Illustration by Jess Hirsch

FRIDAY AT 5 PM is bicycle rush hour on N Vancouver. Despite some evening drizzle on Friday, November 13, a line of five bikes stopped at a signal on Vancouver. The cyclists had some things in common: They all wore helmets, they all had flashing front lights, and they were all white.

As the city prepares to add 600 new miles of bikeways over the next 20 years, bike advocates are starting to point out some problems with the current bike scene. Though there are no hard stats breaking down biking habits by race, anecdotal evidence points to a biking scene that includes few people of color. The Community Cycling Center (CCC) on NE Alberta is working with a three-year, $70,000 grant from Metro on a program called "Understanding Barriers to Bicycling" that aims to figure out why people of color seemingly aren't jumping on Portland's bicycle bandwagon.

"There's a racial gap," says CCC Community and Programs Director Alison Graves, who laments that the overwhelming majority of her bike shop's customers are white despite its location in a neighborhood that is nearly 50 percent non-white, according to the 2000 census. "Why aren't there young people of color on fixed gears and older people of color commuting? There's some diversity, but it isn't like the whole community is riding bikes."

"When initiatives for cycling come through, there are questions about who will benefit from bike lanes," says Paige Coleman, director of the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods. Coleman says conversations about biking being a "white thing" have come up often in recent years. "Some communities call the bike lanes the 'white stripes of gentrification,'" she adds.

The CCC organized over 70 meetings and five open houses over the past year to figure out why minorities are not biking as frequently as their white neighbors. "A lot of the conversation is about cars, fear of cars, and being unsure of the rules and bike routes," says Graves, who says groups she worked with were often unaware of the city's bike plans or resources like bike maps.

"The information from the city is not crossing cultural gaps," says Graves.

Some people of color who attended Graves' workshops were nervous about biking because they feared the police will racially profile them and pull them over, says Graves. In September, African American Portlander Robert James tried to fight a drug charge on the grounds that the arresting officer may have racially profiled him for ostensibly rolling through a stop sign on his bike ["Biking While Black," News, Sept 17].

The city has recently made some small changes to try to get immigrant communities onto bikes. When Portland Bureau of Transportation's Carolina Iraheta Gonzalez taught English and Spanish alternative transportation classes to adults in North Portland over the summer, she says many of her students had never seen a bike map before.

Tanya Wolfersperger had a similar experience while helping host CCC focus groups with Hacienda Community Development Corporation. "When people see bikers, it's the Spandex-wearing cyclist, people look at that and they think, that's not me," says Wolfersperger, adding that the Hacienda residents just weren't getting the information about biking in Portland.

"Sending out a bunch of paper isn't necessarily going to do it, public meetings don't always do it," says Wolfersperger, who found that Spanish-language radio ads were a much more effective method of publicizing events and services.

But language isn't the only barrier to cycling. Graves says she recently met an African American father at a Dishman Community Center outreach event who biked frequently but said he had no interest in "white people rides" like Providence Bridge Pedal.

Regena Williams started riding bikes for fun on weekends with her kids after they learned the rules of the road (and how to change flat tires) at a CCC-sponsored Vernon Elementary after-school program. "I do not see a lot of African Americans riding bicycles and I do not see a lot of immigrants riding bicycles," says Williams, who is African American.

Anecdotally, she perceives a lack of health consciousness in her community as a barrier to biking, as well as safety out on the road.

"When you're a bicyclist, usually people are not too aware of respect," says Williams. "They'll blow the horn, all that kind of stuff."