Cyclists of Color: Invisible No More

Let’s get one thing clear: People of color ride bikes. They commute to work on bikes. They ride for pleasure. It saves them money and time, and it keeps them healthy.

People of color say they would have a better view of cycling if more cyclists looked like them. Luckily, more and more of them do. Photo: ##, Bike and Green - Atlanta via LAB/Sierra Club##

But they may not show up at the Tweed Ride or the city council hearing on bicycle infrastructure. And cycling is still a divisive issue in many cities, with some high-profile instances of community leaders charging that bike lanes are for white people, at the expense of everyone else.

Why the disconnect?

“Nobody is against safer streets in their neighborhood,” said Hamzat Sani, equity and outreach fellow at the League of American Bicyclists. Cycling organizations just haven’t done a good job communicating the message that streets that are safer for cyclists are safer for everyone.

“There’s not an explicit hate for biking among communities of color,” Sani said. “Give any kid a bike and they’re going to enjoy it. What’s a problem is when there’s a lack of engagement in the beginning of a process for putting in a bike lane, and then afterwards, a too-late outreach effort is made to smooth over the conflict that has arisen.”

About a year ago, Sani was living in Atlanta and working with the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition. “There weren’t a lot of cyclists of color in the Atlanta area,” he said, “or at least there weren’t a lot of visible cyclists of color out there.”

He co-founded an Atlanta chapter of Red, Bike and Green, an Oakland-based organization that builds community among people of color around bicycling. “So we launched the chapter of Red, Bike and Green as an opportunity to encourage more people of color to cycle,” Sani said, “with the idea being that if they see a group of cyclists doing it, they’d be interested in hopping on board.”

Indeed, 38 percent of African-Americans say their perception of bicyclists would improve if people on bikes represented a “broader cross section of Americans, such as women, youth and people of color” in their community.

According to a new report by the League of American Bicyclists and the Sierra Club called “The New Majority: Pedaling Towards Equity,” Red, Bike and Green isn’t the only grassroots group making that connection.

Bicycle delivery people are among the most "invisible" members of the cycling community. Photo: ## I Invisible?/Bicycle Utopia##

In Los Angeles, Multicultural Communities for Mobility (formerly Ciudad de Luces) works to provide safe bicycling tools to immigrant workers. DC’s Black Women Bike creates community around group rides, trying to show young black girls that people who look like them ride bikes, and they can too. New York City’s Biking Public Project shines a light on the needs of delivery bicyclists, who ride the city’s streets all day and night but are “invisible” in cycling communities – and, often, on the streets, lacking lights and protective gear.

People of color have, in fact, taken up cycling at a fast clip, according to numbers from the FHWA’s National Household Travel Survey. Bike mode share doubled among African-Americans between 2001 and 2009, compared to 22 percent growth among whites. By 2009, nearly a quarter of all bike trips in the U.S. were made by people of color. But the surge of safe biking infrastructure in many cities hasn’t kept up in neighborhoods populated by minorities and low-income people.

It’s not that they don’t want it. In 2011, a Centers for Disease Control survey found that 50.5 percent of black respondents and 40.6 percent of Hispanic respondents said neighborhood features like sidewalks and pedestrian-scale lighting were “very important” in determining their level of physical activity, while just 26.9 percent of the white people surveyed gave that answer. People of color disproportionately supported federal funding for these transportation priorities and were far more likely than whites to express willingness to take action on these issues – by writing a letter or even running for elected office.

While safe, dedicated infrastructure for bicyclists is a significant source of encouragement for all riders, it appears to be especially key in communities of color. According to “The New Majority,” 26 percent of people of color said they’d like to ride more but worry about safety in traffic, compared to 19 percent of whites.

Putting bike infrastructure in communities of color signals a recognition of the fact that bicycling is good for their communities, their health, and their household budgets, and that local governments want to prioritize making it safer, easier, and more enjoyable for people to do it.

