Why Do African Americans Tend to Bike Less?

Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks, right, in Copenhagen with Downtown Denver Partnership Director Tami Door.

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

It took a week in Copenhagen for Albus Brooks to start thinking seriously about bicycling.

The Denver City Council member, 35, had never owned a bike. By the time he headed home from a study tour in Denmark last month, he knew those days were over.

“We biked every day, so I found myself, on a personal point, increasingly happy,” Brooks said, laughing, in an interview last week. “I was a very happy person by the end of that trip.”

So Brooks came home and bought his first bicycle, a Danish-style city bike. When he rode it to a meeting of other African American community leaders, eager to spread his conclusion that bike transportation could be as important as mass transit to improving central Denver, he got a first-hand lesson in the size of the task he had decided to tackle.

“I came in in a suit and a bike helmet,” he recalled. “These were all middle-class African Americans that do not ride bikes. And they looked at me as if I was an alien.”

A mystery of American biking

Photo: Steve Eberhardt

Bicycles are and have been part of the African American experience for decades. In 2006-2010, Census figures show that 221,670 Americans of color, probably about a quarter of them black, got to work mostly by bicycle. Bike use by African Americans doubled from 2001 to 2009, five times faster than the growth of biking among white Americans.

Even so, African Americans bike less than any other cohort.

Black people are disproportionately likely to live in older cities with connected street grids; they are disproportionately likely to live in poverty; and 20 percent of African American heads of household live without a motor vehicle, making them twice as likely as other heads of household to be carless. All these factors tend to increase bike transportation. But among African Americans, the connection seems to be weaker.

In a provocative, persuasive CityLab article last week, two American University scholars shared another finding: Compared to people of other races in a local survey, African Americans were more likely to say they prefer getting around in a car.

Why?

Most of the reasons African Americans don’t bike much are the same as the reasons other Americans don’t bike much

The above data comes from the first year of the same American University survey of 260 commuters from Washington D.C.’s overwhelmingly African American wards 7 and 8. It was provided by study co-author Adam Jahav.

In many ways, it looks like the same list you might get from people of any background. Perceived danger, the number one reason not to bike? Sounds familiar. Distances too far? Even Dutch people drive for most trips of two miles or more. Cold and sweat? Every bicycle user in history can relate.

Many of the reasons so few African Americans bike for transportation are exactly the same as the reasons so few Americans do: uncomfortable streets, sprawling cities, scorching summers, a national culture that sees bike transportation as odd.

Different communities have different barriers

But other reasons, at least among low-income African Americans, are not the same.

In 2009, the Community Cycling Center, a nonprofit bike shop and advocacy group in Portland, conducted a somewhat similar survey of two low-income housing developments whose residents were overwhelmingly African, African American and Latino, and followed it up with five focus groups that included a total of 49 people. Here’s a selection of what they found:

Useful and troubling as these findings are, especially the last, take them with a grain of salt; as the charts suggest, the findings for African Americans here are based on exactly seven people. Still, the CCC study is a powerful reminder of how many different ways there are to be put off biking — and how many very different factors we’re collapsing into a single dimension when we say that bike transportation “isn’t desirable” to someone.

For Brooks, the Denver council member, there’s no question that many black people ride bicycles. But among his own middle-class peers, Brooks detects a sense that biking is something you do only if you must.

“These are people who don’t really see biking as an advantage for getting around downtown, or an economic advantage, or an advantage for health,” Brooks said.

The roots of stigma

In his 2014 book Dead End, a political history of the American suburb, Maryland transit advocate Ben Ross shares an intriguing theory of why the American “love affair with the automobile” began to fracture: Cars became common.

Only after it became “normal” to have a car, Ross argues — around 1960 in the United States — could it become thinkable to choose not to have one.

The automobile, once a luxury and now a necessity, suffered the same loss of status as the lawn. … In time, the altered values led to changes in behavior. The miles Americans drive, after rising steadily for a half-century with only brief interruptions for recessions and gasoline price spikes, leveled off. … For a sizable minority of young adults in the new millennium, living without an automobile ceased to carry shame.

But for many African American communities, the story of the last 50 years has been different. When one in five black heads of household doesn’t own a car, it’s easy to see how carlessness can be a badge of poverty and shame.

We want your help

Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland

Is there a way out?

Can cities fighting to become less car-dependent chip away at the problems that keep so many African Americans off bicycles? Can Brooks and the many other African American politicians trying to boost biking — straight up to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx — sell the idea to skeptics?

Through it all, will the number of African Americans who are riding bikes keep growing fast?

