Rider Profile: Nancy Birdsall

RideOn is WABA’s quarterly newsletter. If you’re a WABA member, you receive it by mail. We make it available to nonmembers online, too. In this month’s issue, we ran a profile of Nancy Birdsall, founding president of the Center for Global Development and a longtime D.C. bike commuter. As Bike to Work Day approaches, we want to share Nancy’s story on our blog to inspire those of you who might still be on the fence about riding to work.

Register for Bike to Work Day (it’s next Friday, May 17!) and join or renew your WABA membership at a discount, $25. In addition to RideOns lovingly delivered by the U.S. Postal Service, WABA members have access to a host of great benefits.

By Catherine An

Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development, is a longtime D.C. commuter cyclist. As WABA works to get more women on bikes through our Women & Bicycles program, stories like Nancy’s can be an inspiration.

It caused a small media sensation in some Latin American countries: headlines like “New leader bikes to work” swept across newspapers when Nancy Birdsall, incoming executive vice president of the Inter-American Development Bank, declined one of the perks of the prestigious new job: a car and driver—and a reserved parking space in the bank garage. But by 1993, when she assumed the position, Nancy had already been biking to work for 20 years and had grown both accustomed to and fond of the efficient mode of transportation.

“They were very kind about it,” she laughed, retelling the story and the flurry it caused. “The bank put a special bike rack in my spot in the garage.”

Today, Nancy is the founding president of the Center for Global Development, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. She’s been biking to work for over 40 years and encourages women to take up what she sees a surprisingly easy and convenient way to commute.

She got started as a young woman:
“I started commuting by bike in 1970 because there was no easy way to get from Glover Park (where I lived at the time) to Columbia and 18th (where I worked). I was very young and in a junior position and there was nowhere to park and no convenient bus route.”

And it was a good fit from the start:
“I was a bit of a jock in college—and I have no recollection of many problems getting started. I had some concern about how to organize myself – what to wear and how to carry things (I remember wearing slacks or a skirt and bike pants underneath, but those were pretty easy to solve.”

There were a couple of tough times:
“I’ve had two big accidents: Once while riding, I was hit by a car from behind, thrown backwards off my bike, and landed on the hood of the car. I remember it was during the Reagan administration because the guy who hit me worked in the White House and he was pretty freaked out. Everything worked out OK but the accident wrecked my back for a while.”

“The other time was when my youngest child was six weeks old and I was just getting back to work—it was my second, maybe third day back on the job and I was only working half-time and going in later in the day. By the time I left for the office, there were cars parked alongside the sidewalk so I was biking a bit further from the curb than usual. I hit a bump in the road, flew over the handlebars, and broke my elbow. Everything worked out OK, and the worst of the accident was not being able to pick up my six-week-old baby for a while.”

But it’s gotten better than ever:
“There’s been a huge upsurge in biking over the last 20 years. Workplaces have gotten more bike friendly; even the taxis—which used to be more aggressive—have actually gotten better now. Drivers are more accommodating. The challenges, if any, are easier to overcome than ever.”

And you should try it, too:
“Despite the number of people in the CGD office who bike to work (at least a handful), I’m the only woman who regularly commutes by bike. And of course it’s easier to bike if there are accommodations at work that allow for it (bike racks or storage, a place to change, etc.) but it’s not that big a challenge if you try.”

“It’s surprisingly easy. It’s easier than people realize. It’s just a matter of getting started.”

Nancy is the founding president of the Center for Global Development. CGD is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit think that that works to reduce global poverty and inequality through rigorous research and active engagement with the policy community. Learn more at cgdev.org.

Catherine An is the Center for Global Development’s media relations associate.