By Tori Bedford | GBH NEWS | August 1, 2023
Every day, Vivian Ortiz straps on her helmet, gets on her pink bike with purple pedals, and sets out on a quest to meet someone new. At bus stops, crosswalks, community meetings, bike trails, parks and streets all around the city, the Mattapan resident invites people into her world with an opening question: “Do you ride a bicycle?” Ortiz stands at 5-foot-4, with cat-eye glasses, a quick wit and a gravitational charisma strong enough to break through even the toughest New England façade. “People are in their own little world here, and that’s something that’s unique to the East Coast,” Ortiz said. “But people need to talk to people!" Ortiz is Boston’s first bicycle mayor — one of just five in the United States and more than 100 in the world, as named by Amsterdam-based biking advocacy organization BYCS. After establishing a reputation as a friendly and vocal advocate, local organizers nominated Ortiz for the volunteer position with the hope she could bridge the siloed factions of bicyclists. She says her role is about forming connections with neighbors, working to make streets safer in every neighborhood, and combating racial and gender inequality in the bike community. “If we want to make changes in the way that we travel and make sure that our planet is ready for our kids," Ortiz said, "we need to show them that biking is joy.” Ortiz, a Black Puerto Rican woman who just celebrated her 60th birthday, cares deeply about recruiting older people, women and people of color into the biking community. “We still don't have enough people that look like me out there,” Ortiz said. “So many people think that people who look like me only ride bikes because we're poor. I am not what people traditionally think of when they imagine a person riding a bike.” For most of her life, Ortiz didn't even have a bike. But after moving to Boston and learning to ride in her 50s, it became her calling. “I found my people,” she said. “I’m here alone, and I’m very much a group person. I found new joy in riding my bike, and biking became my therapy.”
Increasing infrastructure and diversity of Boston's bicyclists
Ortiz became bike mayor in the middle of an historic transition for the city, with former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s plan to transform bike infrastructure by 2030 already underway. Proposals to change city streets, take away parking and slow traffic have sparked controversy — inside and out of the bike community — especially in neighborhoods with limited access to public transportation. Ortiz finds herself as the conduit to bring people together, even when tensions rise. “Somehow, Vivian is so good at threading all of those communities into her web,” said MassBike Executive Director Galen Mook, who joined organizers from nonprofits Boston Cyclists Union and Livable Streets Alliance to nominate Ortiz for the position. “She keeps all of us together as a community, when arguably it is a little tribal sometimes.”
Vivian Ortiz, 60, speaks to Mattapan resident Johane Alexis-Phanor, 39, at a Women's Learn To Ride class in Mattapan, July 20, 2023Tori Bedford / GBH News Mayor Michelle Wu says she’s “very happy to share the title” of mayor with Ortiz, who she described as “a leading light” in a community that sometimes feels exclusionary. “When we make it safe, it is for everyone. It is the most liberating, affordable, easy way to get around," Wu said. "Vivian helps everyone see that this should be their community, too.” This year, Wu rolled out free bike lessons and bikes for 300 children, created a $1.5 million rebate program for older adults and people with disabilities to purchase electric bikes. Wu also got to work adding 100 new Bluebikes stations and a 9.4-mile expansion to the city’s bike path network. But Wu’s bike lane extension plan doesn’t include much infrastructure in Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan — city neighborhoods with the highest populations of people of color, where residents bike at lower rates than other Boston neighborhoods. Bike infrastructure progress faces unique political, cultural and economic barriers, particularly in communities of color like Mattapan. “It’s a predominantly Black community, and that’s one of the reasons it’s neglected and no one is paying attention to what is happening here,” said Theresa Jordan, a Black female cyclist and advisory committee member at the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition. “But there’s a community of folks who raise their children here, they want safe neighborhoods and safe streets."
