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.