Credit: Slow Roll Chicago

Building a Bikeable City for All

As bicycle advocacy evolves and municipalities invest more in making way for riders, bike equity must be more than a conversation.

Story by Josh Cohen

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A small group of bike advocates gathered at a cafe in the Woodlawn neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side in November 2014. There’s nothing unusual in a few cyclists meeting over coffee, but this particular group was on a mission. Frustrated with what they saw as the city’s lack of investment in bike infrastructure and bike-share in low-income communities and communities of color, they decided to make a big push for change. Step one for those at the cafe that day — Slow Roll Chicago President Oboi Reed; Red, Bike and Green organizer Eboni Senai Hawkins; Friends of the Major Taylor Trail President Peter Taylor; and Major Taylor Cycling Club of Chicago President Shawn Conley — write an open letter to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Bicycle Advisory Council.

Published online a month later, their message outlined a vision for “predominantly Black Southside and Westside neighborhoods that are healthier, safer, more economically thriving and more socially cohesive as a result of greater bikeability.”

The advocates, who represent black bicycle organizations old and new (Friends of Major Taylor Trail was formed in 2003), urged the city and state of Illinois to make public commitments to equitable spending on and distribution of bike infrastructure, education and resources in Chicago’s low-income communities and communities of color; conduct an equity audit of existing bike infrastructure, bike education and encouragement programs, especially in the South and West sides; and analyze work done based on recommendations from the Chicago Streets for Cycling Plan’s community advisory groups.

“A lack of resources for bike education, encouragement and infrastructure can lead to the idea that biking is only for children or only for recreation or too dangerous. A lack of resources coupled with other systemic issues leads to less vibrant public life [and] fewer livable communities where biking and walking are possible,” Hawkins told me that winter when I interviewed her about the open letter.

The group also presented their argument at the December 2014 Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting, where Chicago DOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld and Active Transportation Alliance Director Ron Burke acknowledged that the city had not done enough to promote bicycling citywide. According to Streetsblog Chicago, Scheinfeld promised, “that equity would be strongly considered in prioritizing future projects.”

Oboi Reed started Slow Roll Chicago. (Credit: Slow Roll Chicago)

About a year and a half later, there’s evidence of improvements. Divvy, the city’s bike-share system, has expanded its service area into more low-income and predominantly black neighborhoods and launched a $5 membership option for low-income Chicago residents. CDOT has expanded bike infrastructure with protected and buffered bike lanes added on the South and West sides.

But when asked recently about Chicago’s progress, Reed says the city is still far from equitable in its approach to bicycling.

“Right now there are fewer people biking in Englewood. There are more people dying in Englewood, more people impacted by violence, healthcare disparities and unemployment. So the distribution shouldn’t be equal and it certainly shouldn’t be Wicker Park [in north Chicago] receiving more,” he says.

Chicago is similar to many U.S. cities, where equity work in the bike movement has been evolving — and becoming more central to discussions about infrastructure and advocacy — over the last decade. Grassroots community advocates such as Reed, Hawkins, Taylor and Conley have elevated these issues into the mainstream by pointing out time and again that supposedly color-blind bike policies largely ignore low-income communities and communities of color.

Their work has yielded some tangible impact in the form of bike infrastructure and bike-share system expansion and improved outreach by many in the advocacy mainstream to low-income communities and communities of color. But equity proponents say it’s far from enough. Bike infrastructure is still predominantly clustered in cities’ whiter, wealthier neighborhoods. The staffs and boards of most bike advocacy organizations are still mostly white.

America’s bike movement is at a crossroads, grappling with what it means to move from an equity “conversation” to engaging in truly equitable bike advocacy. City governments too are faced with decisions about where to invest in bike lanes and bike-share systems. And getting it right isn’t just a moral imperative — it could determine whether bike advocacy remains relevant in an increasingly diverse America. The more that cycling becomes central to urban life, the more critical it is that cities ensure the trend isn’t hampered by a history of segregation. After all, if the U.S. can’t foster equity on two wheels, what hope is there for much more entrenched issues like fair housing and income equality?

Defining Equity

On its face, “bike equity” is a simple concept: Bicycling should be a safe, convenient, viable transportation option for everyone, regardless of race, income or geography.

In practice, bike equity means cities would install at least as much quality bike infrastructure and do at least as much outreach and education in poor communities and majority-minority neighborhoods as they do in their (often whiter) downtown core and wealthy neighborhoods.

But of course equity is not a simple objective in America where hundreds of years of intentional violence against and disinvestment in people of color have left us with segregated neighborhoods and staggering disparity.

