When did you start riding a bike?
Whenever it is that people start riding bikes, age three or four. I always rode a bike, from my little tricycle to my 10-speed. My family would ride around the neighborhood, and when they would close down the Bronx River Parkway, we would go ride on the Parkway. I don’t know when I stopped riding bikes regularly, probably somewhere in high school. I forgot about taking the Bronx River Parkway until I started riding again as an adult.
Now you’re a regular bike commuter. What brought you back?
It’s a long story. Five years ago, when Citi Bike expanded into Bed-Stuy, they approached me with an idea for a partnership. Compared to other neighborhoods where Citi Bike launched, Bed-Stuy was more low-income and had more people of color, and they wanted to experiment with bike share equity. I ended up as a leading force behind the New York City Better Bike Share Partnership — a collaboration with Citi Bike, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Health, and other community organizations — to get more people of color in low-income communities on Citi Bike, and strategize how to move the needle on bike share equity. I realized I had to try biking myself, and it came right back to me. Now I ride regularly through Bed-Stuy for work, and to work from where I live in Downtown Brooklyn.
You’ve written that as a community advocate, you were skeptical about bike share at first. What changed your mind?
One of the things I’ve learned through this work is that it’s hard for people to adopt what they can’t see. Because I wasn’t yet a bike rider myself, I had this perception that the community might not embrace it, and that there were not that many people of color riding bikes. After I got on a bike, I started to accept it a little bit more myself. Then I went to London, and to Montreal, and started to notice that bike share is everywhere. I saw dockless bike share in Seattle and thought, “Oh, that’s what they’ve been talking about.”
Bike share use in Bed-Stuy and by NYCHA residents is growing faster than it is citywide. How’d you make that happen?
The big, hairy, audacious goal was to see if we could get the composition of Citi Bike ridership to reflect the community. To do that, we would need the community to see themselves in bike share, and to see bike share as a literal vehicle for getting around the neighborhood, getting healthy, and saving money.
We embarked on a number of strategies, but the goal was to shape and uplift a culture by showing the real people of color who were already living it. We hosted regular bike rides, every Wednesday and Saturday, where you could bring your bike or use a Citi Bike, and started to build a community, where you could see that, actually, people of color do bike. People who hadn’t been riding started to see themselves reflected in the riding, and became more likely to ride. You end the fear by seeing people like you riding.
We had major events where people would learn how to ride, take a bike safety class, and get a helmet. We got a discount program with Citi Bike, and pushed for a monthly payment option instead of a lump sum. We galvanized local champions, having Assembly Member Walter Mosley or Council Member Robert Cornegy lead a ride. We encouraged neighborhood employers to purchase subsidized memberships for their employees. We had doctors at Interfaith and Woodhull hospitals prescribing Citi Bike memberships to patients as a way to get their requisite physical activity. We printed massive posters, placed advertisements on bus shelters, published brochures and articles that shared stories of real residents relating how they use the bike. Every event and campaign message was focused on promoting a culture of biking.
People who ride bikes in New York City are an incredibly diverse population. The movement that fights for bike lanes is not as diverse. Why do you think that is, and how do we change it?
That’s a complicated one. The answer, in part, might be how we think about bike share equity. It is not just about getting people on bikes, but having safe places for people on bikes. Safe public places are not just safe infrastructure, but also space safe from police profiling.
I’m very interested in how we transform the people who are biking already into advocates. There are real cohorts in communities of color who are actually riding. How do we translate those folks into advocates for safe streets? It has got to be an intentional strategy. It has to be about listening to the community and lifting the community into leadership positions.
We have to start to think about equity from a point of view of who leads, who decides, who benefits, and who is harmed. Whether it’s bike share or bike lanes, the question is, who asked for it? The community should be asking for it. Without full inclusion in the conversation, we don’t know the answer.
You recently joined Transportation Alternatives’ Board of Directors. Why did you decide to join and what can we expect from you?
I thought it was important, a natural extension of the work that I have been doing. I saw that we shared a common belief in livable neighborhoods, and I saw an opportunity to raise a voice around engaging communities more broadly and bringing different voices to the table. There’s so much opportunity for TransAlt to align and partner with different types of movements to create safe, livable neighborhoods. And because I’m not the prototypical biker, I bring a different perspective. I show that people can be converted because I am a convert.
You are the first black woman ever to join TransAlt’s board. What do you think that says about where we are as a bike community, and where we need to be?
Our city and the neighborhoods that we live in are multicultural, of all incomes, all races, and definitely at least 50 percent men and women! These movements should be representative of the city that we live in.
You asked earlier why the bike advocacy community is not reflective of the bike community as a whole. Things may not always be embraced because who is leading the conversation is not reflective of the neighborhood or the community. It is imperative that these movements diversify. Given that we want things to benefit all, it has to be more inclusive, and the people who are most affected by the policies have to be at the table. These people are out there, doing the work, lifting up their communities, and getting it done. How do we elevate them to the next level?