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The New Face of Cycling
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Ed EwingEd Ewing caught on stage at the Seattle Bicycle Expo fashion show in 2011.
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Photo by Martha Williams
Genaro EscarzagaGenaro Escarzaga in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood.
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Photo by Mike Hartnett
Lacourdaire "Lucky" CamargoLacourdaire "Lucky" Camargo, photographed in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago, IL.
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Adolfo HernandezAdolfo Hernandez in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.
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Photo by Melissa Hung
Robynn TakayamaRobynn Takayama poses in front of Huckleberry Bicycles before joining the Halloween Critical Mass in San Francisco, CA.
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Alpha BarryAlpha Barry presenting the keynote address at Recycle-A-Bicycle's Youth Bike Summit 2012.
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Photo by Ted Belke
Stanley TeoStanley Teo at his workplace, the Lillian H. Smith Branch of the Toronto Public Library.
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Photo by Eileen Schaubert
Bruce Woods, Dr. Talia McCray, Anothony TaylorBruce Woods, National Brotherhood of Cyclists president; Dr. Talia McCray, University of Texas School of Architecture; and Anthony Taylor, National Brotherhood of Cyclists vice president at Urdy Plaza in Austin, TX. This was the first stop of the African American Historic District Bike Tour - part of the launch of Major Taylor Austin on Feb 25th, 2012.
Stereotypes about bicycling are falling away as diverse communities adopt and promote the cycling lifestyle
From every perspective, bicycling was a part of Ed Ewing’s upbringing. During the summer months, Ewing’s father rode his bike to work. On the weekends, bike outings were a common family activity. From an early age, Ewing’s bicycle was his transportation to and from school, football practice and his summer job.
But, because he rode a bike in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Minneapolis, MN, Ewing caught flak from his friends. “They didn’t understand it,” he said. “They’re like, ‘Are you turning white? Why are you doing that? Black people don’t bike’.”
The outsider status cut both ways. Inspired by the Tour de France, Ewing started racing in high school. But out on the local circuit, he was often the only black cyclist at competitions. “At bike races people were like, ‘Who is this kid?’” he remembers. “There’s this fishbowl effect of everyone staring at you – and you just want to ride your bike.”
As a young African-American, Ewing didn’t fit the cycling stereotype. According to the US Department of Transportation, a full 83 percent of bicycle trips in 2001 were made by whites. As of 2009, Caucasians still accounted for 77 percent of trips.
But that’s changing. Across North America, people from all cultural and racial backgrounds are adopting the cycling lifestyle. In fact, according to a 2011 study from Rutgers researcher John Pucher “cycling rates are rising fastest among African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans.”
Now living in Seattle, Ewing is propelling that shift. Four years ago he was approached by the Cascade Bicycle Club. At 14,000 members, Cascade was already one of the largest bike organizations in the nation – but, Ewing said, the majority of its membership was 50- to 60-year-old white men.
“We looked at ethnic diversity and gender diversity and realized we have a responsibility to change those numbers,” Ewing said. “Then we looked at the communities we served. We do a lot of activism work on bike lanes, greenways and making streets safe, but a lot of those initiatives were not in communities of color.”
From Seattle to Toronto, advocacy organizations and citizen activists are mobilizing, creating the social and political networks that are redefining the face of cycling in many neighborhoods and cities. Back in Ewing’s hometown of Minneapolis, Anthony Taylor helped establish the National Brotherhood of Cyclists – a rapidly growing coalition of African-American cycling clubs. The group started 12 years ago with three black women looking to train for an AIDS benefit ride. Now Taylor flies all over the country, spreading the message that bicycling can – and must – be accessible to all.
“To create a true movement in this country, we will have to turn around the top 25 major metropolitan communities,” Taylor said. “And, from that perspective, you know who has to be involved? People of color. They will have to be engaged.”