Yet according to a League of American Bicyclists report, people of color accounted for the fastest cyclist growth from 2001 to 2009. In that period, African-American ridership increased by 100 percent, Asian ridership grew 80 percent and Latino ridership grew 50 percent while white ridership grew just 22 percent. And low-income Americans, according to a 2014 Census report on biking and walking, commuted by bike more than any other income bracket. From 2008 to 2012, workers in households making less than $10,000 a year biked to work at a rate of 1.5 percent. That’s almost double the national cycling mode-share for the same period.

Some of that fast growth came thanks in no small part to the work of grassroots advocacy by and for people of color such as Slow Roll Chicago and Detroit, Major Taylor Minneapolis and Austin, Black Girls Do Bike, Red, Bike and Green, Eastside Bike Club in L.A., and many, many others around the country. Much of it came despite a lack of bike infrastructure investment in communities of color to accommodate it.

“Equity means focusing on people who need the most and can benefit most from increased bike share,” Reed says. “People of color and low- to moderate-income people should get more bicycle resources than neighborhoods that are predominantly white and middle to upper income. Communities of color … are disproportionately impacted by violence, healthcare disparities and unemployment, and increased bike mode share can have an impact on all three.”

Ed Ewing (Credit: Cascade Bicycle Club)

Ed Ewing, director of diversity and inclusion at Seattle’s Cascade Bicycle Club, has been cycling since he was a kid in Minneapolis. After talking with fellow African-American cyclists in Seattle, he started Cascade’s Major Taylor Project in 2009 to focus on youth engagement with an emphasis on inclusion.

“The purpose and the vision were clear. We all knew how bikes impacted our lives. We all knew that there are students out there who need access and opportunity,” Ewing told me when I first interviewed him in 2014. “We all knew that it’s about more than just getting kids on bikes; it’s about bringing resources and attention to not only the students, but their communities too.”

The Consequences of Inequity

Last September, the League of American Bicyclists released a report examining the distribution of Chicago’s existing 200 miles of bike lanes and 36 miles of multi-use trails. The report uses GIS to overlay the bike infrastructure network on demographic maps showing where Chicago’s black and Latino populations do and do not live. There is some disjointed bike infrastructure in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods on the South and West sides of the city. But the bulk of the infrastructure network is concentrated in areas with the lowest percentile of black and Latino residents. (The report’s first edition lacked the most up-to-date planning information (pointed out by Streetsblog Chicago’s John Greenfield), and was later amended, but it did accurately illustrate existing conditions for the city.)

Though data like that provided by the League’s report on Chicago is rare, the inequitable distribution of bike infrastructure can be found in most major American cities. While many studies show a link between cyclist safety and improvements like painted bike lanes, the absence of such street design can be seen in ridership numbers and, more starkly, in fatality statistics.

While people of color represent the fastest-growing segments of cyclists, a 2011 study by Rutgers University Researcher John Pucher found that white people accounted for 79 percent of the bicyclists in the U.S. versus 10 percent for black people, 8 percent for Latinos and 4 percent for Asians. Yet, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, of the 749 bicyclists killed in 2013, 15.2 percent were Hispanic and 10.5 percent were black.

Moreover, uneven investment has inspired justified wariness in some communities. By concentrating new infrastructure in neighborhoods that were predominantly white, and predominantly middle-class and upper-middle-class neighborhoods, cities ensured that additions such as bike lanes soon became viewed as signifiers of gentrification.

“When you look at bike lanes, you look at who’s riding in it, it’s mostly white people. People feel like the bicyclists and bike lanes are intruding in their neighborhoods,” says Adrian Lipscombe, a co-founder of Major Taylor Austin who was once the city of Austin’s bike-share project manger.

Chicago aldermen, Reed charges, are one of the biggest barriers to getting bike infrastructure in some neighborhoods in his city. “They aren’t convinced that our communities bike,” he says. “They’re not convinced of the impact. To them it represents gentrification. It represents inconvenience.”

The push for equity from advocates like Reed has helped guide some cities’ plans for future investments, however. The League’s Chicago report shows that while the city’s current infrastructure network shortchanges communities of color, the master plan, once completed, will greatly increase the amount of bike infrastructure in the South and West sides. Full build-out should increase Latino and African-American communities’ access to bike infrastructure by 32 percent.

While bike-share has also been concentrated in dense downtown cores and nearby neighborhoods — and bike-share ridership is consequently whiter and more affluent — some systems are learning lessons from their mistakes and those of their predecessors and incorporating equity into system expansions.

