Plenty of Philly cyclists aren’t white, yuppie or male. Why does it feel like they’re invisible?

Cassie Owens Features, Issue 2 1 Comment

John Petty is drinking tea and telling stories in the basement room of Chapterhouse Cafe & Gallery on 9th Street. The topic: race, ethnicity and bicycling. He talks about the moment when Katie Monroe, outreach manager for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, approached him, a black cycling enthusiast, about ways the City could make sure its new bike share program reaches communities of color.

“As a member of the African-American community, as a cyclist, she was hoping I’d have some insight,” Petty recalls. “Poor thing. It’s just as much a quandary to me as to anybody else.”

In April, Philadelphia joined the growing roster of bike share cities with the launch of Indego. City officials, including Mayor Nutter, as well as representatives from advocacy groups like the Bicycle Coalition, have repeatedly made a point to say that the program will reach minorities and the underprivileged. “Those who stand to gain the most from a new low-cost form of transportation are those with low income,” Andrew Stober, chief of staff at the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, tells SPOKE.

This isn’t just a matter of social justice and good optics. In a city where 63 percent of residents are people of color and 27 percent live below the poverty line, it’s only smart business to make Indego inclusive. But servicing low-income and minority urbanites is something North American bike share systems have yet to master.

A 2014 Mineta Transportation Institute study found that while bike share programs have become more mindful of equity concerns, their reach among underserved populations remains slight. Forty-three percent of programs in the study responded that equity had played a role in their current siting, though only 11 percent said it would be considered in future station placement. Thirty-seven percent of Minneapolis and Saint Paul residents live in households that make $35,000 or less, but only 19 percent of the Twin Cities’ bike share memberships come from that demographic. Salt Lake City’s GREENbike reported that zero percent of its members made less than $10,000 per year, a bracket that represents 12 percent of the city’s population. Washington, D.C.’s population is half black, yet only 3 percent of members in its highly touted Capital Bikeshare program were black in 2013.

“In some cities, I think communities outside of the downtown have been an afterthought in bike share rollout,” Monroe tells SPOKE. “Like, ‘Okay, we’re going to launch our system and later we’ll tell people about it. We’re just going to let it work downtown until we get everything under control and then we’ll worry about neighborhoods.’ ”

News outlets such as CityLab, Fast Company and the National Journal have pointed to Philly as the first city that could buck this trend. Indego received grants stipulating as much: The JPB Foundation, a national organization focused on quality-of-life issues affecting the poor, donated $3 million to help bring the system’s diversity goals to fruition. An important aspect to all this effort is the hope that not only will it prove successful, but that it will also develop into best practices for other cities to follow.

To say that a lot is riding on Indego would be an understatement

Who Really Bikes, and Where?

Petty fell in love with bikes when many cyclists do, during childhood. As a kid he’d roam around, covering all the distance his parents would allow, first on the sidewalk in front the house, then around the driveway, then on the road until, he recalls, he got to zoom across the whole city from his Southwest Philadelphia home. “That was my first independence,” he says.

He learned Norristown and Conshohocken as an adult by heading out to ride on trails. “First, I was a solo guy,” Petty says. “I would just go out and ride my bike. I started going to one of the local bike shops — Performance, as a matter of fact. Me and the guys developed a rapport.”

John Petty joined the Bikin' Blazers, the local chapter of the National Brotherhood of Cyclists, in 2012 and today serves as its vice president.

That camaraderie hooked Petty, inspiring him to join the Philadelphia Mountain Biking Association, the Bicycle Coalition, the Bicycle Club of Philadelphia, and Suburban Cyclists Unlimited. Then, at a bike-a-thon, he saw an older man wearing a red, black and green jersey with the logo of the National Brotherhood of Cyclists, a coalition of African-American cycling clubs around the country.

“I said, ‘Yo, man! How do I get one of them jerseys?’ ” Petty says. The man explained that he’d have to join a local chapter, which in Philly is called the Bikin’ Blazers. “I was a part of every other organization, and I had never even heard of Bikin’ Blazers,” Petty says. “You can be in the cycling community and just not see a whole lot of black riders, let alone a black club, let alone a number of black clubs.” Petty joined the Bikin’ Blazers in 2012 and today serves as its vice president.