The Generational and Cultural Gap
Like many teenagers, Adolfo Hernandez abandoned his bicycle when he entered high school. As a kid, he tooled around Little Village, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood in West Chicago, IL, on two wheels. But when he hit adulthood, he relied on public transit.
One day, after college, he decided to ride his bicycle 6 miles (10 kilometers) to his job at the YMCA. He braved major arterials roads with terrifying traffic on an old mountain bike, but still arrived at work feeling fresh and energized. Hernandez was hooked on the cycling lifestyle. But his parents, who had emigrated from Mexico, were perplexed.
“A lot of people come to this country, including my parents, with a set idea of what the American Dream is and what it means to be successful,” Hernandez said. “I remember my mom and dad saying, ‘Why are you riding a bike? You can afford a car.’ They didn’t mean it in a derogatory way, but riding a bicycle, to them, meant not having the means to get around any other way. In some ways, the car is part of the American Dream.”
According to a 2010 study published in Transport Policy, newly arrived immigrants are 41 times more likely to ride a bicycle than native-born Americans – but that propensity plummets to half that in just four years. Over the course of a decade, immigrants’ automobile mode share rises from 30 to nearly 42 percent, while bicycle mode share drops from 1.8 to 0.5 percent. Income could be a factor, the report suggests, as higher income is typically associated with higher automobile use.
Missing Role Models
Back in Singapore, Stanley Teo rarely rode a bicycle, given the high temperatures and thick humidity. But when he moved to Toronto, ON in 2003, economic necessity played a large role in his getting around on two wheels. “As someone who was new to the country, I was somewhat shocked to find out how expensive it is to travel around the city on public transportation,” he said.
Because he lived and worked downtown, bicycling was a means to avoid gridlock, save money and explore the city, but Teo didn’t immediately feel welcomed into the cycling fold. “I felt that the bike culture here – cycling-related social events, media images and interactions on the streets – was a predominantly and exclusively a ‘white male’ activity,” he said.
Ewing suggests that one of the barriers to biking is a lack of role models in the African-American community, as well. “When you grow up as a minority, you don’t see a lot of minority symbols out there, positive symbols,” he said. “That subconsciously plays on you your entire life and it’s a very, very powerful thing.” So when African-American cyclists are invisible in the media, in popular culture and on the streets of your community, it diminishes the appeal of bicycling. “It’s not until you see someone who looks like you doing that activity and being successful that you see it as possible, as a reality,” he said.
That lack of cultural peers also affected Lacourdaire Camargo, a Latina cyclist in Chicago. For her parents, who grew up in Mexico, riding bikes was seen as a luxury for the rich or a means of transportation for working men. In Chicago, Camargo’s role models for cycling were the outgoing neighborhood boys of her youth and, as an adult, the eccentric bike messengers who defied traffic near her downtown office. “Before I started riding, I viewed cyclists as either hipsters with tattoos or the power-ranger, Lance-Armstrong individuals,” she said. “I’m a Latina, no tattoos, and I’m definitely no Jillian Michaels, so I often wonder where I fit in all this. Truthfully, I still don’t see too many minorities cycling, though I know they’re out there.”
Taylor suggests the lower rates of cycling in the African-American community run even deeper. “I believe there are internal conversations about what it means to be black in this country,” he said. “There are certain things that white people do and, by me doing them, it somehow makes me less black.” So while phrases like “Black folks don’t swim” or “Black folks don’t bike” may not be true, Taylor said, they still hold power because they are still so widespread.
And, in many communities, the bicycle could be perceived as a threat. “The last time we had a major fundamental shift in transportation it was the expansion of highway system – and the African American community was significantly impacted by it,” Taylor explained. “There’s case after case after case where that shift literally destroyed historically African-American neighborhoods, not just displacing people from their homes, but businesses and cultural centers, too.” And, in some communities, bicycles are seen as the harbinger of another cultural tidal wave. “For many, when they see these bike lanes coming into their neighborhoods it represents gentrification,” Taylor said. “It represents them moving out and young white people moving in.”