Here at Green Lane Project HQ, we’re kicking off a project that we hope can be part of the solution.

For the next three months, we’ll be building on the inspiring work of our friends at the League of American Bicyclists to create a report that looks squarely at the wedges between marginalized Americans, the African American community included, and the protected bicycle infrastructure we support. We’ll show how grasstops leaders are building coalitions for better biking and grassroots activists are winning arguments for safer streets in long-neglected neighborhoods. We’ll share the most up-to-date research that leads us to believe modern, protected bike infrastructure can be good for everyone. And we’ll also identify some of the ways the interests of people with more privileges are different from people with less.

This is the first post of a series in which we’ll be sharing different aspects of this project as we go along. Do you have a perspective that should inform our report? Can you share a story that helps our country understand the complicated connections between class, race, income and transportation?

We want to hear them. I’m michael@peopleforbikes.org. Let’s talk.

You can follow The Green Lane Project on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for its weekly news digest about protected bike lanes.

  • thielges

    Wow, the disparity of that last Safety question is astonishing. If African Americans are receiving a disproportionate amount of hostility then that is a very serious problem. (Not that anyone on a bike should be the target for abuse though). Maybe the veil of anonymity that motorists have when hassling cyclists allows them to vent their racism from a safe distance.

    More research with a larger sample set is needed here. No-one should be afraid of hostility and if African Americans are receiving excessive abuse then that should be addressed.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    I wonder if these under-bicycling race groups also get proportionately fewer or worse bicycle facilities in their neighborhoods. If bike lanes and other bike infrastructure are built preferentially in areas with high existing bike traffic, then it will be a rich-get-richer type scenario.

    In the Bay Area there are examples either way. In San Francisco, they have negligible bike facilities in the Bayview. But in the East Bay they have lots of bike lanes in West Oakland, West Berkeley, and Richmond.

  • Chewbacca

    Because we’re always in jail.

  • richardlayman

    your piece has better graphics, but my piece on this subject was better…

    http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2014/07/urg-bad-studies-dont-push-discourse-or.html

  • Yes, good post! The line of thinking about “innovation diffusion” is particularly useful, I’d say. I do think there are cultural and wealth barriers at work here as well as income ones, but it’s hard to tease out the numbers reliably.

  • No kidding. Yesterday a reader sent a link to this group in DC, Collective Action for Safe Spaces, that offers street harassment trainings, including for bikers:

    http://www.collectiveactiondc.org/

    I’d love to learn more about their work as it relates to being on a bicycle.

  • richardlayman

    innovation diffusion matters because you’re dealing with social change, behavior change. So social marketing and creating a complete “product service system” to inculcate change becomes paramount. That’s more important than getting hung up on “spurious” stuff like trying to identify culturally specific factors that aren’t really any different from other democgraphics (e.g., see the work by Roger Geller).

    See point #5 in this post:

    http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2014/03/what-should-us-national-bike-strategy.html

  • SteveG

    Ben Ross’s perspective is really insightful, IMO.

    I grew up in Lake Oswego, a pretty swank suburb of Portland, and my not having a car was widely considered “lame” by many of my peers, probably because people knew that I (and the other kids who didn’t drive) couldn’t afford a car.

    After college I moved to Portland, got a good job, and made an affirmative decision to continue living car-free. Suddenly my car-free status suddenly became a source of pride and differentiation. I had a great job, plenty of income and I could obviously own a car if I chose to, but now it was noteworthy, “sort of cool,” and (at least in my circles) even laudable to live car-free. Rather than marking me as someone with less money, it marked me as a bit of an iconoclast.

    I suspect that my experience in Lake Oswego is similar to what many people the African American community feel. If you ride a bike and are black, many of your friends probably assume that you either can’t afford a car, or worse, lost your license. Rather than giving you a sort of elevated status, as it does for many young white hipsters, riding a bike reduces your social standing by marking you as poor.

  • Jame

    Did you see the study about how cars are less likely to stop for black people in the crosswalk? This would easily translate to cars giving you less space on your bike.

    I would like to see a more precise study about this phenom tool.

  • Jame

    Not that I bike around SF, but bike riding in Oakland is pretty diverse. I’d say pretty close to the overall population ratios. I see plenty of black people on their bikes (depending on neighborhood of course).

  • Jame

    I sat on the fence about riding a bike in the city (again) for at least 10 years. I rode my bike growing up, like most kids. I lived in suburbia. And to visit my neighborhood friends, or our community pool, the bike was the way to go. and like everyone else, I dropped my bike when I learned to drive. But driving was the only way at that age, the distances were too great, and we didn’t have bike lanes or sidewalks in most places.

