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5 Things The Bike Movement Can Do To Advance Racial Equity

The following post originally appeared on the Center for Social Incluson’s blog. It’s written by Simran Noor, CSI’s Director of Policy and Strategy, who recently spoke at the 2015 National Bike Summit.

Two weeks ago, I had the honor and privilege of being a panelist at the National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C. The Summit is an annual bike advocacy event that unites bicyclists from across the nation to build a bicycle-friendly America for everyone. I joined the panel, “People and Policies Successfully Addressing the Root Causes of Inequity” to talk about equity, specifically racial equity, and why it matters for the bike movement.

Below is a condensed version of my remarks:

The bike movement wants to create a world in which everyone can bike and walk—for the health of the planet and the health of communities. The movement is right to be thinking about which communities have the ability to bike and walk and which do not; this is part of a conversation about equity, and it’s absolutely the right conversation for them to achieve their vision.

Equity is achievable; but determining how to get there is not always easy, especially since it requires a fundamental shift in thinking and action. At the Center for Social Inclusion (CSI), we focus on racial equity. We define racial equity as both an outcome and a process. A racially equitable society is one in which race no longer determines one’s life outcomes and in which we recognize that when we address inequity, we all share in the benefits of increased fairness and justice.

Noor, far right, was joined by Naomi Doerner, of the Alliance for Biking & Walking, far left, and Dara Baldwin, of the National Disability Rights Network, on the Summit panel. Photo by Brian Palmer.

Here are five things the Bike Movement can do now to demonstrate their commitment to racial equity: 

#1 Interrogate Root Cause of Disparities

The disparities we see by race across every measure of health and well-being are not natural. Our history tells us that our policies and institutions have driven the way we all experience life. Put simply, our policies, practices, and procedures across institutions (e.g. housing, education, transportation, etc.) have discriminated based on race; therefore, race is still a key determinant of one’s life outcomes. This is critical to understanding the root cause of any issue at hand.

Here’s a simple exercise we at CSI use to help activists identify root cause when thinking about disparities.  Ask “why?” approximately five times. Start with a disparity:  “Communities of color are less likely to bike.”  Then, ask “why?”  Respond. Then ask again until you’ve asked approximately five times. By asking “why?” repeatedly we can go beyond cultural, individual-based explanations and start to unearth the root causes of the disparity. For biking, the root causes are past and present policies that make it harder for communities of color to bike and walk. These include housing policies that created and sustain both highly segregated and disinvested neighborhoods and also transportation policies that tend to favor highway investment over other ways of getting around for all communities, i.e. biking and walking.

While no single policy or intervention is likely to fully address the root causes of the disparities we see today, identifying root causes would allow the bike movement to be strategic and thoughtful about both the right outcomes and the best strategies to get to equity in biking. This exercise also often requires disaggregating data by race and to and understanding anecdotal stories and life experiences, and how communities of color and low-income communities experience issues differently from white and affluent communities.

#2 Lift up Leadership of Color in Your Movement

Within the bike movement, I hear the need and desire for resources to diversify organizations. Those tools exist ( and should be explored and implemented. Diversity is important, but as a singular approach, it does not necessarily guarantee racially equitable outcomes. For example, though we should celebrate that we elected our nation’s first Black President, we also see an increase in the racial wealth gap since the beginning of his Presidency.  Moreover, diversity without meaningful long-term engagement is merely tokenism.

The bike movement should create meaningful opportunities for people of color to participate and engage over the long term. This can’t stop with engagement, which is vitally important, but must lift up leadership of color within the movement and create opportunities for those leaders to shape and drive policy and strategy agendas. This means creating space and resourcing and centering leadership coming directly from communities of color.

#3 Reframe the Message

It’s no secret that the perception of the bike movement is that it is mostly White and middle class. This perception isn’t entirely true. At the Bike Summit, I was overjoyed to see activists and advocates of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and more. These people are a vital part of the bike movement, but their participation isn’t necessarily reflected in the messaging. Additionally, starting with biking and walking often doesn’t resonate with those who are not White and middle class.This could explain why other communities are not engaged with the bike movement as much as they could be or why communities who aren’t White and middle class may feel marginalized.

Expanding the framework and message could go far towards making communities, particularly those most disconnected from the movement, more likely to engage.  One such frame could be, “We seek earth-friendly, multi-modal transportation options to get folks from point A to point B in affordable, accessible ways.” This by no means makes biking, walking, or rolling less important; it simply recognizes that biking, walking, and rolling is one approach that fits within this larger context of accessibility. This is important because root causes show that there are a host of barriers to biking, walking, and rolling that limit the ability of low-income communities and communities of color to get to where they need to be.

#4 Engage with Communities

For many low-income communities and communities of color, the insurgence of bike or pedestrian lanes is a trigger for displacement and gentrification. The big question that bike advocates must address is who benefits from these types of investments? To address that question, bike advocates must get the pulse of community and understand and attempt to protect community interests. This requires engaging folks early and consistently in meaningful ways. This also requires meeting community on their terms in ways that are both convenient and accessible to them. Lastly, this requires listening and learning and again valuing perspectives and feedback. This is a time and resource commitment, and is essential to the very definition of equity as a process. Engagement also means being accountable to ameliorating the unintended consequences of investments in disinvested communities. This could mean pairing bike lane investments with affordable housing strategies or with other transit options that connect people where they need to go; alignment and sequencing is incredibly important to getting to the outcomes we seek.

#5 Share Power and Resources

The bike movement may feel like their power and resources are limited. But, to disinvested communities, the bike movement is the Goliath to their David. Resources can certainly be in the form of money—and they’d welcome that—but resources could also be sharing capacity, thinking about joint strategies, accessing and connecting media, etc. Since communities of color and low-income communities are so often shut out from our dominant media and policy-making institutions, there are plenty of creative ways to begin to connect them to the bike movement’s access and resources.

I applaud the bike movement for taking on the hard work on equity.  Not many movements do.

If we shift the way the bike movement does its work, the bike movement could play a significant role in making racial equity a reality and a benefit for all Americans.

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