For People of Color, Barriers to Biking Go Far Beyond Infrastructure, Study Shows

A survey of Black and Latino residents in New Jersey reveals barriers to biking that are not discussed very often by bike-promotion pros. Photo: New Jersey Bicycle and Pedestrian Resource Center.
A survey of Black and Latino residents in New Jersey reveals barriers to biking that are not discussed very often by bike-promotion pros. Photo: New Jersey Bicycle and Pedestrian Resource Center.

New research from New Jersey shows huge gaps in the conventional wisdom about how to make biking useful to more people.

It’s one of the most rigorous explorations of the fact that the assumptions and practices of biking advocacy have been disproportionately shaped by the white and the well-to-do.

When most cities try to make biking a bigger part of their transportation systems, they use a standard checklist: comfortable biking networks, how-to-ride classes, traffic-law enforcement. The full list is sometimes called the “Five E’s.”

A first-of-its-kind survey conducted by Rutgers academics Charles Brown and James Sinclair shows that when you look at biking from the perspective of a Black or Latino American, the Five E’s are missing a lot.

Our colleague Stefani Cox of collaborated with Brown to break down the findings in a four-part series:

Some aspects of biking, of course, are pretty universal. The single biggest obstacle to biking among Black and Latino New Jerseyans surveyed was fear of a traffic collision. Infrastructure like bike lanes, off-street paths, and bike parking were overwhelmingly popular among those surveyed.

desired infrastructure

But as Brown and Sinclair also found, more than half of the people of color surveyed didn’t think their government would add bike infrastructure to their communities if it was requested — and people of color reported less satisfaction with bike infrastructure in their area than people who identified as white alone.

existing infrastructure rating

Moreover, people of color report barriers to biking that are discussed far less often by bike-promotion pros. After fear of traffic collision, the most common was “fear of robbery/assault,” with 30 percent listing this as a barrier. Another 20 percent listed the related “fear of being stranded,” enough for it to rank fourth.

ranking of barriers

Then there’s racial profiling, the common but unconstitutional practice of police confronting people of color at higher rates than white people. Though calls for “more traffic enforcement” have often surfaced in white-dominated biking advocacy, the issue may look different to people of color, many of whom told Brown and Sinclair that fear of being profiled by the police is a barrier to their getting on a bike.

fear of profiling

This barrier looms especially large for Black and Latino men, one in five of whom reported that they personally had been unfairly stopped by police.

This finding echoes multiple studies suggesting that bike-related laws are enforced overwhelmingly on people of color, sometimes with violent consequences.

Cox and Brown’s series digs deeper into each of these issues and starts to explore solutions, including the relevance for people who work in bike sharing — an amenity that 85 percent of respondents of color said they were interested in but only 57 percent said they’d been aware of.

“Everything here is exciting,” said Brown. “No one has done a study that pays this much attention to this population.”

Check it out.

PlacesForBikes is a PeopleForBikes program to help U.S. communities build better biking, faster. You can follow them on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for their weekly news digest about building all-ages biking networks.

  • gneiss

    It is not at all an unreasonable fear. Just look at how the statistics for “jaywalking” tickets break down in Sacramento:

  • Komanoff

    I’m glad for this research. I’d like comparisons of the survey results to non-Black, non-Latino groups, to see if and how the concerns/fears/etc. differ.

    Moreover, fear of being stranded wasn’t explored — at least not in what I read (and I did follow several links). I can imagine it would be greater for Blacks and Latinos going through White neighborhoods (think Michael Griffith chased to his death in Howard Beach, NY in 1986). It would be helpful to know how much greater.

    Bottom line: this is good stuff, I hope it goes deeper.

  • bobfuss

    I don’t think it’s helpful to play a race card here. Cycling isn’t a race-dependent thing but we all know that cycling is almost all an Anglo-Asian thing. But that’s a cultural thing more than anything else and looking for conspiracy theories here isn’t helpful.

  • bobfuss

    If 70% of jaywalking is done by blacks and 60% of jaywalking tickets are given to blacks, then if anything it’s not racist at all but quite the opposite.

  • djx

    Your statement is a classic example of the reason racism persists in our society: (presumably well-meaning) people saying don’t talk about it. It doesn’t exist. It’s just culture. Look away.

