NOTE: This is the first of six guest blog posts with reflections on Boston’s first Neighborhood Bike Forum. The forum was held on April 29th in Dudley Square, Roxbury. It was sponsored by Let’s Get Healthy, Boston! a partnership between The Boston Public Health Commission and Boston Alliance for Community Health, together with Boston Cyclists Union, Transportation for MA, Mattapan Food & Fitness Coalition, Roxbury in Motion and the Boston Project Ministries. 128 people attended this four hour event.
In addition to “Who Bikes Boston,” conversations and panel discussions were held around neighborhood bike rides, tips and success stories on engaging in advocacy, how to bike safely and defensively without ideal infrastructure, youth and biking, and bikes and entrepreneurism. You can watch videos of some of the panel discussions on periscope by clicking the links, recorded and posted by Marc Ebuña of Transit Matters.
Join the conversation #ibikeBOS #bikeyourhood.
Who Bikes Boston? Claiming Your Identity in Boston’s Bike Culture. Thoughts and Reflections on the panel discussion.
By: Angela Johnson, Program Associate, Transportation for MA, Panel Facilitator; Boston Cyclists Union Board Member
Bike culture and identity can be a dicey subject. But it was important to make it center stage at the Boston Neighborhood Bike Forum.
In the U.S., “bikers” are on motorcycles and “cyclists” ride very expensive racing bikes. “People who bike” was conjured up as a way to describe the people in the middle — those of us who are just on a bike, for any reason. Indeed, there’s power in using this phrase, as popular perception has given the previous labels specific definitions, but I’ve always questioned why “cyclist” had to be so narrow in definition in the first place.
Now, let’s add race and ethnicity to the conversation.
Racing cyclists are often perceived to be white, male, athletic, and of higher socioeconomic status. In reality, in regards to people who bike, they’re the minority. The average person on a bike is Latino, male, and working class. Yet, unless he is suited in Lycra, he is a bike commuter, a person who bikes, or an “Invisible Cyclist”, depending on both his socioeconomic and immigration status.
The primary goal of the “Who Bikes Boston” panel was to give an opportunity for residents of color to share their experiences biking in the city, and in a setting specifically conceived for us. The secondary goal was to debate who gets to be called a cyclist. But the underlying goal was to push back against this idea that folks of color, especially Black people, don’t bike. Because we do.
From my own experience as an Afro-Latina, a cyclist, and as a transportation advocate, biking in Boston does feel quite white. For some, this perception can lead to feeling alienated in present bike spaces that associate bikes with a certain race and socioeconomic status. So, it was very important that the panel feature both speakers of color and a facilitator of color in order to foster trust. Michelle Cook, founder of Roxbury Rides, Peter Cheung, bike advocate and Boston Bike Party, and Farah Wong, Allston-Brighton Healthy Community Champion and Hubway user, each shared their unique experiences on Boston’s streets.
During the panel, we tackled subjects relating to identity and why we choose to bike. On the topic of being a cyclist, some audience members preferred to identify as “people who bike,” as they felt it was more encompassing than cyclist. Some liked cyclist, despite not being into racing — nor even owning a road bike.
What was most interesting was the fact that a few pondered on whether or not they wanted a moniker at all. Farah Wong noted that until I asked [if she called herself a cyclist], she never thought about biking being a part of her identity. For her, and for many people not just at the forum, but in general, a bike is just a way to get around.
Other viewpoints shared in the panel included a mother who was teaching herself to ride a bike because her nine-year son was becoming increasingly independent and was interested in riding on his own. She saw gaining this new skill as a bonding experience.
An older woman, translated from Spanish by her daughter, said that she bikes everywhere — rain or shine. A pre-teen boy said that he liked to bike for fun, especially with his friends after school. Another boy said that his West Indian parents are accepting of biking back home, but not in Boston. Here, they believe it is too dangerous. Another older woman, and known bike advocate, exposed gratitude for a discussion centered on biking as people of color, like herself.
An adult Black male and youth advocate posed a question of whom bike infrastructure in Boston was meant for. He noted that other neighborhoods, like Jamaica Plain, Allston, and Back Bay, always received substantial infrastructural improvements before Dorchester, where he grew up. While he does like having bike lanes in his neighborhood, he is admitted to still feeling wary of the City. He feels that there’s tension in his neighborhood now with bike infrastructure being proposed and what this will mean for housing affordability and for the culture of his immediate community.
The lack of time didn’t allow for an answer, but it also was not the kind of question that could be answered immediately. Bike infrastructure should be for anyone who wants to use it. Bike lanes are not being striped solely for newcomers, but for neighborhood residents who are already biking or, like the mother and her son, want to learn how to bike safely. Yet, the perception of who bikes and what a cyclist looks like remains.
My hope with both the Boston Neighborhood Bike Forum, and the Who Bikes Boston panel in particular are that these conversations will continue. When the planning team started out, our end goal was to not have the forum be a one-off event, nor just an annual conference. Bike spaces are often white spaces and intentionally creating a place for people of color in Boston, and eventually beyond, to speak openly and honestly about biking in this city will improve communication with active transportation advocates, shatter stereotypes, and create a community for those who need it.
Finally, biking, like other forms of transportation, intersects many groups in different, yet sometimes interconnecting ways:
Like biking as a Black or Latino male and being afraid that you’ll be racially profiled.
Like biking as a woman and whizzing past loud catcalls.
Like biking as a queer person and choosing to do so because it keeps the public from being able to quickly discern your gender or sexual orientation.
Like biking as an undocumented resident and wanting to stay as out of sight as possible.
Ask yourself: how does biking fit into your life as a resident of your community?
Bicycle Justice and Urban Transformation: Biking for all? (currently out of stock & quite expensive. If interested in specific chapters, reach out to the authors and they’ll send you a copy!)
Forward Thinkers on not just bikes, but race + active transportation, advocacy, and right to the city
Dr. Stephen Zavestoski @smzavestoski
Tamika Bulter @TamikaButler
Do Lee @dosik