Robynn Takayama, a Japanese-American cyclist in San Francisco, CA, emphasizes that, while the young white stereotype exists, that’s far from the true picture of bicycling in the Bay Area. “Some things, like participation of the [San Francisco] Bicycle Coalition and the more established bike social circles, you may see those [predominantly white] demographics,” she said. “But out on the street, getting to and from work, there’s a lot of diversity.” And, given the transportation culture in many Asian countries, that doesn’t surprise her.
“I’ve been to Sri Lanka, and people are riding bikes carrying their kids, carrying their laundry, carrying wares they’re selling on the streets – and the same in the Philippines,” she said. “When you look at developing countries, bicycling is an important part of transportation there. It’s not that people of color don’t bike here, but I think there can be financial barriers, infrastructure barriers. When you look at some of the lower income neighborhoods, the potholes there are out of control.”
Wanted: Access and Infrastructure
Camargo didn’t have any of the traditional resources for adopting a cycling lifestyle. There wasn’t a single bike shop in her neighborhood of Little Village. When she ventured to North Chicago to buy a bike, her new Raleigh was stolen within a few months. Working downtown, she recognized the growing ranks of urban professionals riding in to work, but none of those folks were coming from the South Side, where she lived.
“But, I thought, even if it wasn’t happening on my side of town, it didn’t mean it was forbidden,” she said. “I decided that if other folks that lived up North could do it, then I could too. But cycling is a bit more challenging on the south and west side of Chicago, because there really aren’t a lot of bike lanes or bike-friendly zones. I feel that there’s a disparity.”
Certainly, a lack of infrastructure could play a significant role in stifling cycling in some communities. In California last year, the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) investigated the intersection of household income, bicycle safety and bicycle infrastructure in some of LA’s diverse communities. “There are many high-density urban areas in Los Angeles County ... that tend to contain much fewer, if any, bicycle facilities,” the LACBC reported. “Not surprisingly, data shows disproportionately higher concentrations of pedestrian and bicycle crashes in low-income areas than in more affluent areas. This presents a major environmental and social injustice.”
Hernandez said infrastructure equity is an issue in Chicago as well. “Where the facilities are has a lot to do with where people are riding,” he said. “For instance, many of our trails are built in the more affluent communities, so it’s a question of access to even use the facilities in our city. … If we want diversity among people who ride in the city, we need to think about how facilities and resources to assist them are allocated… The biggest culture change is the actual infrastructure that makes it normal to get around by bike.”
And it’s not just paint on pavement. Takayama said that, when San Francisco debuts its new bike share system later this year, “I hope there’s strong outreach into neighborhoods of people of color and low-income people.” But, as Taylor pointed out, there are cultural considerations to take into account. In Minneapolis, the initial plans for the Nice Ride bike share system didn’t include any stations in the Twin Cities’ most concentrated African-American neighborhoods. But even when that oversight was remedied, “there was the issue of how we handle this kind of system in a community that doesn’t use debit cards as much,” Taylor said. “There was the idea that having debit cards as a prerequisite for using the system was itself racism.”
Safe Streets for All
Infrastructure and image aren’t the only inhibiting factors in certain neighborhoods. Genaro Escarzaga, whose parents immigrated to Chicago from Mexico in the 1980s, didn’t feel safe cycling. “Growing up, I generally stayed in because of the constant gang presence immediately outside,” he said. “Shortly after receiving my first real bike, I was assaulted for it in a different neighborhood. I didn’t feel comfortable riding until college, when I became a year-round bike commuter.” Now, as a program instructor for West Town Bikes, he hears those same concerns from other kids. “Violence discourages the young community from cycling and taking part in outside activity altogether,” he said.
Hernandez’ first job with the Active Transportation Alliance – where he worked for five years before taking the helm of Chicago’s Office of New Americans – was working with Latino families in several area schools, helping them identify and adopt more active travel habits. The biggest barriers had little to do with cars or money or cultural mores. It was safety.
