Advocates for minority bike riders find ways to spread the word
In contrast to the alley cat fixie fiends and placid Venice Beach cruisers, some of Los Angeles' most ardent bicyclists were going unnoticed and underserved by bike advocacy groups. Working class Latinos are often the only ones on two wheels in several of the city's most disadvantaged communities — but you weren't going to catch them at Critical Mass or grabbing a seat at L.A. County Bike Coalition meetings.
The organizers of the community group Ciudad de Luces recognized that these riders, often stuck commuting on the L.A.'s most dangerous roads with substandard safety gear and rickety bikes, needed a voice in the development of the city's biking infrastructure, and were being missed by the biking movement's traditional outreach tactics.
The organization started distributing bike lights and Day-Glo visibility vests at day laborer centers; started a weekly bike repair workshop at one of the sites in response to popular demand from workers; and, in 2010, convinced the city to install 73 much-needed bike racks throughout the low income Pico-Union neighborhood. Ciudad de Luces coined a term to describe the community it works with: the invisible riders.
Biking is not a white middle class privilege, but many times the popular face of bike activism is perceived as such. In the case of Ciudad de Luce's struggle for recognition, that meant the minority communities that do ride aren't given necessary resources to keep them safe and secure. And according to Jenna Burton of the Oakland community bike group Red, Bike and Green, it also harms cycling's popularity among some prospective riders.
"If you see something that is predominantly white, it's automatically not going to be as appealing to the black community," she said in a phone interview with the Guardian. Burton moved to the Bay Area from the East Coast, and was taken by the strong biking culture. Looking for community, she assumed there had to be some kind of African American bicycle meet-up. ("The Bay Area has everything, right?") She was surprised to find that one didn't exist.
Burton realized that blacks were underrepresented in the biking community. When she asked acquaintances about their reluctance to pedal through their daily lives, she found that many were intimidated by the ubiquity of bikes in the area. "It can be really intimidating to get out there for the first time. The culture is so strong here, it seems hardcore to people who are curious about biking."
"There needed to be a targeted effort toward the black community." Burton's solution: create an organization that spoke directly to African Americans about why they should bike. She developed a Black Panthers-style three-point plan to break it down. Black people on average make less money and biking is cheap; black people are subject to chronic health problems and biking makes people stronger; black people are often the subjects of environmental racism and biking is a way to speak out against carcinogenic injustice. To spread the word, the group would hold social rides so riders could see that black bike riders really did exist.
Nick James didn't own a bike, but when Burton told him about Red, Bike and Green, he was compelled to buy one. Already an activist for HIV/AIDS, education, youth, and health causes, James said in an e-mail interview with the Guardian that he believed Burton had hit upon a way to pull all those social issues together — through an experience that would not only be positive, but fun. Now he uses his bike to get to work and run everyday errands.
"Any space where African Americans can get out stress, laugh, communicate, or heal, I'm there," he said. "Red, Bike and Green is a space where exercise, socializing, and activism flows seamlessly."
Core volunteers publicized early rides through word of mouth, often handing out flyers to other black bicyclists that they passed in the streets. They found partners in the East Bay's burgeoning minority biking advocacy network: Cycles of Change, an umbrella organization that includes the LGBT and minority-run Bikery and Changing Gears Bicycle Shop, and P.O.K.E.R. (People of Kolor Everyday Ridin').
On Saturday, April 23, Red, Bike and Green held its first ride of 2011. Seventy people rode a route that took them through many of Oakland's black residential neighborhoods — a tactic that organizers employ, as Burton puts it, to make other black people aware that they can rock some handlebars "to build community in our community."
Since last year, the rides have attracted cyclists from age seven to 65, families, and strangers who can spend the ride connecting and networking. People have used the rides to announce impending garden harvest surpluses, Oscar Grant protests, and job openings.
As Bay Area bike lanes grow smarter and more numerous, and as gas prices soar and environmental issues become more troublesome, it's pretty much a done deal that more people are going to be riding bikes. And yes, bike movement, that's something to ring those bells over. But we have to turn the gears democratically: to really improve access to cycling, the needs of all communities have to be taken into account — and that means getting creative with outreach strategies.
Red, Bike and Green uses bikes to carve out a space for its riders — not only in the velo advocacy movement, but in the social fabric of the Bay Area. Burton is confident that the sight of so many black people rolling by will introduce a thought into the heads of spectators — a thought that really shouldn't need to be introduced but does anyway: "This is our community, there needs to be space made for us too."