    By college I pondered getting a bike to get around campus, but it was too hilly so I didn’t. And into adulthood? I acquired a bike from a former coworker for cheap. And on the first day I rode to work, I had a minor accident. A car wasn’t looking out for people in the bike lane as he exited the driveway from the parking lot. I ended up with minor scrapes and grease stains on my clothing. To be honest, the scrapes didn’t bother me. The grease stains did. And I retired my bike.

    The universe intervened with my desire to ride a bike on many levels. I started to hear about Dutch bike culture. See people riding their bikes in normal clothing. And finally winning a dutch styled bike in a raffle.

    From my own perspective, there are a few cultural and educational barriers to deal with. Like everyone else, there are plenty of appearance related items on the list. Getting sweaty, appearing proper at work and so on. But for black women, particularly ones like me with relaxed hair, there are extra logistics to deal with when you “get sweaty.” For your average white cyclist, your hair will return to the state it was when you left your home after a few minutes, with minimal fuss. Not so for me, so I want to avoid sweating like the plague. For ladies with natural hair, or even a fro, finding a helmet to fit is downright impossible if you have big hair. How do you address that?

    But let’s go a little deeper on this appearance thing. Growing up, I always had white peers who were dressed sloppily. You know the person I am talking about: they don’t comb their hair or iron their clothing. In most cases, this has no impact on how they are treated day in and day out. Black people here in the US do not have this luxury at all. We all know how young black males are perceived when they wear hoodies. I don’t have the luxury of going to work in yoga pants, without people making certain assumptions about me. I notice a difference in how I am treated when I am out and about when I am wearing a preppy outfit of jeans and a t-shirt. Being black in america means you have to be a lot more cognizant about how you will appear in public.

    A male friend of mine who occasionally wears an afro mentioned how he dresses extra polished on afro day (no hoodies!) because he doesn’t want to be perceived as a “thug.” I know another (black) guy who was biking at night, and didn’t have lights, biking in the suburbs, who was stopped by the cops because “he looked like a drug dealer, since dealers ride bikes.” Being on a bike, particularly as a black male, puts you in more risk for being stereotyped than a white hipster faces.

    And lastly, let’s talk about the stigma of being perceived as being poor. Or the whitewashing of the environmental movement. These two things go hand in hand. Black families (particularly in the south) have been gardening organically for decades. And growing their own healthy produce all the time. We don’t call this being green and helping the planet. We call this being poor and not having options. Growing up my parents (and grandparents) recycled all of the plastic containers and jars we used to reuse them for other food stuff: pickling, canning, or food storage. Now we call this “reducing your footprint.” But when black people do it, we don’t perceive this as being environmentally friendly.

    There is a social stigma to being poor in the is country, and being perceived as such. The last thing anyone wants to be is broke. And when the ongoing stereotypes about black people revolve around being poor, not having opportunity, and generational poverty, when you have an opportunity to show you have “arrived” (like having your own wheels) you’ll keep that appearance up. We have made it cool and environmentally friendly for white people riding bikes, but the so-called invisible cyclists, like the latino restaurant workers or whoever else, only bike because they are poor. Not because they care about the planet.

    We have lots of structural things to deal with to get more types of people cycling. Some have to do with mass media representation. Others have to do with societal stereotyping and stigmas. Some are related to infrastructure and access. And some of it is as simple is choosing our language and imagery wisely when we talk about biking.

  • Lots of great stuff here, Jame. Thanks.

  • Social_werkk

    You definitely hit the nail on the head when it came to poverty, shame, and cars as a status symbol.
    I used to live in Arkansas and it doesn’t matter where you are in Arkansas, the mass transit sucks, if there even is any. It makes sense-it’s not a very dense state. In Arkansas you pretty much need a car or a driver to live a reasonably good life-unless of course you can afford to live in donwtown Little Rock and shop at the really expensive corner stores for groceries and such, buy your clothes online, and live really close to your job in downtown Little Rock.

    Even in Chicago, a city with decent transit choices, the best transit choices, the safer bike lanes, etc. are in the parts of town with the most White people. Being around White people is diserable…for White people and since White people have more wealth, net worth, etc…..well, it makes sense for them to typically have the CHOICE to decide whether or not they want to own a car to get around.