“And that didn’t just imply safety from cars, safety in the built environment, but what’s going on in the streets,” Hernandez said. “Are there adults on the streets? Are there crossing guards, not just to help kids cross streets safely, but also to deter crime and violence. That was an interesting dynamic that we didn’t hear as much about in other parts of the city.”
That’s not just true in Chicago. A survey conducted by Engaging Neighbors, Refugees, Immigrants, in Community Health (ENRICH) in Portland, OR, found that nearly one-third of parents cited crime as a limiting factor in allowing their children to bike in their communities.
Ewing hears those concerns, as well. Though they’re given a lock when they earn a bicycle through the Cascade Bicycle Club Major Taylor program, some students come back empty-handed within a few days. “Many of our kids live in apartments and, based on religious belief or cultural beliefs, parents won’t allow the bike into the home, because the bike is looked at as the lowest level of transportation,” Ewing said. “So the bike is left outside and gets stolen.” Now, because of their work with diverse youth, Cascade advocates are working with city planners to solve that problem by adding basic amenities like secure bike parking to public housing units.
Those types of partnerships and solutions are blossoming across the continent.
The Future of the Movement
Standing at the podium of the Youth Bike Summit, wearing a shy but eager smile, Alpha Barry proudly professed: “I’m a student, a bike mechanic, a bike rider and an advocate.”
Growing up in a small village in Guinea, a nation on Africa’s west coast, Barry said, “Only two families in the village owned a car, and even a bicycle was a treasure.” Rather than looking forward to a driver’s license, Barry longed to apprentice in a bike shop, which intoxicated him with the scent of “grease, oil and hard work.” As a teenager, Barry’s bicycle dream came true – more than 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) away, in New York City, NY.
As a student at Brooklyn International High School, Barry got an internship at Recycle-A-Bicycle, where he built and learned to maintain his own bike. For 10 months, he worked with area officials on the planning and development of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway – a 14-mile (23-kilometer) multi-use path that passes through a number of multi-cultural communities – and took his first trip to Washington, DC, for the National Bike Summit.
For Barry, the bicycle became more than a means of transportation. “I see everything around me in a new way, as if everything has come to life and everything is suddenly possible,” he said.
Thanks, in part, to organizations like Recycle-A-Bicycle, the next generation of cyclists will likely look more like Alpha Barry than the past archetype of the affluent, spandex-wearing white male. The growing community bike shop movement is widening the movement by providing free or low-cost bicycles to youth and adults in exchange for their time and energy. Traditional advocacy groups are more often – and more effectively – outreaching to diverse neighborhoods, too.
Since the inception of the Major Taylor program, Ewing and Cascade Bicycle Club have provided bicycles, education and programming to more than 430 students at some of the city’s most diverse schools. The LACBC is just one of many advocacy groups that have created Spanish-language literature and education classes. In the US capital, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association started a new effort in a predominantly African-American community “East of the Anacostia,” where bicycle infrastructure and outreach have been virtually nonexistent.
Making those efforts successful, though, depends on not just evangelizing the merits of bike lanes, but “building genuine relationships for the sake of building relationships,” Taylor said. It also means understanding community needs and concerns. “What if we can make bike lanes a strategy for increasing safety?” Taylor asked. “What if bike lanes become a solution to connectivity, decreasing these communities’ isolation from an economic and social standpoint?”
Progress through Leadership
Encouraging more adults to ride is a multi-faceted equation. Taylor believes bicycle education can play a key role – especially if the teacher is from the same community as the student. This year, Taylor is working with the League of American Bicyclists to certify 75 African-Americans as League Cycling Instructors who can be ambassadors, role models and champions for biking in their communities.
Especially for new immigrants, not understanding the rules of the road can curb the desire to commute by bike. Angel Chen, who moved to Toronto, from Taiwan, said in her home country bicyclists are more akin to pedestrians than cars, so sidewalk riding was common. In Canada, that’s largely illegal.
