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.