Philadelphia’s imagined community of cyclists is really a collective of subcultures. Take the Bike Polo club that plays at the Cione Rec Center on Tuesdays and Sundays, or the list of recreational clubs that ride the region’s trails together, or shops like Ruedas Mexibike, or the Women Bike PHL movement. Some groups take a little bit of digging to find, but the community represents a range of interests and backgrounds despite the pervasive notion that Philly’s cycling enthusiasts are white, yuppie and male.

“In some cities, I think communities outside of the downtown have been an afterthought in bike share rollout.”

“I think there’s just a popular understanding and stereotype about cyclists that was maybe more true 10 years ago? I don’t know,” says Monroe, who founded Women Bike PHL in 2013 to connect with other non-dude cyclists. “As the community has gotten more diverse, expanded and been more inclusive, the popular understanding and the articles that get written don’t really catch up with that.”

The Bike Revolution workshop over at the Asian Arts Initiative teaches kids about safety, design and repair as students spruce up and trick out their own reclaimed bikes. “Initially, when we first started planning this, we wanted to make it fact that there are different cultures around bike culture,” says Michelle Nugent, who proposed and leads the course. “We don’t want our students to feel like they have to fit into one category. We definitely try to stress that biking isn’t just for one type of person.”

Michelle Nugent with students in the Asian Arts Initiative's Bike Revolution program.

Why has the stereotype persisted? For one, it could be who tends to speak up. “The terms ‘invisible rider’ and ‘invisible cyclist’ have been in circulation for about 10 years,” Adonia Lugo wrote last year in an introduction to the League of American Bicyclists’ latest equity report. “In the bike world, we use them to refer politely to the individuals out there riding who have not made their way into policy-oriented bike advocacy. These terms have given us a way to talk about low-income cyclists, immigrant populations, or other groups that bike advocates have found hard to reach.”

Bruce Woods, president of the National Brotherhood of Cyclists, says the lack of diversity in these circles might have to do with location. “We enjoy riding,” he says, “but as far as being involved in the politics and advocacy piece, where you would get press [and] attention behind certain legislation, where the issues of the bike share and bike lanes come to the forefront — we don’t typically have a voice there.” This is something organizations like the National Brotherhood and activists behind websites like are working to change.

The misperception could also be owed to how people view the city’s bike commuters, or those who get to and from work on their bicycles as opposed to riding them for sport or pleasure.

“That’s who people see,” Petty says of the rush hour crowd. “Think about it. Mountain bike riders want to be out in the country, in the woods. Road riders can’t stand the stop and go of the city. Who does that leave?”

Bike commuting in Philly rose an incredible 260 percent between 2005 and 2013, according to the Bicycle Coalition. Yet based on 2010 Census data, nearly 8,000 bike commuters were white (including white Hispanics), while the total commuters of Asian, African American, Native American, Pacific Islander and other backgrounds numbered roughly 2,200. The survey counted approximately 1,300 Latino bike commuters of any race. Cyclists represent 2-3 percent of commuters for Asians, Latinos and whites in Philly, but only 0.3 percent of black commuters — a mere 770 African-American workers altogether.

“You can be in the cycling community and just not see a whole lot of black riders, let alone a black club, let alone a number of black clubs.”

“Looking at where [black people] are in great numbers in the sport, it is recreational,” Woods says. “Racing is very strong component.”

We produced a graph from 2009 National Household Travel Survey data that breaks down cycling by trip purpose within a rider’s respective racial group. As shown in the figure on page 26, commuting is highest among Hispanics.

“Non-Hispanic whites have the highest bike mode share among ethnic groups, but cycling rates are rising fastest among African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans,” wrote the authors of a 2011 Rutgers University study. “Those three groups also account for an increasing share of total bike trips, rising from 16% in 2001 to 23% in 2009. Clearly, however, cycling is still dominated by non-Hispanic whites, who make 77% of all bike trips in the USA but account for only 66% of the population.”

A Problem of Placement

“The blue dots? Nice!” Petty says, seeing a map of Indego’s proposed docking stations for the first time last winter. “I see it’s going south. Nice. Not as far west as I would prefer. Not as far west at all. Not very far north at all…” On the final map, the northernmost bike share stations serve Temple University’s campus, the southernmost stations are at the bottom of Point Breeze, the farthest station to the west is at 44th and Walnut streets, and the most southwestern station is situated in Clark Park.

