Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Capital Bikeshare's riders may fit our exact stereotype of D.C. bicyclists

January 12, 2012 - 12:57 PM
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Just riding. (Photo: flickr/ericfischer)

Virginia Tech has released a study on Capital Bikeshare that most biking fanatics will enjoy, as the League of American Bicyclists noted yesterday. The 49-page document is called "Capital Bikeshare Study: A Closer Look at Casual Users and Operations" and was prepared by close to a dozen VT Urban and Regional Planning program grad students as well as Professor Ralph Buehler, an experienced transportation researcher. Our expanding Capital Bikeshare offers 1,100 bikes at 130 stations and, now in its second year, trumpets more than a million rides.

The new January report collects and presents a lot of data, some new and some less examined. What I absolutely loved were the many colorful charts of the Capital Bikeshare demographics, the data drawn from the census, researcher surveys, and Capital Bikeshare statistics — and a study of the numbers suggests that our city's common assumptions about who does and doesn't bike and uses bikeshare may be correct, after all.

Back in her August cover story, the City Paper's Alex Baca offered a keen look at the image problems surrounding the bike in the District. She sets up and then punches holes in our casual notion of what a District bicyclist looks like. She writes that the bicyclist has "come to signify for so many D.C. residents a very specific caricature: the rich, white, gentrifying newcomer," with the bike lanes and other infrastructure ostensibly a product of the former Mayor Adrian Fenty's sensibilities. Baca carves into these notions as lazy and often false: "Like any stereotype, it has holes when you examine it closely." And certainly, she's correct in many ways, as her reporting shows; no stereotype is absolutely true, and there are many examples that don't fit the lazy, hyped idea of a bicyclist. Just look to Veronica Davis's Black Women Bike club, as Baca herself does.

But does data refute the stereotype? Despite the egalitarian nature of the bike, the statistics create the exact picture of a bicyclist that Baca attempts to puncture.

Aside from gender, the Capital Bikeshare's data suggests a typical casual user that, as the report breaks down here, resembles the exact stereotype many people imagine when discussing bicyclists in the District:

• Gender: Female (51.33%)
• Mean Age: 34.64
• Median: 31
• Race: Caucasian (78.17%)
• Education: Advanced Degree (42.9%)
• Tourist/Local: Domestic Tourist (53%)
• Bicycle Experience: Rides Frequently on City Streets (41%)
• Helmet: No (92.6%)

No helmet, average age of mid-30s, white, and bearing an advanced degree (in other words, a professional) ... ? Yeah, that's a common stereotype, all right. Yet the presence of women among the bikeshare casual riders is encouraging news for D.C transportation. Just last month, several bicyclists held a forum to discuss how to close the biking gender gap that characterizes much of the U.S. Women represent about 40% of Capital Bikeshare members overall.

A closer look at the charts makes the above stereotype-enforcing picture even more apparent. About four out of five Capital Bikeshare users (both annual membership and casual use) are white in a city where 50% of the population is black and 34% is white. Beyond Capital Bikeshare, there's an even greater divide. The study reports that 88% of the D.C. area cyclists are white and only 6% are black.

The education breakdown is stunning — more than 80% of Capital Bikeshare users (both annual membership and casual users) have college degrees, with about half of that population in possession of a graduate-level degree. But more than half of D.C.'s population (53%) doesn't possess more than a high school diploma or GED or even less, although our college-educated population of 47% is, to be fair, extraordinarily higher than the average figures for most parts of the country (nationally, college graduates only comprise about one-third of the population). Capital Bikeshare is also, not surprisingly, more popular among younger people. The highest percentage of riders fall between the ages of 25 and 34, the second highest falling between 35 and 44.

Do these numbers represent reality in the District? I live in Petworth and personally see many non-white bicyclists frequently enough. I wonder if a report like this manages to miss a certain percentage of black or Hispanic bicyclists and doesn't paint a complete picture. As the Washington Area Bicyclist Association's Greg Billing told Baca: "There are a lot of Latino and a lot of black riders out there, and to make it sound that it’s just a white interest isn’t true." Some data on Capital Bikeshare's casual users comes from surveys conducted at bikeshare stations this fall, and I wonder at whether any cultural factors influenced participation and how the choice of stations (Dupont Circle, USDA, Federal Triangle, Georgetown, Eastern Market Metro, 19th St. NW & Constitution Ave. NW) influenced the types of bikeshare riders the university students were talking to. Places like Georgetown, Eastern Market, and Dupont Circle are affluent, so no surprise the researchers were talking to college-educated folks.

But the overall data here suggests that bicycling is, at least for now, overwhelmingly more popular among white professionals.

The identity of the D.C. bicyclist may not be as far from any casual stereotypes as we believe, and this report is a testament to the gaps our city still needs to bridge. The City Paper correctly points to the many psychological, political issues that underpin that image as well as spotlights the many ways the city and its biking community is reaching out to people who don't fit its parameters of race, class, and education. Yet these efforts don't erase the reality of the data and the need to do more. To say the stereotype is wrong misses the data that underpins it. That said? Don't let the numbers of today condemn us to keeping these numbers tomorrow.

Update, 2:30 p.m.: Veronica Davis, a bicyclist, transportation planner, and one of the founders of the Black Women Bike club I mention above has offered some thoughts about how to interpret the Virginia Tech data and what it says about the world of D.C. bicycling.

"All [the Virginia Tech researchers] did was take the raw percentages," Davis told me by phone this afternoon.

She would have preferred seeing a richer cross-sectional analysis of the data to give a better, fuller picture of how the different categories intersect, and I agree that knowledge would be helpful. In Fairfax Village where she lives, several of the black bicyclists she knows are in their 30s and 40s and have advanced college degrees, for instance, and she thinks it would be helpful for readers of the report to know precisely what percentage of the black cyclists have college degrees, their ages, and so on. Davis also wondered whether all segments of bicyclists are getting captured in studies like this.

"There's bikes up and down MLK all day long," said Davis, who adds that the cyclists are "typically black men." Is anyone capturing these bicyclists in the data?

The transportation planner has advocated for more bikeshare use east of the Anacostia River but says that one major barrier is the $75 annual membership fee as well as, even more importantly, lack of credit cards. Last month, Capital Bikeshare launched its Bank on D.C. initiative, which has potential to address this problem. 

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