People of color are more likely than whites to believe in federal funding for bike/ped infrastructure and express willingness to take action for it. Photo: ## I Invisible?/Bicycle Utopia##

Unfortunately, communities of color often lack for safe infrastructure. “Data gathered by the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition revealed that neighborhoods with the highest percentage of people of color had a lower distribution of bicycling facilities,” the report says, “and areas with the lowest median household income ($22,656 annually) were also the areas with the highest number of bicycle and pedestrian crashes.”

If you build safe infrastructure, they will ride. Sixty percent of people of color and those earning less than $30,000 per year said more bike trails and lanes would encourage them to ride more. Education about safe riding skills, secure bike parking, and riding clubs are all part of the mix that stimulates greater ridership.

Communities of color may have the most to gain from safe cycling. The obesity epidemic has hit their communities hard: Close to 40 percent of Latino and African American children ages 2 to 19 are overweight or obese, compared to 28 percent of white children, according to the report.

And with bicycling, low-income people can avoid spending more than 40 percent of their take-home pay on their commute to and from work, as the nation’s poorest families do today. As the report points out, “The annual cost of owning and operating a bicycle is $308 compared to $8,220 for the average car.” Blacks and Latinos also often work off-peak hours in the service industry, during hours when transit service is infrequent or nonexistent.

If one major deterrent to riding is that people don’t see anyone else riding who looks like them, that could all be changing now, as bicycling rates soar among people of color.

Some day, there will be a tipping point. Maybe that day is already here.

38 thoughts on Cyclists of Color: Invisible No More

  1. I think it would really help if there was more cross pollination between movements. Two HUGE issues here in the Bronx have related to loss of park land and a potential increase in truck traffic from fresh direct moving in to the point.

    Many of the activists are focused on issues about ***acces to food*** and a ***safe healthy environment*** — this is a “livable streets” stuff! but not all of the same concepts are in place that you’d find around here.

    and some issues loom large in communities of color that don’t get talked about on streetsblog enough.

    But the bottom line: it’s the same cause– so collaboration is key.

    What about a joint event with these people:

    I’ll bring cookies! (local and vegan of course 😉 )

    Seriously, though. I want to see more urban planning ideas in the world of these urban farmers and social justice fighters and more social justice concepts in the world of places like streetsblog.

    No, it won’t be perfect agreement on everything– but the overlap is just so big.

    -And this is the real way to kill this myth that bikes are just an evil tool of gentrification white hipster-yuppies use to oppress people and run over grandmas.

    -Or the myth that livable streets will lose all of it’s corporate sponsorship and political support and strength if it talks about something like urban farming. (It IS on topic sick of hearing it isn’t– and part of the reasons the dems bash bike lanes and such is because it’s the “working class hero” thing to do. That can be short circuited. )

    Really glad to see this post!

  2. Yeah I got here from sf.streestblog, so you’re in good (or at least mixed) company.

  3. This is great. I keep seeing complaints that bicycle infrastructure is just for the gentrifying white hipsters. While it’s true that fixie riding beardos are e’rywhar, I think people don’t realize that bicycling is the most time-efficient way to run errands in an urban area, and more cost-efficient than a car anywhere.

    You can pick up a decent bike on craigslist for less than $400 (sometimes much less), and it can be a lifesaver.

    What I’d be worried about (and this is as a white person that doesn’t have personal experience) is the compounding effect of law enforcement not protecting cyclists with law enforcement not protecting people of color. That might be why there’s a greater concern about safety in the non-white communities.

  4. I’m on the same page here with urban farming. We can grow lots of food on rooftops and other spaces. And long term we should seriously be looking into vertical farming. Imagine growing most food locally, as in within 10 or 20 blocks of where it’ll be bought. You could have cargo bikes making most of the deliveries. And of course a rooftop garden can supply a good portion of the food for the residents in a building. Add a greenhouse on the roof, and now you’re growing food year round. And that reminds me I need to plant the vegetables in the yard soon!

  5. Hmm…colored cyclists. Hehehe… The last time I checked, cyclists are second class citizen regardless if you are white or color, or is white a color? Just because you are white and a hipster riding a fix, you don’t have any privileges as soon as you are on the road with other cars and motorists.