“It’s true: There are limitations for how it can go [at launch],” Monroe says. “Just because there’s not a station in a neighborhood in 2015, doesn’t mean it won’t be there in 2016. I wish we had enough resources to cover all of Philadelphia, but it’s just not financially feasible in the first year, and bike share doesn’t really work if you spread it out too far. It needs a certain density.” She would remind prospective Indego users that this is the first phase of a “multi-year process.”

Erin DeCou of Neighborhood Bike Works, a non-profit that holds bicycle education programs for underprivileged youth.

The city has formed the Better Bike Share Partnership with the National Association of City Transportation Officials, the Bicycle Coalition, and People for Bikes, a national advocacy group, to pool efforts around equity for the system. Focus group surveys, conducted for the partnership by Temple University’s Institute for Survey Research, inform many of Indego’s policies, from offering both 30- day and pay-as-you-go pricing options, to making the monthly deal available for cash payment, to placing no added charges until a ride surpasses the one-hour mark. The JPB Foundation grant covers the installation of 20 stations in areas with high percentages of low-income households, about a third of the stations overall.

Stober is quick to point out the metrics. “I think people think there’s a lot more gentrification occurring than it actually is,” he says. “Those [20] stations are in places where at least 50 percent of the households live at or below 150 percent of the poverty level, or 80 percent of the households are at or below the Philadelphia household median income.”

So while one could easily argue that the Phase I stations are found only in “gentrifying” areas, they still stand to service thousands of low-income Philadelphians. Gentrification might resonate to some as widespread displacement by the block-full, but in many of these areas you’ll see new arrivals sharing the streets with families that have been there for years.

The Bicycle Coalition has also launched an “ambassador program” to work directly with community leaders and residents in North, West and South Philadelphia. The Coalition expects to hire approximately 20 of them, Monroe says, to spread the gospel of bike share through “word of mouth.”

“I trust that the [Bicycle Coalition] is doing all they can to push the edges out as far as possible, and I understand the constraints on a lot of this,” says Erin DeCou, executive director of Neighborhood Bike Works, a non-profit that provides a variety of bike education programs to underprivileged youth. “I wish it went further, especially in this first year. Because when you’re launching an equity campaign, you need accessibility to be there at the same time. There’s part of me that worries that by having those stations branch out later, it’ll hurt the equity piece.”


Cycling rates by trip purpose and race. Source: 2009 National Household Travel Survey

Philadelphia, the Inquirer reports, has the highest rate of deep poverty among the 10 most populous U.S. cities. (Deep poverty is defined as half of the federal poverty line or below, a category that counts almost 185,000 Philadelphians.) When asked about planning with consideration to widespread, persistent poverty in the city, Stober replies, “We have certainly not covered all of the parts of Philadelphia that are struggling with poverty, that is for sure.”

Petty, who has been pushing for more stations in underserved neighborhoods, balances his initial disappointment. “It’s a start,” he says. “The realist in me says ‘John, if you want this program to succeed, it first has to go where it’s most likely to succeed.’”

All Together Now

As the weather breaks, outreach groups are getting ready to host group bike rides around Philadelphia. DeCou explains that cycling can be an excellent “leveling ground” if used with “intentionality.”

“If you ever see our ride programs going out, you’ll see 10-15 young people, a very diverse group of ages and races represented, with our staff and volunteers riding maybe from our shop at 40th Street down to Cobbs Creek Parkway,” she says. “It helps to bring people together of lots of different backgrounds… all united in this very simple, very fun activity of riding a bike.”

Starting in early April, the Bicycle Coalition hosted public demonstrations and test rides of the Indego system, in part to help introduce Philadelphians from across the spectrum to this brand new service. (“We will definitely be there with Ambassadors!” Monroe wrote in an email at the time.) Indego hosted its launch ride later that month, with volunteers pedaling off from Eakins Oval to docking stations around the city.

Over at the Asian Arts Initiative, students are preparing their bikes for the June showcase, a graduation of sorts for their year of exploring (and making) bike culture. The plan: to host a bike parade with the Coalition’s Cadence Youth Cycling Foundation and make their way through Chinatown and Chinatown North in style.

“In my experience, I haven’t been able to find a group of Asian Americans who can rally for [higher representation in advocacy circles],” Nugent says at the Initiative’s workspace, where a handful of students prepare for the day’s lessons. “In order to do that, I think what we’re doing here is a good step.” ◆

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  1. Pingback: Philly bike share is growing, but will its ridership diversify? | SPOKE magazine

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