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.”