Bicycles are simultaneously symbols of social hope and white oppression – an age-old duality reflected in American racial culture. Changing this perception is important to break down the racial and social divide found in America’s cities.

African Americans are disproportionately likely to live in disenfranchised neighbourhoods. When bike lanes pave their way through them, the neighbourhoods are gentrified and white demographics replace them. This gentrification and correlating classism can appear as a type of covert racism. Indeed, African Americans report less satisfaction with bike infrastructure in their neighbourhood than people who identify as white.

The reason that African Americans are less pleased with bike lanes in their neighbourhood is probably not just a gentrification issue. It could also be because of the barriers listed in a survey by Rutgers academics Charles Brown and James Sinclair: the fear of traffic collision and fear of robbery/assault. The latter is not a universal fear across races.

It is time to dissociate racialist culture and bicycle culture; cycling in itself is agnostic to any culture.

There is a strong legacy of African American bicycle pioneers which has, unfortunately, melted into oblivion. In the 19th Century, African Americans Mathew Cherry, Jerry Certain and Isaac Johnson were critical in developing the American bicycle. Respectively they patented the American tricycle, the bicycle pannier and a bicycle frame that could be folded and taken apart for easy storage. Jack Baker, an oil-crisis revivalist of the recumbent bike seems to be already forgotten.

African American bicycle heritage should be celebrated – so should the bicycle itself. It is the most energy-efficient means of transport in the world with an energy consumption of around 0.025 kWh per kilometre. In comparison, a car uses 22 times as much energy. Bikes take up six times less space than cars and are approximately 40% faster during rush hour too. Plus, they are cheaper.

Cars are still the dominant choice for US commuters
Cars are still the dominant choice for US commuters
Image: Statista

The bicycle is, as such, an equitable object, yet, this is not the social reality with which we are confronted. Few Americans, African Americans included, feel comfortable cycling around in traffic in general, especially on raggedy streets or in sprawling cities. The American car-centric culture is a culture that looks down on bike transportation. This, however, doesn’t explain why fewer African Americans do not bike. African immigrants, for example, are more than twice as likely as US-born African Americans to travel by bicycle.

Cycling has a low status in many African American communities, where the aspiration is, instead, to own a car. When very few African American households – one in five – is without a car, it is easy to see how not owning a car can be perceived as a sign of poverty.

Racism is another factor to be considered as racial profiling of African American cyclists is statistically very probable. Between 2003 and 2015, in Tampa Bay and in Chicago, 805 and 56% of cycling fines respectively were given to African Americans.

Official figures reveal the bike is becoming the transport method of choice for the rich and the richer people become, the further they cycle, according to the UK Department of Transport's National Travel Survey. As the habits and choices of the rich tend to trickle down to those further down the earning ladder, the bike is likely to topple the car as the mobility object of choice across racial divides.

The role of competitive cycling

The performance aspect of bicycle racing has been a crucial driver in the adoption of cycling at large. Unfortunately, competitive cycling is considered a white sport. Marshall Taylor set numerous world records and by 1899 was the first African American to be crowned cycling world champion. Not much else happened for African Americans in cycling for the next 100 years, however, until Justin Williams started winning US National Championships in track, road and criterium more recently.

In general, few athletes of African descent compete at the highest level in cycling. In 2011, Yohann Gene became the first cyclist of African descent to compete in the Tour de France breaking a 108-year-old racial barrier.

Cycling - The 104th Tour de France cycling race - The 14-km (8.7 miles) individual time-trial Stage 1 - Duesseldorf, Germany - July 1, 2017 - Direct Energie rider Yohann Gene of France starts the stage. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier - RC14827A6A80
Yohann Gene of France starts a stage in the 104th Tour de France, 2017
Image: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Still, sports can play an important role in including more African American cyclists. The aforementioned Justin Williams was three years old when the Rodney King riots took place in his neighbourhood. His response to racial injustice later in life was to create CNCPT (pronounced “concept”), a development team to represent men of colour and to broaden the appeal of cycling sports to a more diverse audience.

Wheels of change

On a positive note, things are changing: albeit from a low base - bike use by African Americans is growing approximately five times faster than among white Americans.

Breaking down barriers between African American culture and bicycle culture is important as cycling has massive societal benefits. It diminishes health problems linked to pollution and sedentary lifestyles, reduces air pollution and thereby global warming and increases productivity by reducing time stuck in traffic. It betters the economy of local, often minority-owned, shops because cycling lanes make it safer and easier to shop in dense neighbourhoods. Meanwhile, it promotes an equitable culture because bikes are way cheaper than other means of transport and cycling infrastructure is by itself cheaper to build.

Politicians must push this agenda. In Cape Town, Lebogang Mokwena is the first Bicycle Mayor in Africa. She is trying to break down racial and social barriers and open equal opportunities for all by improving access to bicycles, education and employment, including through inclusive commuter cycling communities led by women that provide bicycle lessons.

Bottom-up movements like Critical Mass and alternative rallies such as Bikestormz, a movement started in disenfranchised neighbourhoods in Baltimore and Philadelphia and adopted by Londoners, can also change behaviour. Bikestormz, led by men of African descent, involves masses of young inner-city cyclists riding demonstratively on their rear wheel in protest against violent crime. The aim is to find a sense of belonging in a bicycle subculture that pulls youngsters away from crime.

Bicycle culture already exists in some predominantly African American neighbourhoods in the US in the form of the lowrider bicycle. Often associated with West Coast hip hop and G-Funk culture, these lowrider bikes are more opulent and artistic than most other bikes on the planet and are replacing the popularity of lowrider cars.

There is still is a long way to go for racial justice in America. When it comes to cycling, we must tear down the walls that associate commodities and mobility habits with race. Meeting on bicycles, on the streets, eye-to-eye across social classes and racial judgement can revive a lost heritage and help us to take a step towards racial justice.