Diverse City

I was enjoying my free pancakes at a Bike To Work Day event in Colorado about a decade ago when I noticed Latinos on bikes streaming past on the way to their jobs.

In a city where 20% of residents claim a Hispanic or Latino background, with a substantial portion of them speaking little English, all of our Bike To Work Day signs were in English. I understand many of these laborers came to the United States seeking opportunity, and many of them aspire to car ownership. It struck me then that cycling events like Bike To Work Day primarily target the affluent and white, and that cycling advocates should reach out to other groups in both their promotion efforts and to get new blood and new ideas in our work.

Since then, I’ve learned that Los Angeles advocates have done a particularly good job in including immigrant groups in their advocacy efforts. Closer to where I live now, San Jose Bike Party has done a marvelous job including an amazingly diverse group on their rides and making cycling ‘normal’ for a segment of the population that you’ll never see at a Silicon Valley “Energizer Station” on Bike to Work Day, with amazing creative energy invested into this uniquely San Jose Bike Culture.

Handmade wood laminate bike

Back to Los Angeles

Los Angeles County Bike Coalition’s Urban Program Director Allison Mannos and a graduate student in urban planning Adrian Leung writes how we in America are missing part of this immigrant story with our fascination with cycle facilities in Northern Europe and Portland, Oregon.

The bicycle movement in Los Angeles is not rooted in mimcry of Europe or the “whitest city in America” [i.e. Portland]. It owes much of its progress to the participation of immigrants of color who can share uncountable stories of everyday bicycling in their countries of origin.

Although not all Los Angeles’ bicyclists are immigrants from these places, work within the bicycling community reveals that the success of Los Angeles bicycling is based on the established behavioral patterns of these people. They are immigrants, or children of immigrants, from rural and urban parts of Asia, Latin America, and Africa; their motivation to ride does not necessarily stem from an environmental or political stance. For them, bicycling is a cultural norm of inexpensive transportation that provides means for survival.

While our recent ‘best practices’ guides are inspired by what we see in Europe, Mannos and Leung highlight that Chinese bicycle use dwarfs even the best of Northern Europe, and argue that maybe we should pay a little more attention to what’s happening in rest of the world outside of the European low countries and Scandinavia.

America is becoming increasingly brown, and those promoting bicycle use should work to include these diverse cultures with our work lest we become an irrelevant cast off of stuff white people like.

Read the complete article at Streetsblog LA: Bicycling is for Everyone: The Connections Between Cycling in Developing Countries and Low-Income Cyclists of Color in the U.S..


  1. I think we de-emphasize the experience of developing countries because lower incomes “force” citizens to use bicycles. They actually want to move towards motorization. The northern European example is more apposite because their citizens cycle despite wealth. They are making land use decisions based on very different calculations. 

    Maybe a close analogy is hunger: malnourished people need food, dieters need the opposite.

  2. That’s a big part of it for sure, but we also have places like Japan. It’s a thoroughly modern country, but besides gawking at videos of robotic bike parking we mostly ignore bike policy and bike ‘culture’ there.  Urban Latin America are also fairly modern and some cities even have a European vibe, but how much South American bike culture do most of us know about outside of Bogota’s Ciclovia?

  3. It’s true I don’t know much about Japanese cycling infrastructure (and I find the culture hard to understand generally), but I’d be curious whether they have new lessons for us. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that best practices are almost identical from country to country, as they are often targeted towards the essential elements of human-ness — reaction times, safety concerns, etc.

  4. Cycling in Japan is worth a blog post all on its own 🙂 but to summarize: Bicycles seen seen more as a faster form of walking (kind of the Euro view) vs a slow form of vehicular travel (the American and British view), though legally bicycles have rights and duties of vehicles just like the USA.  Sidewalk / gutter travel seen much more in Japan than USA — it’s considered the norm.  In spite of this ‘dangerous’ style or riding, cyclists don’t get hooked at intersections because the drivers are watching out.

    Until recently bike ‘infrastructure’ was very rare — people ride in the very narrow streets or on the sidewalk. There’s really not much room to share the lane — people driving and on bikes and scooters just worm their way through traffic however they can.  It’s all at very low speed compared the USA, though, so comparatively safe. It’s very orderly and not at all like the crazy driving I’ve seen in other Asian countries. Cars and trucks tend to be smaller in Japan, and drivers are more careful and even a little obsessive about scratching their cars, so there’s no way they’ll bump a cyclist.

    I biked through very congested traffic in Tokyo ‘burbs as a kid and never felt like it was dangerous or risky.

  5. I have not ridden a bicycle in the US. I have been riding my bicycle only in Japan. I can say only Japanese cycling seen. First, almost all Japanese people start to ride a bicycle from childhood. Then, we usually use both cars and bicycles every day. Of course, the situations are different between cities and rural areas. Basically people in rural areas always need cars for daily transportation. Anyway, we don’t feel scary at all while riding bicycles at all everywhere. We usually even open umbrellas while riding bicycles. I can’t explain why, but it is true. One thing, we mostly ride mama-chari. We don’t ride it over 15km/hour. We usually buy it around 10,000yen. Everybody can buy it.  

  6. Shuichi – children riding bikes is still somewhat common in the USA, but most parents now drive their kids to various planned activities.  Many Americans are also completely driven by fear these days. It’s very sad.

  7. I know. I have sometimes read the entries written by Mia Birk. I read the article that most of the people in the US fear cycling although they may recognized cycling is a green activity. I sometimes wonder they can easily start to ride bicycles in such a situation. Of course, on the other hand, many people in the US ride bicycles…

  8. Great story. I run a program in Madison called Bike for Life. It’s primarily for minority kids in grades 2-5, but we have a diverse enrollment. I’ve been working to get more minorities into outdoor activities for about 3 years and the kids love it. I want to live in a world where the bike lanes and hiking trails are just as diverse as the public schools. Biking is fun and good for kids.  The trick is getting mom and dad out there too. 

  9. My son is attending Texas Tech and will be commuting by bike. Yes, I will worry about him. He rides very well, but it must be clarified that my fear is not based on his ability, but on those around him: The motorists. Riding a bike is not what it was when I was a kid, so I believe these fears are justified. Until there is a change in the mentality of those not actually on a bike, the fear will continue.

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