Monday, January 16, 2017

What If Civil Rights Included Bicycles?

Today is Martin Luther King Day, my favorite holiday because it celebrates opposition to hatred and injustice. One great example is the Montgomery, Alabama bus strike, launched in December of 1955 by Rosa Parks’ brave determination to stay seated on a bus, which set black workers walking and carpooling for 381 days until all Montgomery buses were desegregated. Of all the writings about the bus strike and the hard walking workers endured, there is one single-sentence quote that captures it best for me. Martin Luther King, Jr. told the story to the New York Times in 1961:

On a chill morning in the autumn of 1956, an elderly, toilworn Negro woman… began her slow painful four-mile walk to her job… The old woman’s difficult progress led a passerby to inquire sympathetically if her feet were tired. Her simple answer…, “Yes, friend, my feet is real tired, but my soul is rested.”

The walking itself, the hard, painful walking, and the complex carpool system they set up were points of pride. I realize and respect this. But I’ve always wondered how the movement might have unfolded if they could have used bicycles, too. Many more black people could have participated and the strain on the carpool system would have been eased. Perhaps bikes could have enabled even more bus strikes across the south. And then, imagine how many black workers would have kept riding, free from bus fares and the limits of their routes and schedules.

Unfortunately, in the 1950s and 60s bicycles were viewed only as toys in the U.S. Bikes were made to look like rocket ships and motorcycles, equipped with toy guns and sirens. It’s no wonder our civil rights heroes never even thought of them.

So where are we today in comparison?

A movement has emerged after horrific events with the name Black Lives Matter. That anyone, individual or group, has to proclaim that their life matters should appall us.

Politicians promote hatred and fear to gain power. And it works.

The CEOs of our top bike companies here in the U.S. still refer to bicycling only as a sport, their companies cranking out blingy mountain bikes and road racers with hardly a wink to basic bikes for getting around. Read more in this post.

The civil rights movement continues, it must; expanded now to oppose fearmongering toward any group and stomp out propaganda that segregates. Each of us—anyone who reads blogs like this one, anyone who knows the danger of hatred and prejudice—must protest every act of prejudice, whether through words spoken, police brutality, or through improper transportation provisions.

And let’s finally demand that our bike industry and transportation officials ensure that anyone, no matter how marginalized they may be by our current backslide toward prejudice, can choose the freedom of bicycling for their means of transportation. 



  1. A couple of comments! First, I note that the response of Montgomery, Alabama to having their bus service desegregated was to cut the service down to almost nothing. Today it runs a not-so-whopping 34 buses with no service at all on Sunday or after 6:30 PM on Saturday. Source:

    Secondly, I note that in cities such as New York or Toronto that have high numbers of transportation cyclists, there are manufacturers of exactly the sort of bicycle you want. For example, Worksman Cycles manufactures a basic single-speed bike with a coaster brake for $369. An extra $95 upgrades to three-speed internal hub gears. There are also factory options for a front basket, rear rack, lights, bell, etc. See:

    Toronto has retailers that sell city bicycles imported from The Netherlands and also locally made. See:

    There are also some shops that specialize in importing Dutch bicycles. See:

    Note how every one of those bicycles is a transportation appliance with approximately zero sporting value.

    1. Thanks Kevin, for putting important thought into this. You've opened up two critical issues that have unfolded since the civil rights movement in the '50s and '60s:

      * A horrid lack of public transit in the U.S.
      * The results of North American bike industry promotions.

      Regarding the supply of transportation bikes, Worksman is a fabulous company. In fact any bike shop can order their bikes and shipping around North America makes them quite affordable. But in areas where people cannot ride for transportation and where bike industry promo focuses on mountain biking and road racing, bike shops cannot afford to stock such bikes. They don't sell.

      Unfortunately, the Dutch bikes you note are way out of the price range for low-income workers. In fact your example of a $369 coaster brake bike is likely over the limit as well. Go to a place where most low-wage works can ride and you'll find that they pay closer to $200. Unfortunately, here in the U.S, that means mass merchants selling dangerously cheap bikes.

      But your points are spot on. Thanks for commenting.



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