Riders use Philadelphia's Indego bike-share. (Photo by Mitchell Leff)

Philadelphia’s Indego bike-share, which launched a year ago, is frequently cited for its inclusive outreach efforts; implementers of the system made a commitment to equity in their foundational business plan. When they rolled out, they used grant funding to install 20 stations in low-income neighborhoods. Users can also buy monthly passes with cash to overcome a credit-card-only barrier for the unbanked. Several months into the system’s operation, the Philadelphia Inquirer found that checkouts at stations in five neighborhoods with a median income below $25,000 were lagging behind those in wealthier areas of the city. Officials said they plan to use such data going into year two to boost those numbers. Just last week, Indego announced it would begin offering monthly passes for $5 to residents who qualify for SNAP (food stamps) and put more stations in underserved areas of the city. Boston’s Hubway, according to the Inquirer, has a ridership that’s 15 percent low-income residents, thanks in part to a $5 annual fee.

When the Seattle City Council voted recently to take ownership of Pronto bike-share, one of the conditions of doing so was that the city expand the system into low-income neighborhoods and make equity a central consideration. Their amendment said, “The Seattle Department of Transportation shall engage low-income populations and communities of color on the need for and expansion of the bike share system to serve these communities.”

Chicago also offers $5 membership to low-income residents. Austin’s B-Cycle is translating its outreach and marketing materials into Spanish. Capitol Bikeshare in Washington D.C. created an outreach team to market bike-share in neighborhoods all around the city.

Bike-share equity certainly has a way to go, but the varied experiments are perhaps another testament to how the bike movement is recognizing a need for change.

Still, there’s significant work to be done internally for many advocacy organizations.

“Looking inward is just as big a piece if not a bigger piece than looking outward,” says Ewing. “Looking inward helps you develop your intention. It’s going to show up in the work we do. The people we reach. It’s going to help us in the staff we recruit.”

Advocacy That “Looks Like America”

Bike advocacy has historically been largely by and for middle- to upper-class white people. For its 2015 “state of the movement” report, the Alliance for Biking and Walking surveyed its 211 member organizations around North America. The findings reveal a distinct lack of diversity. People of color comprise just 10 percent of the boards of directors of those organizations that responded (105 answered). Forty-eight percent of the organizations reported they have no people of color on their boards. Sixty-two percent had no female board members. And people of color account for just 15 percent of staff members of the responding organizations.

“Bias replicates itself in institutions. When you have lack of structure, when there’s not a formal process for hiring, it always results in people reaching out to hire who they know or who they’re comfortable with or who’s in their network,” says Glenn Harris, president of the Center for Social Inclusion, a nonprofit focused on research and policy around structural inequity and institutional exclusion.

Underfunded and overworked, the nonprofits that make up the bulk of advocacy are particular vulnerable to this.

“All the brain science looking at how implicit bias plays in our decision-making shows that when we’re stressed we’re at our worst and we reject anything that we imagine will be complicated,” Harris says.

“If the U.S. can’t foster equity on two wheels, what hope is there for much more entrenched issues like fair housing and income equality?”

According to Carolyn Szczepanski, who was communications director at the Alliance for Biking and Walking from 2010 to 2012 and again from 2015 until recently, the thrust of equity-minded grassroots work inspired national organizations to start tackling the issue around 2010. When Szczepanski worked for the League from 2012 until 2015, she helped start their equity initiative and founded their Women Bike program. For several years the League took the lead on equity work among national bike advocates, a fitting role for the oldest and most prominent bike advocacy group in the U.S.

They began by hosting panels on equity at the National Bike Summit and having internal discussions about the role equity could play in their work. In 2013, they hired a part-time equity fellow Hamzat Sani. Shortly thereafter they released one of the first major reports on equity in the bike movement, “The New Majority: Pedaling Towards Equity.”

In October 2013, the League hired its first full-time equity initiative manager, Adonia Lugo. Having researched bicycling in communities of color in Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle, Lugo had an important influence on the equity conversation and, in many ways, became the center of national equity work. She produced important reports highlighting the many diverse grassroots organizations doing city-based equity work and further defined how the League and others can be equitable bike advocates. She also founded the Bike Equity Network, an email list that serves as an organizing space for equity-minded activists and advocates.

But Lugo’s time at the League was brief. She left in early 2015 citing a feeling that her work was being met with lip service to equity problems. Though she turned down a request to be interviewed for this story, she has written publicly about her decision to leave:

“I wasn’t just raising awareness about exclusion in bicycle advocacy, I was experiencing it. As a woman of color, I didn’t have the power to solve the problem I’d been hired to fix. In fact, taking on that task had made me the target of more resentment than I’d ever experienced. I found that in bike advocacy people like me were being tokenized. We were expected to use our non-threatening otherness to promote a vision of the world that was determined before we came in the door.”