Programs like the newcomer cycling program helped Chen and Teo by providing resources, such as route planning and mentorship. “The Toronto Cyclist Handbook, which explains safety tips and the rules of the road in Toronto, was published in English and in 16 other languages,” Teo said. “Safety and other cycling-related workshops were also held at community hubs, other settlement agencies, libraries and schools. There is also this unique program called the Bike Host Circle where volunteer cyclist mentors are matched with newcomer ‘mentees’ to get them familiar with the city through cycling.”
While riding to work may eliminate costs for gas and transit, Nannette Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican cyclist in Des Moines, IA, said cost may be a deterrent for some potential bike commuters. “A large impediment for emerging populations in the US to adopt cycling is the perception that there’s a large investment that needs to be made in equipment,” she said. “Here in Des Moines, we have the Des Moines Bicycle Collective, which restores and repairs bicycles and sells them very economically, or trades volunteer work for bikes. Collectives like this need to be promoted to emerging populations, preferably in their language.”
But perhaps the most overwhelming barrier for bike commuters of color is a challenge that knows no culture. “Improved infrastructure is key to building a bicycle constituency,” said Tony Garcia, a Cuban-American urban planner in Miami, FL. “In the end, what we want is a complete bicycle network, with an emphasis on protected facilities and neighborhood routes, that touches all demographics and gets everyone on their bikes.”
After all, the benefits of biking are beginning to resonate even in communities that historically have been wary of active transportation. Eight years ago, local officials balked at the installation of bike lanes on Division Avenue, an iconic street for the Puerto Rican community in Chicago. “I remember the local alderman saying, ‘We don’t want this bike lane in our community,’” Hernandez said. “And, for him, it was a matter of protecting the integrity and culture of that community.” But, less than a decade later, that same street has new pedestrian crossings and bicycle facilities, connecting residents to local parks and area jobs. What made the difference? “We’ve been able to do organizing work and, in reaching out, instead of talking about bicycling, we’re talking about health,” Hernandez said. “We’re talking about access to green space and other city amenities, and bicycling is the vehicle to get us there.”
Local citizens are emerging as grassroots leaders too, creating social networks that are fostering a sense of solidarity and elevating the visibility of all cyclists. In Los Angeles, Yolanda Davis-Overstreet created Ride in Living Color, a film effort that’s gathered the diverse stories of more than 60 cyclists of color. Across the nation, social rides like the Black Kids on Bikes ride in East LA and the People of Kolor Everyday Riding (P.O.K.E.R). Bicycle Familia Ride in San Francisco are gaining momentum – and reclaiming the streets from long-held stereotypes.
“People think of San Francisco bicycling and they think about bike hipsters and skinny jeans,” Takayama said. But show up at the P.O.K.E.R. ride, she suggests, and you’ll see the real face of Bay Area bicyclists – African-American youth on tricked-out “scraper” bikes, a Latino couple carrying their new puppies in their front baskets, a fixed-gear-riding Filipino musician and his bicycling son. “We’re out there,” Takayama said. “There’s a lot of diversity in terms of who’s using a bicycle to get around.”
The way the movement is going, Hernandez, for one, thinks cyclists like Takayama and Taylor, Barry and Camargo, won’t be in the minority for long, especially in the major urban centers. “The idea that biking is a white thing or poor thing doesn’t exist as much in the youth who are growing up in diverse, multicultural cities,” Hernandez adds. That gives Taylor cause for optimism.
After all, he said, the bicycle movement is still in its infant stages. Even the most bicycle-friendly cities, such as Portland or San Francisco, have barely breached five percent mode share. “We have not had a movement yet,” Taylor said with a chuckle. “My new message in these communities of color is: ‘Guess what? You got here just in time.’ Rather than the sense that anyone has been left behind, it’s a much more positive, invigorating message. We have the potential for a great movement – it just hasn’t happened yet.”
Carolyn Szczepanski is the communications director for the League of American Bicyclists, which represents the interests of 25,000 individual cyclists and 700 affiliated organizations in the United States.