When Michelle Garcia moved from Oakland, California to Portland, Oregon two years ago, she didn’t see people of color in the bike lanes.
That shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise given that Portland’s population is predominantly white, and despite its mostly progressive tendencies, not very well racially integrated. But new Hispanic and other immigrants continue to boost Portland’s people-of-color population, however, which is now at nearly 25 percent.
Determined to see that increasingly diverse population pedaling around, Garcia formed a Facebook group, Bicyclists of Color, and began organizing rides. After a little press and a lot of heated Internet commentary, around 80 people joined the group. But to Garcia’s surprise, 75 percent of the new members were white, and many male. "I don’t not want people of non-color," she explained but this sort of racial, ethnic and gender makeup wasn’t exactly what Latina-Filipina Garcia was expecting.
Garcia endured derisive commentary, especially online, when she started Bicyclists of Color. Many anonymous commenters suggested that the idea of a color barrier in the bike lanes was absurd but U.S. Census data supports Garcia’s anecdotal observations. On average, men outbike women by 3-to-1, and in terms of ethnic makeup, bike commuters are more than 60% white. Hispanics come in second at 22%, followed by African-Americans at 11%, and Asians accounting for just 4%. While these numbers don’t veer too far from the ethnic distribution within the general population they certainly result in the kind of bike lanes Garcia experiences daily.
A student and moonlighting bicycle mechanic, Garcia says that one reason for the disparity is that bike shops, not just in Portland but in other cities like her previous hometown of Oakland, often fail to cater to the needs of new and inexperienced cyclists, especially women. There’s compelling evidence that these shops should rethink their approach: women might be in the minority but they do ride. In fact, a recent study of women and cycling by the national Association of Pedestrian & Bicycling Professionals (APBP) anticipated a few hundred females would take its online survey this spring, and was astounded when over 13,000 women from around the U.S. responded. More than 90 percent of them, however, were white and middle class, a finding that supports the perception “that biking is primarily a Caucasian activity, that it’s a leisure sport, and that it’s a white thing to do,” says Anna Sibley, a sociology student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who helped APBP crunch survey data into a report.
Garcia wants to continue to work on changing those stats but for now, she’s going to take a short break from organizing rides to wait out the worst of Portland’s winter rains. When spring comes around she’ll be dreaming up new programs and opportunities for Bicyclists of Color. "We need more outreach, more after-school programs, more word of mouth. It’s all about getting people comfortable," Garcia said. "So on the rides I do, we go slow and take breaks, a lot of snack breaks."