League Executive Director Alex Doty did not respond to requests for an interview. The League has not hired anyone for Lugo’s old job.

Szczepanski, however, notes that national organizations do have an extra responsibility to serve as a driving force for equity work and a mirror for their members.

“National organizations can be really powerful in sustaining a conversation,” Szczepanski says. “We come together at events to have these temporal conversations, then go back to our day-to-day lives. There’s a power in the national organizations being that voice that extends the bounds of what we’re talking about.”

Still, many grassroots advocates feel like there’s little evidence the mainstream is making the structural changes needed to disrupt entrenched patterns of segregation and inequality.

Reed doesn’t mince words: “Even for some organizations who’ve said equity should be a priority … it’s based on a document, it’s based on an agenda at a meeting, it’s based on a values statement somewhere. It’s lip service. It’s not reflected in the neighborhoods they work in. It’s not reflected in the racial diversity of their board of directors. It’s not reflected in the racial diversity of their staff.”

Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, believes diversifying boards and staffs is key.

“Until these organizations look like America, we’re not going to see much change,” Agyeman says. “I’ve become convinced that an organization’s commitment to equity and justice must start at the organization. They must look like the populations they’re serving. If they don’t there’s a problem.”

A Matter of Survival

“There’s plenty of history of well-intentioned nonprofits coming into communities of color and saying we’re going to do this for you or to you and there’s this huge conflict,” says Cascade’s Ewing.

To Ewing’s mind, equity work is bike advocacy work. After all, the vast majority of advocacy orgs are guided by some variation of the mission to make biking safe and accessible for all.

“Our mission at Cascade is ‘transforming lives through bicycling,’” he explains. “Transformation means different things for different people, but ultimately you’re talking about transformation at the human level and that’s something that’s accessible by all.”

Members of the Cascade Bicycle Club pose after a Major Taylor Project ride. (Credit: Cascade Bicycle Club)

For long-established, influential advocacy groups, staff and board homogeneity can be a barrier to accomplishing mission work — as can a reputation of being gentrifiers.

As a new Austin resident, Lipscombe recognized she would need to partner with existing organizations to find the cyclists of color she was looking for with Major Taylor Austin.

“It’s about looking beyond biking,” she says. “It’s looking at public health, church and religious groups, afterschool programs. How can we bridge these programs together? People already trust these organizations. It’s about working with them so they can start trusting us.”

Reed’s Slow Roll work is another example.

“This is the first time they see bikes led by two black guys, born and raised in Chicago South Side,” Reed says. “We’re not coming to push anything on anybody. We’re coming in to partner with people. They see this as a social experience. We’re riding and engaging people … the experience is transformative.”

He says that approach sets them up to work on advocacy goals. “Now the community leaders are in a position to understand the bikes a little differently. That’s when we come back and say hey we need some support [in a public meeting or advocating for change].”

Ewing says building trustworthy partnerships is about starting on a different footing than many advocates have in the past.

“Instead of looking at it as ‘hey how do we increase biking in this community of color?’ we’re looking at ‘what are the needs of this community and if we better understand the needs, how does the bike help support those needs?’” he explains. “The biking is secondary. The community needs are primary.”

Not only bike equity is at stake: Agyeman maintains change in the advocacy movement is in everyone’s best interests.

“If you look at the way America is changing, the very survival of some organizations I think is at stake,” he says, referring to the country’s ever growing diversity.

Agyeman continues, “If groups don’t look like America will they still be legitimate? Will they still be able to fundraise? Will they still command respect? I think they can only if they diversify and develop a cultural competency they do not have at the moment.”

Reed is hopeful that the advocacy mainstream is starting to get it and feels like there are hints that people recognize the critical crossroad in which they stand.

“I think there’s some momentum around equity in terms of people working in communities of color, low- to moderate-income communities. The mainstream bike advocacy world is starting to try and figure this out,” he says.

And if the mainstream can’t figure it out?

“We’re going to continue to ride bikes, we’re going to continue to advocate, we’re going to push our city agencies, our elected officials, our community leaders to shift how they think about this stuff,” Reed says. “Should the mainstream advocacy community want to work with us? Let’s go. You need more time to figure out where you stand on equity? We’ll be here when you’re ready.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Josh Cohen is Crosscut’s city reporter covering Seattle government, politics and the issues that shape life in the city.

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