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Guy On A Bike: Increasing Diversity in Cycling

Minneapolis consistently ranks among the best cities for cycling in the United States. In fact, it was recently listed as the only American city among a ranking of the best global cities for bikers. With more than 200 miles of dedicated bike lanes, a world-class bike-sharing program and other amenities, the city is truly working towards a Utopia for the wheeler. But as I tool around on my steel horse I can't help but notice that most of the other cyclists I encounter look like me: a white, middle-class male.

That observation led me to explore certain questions, which are sometimes difficult to broach. What are the reasons that a disproportionate majority of cyclists are white men? Are there historical constructs which make cycling less inclusive and accessible to other groups, specifically low-income and minority populations? Does the creation and expansion of cycling infrastructure promote, or inhibit, inclusivity? And, if there are barriers which make cycling less accessible to some, what is being done to improve that?

It's hard to debate the lack of equity in cycling. In fact, the League of American Cyclists, an advocacy group which has been in existence since 1880, launched the Equity Initiative to help bridge the gap. On its website the League notes there has been, "a lack of dedicated staff capacity, direct knowledge, and guidance from local leaders of color in engaging in a sustained, strategic dialogue about these issues." The League Board has made equity one of its top priorities.

In her 2013 Doctoral dissertation, Melody Hoffman writes about four case studies exploring racism in urban bicycle advocacy, including Minneapolis, where she has lived and biked for a number of years. In it she argues that, "there is a high likelihood that sustainability marketing via bicycle infrastructure will be a gain for some and a loss for others—likely a loss for people of color and the poor and working class." She goes on to argue that, at that time, bicycle infrastructure in Minneapolis was only being installed where there was a "burgeoning bicycle culture" or to promote economic growth and "not to support marginalized people who are interested in bicycling."

Despite Hoffman's rather bleak take, there are myriad local organizations working towards introducing more people, from all backgrounds, to cycling.

The Major Taylor Bicycling Club of Minnesota is named after a turn-of-the-century black cyclist who battled constant racism while setting myriad world records. The club aims to promote "safe and fun cycling geared towards the African-American communities of Minneapolis and St. Paul," while welcoming all. Anthony Taylor, one of its founding members, told me he doesn't believe there are concerted efforts to exclude any groups from the joys of cycling.

(credit: Major Taylor Bicycling Club of MN)

"When cities develop infrastructure they have to ask whether it will be used. That's not sinister," Taylor explained. He went on to point out every time cycling infrastructure is created it is important to also create parallel programs that increase the value of the bike lane in that community. "In communities where people don't bicycle we need to raise awareness about the ability to bike on their terms," he said.  The Major Taylor Bicycling Club does that through numerous free weekly rides, offered at different paces for all skill levels.

The club is also acting as the host for the annual conference of the National Brotherhood of Cyclists, which will take place in mid-July. The conference will bring cycling advocates from around the nation together and tackle issues of health, diversity and equality, as they pertain to cycling.

Other movements, both locally and nationally, are also working towards making cycling more inclusive.

If you are from the Twin Cities you've certainly seen the green Nice Ride bikes, and the dozens of docking stations, near your place of work or favorite watering hole. Last year the bike sharing service launched the Neighborhood Program, colloquially known as the "orange bike" program. Nice Ride partners with community organizations in North Minneapolis, Little Earth, and St. Paul's Frogtown and Eastside neighborhoods to get participants involved and invested in cycling. This season, the outreach program distributed more than 200 bikes into the hands of adults, free of charge and regardless of income. For 6 months riders are responsible for their bicycles, with free maintenance available at specific local bike shops. By giving participants a dependable ride, and a community to connect to, lifelong enthusiasts are created.

(credit: NiceRide)

Another initiative which is gaining traction nationally is known as Slow Roll. The movement started in Detroit, but now has chapters around the world. Every Monday in the 'Motor City' thousands of cyclists, of all races, ages, and skill levels, get together for a slow ride of a Detroit neighborhood. The ride locations change weekly, thereby connecting residents with the entire city, while creating a greater sense of community among different types of cyclists. The founders of the Slow Roll rides in Detroit and Chicago, Jason Hall and Oboi Reed, will be in town during the aforementioned NBC conference and will host a Slow Roll in Minneapolis Thursday July 16 at 6:30pm.

So, while it's certainly true that there are groups which are underrepresented in cycling, it is also important to recognize that grassroots organizations in neighborhoods around the country are working hard to get a diverse group of cyclists in the saddle and excited about cycling.

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