The Surprising Diversity of the American Cycling Community

A new report challenges a tenacious racial stereotype about people who ride bicycles.

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A new report from the League of American Bicyclists and the Sierra Club is challenging a tenacious racial stereotype about people who ride bicycles.

"We wanted to dispel one of the major misconceptions, which is that bicycling is just for young, white, urban professionals," says Carolyn Szczepanski, director of communications at LAB. "This report starts to shift that general misconception of who is riding."

 "The New Majority: Pedaling Towards Equity," [PDF] looks at the rate of cycling among people of color in the United States, and also reports on the attitudes of that same demographic. It gleans data from a number of different sources, including the U.S. Census American Community Survey; the Federal Highway Administration’s national household travel survey; and questions asked by Princeton Survey Research Associates.

Cycling rates are picking up around the country, the report shows, and in some respects non-white riders are leading the way. Some of the findings:

  • Between 2001 and 2009, the fastest growth rate in bicycling was among the Hispanic, African American, and Asian American populations. Combined, those three groups went from making 16 percent of the nation’s bike trips to 23 percent.
  • Between 2001 and 2009, the growth in percent of all trips taken by bike was 100 percent among African Americans; 80 percent among Asians; 50 percent among Hispanics; and 22 percent among whites.
  • Eighty-six percent of people of color surveyed said they had a positive view of bicyclists. (For the purposes of the survey, "people of color" includes African American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American and mixed race.)
  • Seventy-one percent of people of color surveyed said that safer cycling would make their community better.

"Communities that supposedly 'don't bike' or 'don't like to bike' are becoming local ambassadors for the role bicycling can play in addressing their communities' issues, from access to jobs to better health," said Hamzat Sani, League Equity and Outreach Fellow and co-author of the report, in a press release. "These new leaders are having a dramatic impact on the bicycle movement, moving issues of race, gender, equity and privilege to the forefront."

At the same time, the report notes a real gap in the construction of bicycling infrastructure in poorer communities and communities of color. Twenty-six percent of people of color surveyed say they'd like to ride more but are concerned about safety. Sixty percent say more bike facilities would encourage them to ride.

"There’s a really significant disparity when it comes to advocacy and where facilities are located," says Szczepanski.

The report is intended to be the beginning of a response to that disparity, which has long been noted among the mainstream, mostly white bike advocacy community — although not often acted upon.

"It’s been a topic of conversation for a long time," says Szczepanski. "But there hasn’t been a real strategic conversation led by people at the grassroots level in these communities, who can say, here are your blind spots."

To that end, the report highlights the efforts of a number of grassroots groups around the country. There’s the Girls Bike Club at West Town Bikes in Chicago, where teenagers have banded together to learn bike riding and repair skills, as well as friendships. There’s Multicultural Communities for Mobility in Los Angeles, which is "bridging the gap between the movements for Latino social justice and bicycle advocacy."

And in Atlanta, there’s the work of an advocacy alliance that includes Red, Bike and Green; the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition; and the metro Atlanta Cycling Club:

[O]ne recent campaign surrounding the city’s historic Auburn Avenue successfully united neighbors, business leaders and advocates when the city overlooked the important African American corridor in the distribution of bike lanes. The petition not only forced planners to reconsider design plans for Auburn Avenue, but also re-focused funding in a new bicycling bill to improve infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

Such examples are an illustration of why a sustained focus on equity in transportation in general — and biking in particular — is long overdue.

"This is just a first step," says Szczepanski. "We hope this is going to be a more sustained conversation going forward."

Top image: Laura Solis and Ayesha-McGowan. Image courtesy of  Liz Clayman

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.