Laurie Ellis has had people scream at her from their cars while she’s on her bike. They have shouted, “You look good on that bike!” “You go, girl!” “I’m jealous!”
Her response is always the same: a friendly laugh and some encouragement right back. “I always say, ‘Well, come on! I don’t need to be out here alone by myself! I need some company!’”
Ellis is a member of Black Women Bike, an organization that strives to build community and interest in biking among black women through education, advocacy and recreation. Founded in 2011, the Washington DC-area group coordinates monthly social rides that always begin and end near a Capital Bikeshare station and other forms of public transit, like the subway.
“We get a lot of inquiries from people who say they would love to bike with us but don’t have a bike,” says Ellis. “We tell them, ‘Well, you don’t need one. We start all our rides at the bike share station, so there will be one right there.’”
She says having that option increases the chances of an interested woman actually taking the first step and going on a ride with Black Women Bike. Another major factor is the group’s no-drop policy. If a woman cannot complete the ride for whatever reason, someone in the group will escort her back to public transit or wherever she needs to be.
Not all of Black Women Bike members have to take advantage of these options. Many, including Ellis, joined because they already cycled sometimes and wanted company during recreational rides. But for those with more reservations, the accommodations can make all the difference.
This can be especially important when promoting the benefits of biking to populations that face added barriers. In addition to the hesitations about safety and lack of bicycle-specific infrastructure that many new riders express, black women sometimes have unique challenges standing between them and riding.
“A really big problem for black ladies is sweating out their hair,” says Ellis, “or finding a helmet that can fit over hair.”
Ellis has always been a fan of bicycles. She remembers getting her first one when she was 5 years old and learning to ride without the need to start with training wheels. (“They just hindered me!”) Later, when she became a mother, she and her husband would ride with toddler and baby seats attached to their bikes. She says she loves the idea of family bike rides together, just like she’d seen on “The Brady Bunch.”
Mostly, she rode recreationally, though she did briefly give up riding after being hit with a paintball gun. After that, she preferred to ride with others.
A few years ago, when gas crept upwards of $4 per gallon, Ellis decided she could kill two birds with one stone—get exercise and save money on gas. She began doing her daily errands around Prince George’s County on her bicycle. She says her fellow residents recognize her now as “that woman who’s always on her bike” and that all but one business has been accommodating by having a rack for her to lock her bike to or even letting her park inside.
“Now, I won’t even get on my stationary bike,” she jokes. “I get so much more encouragement on the streets. I don’t want to be down in the basement by myself.”
Of course, she didn’t feel that way in the beginning.
“There are some hills near my house,” she says. “When I first started riding, I’d make it a fourth of the way, then I’d have to get off. I was embarrassed. I was, like, people are going to talk about me. They are going to say that girl has no business being on a bike when she couldn’t even make it up that hill.”
Ellis says she had to tell herself that walking is also considered exercise; so even just walking her bike up a hill is progress. Either way, nobody ever said anything to her.
She adds, “Now, I can make it up the hill no problem.”
The Better Bike Share Partnership is a JPB Foundation-funded collaboration between the City of Philadelphia, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the PeopleForBikes Foundation to build equitable and replicable bike share systems. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or sign up for our weekly newsletter. Story tip? Write email@example.com