Biking Advocacy and Race: Where’s the Disconnect?

This article is part of a series on alternative transportation and culture.

Walking and biking advocates of late have been perplexed as to why their efforts do not attract people of color. If we get our house in order, I’m sure they will start coming, remark board members of one sustainable transportation non-profit. Effectively promoting bicycling and walking to people of color will continue to be a challenge unless advocates take the time to understand the issues of communities of color as it relates to mode choice. There can be a monolithic image of biking, which continues to be perpetuated by the marketing and programming of many biking advocacy groups. This, in turn, dictates the demographic biking advocacy engages. That’s not to say that active lifestyles and sustainability are not the culture of ethnic minorities. In fact, people of color and lower income people are probably a larger cohort of bike riders than many people might imagine, but their relative absence from the biking advocacy world render them invisible.

Transportation advocates should take a hard look at the gaps in their discourse and capacity to cross cultural boundaries to address the needs of various groups and advocate for effective transport systems. This includes women, children, the elderly, as well as people of color – who all exhibit various preferences in transportation. Recently, when a map of Capital Bike Share usage in the Washington, D.C. area was published, some readers responded to the low rates of bike share usage in the largely African-American community east of the Anacostia River by pushing for the removal of the bike share stations in that area. Veronica Davis, an African American transportation planner, received heavy criticism when she attempted to tease out factors that may be influencing the disproportionately low rates of bike share usage including marketing, start-up costs, seasonal usage, topography, and urban form. Despite sparking some uncomfortable conversations, the dialogue stemming from her article offered insight and, from there, an array of proposals to increase bike ridership including increasing the number of stations, communicating explicitly the financial benefits of biking, re-thinking the membership cost of the Bike Share program, the time of year that the stations are introduced, outreach, and the long-term partnerships of the District DOT in the area.

Biking and alternative transportation in general are of particular importance to lower income and communities of color. Transportation is the second largest expense for American households after housing. The cost savings of bicycling as a mode choice as compared to a personal automobile would be most beneficial to households with less wealth. Moreover, people of color exhibit the highest rates of many chronic diseases, largely due to lack of access to healthy foods and exercise as well as a disproportionate burden of environmental degradation. Biking provides the opportunity to combat these effects through physical activity as well as the power to reduce the same pollutants that exacerbate these illnesses. Communities of color, lower income people, and other vulnerable communities also live in areas susceptible to climate changes. Bicycle infrastructure is highly adaptable as compared to the potential damage that other modes may suffer in light of these changes, and therefore, will continue to be a good investment into the future.

As documented extensively in transportation research, transit systems and advocacy have tended to take transit dependent communities for granted, focusing initiatives on  seducing people who own cars to try other modes. As such, communities of color tend to have lower quality service than their corresponding level of ridership deserves. Biking offers a non-motorized mode with a critical level of mobility and access in communities with relatively low levels of car ownership and quality transit service. If for nothing else, bike ridership in communities of color is important to the general sustainability movement in raw numbers. While 7% of white households own no vehicles, 24% of Black households and 17% of Latino households own no vehicle. Given few other quality options, people of color and lower income people who do not own cars aspire to in order to increase mobility and access. Outreach to diverse communities, strengthening advocacy, and upgrading biking infrastructure is critical to carbon emissions reductions.

So, where’s the disconnect? If communities of color could arguably stand to benefit the most from biking as a commute choice, how aren’t recent biking advocacy initiatives effectively engaging these groups?

Perceptions.

With demographic changes taking place in the American urban core, biking has come to symbolize white re-population. In Portland, people of color called the bike lanes the “white stripes of gentrification.”

In reality, people of color do bike, but they may be a more silent, underground bike population. They made not ride on designated lanes, may not wear helmets, may not be tapped into the biking advocacy world, and may not be riding expensive bikes which, in total, could render them relatively invisible. Moreover, consider that should a Black man and a White man ride a bike down the street, they may elicit different assumptions from others. Among people of color, potential bike riders may also fear that they may be perceived to not have the financial means to afford other modes of transportation.

Safety.

Crime, violence, and/or gang activity — real or perceived — may deter people of color from riding bikes. The threat of one’s own bike getting stolen could also deter one from making the investment.

Discrimination.

Some people of color notice higher rates of charges for bike offenses than their white counterparts. Barbara Fair, a concerned community member in New Haven, Connecticut, took it upon herself to count bike riders on sidewalks and note who was being ticketed for what she calls “Biking While Black,” and she subsequently organized a protest to bring awareness to disproportionate bike enforcement. While police departments such as the one in New Haven keep the racial breakdowns of arrests, they do not keep track of bike tickets, which are infractions.

Police officers do admit to using bike enforcement to investigate other crimes, which may disproportionately affect bikers of color and particularly men.