Vivian Ortiz, 60, loads her bike on to her friend Bill Gallagher's fishing boat on the Neponset River in Milton, after inviting herself for an afternoon ride, July 21, 2023Tori Bedford / GBH News A proposal to build out bike lanes on Blue Hill Avenue has struggled with funding and received pushback from residents who have expressed concerns about safety, parking and the impact on small businesses in the area. In 2009, residents rejected a similar proposal after the plan was criticized for not taking in enough community feedback. Shavel'le Olivier, executive director at the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition and an organizer of an annual bike ride through Mattapan, says neighborhoods like Mattapan are often “last on the list” for city investments and resources. “When we do get resources, there is a lot of pushback," she said. "The underlying issue is a lack of trust because a lot of residents are afraid that they’re going to get displaced.” Bike lanes are sometimes mocked as “white lanes,” symbols of gentrification and displacement. People of color are not represented in Boston’s bike community and largely see bicycling as “something that white people do,” according to one interviewee in a 2019 study by Tufts University. “We do need to do a better job to get more Black folks biking, and talk to Black folks about why they need to accept that we do bike, we’re out here,” Ortiz said. “We need to come together, because we need everyone that wants to be able to bike to have that space, the opportunity and the access.” Though Black and Latino populations represent the fastest-growing demographic of bicyclists across the country, the risks are much higher, largely due to a lower quality of cycling infrastructure: Black cyclists are 4.5 times more likely to die while biking than their white counterparts, according to researchers at Boston and Harvard universities. Since 2020, there have been 866 bike crashes and three fatalities in Boston, including one on Cummins Highway in Mattapan and another on the border of Roxbury and the South End, according to city data. In November 2020, a beloved retired Boston Public Schools principal Virginia “Jinny” Chalmers, age 70, was fatally struck by a utility truck while riding her bicycle in Milton. “Everybody knew Jinny and everybody loved Jinny,” Ortiz said. The news left Ortiz shaken: Chalmers was a community pillar and an older woman who rode her bike on Ortiz’s route. “The bike community reached out to me, afraid that it could have been me,” Ortiz said. “I thanked them for reaching out, but those people had families, too. It could have been any one of us. We have to acknowledge that there are still issues.” Though Ortiz mostly focuses on the joy of biking, she says there's so much more work to be done to prevent future tragedies. "We that bike every day, we think, 'Am I going to make it home to tonight?'" Ortiz said. "That's the sad reality. But my job is to show people that biking is joy."
Vivian Ortiz with a group of cyclists on a Monday Night Ride through Dorchester in 2021Courtesy Vivian Ortiz / Courtesy Vivian Ortiz
Mook, the MassBike executive director, said Ortiz was the obvious choice for bike mayor: someone who could talk to anyone, anywhere. “She hooks you, and it’s infectious,” Mook said. “Once you get Vivian, you’re stuck with Vivian, in a good way. There’s so much more that she wants to do with you, and she wants to see it through.” Vivian's story Ortiz grew up in El Paso, Texas, raised in a military family by parents who modeled community engagement in everything they did. “Every time we moved, it was: This is where we live. This is our community. Let's figure it out and see as much as we can,” Ortiz said. After Ortiz and her sister were called a racial slur by another student in their small-town Wisconsin school in the seventh grade, Ortiz’s mother gave a presentation to educate the class about the island of Puerto Rico. “She did it with each of our classrooms, and then it became an in-school assembly. So at least for that year in Wisconsin, those folks knew about Puerto Rico,” Ortiz said. “That was my parents’ response to everything: to teach and connect.”
Vivian's Story As a child, Ortiz and her two siblings didn’t bike much. The single banana bike they shared was lost somewhere between her father’s duty station transfers with the Army in the 1970s. The next time Ortiz tried to ride, she was 50, teetering on a rented bike on Martha’s Vineyard with no idea how to stop or change gears. Embarrassed by her own lack of knowledge and a very slow crash into a guardrail, Ortiz set her sights on a community she had never imagined as her own. “I thought everybody that rode a bike was like a white man, what we call a ‘MAMIL,’ a Middle-Aged Man in Lycra,” she said. Ortiz signed up for the city’s Women’s Learn to Ride program, a class taught by women and free for residents who identify as female or gender diverse. Starting with short rides around her block, Ortiz gradually began to build connections with other bicyclists at bike repair workshops and on group rides like the Boston Bike Party. On a heavy, beat up old Huffy, Ortiz biked the Midnight Marathon Bike Ride, an annual tradition that has drawn crowds of cyclists to ride along the Boston Marathon route on the night before the race. In 2016, Ortiz began attending the National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C., an annual event where advocates connect with their representatives. At her third summit, Ortiz received the Joyful Enthusiasm Award from the League of American Bicyclists, an honor acknowledging the spirit of fun she brought to her advocacy. In 2016, Ortiz became a spokesmodel for the Boston Public Health Commission's "I Bike Boston!" campaign to increase biking around the city, with Ortiz and her bicycle pictured on billboards and buses. An MBTA bus driver referred to her as "That Bike Lady" and Ortiz embraced the nickname. The next year, she became certified as a League Cycling Instructor. Blue Bikes, the city's public bike share system, gave Ortiz the ability to pull free bike passes and helmets for her students.
