“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.