Rheema Calloway was chosen as the San Francisco Bike Commuter of the Year because in the span of just two years, she went from not owning a bike to bicycling to work every day, speaking out for access to bikes for low-income youth, and becoming an active member of a collective of women of color who ride together and promote biking.
In Rheema’s own words: “Biking is a gateway to taking charge of your health, it’s the most reliable way to get around the city, and riding a bike gives you the opportunity to see your community from a different perspective.”
Rheema is a native of San Francisco, raised in Lakeview (also known as the Ingleside district). She has been exploring her city on two wheels since November 2013, when she attended a Community Bike Build and had the opportunity to pick a bike, repair it and ride away on it the same day. At Community Bike Builds, the SF Bicycle Coalition goes to different neighborhoods and teams up with community partners to refurbish donated bikes with and for people who need affordable transportation.
We asked Rheema about riding a bike as a kid in San Francisco, how biking has changed her life and what she tells others to inspire them to ride.
Did you ride a bike as a child? What was that like?
Yes, I had a bike when I was a child! It was so much fun, I rode that bike until the wheels fell off, literally! A group of us (neighborhood kids) used to go on bike adventures that we called “Around the World.” We would ride from Lakeview to Lake Merced and then to Ocean Beach. Having a bike in my community was definitely a privilege. We had so many children in our community and only a few us had bikes, but where there’s a will there’s a way: we would add pegs to the front and rear tires of our bikes so other kids could join us on our adventures.
When and why did you start riding a bike again?
I started back riding a bike in November of 2013 when I received a bike from a Bike Build through the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. I started riding because my health was declining and I needed a fun way to burn calories. I was also relying on public transportation at the time to get to and from work in the Bayview, which took forever and a day. My options were the 54-Felton, or the M-Ocean View streetcar to the 29 Bayshore or 8BX to the T-Third streetcar. Biking cut down my travel time to work from an hour to only 30-40 minutes. I’m able to cruise down the street as the wind blows in my hair and not be confined to a crowded bus. I’m also able to reflect on my daily goals!
Where do you bike to now, and why?
Now I ride my bike to and from work everyday, which is 12 miles all together! I’m also now a part of a women’s bike club call Heels on Wheels. Heels on Wheels is a collective of women of color from across the Bay Area that promote all the benefits of biking, especially building community and sisterhood. Our main purpose is to reclaim our streets and our neighborhoods by way of our bikes, cruising to some of our favorite spots including Candlestick, Pier 39, and Twin Peaks.
You helped pass the Unclaimed Bicycle Ordinance, which allows unclaimed bikes in the SF Police Department’s (SFPD) warehouse to be taken and fixed up for low-income youth. What inspired you to speak up at City Hall for this cause?
Because I know firsthand what lack of access feels like. One of the many reasons why I stopped riding a bike was because my mother didn’t have enough money to buy another; she was a single mother raising three children. I would love to see more Black and Brown communities having access to something so simple as a bike! I’m inspired because I want Black and Brown communities to reclaim our streets. Our communities have poor health conditions because of the lack of fresh food in our communities and lack of public space that promotes healthy activities. Biking gives us better access to our city through reliable transportation, and the ability to fight diabetes and obesity!
The common stereotype of bicyclists in San Francisco is white hipsters, but our communities have used this method of transportation for generations. San Francisco has made biking unfriendly and unsafe for and in low-income communities of color with decades of divestment in biking infrastructure. However, suddenly the City invests in projects that have a direct relationship to condominium development and the displacement of our communities.
You’ve said that riding a bike has changed your life. How so?
My life has changed tremendously since I began riding a bike! I’ve found a new bike community and I’m able to heal with a group of wonderful women. I’m able to clear my mind on a bike ride. I’m exercising, releasing toxic energy and challenging myself to maintain a healthy lifestyle. By riding daily and eating healthy I am preventing myself from becoming a diabetic like several members in my family.
What would you tell people who don’t ride a bike yet?
I would tell people who don’t ride a bike yet that biking is a gateway to taking charge of your health and it’s the most reliable way to get around the city. Riding a bike gives you the opportunity to see your community from a different perspective. On a bike there are no restrictions to the distance you want to travel, you are not confined to someone’s schedule. You are moving to the beat of your own drum!
Note from the Editor: Addressing the lack of safe biking infrastructure citywide is central to our work, especially our Vision Zero efforts and building out a network of protected bike lanes. As Rheema’s thoughtful comments highlight, so much remains to be done. We want a complete overhaul of the Hairball and the Alemany Maze and are advocating for protected or buffered bike lanes in the Bayview and Tenderloin. Both the Bayview and Tenderloin have little to no bicycle infrastructure but a significant biking community and huge interest.