    I’ve had to make strategic choices about my money, my job/career, etc. to be able to live car-free in Chicago. I currently live in an area where there definitely more Whites than Blacks, more police officers trolling Black and other visible minorities rather than the White residents….but I’m honestly much happier and less stressed now that I don’t have to own a car. It is freeing. I wish more of my peers of color had that option.

  • Social_werkk

    Indeed.
    I even sometimes feel this way when I’m waiting for a train or bus. It’s like, “Oh, by the way folks in cars-I CHOSE to not have a car even though I can afford one.” There is still stigma about taking public transportation, even in cities where it just doesn’t make sense to own a car if you don’t HAVE to.
    There is that stigma because apparently ONLY poor people (see, Blacks and “White” trash [because apparently everyone else is trash by default….]. Look at the battle in Ohio over the street car or MARTA in Atlanta-White folks don’t want minorities having easier ways of getting around the city because apparently all they do is create crime and steal. Segregate them and let them fend for themselves.

    Perhaps I’ve set off too many truth bombs in one post.

  • Oakland is home to Red, Bike and Green, check them out. Also, Baybe Champ has turned scraper bikes into a flourishing crew.

  • neroden

    This doesn’t even surprise me, unfortunately. We know about harassment *by police* for “driving while black” and “walking while black” — why would we be surprised to see harassment for “biking while black”? 🙁 There has to be some way to make it stop, though.

  • ajp

    Black people get SHOT AT by racist hillbillies EVERYWHERE. It is dangerous for blacks to be riding bikes. There are hard core racists out there that want to KILL black people. HELLOOO It happens every day. If some redneck (and that redneck could be wearing an Armani suit in Manhattan) sees a shot he could take, he takes it. It is too dangerous, blacks are moving targets for racists. Personally disgusting and abhorrent, but its true.

  • Erica_JS

    One thing that is notable about that Community Cycling Center survey is that the African respondents were all immigrants, and the Hispanic respondents were primarily immigrants. Many people in both groups would have grown up in countries where adults cycling for transportation is common, whereas the African American respondents grew up in the US.

  • andrelot

    I don’t think much of what you pointed has anything to do with race (other than the face certain minorities – but not all – are on average poorer than the white-majority), but with income levels and social class.

    People riding bicycles out of choice, not out of lack of money to buy a car, gives them empowerment over their own mobility choice. Same thing with middle-class people who plant some tomatoes in the garden, not because they are very poor and need to eat, but because they prefer to devote some time to it as a hobby. We could extend the reasoning for things like camping as part of a holiday trip, or living in a tent because you are otherwise homeless.

    As for the issues related to hairstyle, any hair other than short ones will suffer over time if sweat is left there for long periods. Cycling is not proper if you have an office job without shower and dressing facilities at workplace. It is more of an issue for women, who often need more time and apparatus to take care of their hair and makeup. I think it is quite oblivious to dismiss the need for these facilities when one only considers the perspective of a young male with short hair and easy-to-fit clothes that can come in a backpack.

  • Jame

    That’s a good point, although it doesn’t seem like biking is super popular in Africa (not much infrastructure, particularly in the urban areas). It is probably something a little different related to perhaps being immigrants.

  • aslevin

    Based on stories from friends and friends-of-friends, BWB is definitely a thing. I suspect it’s an extra-problem for younger AA and Latino men who get stopped for trivia because cops want to stop young men of color.

  • Spokes National

    I came across this passage in Bruce D. Epperson’s book Peddling Bicycles to America, which is a history of the early bike retail industry:

    “After the dramatic fall in bicycle prices in 1897, one large Chicago manufacturer (probably the Western Wheel works, known for their good, inexpensive, no-frills bicycles) noticed a huge fall in sales in the Deep South and sent one of their department managers to New Orleans to investigate conditions. ‘It sounds odd to say it,’ reported the man upon his return, ‘[but] the Negro has killed the bicycle business in the south.’ With the easy availability of bicycles, corner groceries and hardware stores began carrying them. Banned from bicycle and sporting goods stores, blacks could now buy them from a familiar retailer within their own neighborhoods on a cash-and-carry basis (and for a fortunate few, even on time payments). Previously their only option had been to put themselves at the mercy of a traveling drummer who took their orders, then might or might not deliver. But, discovered the Chicago man, ‘as soon as the Negro took to sporting a wheel, just that soon did the fad cease among the southern whites…In New Orleans, in Birmingham and Nashville the business began to drop off perceptively.’ Working-class white Southerners were so bigoted that they wouldn’t even ride in the same roadways as their black counterparts” (p. 96-97)

    I think it’s important to keep this documented history of racism in mind as we have this conversation.

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