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Bici Cultura in Santa Barbara

In our May-June American Bicyclist magazine, we took a look at “bike culture” and all its many forms in communities across the country. We are sharing some of these stories this month as we celebrate Bike Month and the many ways people enjoy bicycling. This story focuses on how a convergence of bike culture can create a stronger community, and is authored by Lynnette Arnold, a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara, and Carmen Lozano.

Santa Barbara is a small town in Southern California whose size, flat terrain, and sunny weather make it a fertile environment for bicycle cultures of all kinds. From Gibraltar Road to the Cabrillo Beach bike path, you can find many groups using two-wheeled locomotion for multiple reasons. Roadies on carbon-fiber bikes ride with their teams, mountain bikers traverse our challenging trails, BMXers practice tricks, and tourists see the sights on rented bikes.

On a daily basis, white-collar commuters ride to work in downtown offices and at the nearby university, while fashion, tattoos and style are crucial for fixie riders.

Custom chrome sting-rays are the bike of choice for the low-rider crew: young Latin@s who accessorize their bikes with banana seats, sissy bars, ape hanger handlebars, and wheels with many spokes.

Cruising the main drag on their way to the beach, wearing flip-flops and no helmets, you’ll meet the iconic Santa Barbara cyclist: the cruiser user. Bridging many of these different cultures are the bikies, eco-minded young professionals — both men and women, mostly white — who are Santa Barbara’s dedicated cycling activists.

Bike-minded Santa Barbarans often gather at informal hubs such as coffee shops like Handlebar Coffee, the French Press, and Daily Grind, where wheels and mojo mingle. More intentional gatherings are planned during annual bike events, such as CycleMAYnia and the cruiser ride. The monthly Bike Moves ride is a local take on Critical Mass, bringing together the laid-back vibe of the cruiser users, the roadies’ commitment to riding, and the advocacy angle of the bikies.

However, none of these hubs benefit from the participation of Santa Barbara’s largest bike culture, made up of low-income, Latino commuters, who ride to work at restaurants, hotels, and landscaping jobs on their well-used bikes. Despite their numbers, this commuter group is often invisible in the community, in part due to the timing of their commutes (early morning and late night) and residential segregation. Their legitimacy as road users is challenged by stereotypes that stigmatize them for not following the rules of the road by not wearing helmets or using lights and riding on the sidewalk.

Although these ideas are equally true of other local bike cultures, especially the cruiser users, for Latino cyclists, these stereotypes come together with race and class, marginalizing them and making their bike culture invisible. But Latino commuters are highly visible at Santa Barbara’s most vibrant cycling hub, Bici Centro, a community bike shop run by the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition (SBBIKE).

During open-shop hours, cyclists bring their bikes into the shop for repair and maintenance. The shop has a DIY philosophy that espouses getting your hands dirty, and dedicated volunteer bike mechanics help customers become mechanically self-sufficient. Bici Centro represents the only local option for affordable bike repair, so many of the shop users are from the low-income Latino commuter community. Coming to the shop brings them into close contact with volunteer mechanics from the bikie community, as user and wrencher work together one-on-one on bike repairs.

When Bici Centro was created it intentionally aimed to provide a space that facilitated exchanges across different bike cultures, choosing a name that reflected these intentions. The shop has succeeded in increasing contact between members of these two separate bike cultures, and the consistent presence of Latino cyclistsat Bici Centro has contributed to increasingthe visibility and legitimacy of this bike culture.

Of course, this work faces ongoing challenges, such as frequent language barriers between monolingual Spanish-speaking shop users and volunteer mechanics who speak limited or no Spanish. Another challenge at times is that the DIY philosophy regarding repairs at Bici Centro involves a significant investment of time and effort, a heavier burden for those like the Latino cyclists who work long hours at physically demanding jobs. The DIY agenda does not work for them because they often just need a fast fix so that they can ride their bike to their next job.  But by far the most important outcome of such intensive contact between these communities has been to push the bikie activists to include the needs of the Latino cycling community in their bike advocacy work. The Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition has an active Spanish Language Outreach Committee, which, since 2011, has conducted regular surveys among Latino cyclists, using the resulting data to enrich discussions at public planning meetings about bike infrastructure.

There are many challenges in bridging multiple bike cultures across socioeconomic differences, but Bici Centro is a clear example of the power of intensive intentional contact between bike cultures. Towns like Santa Barbara and communities around the country should consider the advantages of developing intentional hubs where bike-minded people from many different cultures can come together to learn from each other’s experiences and to feed inclusive bike advocacy.

(Photo by Christine Bourgeois)

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