    This piece literally points about racial profiling and you say, don’t talk about race. W T F.

  • djx

    “If 70% of jaywalking is done by blacks and 60% of jaywalking tickets are given to blacks, ”

    Where do you get this from?

    I think I was mistaken in my earlier post above assuming you were well-meaning. You’re an apologist for racism.

  • Guy Ross

    psst: I assume you are speaking with a ‘RichLL’ or a ‘bobfuss’. He is a Jedi master at steering conversations into frustrating obtuse tail chasing. We all have blocked ‘it’ some time ago…..

  • Larry Littlefield

    “After fear of traffic collision, the most common was “fear of robbery/assault,” with 30 percent listing this as a barrier. Another 20 percent listed the related “fear of being stranded.”

    As for fear of being stranded, perhaps non-Whites are less likely to have a car-owning relative available to come get them when they get a flat. What do I do when I get a flat? Haul the bike down to the subway, and carry it back up again, and go to the nearest bike shop. But there is a good chance that poor, minority neighborhoods outside NYC have neither subways or bike shops.

    Roving bike repair would probably help here. In Chicago, they are trying to train people from poor, minority neighborhoods to fix bikes as a skill. That would probably help elsewhere.

  • BortLicensePlatez

    Excellent, Streetsblog! This was one of my points yesterday -we can’t even go to complain about bike overenforcement, since the community council meetings are held *inside* a police precinct. Why would anyone want to go into a tiger cage to discuss tiger aggression??

  • kevd

    Where is my head smack emoji when I need it.

  • Timpson

    But surely it is only profiling if the rate at which a given race is stopped, ticketed or arrested exceeds their participation rate in that crime?

    So for example, if 50% of jaywalkers are Asian, but 60% of tickets issued are for Asians, there’s a problem. Reverse those numbers and there is not.

  • Timpson

    He didn’t say those were the numbers. He said “IF they are the numbers”

    In other words, if we’re going to talk about profiling, be sure you understand the breakdown of crime by race first.

  • djx

    First, in the absence of evidence that people of different races are breaking the law at different rates, I think the burden of proof for that should be the person making such a claim.

    And, please don’t use police statistics for that “evidence” since we’ve seen myriad examples of such bias.

    Moreover, even if it is true that, say, black people in a particular region jaywalk at higher rates than white people, racism might well be a factor in that. For example, if they tend to live in a place with terrible urban infrastructure, due to redlining and other racist policies of the past, and it’s simply hard to get around without jaywalking, then the situation is affected by race. It might not mean the police are racist, but race is part of the context. We see that in my city, where police are targeting e-bikes. Most bikes users are Latino and Asian. They are also poor and recent immigrants. And they are easy targets for police. Race affects who is breaking the law, and the police, in choosing to go for the easy tickets that these people represent, are enforcing a law that affects those people of color in a disproportionate way. The policy decision to target bikes has racist implications. There are lots of other equally un-dangerous things that are illegal but that wealthier or whiter people do a lot, but guess what, the police ignore them.

    Lastly, in a country in which historically police have been disproportionately abusive toward people of color, even if the police in a particular place are operating in an excellent manner today, it’s completely understandable for people of color to still be afraid. And, as a consequence, if we care about promoting cycling among all people (a big “if” in your case, I imagine) then it’s worth talking/thinking about race and racism.

    But I doubt you care about this. Your main point is that we shouldn’t talk about race. And you know what: that’s pretty racist.

  • djx

    I’m black and grew up in a decent bubble from racism as a teenager (or was unaware. And in high school I rode my bike from NYC to Cape Cod (over a couple of days) solo, and also did a bike tour with three white friends, all female, from Hartford to Cape Cod. My father, a black man, was convinced these were very dangerous trips. I don’t know if he was “right” objectively, but his opinion was certainly based in historical context that still affects us.

  • Timpson

    I think both can be true. It may be that blacks commit more crime but there are valid historical reason for that which may indicate racism. Even so, that doesn’t make arresting them for committing those crimes racism.

    Likewise, it’s a cheap trick to accuse of racism anyone who questions an allegation of racism. That rather implies that anyone who makes an allegation of racism is protected from criticism and scrutiny, because to ask searching questions about that claim immediately runs the risk of being labelled a “racist”. The assumption there is that 100% of claims of racism are valid.

