Making a Difference in Cycling – One Person at a Time

Master transportation plans and sustainable funding strategies make a difference – but so do individuals.

In the world of cycling advocacy, a lot of time and resources go into pursuing and planning for significant infrastructure projects and comprehensive education campaigns. While they're an important part of the big picture, they're only part of it. The other part is you. Yes, you. 

Earlier this year - - I touched on my belief that improving that kind of sharing will only really come from giving an individual face to cycling. As I've spent more time looking at larger issues in cycling – access, education, gender gaps – I keep coming back to the primacy of the individual.

In my experience, individual interactions often stick with us while campaigns - and even facts - tend to get lost in the flow of life.

It's not too hard for a non-cyclist to be prompted by a poster to think that, yes, in theory, she could ride to work downtown instead of crowding onto the Orange Line every day. But all of the marketing in the world isn't going to have as big an impact on her decision to actually give it a try as a bike-commuting friend or co-worker who says, "Hey, I'll ride in with you one day."

It doesn't stop with simply getting on the bike, either.

Despite loads of resources online explaining how to do just about anything on a bike, there's just nothing like seeing someone like you actively doing it. I can't tell you how many times I've heard, as I'm locking up my bike at a grocery store, "Hey, we could do that."

Now, I admit that I've only once turned around and said "Yeah, it's very easy. Are you thinking about it?" and carried the conversation from there. But the rest of those times? I like to think that I could be the motivating schlub in "Hey, if that schlub can do it, so can I."

The encouragement-by-example approach was repeatedly cited by the panelists at the recent Women's Cycling Forum hosted by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA).

While women make up a bigger portion of cyclists in Washington than in most other American cities, the face of cycling is still largely male. There is real value in seeing another woman change her own flat tire, ride comfortably in a skirt, and – yes – use a helmet without making a hash of her hair. When you see someone like you doing what you want to do? It puts it within reach.

In an age where we have a torrent of information at our fingertips, we all too often lack a human face to put to it. Seeing that face – that person doing something we’ve only understood in the abstract – has a big impact.

So when you’re out there, remember that people are watching. You might make a difference by just being there.


There were plenty of individuals out making a difference earlier this week by volunteering at another Bike Arlington light distribution. I’m seeing Bike Arlington visibility bands all over the trails these days, and they’ve put more than a 1,000 sets of lights in the hands of local cyclists and other trail users.  

Interested in more about the WABA Women’s Cycling Forum? Check out this recap from Go DC Go.

Mark Blacknell is chair of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee, a member of the board of directors of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and a League Cycling Instructor.


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