  6. I used to live in Harlem, and now I’m in Bed-Stuy. Two great communities, historically African-American majority, and both with sub-par bike infrastructure. Most of the folks on bikes are African-American, because that is the majority of residents around here. The fact that some white folks are moving into these neighborhoods doesn’t mean that biking is a “white” issue. As the article points out correctly, the big bike advocacy groups are predominantly white, and that’s an obstacle for organizing. That said, concerns about obesity and other public health issues in the African-American and Latino communities make folks ready to take a new look at active transportation – walking and biking – as an alternative to transit or cars.

  7. I do wonder about the increased labor cost in collecting the produce. You can pay farm workers much less in a rural area than in an urban one.

  8. The problem is that RCB’s dont represent the interest of POC’s. That is why you have a disconnect. The fact is the conflict arises between cyclists who use their bikes for transportation (mostly working class) and Advocacy organizations who serve the narrow interests of their members (mostly upper class) Recreational Competitive Bicyclists. Until the members of the League acknowledge this fact community groups will continue to oppose programs that dont really serve their interests.

  9. That’s true but you save a ton of money by not needing to transport the produce by truck long distances. It probably balances out in the end. If people in a building grow their own produce for their consumption, then the labor is “free”.

  10. The “labor” is very therapeutic. People pay to joining gardening clubes in NYC. Digging in dirt is very soothing when it’s for yourself and your family and not a job.

  11. There are MAJOR problems with the report and the way in which data is highlighted. A coalition of feminist transportation planners is putting together a formal response.

  12. Do people bring their kids with them on all errands?

    Let’s say they do. Even a five year old can ride 5 miles on a bike (I was doing 18 mi round trips when I was 6)

    Younger kids? Get a bike trailer (also good for groceries) or a bike seat.

  13. Ryan, I think you might live in a world in which low income families are rich. $400? The average monthly TANF payment is $269 in the United States. For single parent families, yes, kids get dragged on nearly all errands. I too, cycled a lot as a child. But when you were a child, did your *parents* bike to errands?

  14. I said less than, sometimes much less. Look on Craigslist. You can find serviceable bikes for $50. I just said $400 because I bought my last one for $320. It’s a road bike in a difficult to find size.

    I grew up in a rural area, so groceries were ~ 5 miles away. That said, if I were to raise kids in such an area, I *would* bike that far for errands.

    Let’s take all this into perspective though. Cycling is somewhat difficult, and buying a bike carries a cost. What about driving?

    How cheap can you find a working car for? Lower than $400? How much does parking cost with a car vs. bike? How long much longer does it take to find parking with a car vs. a bike? (Time is even MORE important to people working multiple low paying jobs).

    I live in a world where I try to minimize my own unnecessary expenditures. For me that means using public transit and bicycling for all commuting and errands. I can’t imagine how it would be much different for low income families.

  15. I hear you on trying to reduce unnecessary expenditures. Also, you will appreciate this: a good friend recently went on a little bike with her kids, in rural PA. 14 miles. One of her girls is 4! Isn’t that amazing?! No training wheels either. She had just learned to ride the week before. The health benefits of such behavior is outstanding.

    In low income urban communities, public buses tend to be the best option (for women), in terms of cost and safety. In Portland, for example, after dark, bus riders can request that the bus stop anywhere on the route, closer to their destination. Bus is cheaper than both metro and cars. In rural communities especially, the lack of bus transportation and the reliance on cars is a serious equity problem. But I need to harp on the gender issue again. Women, more than men, tend to trip chain… so they may leave work, pick up kids from child care, get groceries, etc. This is all very difficult by bike, as child care and schools and housing and jobs are rarely closely connected.

    And back to the report and its bad reporting…in addition to failing to separate out women (who use bikes in far, far less numbers) in terms of the increase
    of people of color…the data is likely picking up mobility patterns of those living in areas with NO public transportation. Therefore, in my opinion, the liberal/progressive/equity conclusion should be to expand public transit, NOT to celebrate that people often bike very long distances before and after doing hard manual labor. Even in DC if they were to ask, for example, Latino restaurant workers why they bike it is because the metro is expensive, closes at midnight, and buses are unreliable or take longer. The data is not capturing people of color all working at desks at google!

