Last Friday, Council Member Elizabeth Glidden held one of her “Early Mornings with Elizabeth” sessions, a periodic series of panels at Turtle Bread on Chicago Ave. The topic was “Bicycling and Equity,” and featured three panelists: Anthony Taylor, Adventures Director at the Loppet Foundation and co-founder of the Major Taylor Bicycling Club, an African-American cycling organization; Matthew Dyrdahl, Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator at the City of Minneapolis; and Jose Luis Villasenor, a Xicano bicycle and food systems activist. I’ve been to a few of these sessions, and I always learn something, and this one took things a step further, helping me to think about an issue in a new way.
A lot of bicycle advocates, myself included, spend a lot of time talking about cycling infrastructure: where are the bike lanes going to go, how wide are they going to be, and so forth. It’s easy to fall into the habit of seeing every bike issue in that context, as essentially about creating facts on the ground. But Anthony blew up this framework in his opening statement.
“If you’re talking about building up biking in communities of color”, he said, “the critical question isn’t where the bike lanes go, it’s about building value in the short term for those communities. And value isn’t about access to infrastructure as much as about developing comfort level and a support system for biking within communities. When people don’t have relationships with other people involved in biking, they aren’t likely to start biking, and then all of the bike infrastructure in the world would be without value to them.”
He noted that even many people who buy bikes don’t end up using them. The top three reasons, he explained, were (1) they got a flat tire, (2) the bike was stolen or sold, and (3) they had a bad experience in their first week and decided that biking wasn’t for them. Without some kind of service relationship to a bike shop, a lot of people don’t know how to fix a flat or how to get one fixed. And without some social support for biking, a lot of people don’t push past that first bad experience.
Khusaba Seka, an organizer with Hope Community was also in attendance, and she described one event she had organized to help provide that kind of support. The event was called “Big Booty Black Girls on Bikes,” a culturally specific ride designed to feel welcoming and comfortable to Black women of all ages who didn’t have a lot of experience biking but wanted to try it. She explained that the ride was designed to feel low pressure – Cycles for Change provided the bikes, for example, and a car followed the riders so that any of them could stop at any point if they wanted to. All together, she said that 22 women from ages 18 to 50 showed up, they biked six miles, and, maybe most importantly, had fun.
In a similar vein, Anthony discussed his current project to build a new bike center on 38th Street and 3rd Avenue. This would be more than a bike-shop, he said, but a place where people in the community could build connections with each other, to learn about bikes, and to learn about bike maintenance. He said he envisioned people coming in to assemble their own bikes when they bought them, which would then become the beginning of a long-term service and support relationship.
Jose Luis agreed with this analysis, although he described a different cultural context in the Minneapolis Latino community. He explained that many people in the Latino community do bike, perhaps in part because biking is popular in much of Latin America. But cultural, linguistic, and financial barriers still exist between potential Latino cyclists and white bike culture.
Those in attendance were mostly white, and a number of the questions to the panel revolved around what role white people played in this discussion. Matthew, a white person, identified the importance of white people first acknowledging the privilege they bring to these discussions, so that they can understand the different concerns and challenges that affect the relationships between people of color and biking. This understanding also helps policymakers do better planning, he, Jose Luis, and Elizabeth explained. Jose Luis also urged white people to consider “stepping back to step forward”: don’t assume that you have the answer, and instead step back to make room for comfortable and culturally appropriate engagement.
This is an exciting time, Anthony said, because right now, nobody bikes. He and Matthew pointed out that even though biking is growing, only 5% of people in Minneapolis commute by bike, and in communities of color, the number is even less. Anthony concluded: “We’re at the beginning of a movement.”