Vivian Ortiz, 60, poses with a photo of herself on the side of an MBTA bus, part of a city campaign to promote biking in 2016Courtesy Vivian Ortiz / Courtesy Vivian Ortiz
Ortiz says she’s most proud of her Monday night rides, a tradition she has developed over the years to help her neighbors realize that “biking is something that is accessible for everyone in their own backyard.” Ortiz brought in some of her own bike mentors to help lead the group rides in Mattapan, Dorchester and Randolph on Monday evenings, cyclists who can lead the group if Ortiz needs to stay back with a slower participant. “They can go ahead and I can stay back, just like they did with me starting out,” Ortiz said. “Everything that I know about riding a bicycle is paying it forward, and everything I know about this community is because somebody told me. If we don't share that information, then what good is knowing it? It's for other folks to know as well, and I just hope that people start thinking that way.”
Healing Through Biking Ortiz moved to Boston in 2009 for a job at Massachusetts Bay Community College, her first gig after completing a master’s degree in public administration in New York City. With no family or friends in her new city, Ortiz says the transition to Boston wasn’t easy. She struggled with depression and loneliness. Biking became an escape, a form of meditation and a way to connect with community in an increasingly isolated world. “I take meds, but riding my bicycle has really been a way for me to work through things,” Ortiz said. In 2017, Ortiz’s mother died, and two years later, she lost her father. Ortiz got on her bike and headed out for hours every night by herself, “just crying and having conversations” with the memory of her parents. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, “I was terrified because I have no family here,” Ortiz said. After anxious calls with her sister, a school teacher in El Paso, Ortiz would get back on her bike, finding herself crying on a bench along the Neponset River. “If I did not have this bicycle, I don't know what I would have done,” Ortiz said. “I would be crying in my apartment.” In May 2022, Ortiz completed the Five Boro Bike Tour in New York City with that city’s local Bike Mayor Courtney Williams. But on her last night, while walking to get a slice of cheesecake from a nearby bakery, she tripped and fell, breaking her shin in eight places. “My doctor was like, you’re going to have to re-learn how to walk, and you’re not going to be able to ride a bike,” Ortiz said. “The middle child in me was like, 'OK, because you told me that, I don't think so.'” The following four months were spent between hospital wards and nursing homes, punctuated by intensive physical therapy focused on getting Ortiz back on her bike. While bedridden, Ortiz continued her advocacy, delivering biking resources, information and education to every nurse, doctor, intern and specialist she met. “There were times when I cried, sad times when I missed being on the bike and going outside, but the injury was not the thing,” Ortiz said. “It was not being around people that was really, really hard for me.” When Ortiz finally returned to Boston, a group of about 20 friends and neighbors — her “constituents” — organized a bike parade past her home. They held signs and swept their bike mayor off her feet for a ride along her beloved Neponset River in the back of a pedicab. “All I wanted to do was go on my bridge, and they came with a pedicab,” Ortiz said. “I don’t want to cry about it, but having that kind of community and support is just — wow.” Grecia White, a biking advocate and journalist who featured Ortiz in her documentary "Women Who Bike at Night," remembers the look of joy on Ortiz’s face from the back seat of the bike taxi. “She was looking like a queen, she had this whole bike convoy,” White said. “You have to be very special to get people to come out for you like that.” Last fall, Ortiz got back on a Blue Bike and slowly began again, a little shakier this time with sustained nerve damage and a scar across her right leg. She’s now back up to 10 miles a day, and fully back in the swing of bike advocacy across the city. Last month, Ortiz joined White and other volunteers at the annual Women’s Learn to Ride in Mattapan, the class where she first discovered her calling. At the event, hands outstretched, Ortiz walked backward, offering guidance in both English and Spanish to the flock of women wobbling their way across the parking lot. One student says she's nervous that she'll fall. “That’s why you come here,” Ortiz said. “Because this is the thing: I was like this nine years ago. We’re all in the same space, we’re all doing this together.”