  16. ” I can’t imagine how it would be much different for low income families”

    Every try to bring home groceries to feed a family of 4 riding your bike?

  17. My mom did. I rode on the back not in a child seat and with no helmet. SUCH good memories.

    We were more middle class than poor, though. But we lived in an areas with safe places to bike and the grocery store was only 1 a mile away. No hills.

    Mostly we walked.

    My mom’s bike was rusted and old bought for $15 at a yard sale.

    It’s possible to get bikes in NYC for $100-$200 but people will yell at you if you don’t put a helmet on the kid …

  18. If you need a cheap bike talk to the bike doctor in Harlem he’s at the north side of mt. morris park. Let him know what you have $80, $100, $300 he’ll make you a bike out of old parts. He’s awesome!

  19. It’s not a matter of TRANSIT or BIKE LANES

    we can and should have both.

    the thing that annoys me is “low income” communities don’t get the bike amenities as often.

    Like they didn’t bother to expand CitiBike to the Bronx!
    We don’t have the protected bike lanes they have in Chelsea!

    It’s not fair!

  20. “As the article points out correctly, the big bike advocacy groups are predominantly white, and that’s an obstacle for organizing”

    The real obstacle is lack of communication and mutual support.

    There is a heck of a lot more to “livable streets” than bike lanes. Safety is one issue (good urban design can make streets safer in several ways)

    But there are also issues like access to food and services that ought to be a part f the conversation (They are planning issues!) but never seem to come up.

  21. Sure, the report cited is far from perfect, but this non sequitur of a comment frankly puzzles me.

    Bicycling takes a minuscule share of transportation funding, even compared to transit, and I’ve yet to meet a single serious bike advocate who argued *against* transit or against walkable, mixed-use, mixed-income communities.

    Yes, it’s more difficult to trip-chain by bike. Yet women are more common among Capital Bikeshare riders than area bicyclists at large, perhaps because CaBi trips are easily chained. A singular focus on children ignores the fact that 4/5 of D.C. households do not have *any* children at home, and even fewer have small children — AND ignores that a principal focus of bicycle facility planning presently is to create “8-80” facilities that are comfortable for children to use alone. (See this blog’s May 31 post on “Cycling Kids.”)

    Yes, TANF pays pitiful sums — yet $3228 is nowhere near a typical income in the USA. Even in 20032, D.C.’s poorest ZIP code, 83% of families have incomes above $10K. A single $3.20 Metrobus round-trip every day can almost pay the annual cost of owning & operating FOUR bicycles.

  22. Hello Payton,
    Women are more common among CaBi users than with cyclists US-wide, but the devil is in the details. In terms of CaBi, of yearly CaBi memberships, 2/3 are males. Casual CaBi use is about even between males and females. Admittedly, the sample size for casual users is small (CaBi collects data on memberships but only through surveys on casual users). US-wide cycling stats show a 4:1 differential between males and females. Of casual CaBi users, half indicated they were tourists; about half indicated the reason for use was tourism/sight seeing with another 7% for transportation and 2% for work/meetings. Most striking (to me) is that only 1% of casual users indicated that the Cabi trip replaced personal car use and 2% reported it replaced a taxi. (So much for anti auto-congestion theories with casual users!) DC CaBi reports 18,000 yearly memberships, but I could not locate how many total casual users they have.
    Check the report yourself:
    As for trip chaining, with the hourly CaBi rates I am not sure it makes sense for anyone to trip chain via CaBi, unless it is less than 30 minutes and free from fee in addition to the membership. The bus, as long as it is not an express, would be the same and cheaper, especially for students, seniors, and disabled who have reduced rates.
    In DC, about 20 percent of households are below the federal poverty level. In lean times, I think mass transit serves all in more ways and better.
    As for the children issue, with respect to stats…true enough, but are you kidding me?! Who are you planning for? You are not even trying to dispel concerns that CNU-ists are elitist. Yuck.
    I will address the report in more detail on my blog. In the meantime I will tell the landscaper outside that after 10 hours of manual labor it would really be best for him to bike back to Riverdale.

