Monday, November 9, 2015

Divisive Article on Working-Class Cyclists Only Worsens Issue

When I first saw this article posted on Governing, a repost from The Kinder Institute for Urban Research in Houston, I hoped to read about an inspiring and intimate discovery. The headline, “Most Cyclists Are Working-Class Immigrants, Not Hipsters,” shows a clear lack of awareness, which I hoped meant that the author had made a personal breakthrough.

Through my work at One Street, especially our Social Bike Business program, I often meet people with narrow ideas of what a bicyclist is. Some have never seen an impoverished person riding a bike. Rather, they may have seen them, but never noticed them. Many have only noticed sports cyclists in bright colors riding space-age bikes. Others believe that cycling is only for poor people and have somehow missed all the flashy cyclists, families on bikes, kids riding with friends, commuter cyclists, self-employed people riding for fun, and those groovy hipsters. And I certainly wouldn’t expect any of these happy cyclists to care much about other sorts of cyclists as they are too busy having fun riding in their own way.

All of us humans have a residual tendency to judge and categorize other humans. This is left over from our primitive beginning when survival depended on quickly and correctly judging a friend or foe. We often don’t even notice those who offer no friendship or threat. Our survival no longer depends on these inappropriate quick judgments, yet they dominate our lives and articles like this.

This tendency is a major barrier to overcome for all of our Social Bike Business partners. In order to attract their own partners and media attention to grow their program, they must get past the very basic first step of convincing them that low-income people ride bikes. Then, not only do they ride bikes, many enjoy riding bikes. Then comes the concept that bicycles and careers with bikes can help them out of poverty. It can be a long road.

I had hoped to read in this article a story of the author’s inspirational discovery of working-class cyclists. Unfortunately, the direction the author chose was all but inspirational. He sought out anyone with a grudge about cyclists who were different from themselves. While he includes interesting data from Houston’s modal choices, the bulk of the article jumps from grudge to grudge, even finding space to bash all bicycle advocates in general. Here’s a list of the grudges I found:

  • Against building bikeways in low-income neighborhoods;
  • Against all European bikeway and bike advocacy models;
  • Against young, hip cyclists;
  • Against the cycle chic movement;
  • Against middle-class and wealthy cyclists;
  • Against competitive cyclists;
  • Even a hint of distain against child cyclists;
  • And the sweeping grudge against all bicycle advocates in general.
Quite a feat for one article.

I think the only inspiration to take from this misguided article is for all of us to never segregate any sort of cyclist in our messaging and promotions. Such segregation only encourages articles like this and the setting of one group against another. Even as we work toward revealing the high number of low-income and impoverished cyclists all over the world, we must present them simply as bicyclists who have the same right to respect, to quality bikeways, to learning from Europeans and others, to being hip and chic, and to laughing like a kid again as they pedal.

Give the article a read and let me know in the comments section if I’m being too harsh. Also, note any grudges I may have missed.



  1. I think the title of the article in question, “Most Cyclists Are Working-Class Immigrants, Not Hipsters,” is unfortunate. It's click bait that triggers defensiveness by pitting stereotypes against each other. But in my read of the actual article, I found the focus to be on the challenges of doing inclusive bike advocacy and planning (something I support). Examples of efforts in Houston and elsewhere were, to me, a look into what is possible if we broaden the umbrella, so to speak. I'd love to see more dialogue, and more comments on controversial articles, that offer suggests for how we can accomplish this.

  2. I agree! It's almost as if the author was struggling between the two forces, but more from his own frustration and the bitterness of those he interviewed then a conscious goal of click bait, even as his intentions were good. It's a shame that an article on this important topic that is so laced with divisiveness is the one that gets the play time. Maybe now that the bitterness is out, they can do a better job next time.


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