Thursday, February 2, 2012

Bicycles and Minorities

There is an article today in the Austin American Statesman about minorities and cycling. Officials are concerned because the activity has not caught on with African Americans and Hispanics, two groups that could benefit greatly from the activity. Both groups suffer (disproportionately?) from obesity, diabetes, and other chronic problems associated with an inactive lifestyle. Ellis, a state Senator, believes cycling is the panacea for these problems and is pushing for increased awareness of cycling in these communities. He brought forth the example of Major Taylor, a black cyclist from the early 1900's, to show there is a history between African-Americans and the sport.

It is a great goal. Ellis is right, these two communities have a lot to gain if cycling is promoted. I question his tactics however, on several counts.

1. He frames cycling as a sport.

Examples of Major Taylor and Lance Armstrong will not attract people in the numbers we need to have an active cycling community, for the same reasons that Mikael Colville-Andersen has explained on his blog Copenhagenize.com. The Lycra suits and the massive amount of gear keeps most people from picking it up, there is no reason to suppose African Americans and Hispanics are any different.

If you want people to embrace cycling, you need to make it a part of everyday life. This means framing cycling as a form of transportation and fun first.

2. One is not enough

The example of Major Taylor is inspiring, but is a weak way to combat the lily-whiteness of the cycling community. Plus, I doubt many people aren't cycling because they view it as a white-only activity. Other factors, such as lack of bike lanes, fear of collision, and driver hostility are much bigger deterrents.

3. He Focuses on Exercise

Ellis also framed his discussion around health benefits of cycling. This is probably the least effective tactic, because who hasn't bought a total gym and then left it languishing in the basement? Intellectually, people may understand the benefits, but it does nothing to make the activity really attractive. It plays on feelings of shame and guilt, not feelings of freedom and fun.

If the goal is simply to get more African-Americans and Hispanics in the saddle, then Ellis needs to move away from these tired tactics. Show people going about their everyday business on their bike, move it away from the cycling as sport subculture. Make more cycling literature available in Spanish. Finally, focus on making streets safer for bicycles in the first place. When cycling is safe, more people will ride, including African Americans and Hispanics.

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