  23. You’re being unnecessarily divisive. Like I said, “The report doesn’t intend to say that bicycling will be for 100% of Americans, but it can be a choice for millions more Americans, particularly in large and diverse cities.” I began my career, and Sierra Club membership, arguing for more transit funding, and I still do today.

    That said, bicycling can play a role in helping people access opportunities, and particularly in the last mile to transit — like the 1-1.5 mile distance between Riverdale and the high-frequency transit services (Green Line, 80s buses) to the west. Most transit agencies, and most transit advocates I’ve met, understand and embrace this fact; e.g., WMATA is undertaking an analysis of bicycle access to its facilities.

    You’re the one calling out insults like “elitist,” while saying that planning needs to focus on the needs of 20% vs. 80%. That sounds pretty “yuck” to me.

    I’m glad that you got to find out more about me, but one thing you might not have noticed is that I *coauthored* that CaBi report. That’s why I pointed out that recent innovations in bicycle policy — like bikeshare, targeted education, and a shift towards more inclusive facilities like protected lanes and bike boulevards or neighborhood greenways — have indeed made progress in healing cycling’s gender (and class!) divide. Thus, advocating bicycling is not inherently sexist.

    CaBi’s 30-minutes-free policy naturally results in trip chaining: A to B, dock bike, do your thing, return, B to C, dock bike, repeat.

    Again, I look forward to reading a formal response and learning more about your coalition of feminist transportation planners, but please do not set up a false and imaginary dichotomy between transit and bicycling.

  24. Peyton, Bravo–that CaBi report is very well done, though we have a very different way if interpreting the findings. My elitist comment came only after you indicated that cycling was a good choice for families living in poverty. Would it be too much to ask for transit leaders to speak to persons in these communities and ask what they need rather than assuming? A $7 daily membership is not cheap, many low income families are unbanked, and many live at the edge of crisis so planning ahead for a yearly membership is just not possible. Also, cycling through some communities is not safe or sadly it risks a different kind of profiling by law enforcement, especially for young men of color. That is also connected to the results in the Sierra Club report and part of why I think it is problematic: the statistics they cite are picking up cycling habits in U.S. regions with poor to no public transit, particularly in southern cities and the rural south where there has been a major influx of Latinos working in industrial and agricultural economies. A bike may be the only viable way of getting around, unless one can afford a car. I would hope that the liberal response would be to seek to expand public transit, and not to celebrate these major transit equity gaps in communities of color. Whether it is a lack of understanding of the context of the demographics or knowing and deciding to exclude such nuances by the report’s authors, both are troubling to me. Perhaps naive might have been a better term than elitist. Second, you assume much by stating that it is best to plan for the 80 percent than the 20 percent (and, honestly, I do not even know how to respond to these comments which are so thoroughly anti-democratic). That 80 percent includes women, seniors, the disabled and others who are not well-served by current cycling infrastructure. Once again, planning for certain men is not planning for all. As I have stated before, making many groups an afterthought in planning is simply more of the same. An assumption of neutrality while trends, surveys, and statistics state otherwise is really trying to force a square peg into a round hole. Women, children, families, communities of color have different transit needs. Is it too much to ask for city officials to plan based on that? Thirdly, the way in which some of the data is presented in the Sierra Club report–stating “increases” and doubling without citing the actual raw numbers–is mere polemics. Finally, a cultural criticism-related lens shines a light on the images used in the report. Using images of persons of color, especially women of color, all over the report while the actual data shows low overall cycling use compared to other groups, is truly maddening. And worse, a friend likened the images to Latino ‘the domestic’ caricatures and African-American ‘mammy’ caricatures. In this case, happy brown people on their bikes. You may not see it; many people do. Don’t schools of planning teach Marsha Ritzdorf’s work any more?

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