A New Haven woman organized a "Biking While Black" protest to bring awareness to disproportionate bike enforcement.

Bike lane equity.

Given unbalanced advocacy efforts, unequitable access to designated bike lanes in various parts of town mean some groups are at a higher risk of being hit by a car and of being ticketed for riding on a sidewalk. In light of this, Barbara Fair, the New Haven activist, asked for a cessation of bike fines until there are is an equitable distribution throughout the town.

The geography of bike advocacy and programming.

Do bike advocacy and alternative transportation groups have lasting partnerships with institutions rooted in communities of color? What neighborhoods do the group rides often bike? What businesses does the group patronize during the bike ride? Where are the advocacy organizations offices and other bike shops and resources physically located? And, where are the bike lanes that these groups advocate for located? Do the imaging and style of programming reflect particular segments of the biking population?

Communication.

In focus groups in Portland, African-Americans consistently pointed to lack of familiarity of the rules for biking on the road and and bike routes. People in various cities have also expressed that they assume there is a high cost to bikes, high cost of membership for bike share programs, and that one should have a certain degree of knowledge about biking when in a bike shop. It is clear the some information about biking is not crossing cultural gaps. Part of that is language – getting information out in Spanish, Portuguese, and other languages is important to outreach.

Urban form.

Studies indicate that Black Americans have exhibited a trend reversal of migration from the south and, more and more, are moving to cities like Atlanta and Houston in search of jobs, lower rents, relatives, and culture. Many of these cities are less dense and offer fewer bike lanes as a percentage of the roadways in the city. White flight is also exhibiting a reversal, and, now for the first time, suburbs and suburban tract housing are more likely to be home to minorities than the urban core. The suburbs now have the largest poor population and are home to the vast majority of baby boomers aged 55-64. Bike-supportive urban form tends to be less prevalent in the suburban landscape, which is often shaped by highways and faster vehicular speeds on arterials. Additionally, communities of color that are in the urban core may tend to live in communities dotted by blight and vacant properties, as was pointed out by Davis in the issue of Bike Share in D.C.

Comfort.

For lower income people who may work in manual labor or in the service industry, the added comfort of driving in a personal automobile may be more important than one who may work a white collar job.

Given these disconnects, how might biking advocacy engage communities of color?


Allow for the incorporation of various styles in bike programming and celebrate style.

Expand the diversity of programming and stylization of bike programming to promote the evolution of bike culture. Check out this image of a drum circle at a group bike ride in Los Angeles.

A drum circle at a group bike ride in Los Angeles.

In Oakland, the culture of improvising on one’s own car has now been translated into the art of biking. The Scraper Bike movement is taking off and making explicit the benefits of biking for youth of color in an engaging way.

This bike ride coordinated by Red Bike and Green ended with a party called: “A Celebration of the Art and Style of the Bicycle”. 

Make explicit the link between the history of communities of color and biking.

Red Bike and Green makes explicit the link between Black history and biking with flyers such as this.

Red Bike and Green, a cyclists’ collective, has flyers such as the one to the left, explicitly making the link so that a person of color might see their history as it relates to biking. St. Paul, Minnesota now has a Black Bike Festival, commemorating Major Taylor, the first African American cycling champion in the 1800s. Black Kids on Bikes, a group in Los Angeles, coordinates group bikes rides that they call “Freedom Rides.” Coordinating bike rides in neighborhoods of historical significance is also important. One interesting recent development is the conversion of the Underground Railroad into a bicycle route, along which slaves once escaped the South.

Foster an intergenerational, community-building opportunity by reaching out to families and existing institutions rooted in communities of color.

Many people cite the need for inter-generational space in communities of color, and bike programming could offer a place of fellowship and community-building. Partnerships between biking initiatives and existing institutions such as faith-based organizations and benevolence groups can support these efforts. Patronizing and promoting businesses owned by community members through bike programming connects biking to the larger community.

A young boy enjoys the RBG group bike ride.

Images of intergenerational social fellowshipping as well as physical activity are positive reinforcements for the health of communities. One Black woman recently converted to biking notes of her first group riding experience:

…my heart was full. Here we were, a group of African Americans so large that we couldn’t be ignored – biking, exercising, building community, doing the things that we do regularly despite the stereotypes that suggest otherwise.

Communicate effectively.

Consider targeted outreach and the dissemination of information to demystify the rules of the road and the benefits of biking as it relates to communities of color.

Promote the sociality of biking.

Many see cars as the ultimate mode of social traveling, and see biking as a more solitary mode of travel. But, the social interactions allowed by biking are actually quite beautiful. And, the visibility of people of color riding bikes can inspire others to take it up, too.


Daps during a BKoB ride.