“I’m too scared,” said Theodora Wedgeworth, 56, from atop a bicycle for the first time since she was 16 years old. With her right foot on the pedal, she was daring to lift her left foot off the ground.
“You want to try again?” asked the instructor, who had one hand gripping the back of the bike seat. “I swear I will not let you fall over.”
Wedgeworth took a deep breath, glanced down at the pedals and back up at the parking lot asphalt ahead, and then pushed down with her right leg while bringing her left foot to meet its pedal.
A child-like “whee!” escaped her mouth as the bike lurched forward.
“I did it!” she said, grinning a few seconds later. “So much fun.”
Wedgeworth is among hundreds of women who have learned to bike at free classes provided by Boston’s transportation department from about May to October, part of the city’s larger effort to get people out of their cars, lowering emissions and relieving congestion.
On a recent Thursday evening, 10 people gathered in the parking lot next to the Mildred Avenue K-8 School in Mattapan, eager to learn. Most said they had never ridden a bike before.
Instructors gave out helmets, making sure just one or two fingers fit between chins and straps. Standing in a circle, each person shared where they live and their experience with biking. Hyde Park, Mattapan, Dorchester, East Boston. Never, never, once before, never.
Lead instructor Kim Foltz went through a list of things to check before a ride: tire air, brakes, chain, quick release, and shoelaces. Then, it was time for each person to try swaying back and forth with both feet on the ground on either side of a bike.
“Lean and let the bike lean with you,” said Stefanie Seskin, Boston’s active transportation director, as she demonstrated, swaying back and forth.
The city began offering classes for women and gender-diverse people in 2014, when surveys showed that fewer women than men were commuting via bike. In 2019, 94 people attended at least one clinic, Seskin said. The city canceled the classes for 2020. In 2021, 74 attended.
Wedgeworth heard about the class on Nextdoor, a neighbor forum app. One woman’s daughter encouraged her to come. Zainab Shuaib, 41, heard about the classes from her church pastor. She is signed up for every class this year.
“I’m determined to be able to ride,” she said.
Within 10 minutes, the youngest of the group, a 12-year-old from Hyde Park, took off, zooming back and forth across the parking lot like she’d been doing it for years. Most made slower progress, first sitting on the bike seats and using their feet to push off the ground, propelling the bikes forward, keeping their feet off the ground a few seconds longer each time while gliding further and further.
Instructors encouraged everyone to keep their eyes up and their fingers light on the handlebars.
Biking, and especially e-biking, has become more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic. Boston and surrounding cities and towns took advantage of the lull in car traffic in 2020 to build more protected bike lanes, though progress slowed in 2021.
This year, several new lanes are under construction in Boston, including on Boylston Street in Fenway, Cambridge Street in Allston, Massachusetts Avenue in Roxbury, and Tremont Street in the South End.
For the first time, Boston is offering classes this year that focus specifically on strategies for biking on city streets, long dominated by cars, and using protected bike lanes.
“It can be a transformative experience for people,” said Foltz. “Not just a sense of their own abilities, but also changing the way they see city streets and understand transportation changes happening in their neighborhood.”
By the end of the recent class, all participants were pedaling, but most weren’t ready to hit the streets.
“With time, hopefully I’ll get more confident to ride with cars,” said Shuaib.
The empty streets during the pandemic inspired Wedgeworth to look for bike classes. She had only ridden once before, when she was a teen in Trinidad, she said.
She can’t imagine biking instead of driving for the commute to her job at an assisted living facility in Dedham, but she plans to attend more classes this summer to be able to ride near her home.
“It’s so freeing,” she said. “To feel the wind, the joy of being outdoors.”