    50% of the prison population are black – four times their representation in the general population. If 50% of arrests for serious crimes are of black people then that isn’t necessarily a case of racism, even if the historic reasons for that statistic are. What I think is not helpful is blindly yelling the word “racism” every time a demographic skews away from a statistical mean. That’s sloppy thinking.

  • Wilfried84

    And poor neighborhoods, even in New York City, tend to be transit poor. What if your neighborhood doesn’t have a subway station? Buses don’t have bike racks.

  • Wilfried84

    So, where do Asians fit in this Black/Latino/White scheme? Race also isn’t just about black and white, and Asians may face issues different from either.

  • HamTech87

    Better World Club instead of the typical auto club. They pick up car or bicycle.

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    They don’t in New York? Every bus in Chicago has racks and you can bring a bike on the EL outside of rush hour.

  • dat

    Yeah he’s a total troll. Don’t feed him.

  • djx

    Thanks. Is Timpson the same guy?

  • Great point! At least one of the policing studies linked above involved a lot of Asian-descended folks, I think, but you’re right that they weren’t a focus of this work in NJ. I’m sure some barriers are widely shared and others are not.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    As a bike/ped professional in a majority minority city I can tell you this doesn’t paint the complete picture. Some of the most vocal opposition to bike infrastructure comes from the black community, and other cities have seen this as well (PFB has reported on it). It is seen as gentrification. I’ve been told (by black colleagues) “black people don’t bike”. And that they can understand if we installed bike lanes in some other neighborhood (typically a predominantly white neighborhood), but not “here” (black neighborhood).

    Riding a bike is seen as indicative of being low income, which is reflected in the stats in this article (higher biking out of necessity). That is also something that works against acceptance of biking for utility. It’s seen as for poor people, especially in already marginalized communities. The bottom line is that there are a lot of issue to overcome and it isn’t as simple as withholding better infrastructure or access in minority communities.

  • Stuart

    Same set of talking points across a variety of topics, same pattern of argumentation, same distinctive phrases.

    The sock-puppeting of defending his own derailing under another name is a new low. I guess he’s given up on pretending that his new practice of changing accounts all the time is just a perfectly innocent way of avoiding “stalking” (which is his term for someone regularly pointing out how bad his arguments are).

  • I am sure you are right that this doesn’t paint the whole picture – there are lots of other barriers Brown and Sinclair could have asked about too but didn’t. And I do think a lot of folks have attitudes like you describe. Is this the past coverage you’re remembering?

    But of course there are also lots of white folks (and folks of all ethnicities) who mount similar arguments against bike lanes in their own neighborhoods too. Seems to me that the single biggest demographic predictor of whether I (a) support bike lanes or (b) feel that bike lanes are for good people like me is not my race, whatever that may be, but whether I personally ride a bike around town.

    Bike boosters and users of all races need to team up with each other whenever we can, and I hope this research may help us better understand one another.

  • Kevin Love

    Ever since I got Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires, I have never got a flat. This is a problem that is easily solvable by cheap technology.

  • Komanof, while the initial paper did not compare the results with white and asian groups, it is being modified to do so, based on requests such as yours.

    Additionally, the focus groups did find that the black and hispanic participants refused to travel through certain municipalities.

  • Unfortunately the scope of the project (ie:funds) did not allow for the gathering of a representative amount of data from Asian groups.

  • The focus groups asked pointed question about gentrification concerns. At least in central new jersey, it wasn’t an issue. But we know it has been a huge issue in Washington DC.

  • Komanoff

    Glad to hear that. This is important stuff. Thanks,.

  • kevd

    there could also be a reasonable fear that “being stranded” if one is a black or brown male, immediately turns one into a suspect in many parts of this country.
    It isn’t just about income and wealth and how many friends will pick you up in their car.
    It is also about very real, and persistent racism.

