Biking’s Not Just For White Middle-Class People Anymore

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By: Jay Walljasper

President of Memphis City Council Edmund Ford Jr. on a ride of east Austin during the GLP bike equity summit.

Mention the word “bicyclist” and most people immediately picture someone white and middle-class. The same way the phrase “opera singer” conjures images of a heavy-set woman with her mouth wide open.

In truth, some opera singers are slender and some Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans and low-income people ride bikes. Actually Latinos bike at about the same rate as whites, and the lowest-earning quarter of the U.S. population bikes at a slightly higher rate than everyone else.

But that’s not how people generally see it.

This is the reason a diverse group of elected officials and transportation leaders from across the U.S. gathered beginning yesterday in Austin, Texas, to discuss how to shift both the perception and the reality about who bikes.

Martha Roskowski, director of the Green Lane Project, which sponsored the bike equity summit, noted that this meeting was breaking new ground on this topic. “It’s up to us to explore these issues and solutions.”

The group included African-American city council members from Chicago and Memphis: Latino public officials from San Francisco, Austin and Portland: founders of African-American bike organizations from Washington, D.C. and Chicago; an Asian-American doctor pursuing the link between biking and health; and numerous others.

After a quick round of introductions, the group jumped headfirst into discussions about what measures could help poor and minority people enjoy more of the health and economic advantages of biking. Among the barriers to biking in these communities are:

Cultural attitudes that view bicyclists as either children, people unable to afford a car, or those unable to drive due to drunk driving convictions;

-The expense of good bikes, and the unreliability of inexpensive bikes;

-The lack of bike repair shops in low-income communities;

-Fear of bike theft;

-Fear of biking in urban traffic;

-Insufficient information about bike routes and techniques;

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Veronica Davis (left), co-founder of Washington DC’s Black Women Bike, and Chicago Alderwoman Pat Dowell.

Another key issue is perceptions in many communities that 21st Century bike infrastructure like green lanes spur gentrification, which will drive minorities and poor people out of the neighborhoods.

In the evening, Summit participants were later greeted at a City Hall reception by Austin Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, an African-American who took up biking again on her 50th birthday instead of buying a red sportscar. “We are beginning to move the needle on biking in low-income neighborhoods,” she said, noting that African-Americans and Latinos in the city have twice the mortality rates of whites. “We’re talking about people’s health.”

She was followed by Pat Dowell, an African-American Alderwoman from Chicago who observed, “Biking is really about a paradigm shift for health and for less dependence on fossil fuels.”

Edmund Ford Jr., an African-American city council member from Memphis, said he was so excited about the potential of bicycling to improve people’s health that he was going to take part in the bike tour of Austin the next morning, even though he had not ridden a bike in ten years. “I’m here to learn everything I can.”