How to Diversify Bicycle Culture in Three Easy Steps

Everything you think you know about bicycling is wrong. At the National Women’s Bicycling Forum this morning, one message came through: the underrepresentation of women and people of color in cycling isn’t simply due to safety concerns and lack of protected infrastructure, as is often surmised. It’s more complicated than that.

Megan Odett of Kidical Mass DC is not your typical MAMIL (Middle-Aged Man In Lycra). Photo: Tanya Snyder

Megan Odett, who founded Kidical Mass DC in April 2011 to encourage family cycling, conducted a survey [PDF] of attitudes about biking with kids. She said she found men worry more about safety than women. In her survey, women ranked distance – and their own physical limitations — as a bigger barrier.

And an audience member who had worked in New York’s Chinatown found that a lack of bike lanes wasn’t what was keeping people from riding. It was the high cost of buying a bike, and the problem of where to park it.

Women represent only one out of four cyclists on the road. If you ask Odett why that might be — or why moms aren’t showing up in huge numbers to bike advocacy meetings — she’ll tell you it’s “because we’re at PTA meetings, or we’re cleaning up after supper.”

So how do you get more moms biking?

  1. Identify the most likely prospects. The “low-hanging fruit” for family cycling are people who rode before they have kids, who live in a dense area, and who have moderate or high incomes (because there can be expensive equipment involved), said Odett. People with somewhat flexible schedules or work from home are also likely candidates for cycling. “I think that the core audience for family cycling and ‘mama-biking’ hasn’t really been saturated yet,” Odett said.
  2. Saturate the core audience. “You want to looking at saturating this core audience first, and then letting this movement expand out to some of the higher hanging fruit,” Odett said. “That’s going to make it much more ‘normal’ to bike with kids. It’s also going to create a used equipment market, which will help lower the barrier to entry to cycling with children.” And that will expand the demographic base outward from that initial high-income set.
  3. Model the benefits. Odett says women are barraged with advertising messages, as are parents – so moms learn to just tune it out. An organized PR campaign aimed at getting moms to bike might not work – but they’ll notice when their friend rides right up to the school’s front doors with a happy, smiling child on the back and everybody else has been stuck in traffic. “When I ride, I think of myself as PR for bicycling,” Odett said. “I’m on this bike because it’s an amazingly fun thing to do with my son.”

These three steps can be a good game plan to expand cycling in any demographic — not just moms.

You won’t get everyone. Biking with kids is significantly harder and more complicated than biking alone, and Odett implored advocates to respect people’s limitations. “You can’t be that person in the biking forum who, when someone says, ‘Well, I can’t bike because this,’ and they say, ‘Well, you get up two hours earlier and you don’t really need to shower! Then you can bike to work,’” she said.

Odett, sporting a pregnant tummy, also exhorted the cyclists in the audience to drop the judgment. She’s thinking of getting an electric assist for her bike so she can go longer distances with, now, two passengers. “I don’t think e-assist is cheating,” she said. “Don’t talk about it like it’s cheating.” It’s easy to be a bicycling purist when you have no burdens.

And it’s not just about moms. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs in combat and is now a committed cyclist, asked advocates to “think of the disabled.”

“There’s all sorts of permutations, and that’s the great thing about bikes – you just add on a few more parts and you just Rube-Goldberg the darned thing until it works for you,” Duckworth said. “I see kids with cerebral palsy who can only move part of one arm, I see kids who are blind riding on a two-seater with their parents. I see folks like myself who don’t have legs who use their arms.”

But sometimes broadening the bicycle movement isn’t about getting more people on bikes – it’s about including people who are already riding but aren’t connected to any cycling networks.

Lugo’s group, Ciudad de Luces (City of Lights), worked to improve safety for these transportation cyclists by handing out bike lights – first at transit stations, then at day laborer centers, and next she wants to engage with churches. The people she meets at those places may already be riding their bikes every day for transportation, but they may not be paying dues to the League or participating in bike advocacy meetings. We might not even think to count them among the key constituency for bicycle improvements, but they are.

“We talk about millennials, and ‘the millennials are moving to DC’ and ‘the millennials want to bike’ and ‘the millennials want to use public transportation,’” said Veronica Davis of Black Women Bike DC. “But the reality is, we’re talking about the white demographic. Because we have a black population and a Latino population here, and they’ve been using the bus, they’ve been on a bike, and it’s nothing new to them.”

Moreover, she said, they might not even show up in the data as bike commuters. “When is that data collected?” Davis said. “During peak rush hour on a weekday. But if you go to any of these restaurants around here at 10:00, 11:00 at night, who’s leaving? A lot of service workers that are on bikes and they tend to be minorities.”