  • kevd

    You can bring your bike on the NYC subway at any time. At rush hour, it sucks, for you and everyone else. So one rarely sees it. But there is not prohibition.
    The point being made is that in many of NYC’s poorest neighborhoods there is no subway.
    And no, the buses have no racks.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    Michael, agreed, and making those inroads across demographic lines is happening here, slowly. But there are some real (and very odd) barriers that we encounter at times. There has been thinly veiled hostility and playing of the race card and we are accused of being interlopers disrupting the community for the benefit of white people, despite the significant bike use by minorities, and despite the fact that 1 in 5 households don’t have access to a car.

    Much of it relates back to the all too common perception in America that biking is recreation (toy bike syndrome). In fact we repeatedly talk about the bike lanes / infrastructure being about utility cycling and they continue to harp on their perception that we are inconveniencing them so that people can bike for recreational. No matter how many times we say it, present the facts, etc, some are wedded to their perception. And perception = reality. Breaking those barriers can be tough, even when it provides a benefit to the community.

  • richardlayman

    The thing is these barriers aren’t insurmountable. And many are of perception, not actual, real hard barriers. I started biking — I am white — living in a neighborhood that was probably 95% to 99% African-American, with all those issues but in the obverse (crime, fear of safety, murder rate, lack of infrastructure, etc.) I experienced plenty of public safety and harassment issues as a result (including muggings).

    I decided to bike regardless of those issues (I was then 30 years old) because biking was a lot more time and cost efficient compared to reliance on transit. I still don’t see how infrastructure, safety are particularly white or black, living in or near majority minority neighborhoods in Washington DC for almost all of the almost 30 years I’ve lived in the city.

    Maybe I am just blind to white privilege, but having started biking for transportation in 1990 long before it was trendy, I have a hard time with a lot of these arguments, other than access to bikes and difficulties storing bikes at home in a safe manner. (But I have solutions for those issues, see:

  • richardlayman

    there is a huge increase in mobile bike repair through franchises, one being VeloFix. But it’s not much of an issue. Yes, it happens (has happened to me), and it sucks, but likely most people who are biking are doing so in a city in striking distance of transit and most city bus systems accommodate bikes. I’ve missed a couple meetings because of unexpected flat tires, sure.

  • To “understand the breakdown of crime by race first” you have to consider some rudimentary facts that have been consistently observed in the field of criminology for decades. Which would not lead to the stupid “IF” question that he posed.

  • I’ve seen his comments all over Disqus sites, he’s not well-meaning. The most charitable possible explanation of anyone who’d hoark up the phrase “race card” in a comment on a study about race is that he’s terminally obtuse.

  • Corvus Corax

    Yes. He was posting as Todd for a while and doing a pretty good job of disguising his writing style. But he was unable to maintain the pretense and gave himself away. Once I pointed out that he was in fact RichLL, he changed the Todd into Timpson, and continued also to post under other identities, such as Ringo, AlTate, and recently, Susan.

    It’s kinda sickly funny the way he backs up his bobfuss posts with his Timpson identity.

    He was openly racist as RichLL, posting: “Sometimes you can just tell. The other day I’m on the F and a black dude gets on the off door, looking furtive, and sits in the back.”

    He is disgusting in so many ways: I think it is best just to block him in all his guises.

  • RGD

    You are in agreement. You are both agreeing that the police are not necessarily racist, but the contextual situation might unfairly discriminate.

    In my mind, America’s problem is increasingly shifting to “those people,” who happen to be Black, Lower Income, Latino, or any other thing that might be considered discrimination.

    This article’s description of problems sound like something the Dutch would call “Social Safety.” They have long recognized that it does not matter how unlikely a serious collision with a motor vehicle is or the time efficiency of the infrastructure if people are afraid of being harassed, or mugged, or shot, etc.

  • RGD

    Gentrification would be a concern, but as I recall, the neighborhoods receiving bike infrastructure tend to be wealthier to begin with, and this means that Black neighborhoods, which due to the legacy of past policies tend to be poorer neighborhoods, have generally had less exposure to it, and since it involves changing the status quo, and has had less precedent in their minds, it is perhaps less surprising that they would be more resistant to it. 15 years ago, people are much more resistant to bike infrastructure than now in the same neighborhoods which received bike infrastructure, largely because it was unfamiliar, and people were afraid of it. Black neighborhoods generally have had less development since the push for better bike infrastructure began, so they are in effect suspended in the past in terms of how they feel about it for the reasons it was hard to install bike infrastructure when they first began.

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