Davis, who lives in Hillcrest, wrote the piece in response to a Bikeshare trip map that showed the service wasn't popular on her side of the river.
Responding to the map, some commenters had suggested moving the Bikeshare stations. An African American, Davis pointed to various reasons the community's majority-black population might not have taken to the big red two-wheelers. She listed things like "start-up costs"—the bike renting program requires a $75 annual fee—and topography: "East of the river also has many steep hills, making bicycling along some major corridors more difficult."
The last reason on her list, "seasonal usage," prompted Davis to write a sentence that eventually earned a strikethrough from GGW editors: "In general, African-Americans, which make up the large majority of the residents east of the river, are averse to colder temperatures."
A number of the 120 comments that followed took offense to Davis' assertion, which she followed up with a salient point about the futility of introducing Bikeshare stations during the latter part of the year. "Because relatively few residents were cyclists prior to the introduction of CaBi, the chances that the uninitiated bike rider is going to start cycling in late fall or the winter are relatively low."
As an African American who appreciates both a good cold snap and bikes, I'm not sure about being genetically predisposed to shunning Bikeshare stations during the cold months. In fact, as long as there's a bike available and no snow on the ground, I prefer pedaling to riding public transit.
But Davis explains she wasn't positing a scientific theory when she mentioned African Americans not liking the chill. It's just something that's said among black people, she says: "If I had said that to an entirely black audience, no one would have been offended." The small piece of controversy might have overshadowed the core of Davis' piece, which, more than simply explaining a lack of enthusiasm for Bikeshare East of the River, sought to combat an emerging perception Davis doesn't like– that District blacks are and will remain anti-bike.
One thing that may solve the east of the river Bikeshare problem is adding more stations, as opposed to taking them away. As Washington City Paper's Lydia Depillis points out: "The more stations there are, the more valuable the whole system becomes to its users, since they can access bikes in more places and get closer to where they need to go." According to Davis, currently there are 11 stations east of the Anacostia, with two out of commission.
Another thing that might help marketing Bikeshare to a community with fewer resources than the population as a whole is taking pains to convince potential riders their foray into bicycling won't end with them reeling from a financial hit. Besides the annual fee, a user can end up being charged $1,000 if a bike goes missing.
Photo by James D. Schwartz via Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic