They’re black, white, and Asian, but all look like experienced cyclists. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr
Bike to Work Day coaxes people of all stripes to make the commute on two wheels instead of four. As Bike to Work Day continues to grow, we must think about how to expand it not just in numbers, but to people in a wider range of economic circumstances and demographic groups.
Bike to Work Day is a great chance to get people involved in cycling and bike advocacy who aren’t otherwise. Last Friday, 12,000 people officially participated in Bike to Work Day, checking in to one of 58 pit stops across the region.
However, at the pit stops I’ve passed through in the last 3 years, most cyclists appear affluent and experienced, judging by their equipment. Even most non-
white participants look like they work professional jobs and have upscale gear.
How can we get a more diverse group of participants, not just by race or gender but also economically?
There is no question that Bike to Work Day is a hugely successful event, growing every year. The organizers, and WABA in particular, deserve serious thanks and congratulations for the enormous undertaking of BTWD. It’s done a great deal to raise the visibility of cycling and to expand the reach of cycling to more women, younger and older age groups, and beyond the MAMIL stereotype.
While we can revel in these growing levels of success, it’s important not to be complacent. It may be time to start thinking about how to reach the current and future “invisible cyclists” through this event.
We can gauge participation by the numbers of people who checked in at the 58 pit stops across the region, and estimate very roughly the socioeconomic status of participants by where the pit stops are located. Total check-ins ranged from nearly 1,000 at the 2 most central, in Rosslyn and downtown DC, all the way down to 5 people in Takoma at Langley Crossroads.
(data courtesy of WABA)
Pit stop location
One way to increase diversity could be to add more pit stops in different parts of the region. Despite significant work by WABA over the last year to reach out to Wards 7 & 8, there was only one pit stop in the whole of both wards. That stop, in downtown Anacostia, saw 14 people. Ward 7 had no pit stops at all.
In fact, with the exception of National Harbor and Indian Head, right on the Potomac, there were no pit stops in southern Prince George’s county either, leaving the entire southeast quadrant of the region without a place to participate.
We shouldn’t expect new cyclists to take on a major ride beyond a couple of miles. Even if some newcomers were feeling ambitious, many areas in the suburban counties don’t offer safe biking routes in employment districts. Therefore, biking to transit has to be a key strategy to Bike to Work Day.
There were pit stops at many VRE and MARC stations to the south and north of the District, enabling commuters to potentially ride shorter distances to their local train station. Of course, MARC & VRE ridership is itself relatively homogenous.
Wards 7 and 8, as well as much of Prince George’s, are not bike friendly. Anacostia River crossings are often downright dangerous on a bike. So promoting biking to work in these communities depends all the more on the first/last mile connection to transit. Yet no Metro stations on the southern Green Line or eastern Blue and Orange Lines had pit stops.
Many of these stations are located in relatively residential neighborhoods, meaning the comfort and safety barrier to biking is relatively low. Why not have pit stops at them?
Obviously it takes resources and volunteers to set up pit stops. Businesses often host stops in hopes of driving sales. Most volunteers want to host pit stops in their communities instead of traveling across the region to some other location they don’t know well.
But perhaps in the future, some supporters could sponsor pit stops in neighborhoods where there may not be such natural hosts. We could also look beyond the WABA members and the cycling community for volunteers. Perhaps community action organizations could help address the challenge of volunteers?
These stops may have relatively low attendance, but I think the benefit of a few people participating in these areas would be much greater than the marginal benefit of a few more people checking in in upper Montgomery County.
Pit stop timing
Another way to increase diversity would be to schedule pit stops for more time periods. The vast majority of stops were set up for 2-3 hours between from 6 and 9 am. Only 4 pit stops were open later. 3 stuck it out until 10 am, and the Indian Head, Maryland stop on the east bank of the Potomac was open until 11.
In Columbia Heights and Falls Church, organizers set up an afternoon “Bike from Work Day” pit stop from 4-7 pm. Even with that one exception, Bike to Work Day clearly catered primarily to those people starting work by 9:30am and leaving by 6:30.
Many low-income workers work at other times, like a shift job from 5 am to 2 pm. Many may already be riding a bike to work out of necessity. And if they aren’t, they may be spending significant portions of their income on more expensive modes of transportation. Being introduced to cycling could help keep more money in these workers’ pockets.
Those that are riding, frequently ride any bike they can get a hold of, not the median-priced $1,000 bike you see mostly at Bike to Work Day pit stops. Of any cyclists on the road, they likely could most use a tune-up, a new light, pant leg strap, or other safety schwag typically being given away at BTWD. Lastly, they are a population group that could be much better represented in bike planning and advocacy.
Of course, the lack of pit stops in the poorest areas of the region is a challenge to getting these cyclists, whether seasoned or new, to participate. However, the map above shows that, despite the blank space east of the river and in southern Prince George’s, many pit stops are already in higher-poverty areas. This is all the more reason to explore ways to diversify the pit stop hours.
Pit stops with different hours would also face challenges in recruiting volunteers. Again this is where we need to think creatively about making alliances beyond the existing cycling community.
BTWD organizers collected a lot of information about participants. It would be interesting to do some analysis on this data to see where the people who checked in at the biggest, most central pit stops were coming from. This could give us a better idea of how lopsided the participation truly is.
Bike to Work Day is a very valuable part of cycling advocacy. Reaching the invisible cyclist is no easy task. It won’t be easy, but with some planning and effort, Bike to Work Day could be a major opportunity to better include these current and potential cyclists.