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.”