How To Encourage Biking East Of The River: First, Don’t Tell Everyone

Courtesy of Eric Gilliland/Capital Bikeshare

Students listen to WABA instructor Sarah Miller explain how to check a bike before going for a ride.

About 10 people mounted pedal-less bikes and coasted downhill in front of the Anacostia Library on Saturday.

Once they had their balance, they earned one pedal. Then, two. Within an hour, almost all were riding bikes, thanks to two Washington Area Bicyclist Association instructors.

Some of the students in WABA’s adult riding class, like 59-year-old Mary Buckley, hadn’t been on a bike since childhood. Others, like 32-year-old LaStar Matthew, had never learned how to ride a bike in the first place.

Over the past three weeks, WABA has offered free classes instructing adults on how to ride bikes and how to ride them confidently in the city. But usually whenever the organization advertises such classes, which are enormously popular, “our core contingency follows us,” WABA executive director Shane Farthing said. People from Northwest D.C., or even Maryland and Virginia, fill up the classes rather than the Ward 7 and 8 residents the classes are intended to serve.

So this time around, WABA limited its advertising to posting fliers and other materials around the neighborhoods where the classes were to be held. And it worked: although the turnout was comparatively low, as expected by WABA, the participants were mostly from the neighborhoods. The last class had the highest turnout. Matthew saw a flier posted at her bus stop. Others found out at the library or via word-of-mouth.

The outreach is part of Farthing’s goal for the year. He wants to push bike advocacy in Wards 7 and 8, and WABA is doing it through grassroots methods such as these classes, setting up mobile bike shops and sending bike “ambassadors” to ride daily East of the River and encourage cyclists living in the neighborhoods.

“Especially where economic conditions are a little tougher, I think having a bike is a way to remove that expense of a car” or remove the uncertainty of depending on public transportation, Farthing said. “[Biking] is such a solution to all of the problems there, but until you have enough folks riding, you don’t have enough of a demand to get the facilities to make it safe.”

Courtesy of Eric Gilliland/Capital Bikeshare

Elan Dawkins (left) gets some tips from instructor Marya McQuirter (right) before riding downhill on a Captial Bikeshare bike.

Saturday’s students were sold on the idea of bikes benefiting them. Buckley said she planned to start riding around Anacostia Park and encouraging a neighbor to join her. Elan Dawkins, 41, said she wanted to learn to ride because “of the easy access” bikes offer. “Most people take the bus here,” she said.

Yvette Muhammad, who came to Saturday’s class to support some students, noted that Ward 8 is a food desert with high obesity rates.

“So it could be a real benefit to people in this neighborhood if they were able to carry groceries [on the bikes],” she said.

There could be more facilities, soon: Capital Bikeshare, a partnership between D.C.’s Department of Transportation and Arlington, is looking to expand its system by 25 stations this summer, and five of the possible additions are in Wards 7 and 8. But the list of possible stations is 55-long and there is plenty of demand in other parts of the city to contend with the relatively low usage of the existing stations East of the River.

“We see a citywide expansion as something that’s good for us” Capital Bikeshare general manager Eric Gilliland said. “But it is a balancing act between serving existing customers and encouraging new ones.”

Muhammad pointed out that her neighborhood needs more stations to make a feasible alternative to other modes of transportation.

“If you don’t live or work near one of these, then how would you get here to ride the bikes? It’s good to have it here but it’s just not the whole piece,” she said.

The bikeshare system does work best when there are multiple stations clustered together, which is not the case in these parts of D.C. Also, you need a credit card to sign up, and even if you take a bike out for a day – daily memberships cost $5 –  a $101 security hold is placed on your credit card in case the bike isn’t returned. Such a hold could push some people over their credit card limits.

DDOT spokeswoman John Lisle has said that his agency is currently working on a program that would give bikeshare-specific credit cards to some users.

During the class, the teachers provided instruction on how to properly care for and maintain a bike. One of the lessons included getting the right kind of lubricant for bike chains.

“You can go to a bike store to get that,” instructor Marya McQuirter said. But then she acknowledged that the closest shop was on Capitol Hill.

“Maybe we could open one up here,” said instructor Sarah Miller.

Perhaps. Or maybe as more adults ride bikes in the neighborhood, there will be enough of a demand for a bike shop to open independently. That’s the goal, anyway.

  • Martin Moulton

    Bravo WABA. In California, 40+ years ago, my mom cycle commuted daily to work well into her late 30s. You see a lot of African American men taking advantage of cycling as well as Latinos going to and from work downtown. But I think that minority women in DC are still [wisely] waiting for facilities and safety conditions to improve. Those who are sole heads of households can’t take hazardous risks every day when they have young or senior citizens who depend on them.

  • Anonymous

    This is a good story about what seems to be an excellent idea, but it doesn’t actually talk about race or class; we’re just supposed to read between the lines. It’s good that residents in the neighborhoods for which the program is targeted are there, but for all we know the ones that showed up are just early gentrifiers, which would suggest they’re not exactly who the program is targeting. The only mention of a potential class difference is a quote that refers to tougher economic conditions. It can be exhausting to continually regurgitate what “east of the river” means, but it would seem that in in the context of this blog it’s necessary to include something concrete.

  • Elahe Izadi

    Thanks for your comments. I will definitely be mulling over them.

  • Raphaeltalisman

    Great piece Elahe!