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Diversity of cyclists growing in Boston

Advocates saymore should be done to bring together riders and policymakers

Jose Nunez helped his daughter, Floritelka, and his son, Francisco, cross a street in Fields Corner.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff/Boston Globe

Neither a hipster in skinny jeans, nor a Spandex-clad road warrior, Rafael Pabon does not look the stereotype of a Boston cyclist.

Every day, winter or summer, the 46-year-old rides up and down Dorchester Avenue, from his home in Milton through Mattapan to see his son, who lives near Fields Corner.

He is not white. He does not belong to bike advocacy groups. And though he likes the exercise and the feel of whizzing past traffic in cargo shorts and a golf shirt, his preference for bikes comes down to one thing: necessity.

“I ride it because I can’t get a car,” Pabon said. With a bike, he said, “I don’t get no tickets. I don’t pay no taxes.”


“If I have to go,” he continued, “I have to use my bike.”

Although studies show that cycling is growing quickly among racial and ethnic minorities, a trend visible on Boston streets, stereotypes persist of cyclists as either white and wealthy MAMILs (middle-aged men in Lycra, in cycling parlance) or scofflaw hipsters on fixed-gear bikes.

To put it simply: Boston’s cycling community has an image problem.

Leaving work, Rudolfo Chalas, 27, pedaled down Adams Street near Dorchester Avenue.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

And that problem has hampered the cachet of bikes as a political issue, some say. City Councilor Ayanna Pressley said that every day, she sees a steady stream of people riding their bikes in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan.

But as a public official, she said, it is more difficult to fight for an issue perceived to affect only a narrow swath of the city’s residents.

“There is sort of a stereotype of who rides, or what a cyclists looks like, where they live,” Pressley said at a meeting with students from the Harvard School of Public Health earlier this month. The people giving the most vocal opinions on where to put bike lanes and how to improve bike safety are not the ones she sees on the streets.


“I wonder if we’re missing opportunities,” she continued, “to identify and engage them . . . getting that intelligence and input.”

Those voices might include people like Jose Nunez and his wife, Lorenny, who were born in the Dominican Republic and now live in Dorchester. A few times per week, they take their two children biking through the neighborhood. It is also how Jose gets to his job at a car body repair shop in Quincy. They cannot afford a car.

There are challenges, of course — the same kinds of concerns faced by any cycling family in the city. Even with bike-friendly markings on the street, Lorenny said she does not allow her children to bike on the street, instead steering them to use sidewalks. And though she encourages them to use helmets, her children say they find the headgear too uncomfortable, and it is hard to be a stickler, she said.

Still, cycling has also become an important part of spending family time together, the couple said.

“You don’t need a car. You don’t need a bus. You don’t need a gym, because you exercise in the street,” said Jose, 51. “The bicycle is better.”

They are not unusual. A 2011 Rutgers University study found that in North America, minorities are making up an increasing share of bike riders. The percentage of cycling trips that are made by African American, Hispanic, or Asian people rose from 16 percent in 2001 to 23 percent in 2009.


But those demographic shifts are not immediately apparent when you look at who attends national conferences on biking and bike infrastructure, said Helen Ho, development director at New York City’s Recycle-A-Bicycle, a youth bike education program.

“It’s a pretty MAMIL crowd that goes to those types of events,” Ho said. “But we’re starting to realize who’s missing from the conversation.”

Carolyn Szczepanski, spokeswoman for the League of American Bicyclists, a national bike advocacy group, said bike groups around the country promote diversity by donating free bicycles in low-income communities and providing lessons on street safety and basic bike repair.

But the organization’s leaders, Szczepanski said, must also reach out to cyclists in black, Hispanic, and Asian communities.

“The future of bicycling depends on us working to bring more people into the fold,” Szczepanski said.

The lack of diversity in the city’s advocacy communities is a problem that Phi Tran says he knows first hand. Tran, whose family came from Vietnam, is vice president of the Boston Cyclists Union. Bikes are deeply rooted in modern Vietnamese culture, he said, and growing up in Dorchester, his family and neighbors all used bikes to get around.

“While there are people who consider themselves cyclists, there are people who use the bicycle who don’t call themselves cyclists — they don’t ride every day and they don’t always use it for exercise or for enjoyment — they use it because they have to,” Tran said. “They have to travel to the supermarket, they have to travel to pick up their child from day care and bring them home.”


But when he invites Vietnamese people to join the Boston Cyclists Union, or to participate in family-friendly group rides or fix-a-flat workshops, they rarely come.

“There are cultural barriers, language barriers, and people not really clicking with the community,” Tran said.

As an example of the divide, he pointed to the death of Christopher Weigl, a 23-year-old Boston University graduate student killed on Commonwealth Avenue last December. In the days after his death, there was a swell of sentiment in the Boston cycling community and calls for changes to the city’s bike infrastructure.

But just a few months earlier, another person died on his bike: 63-year-old Doan Bui, a Vietnamese immigrant, killed while riding on Morrissey Boulevard on his way home from an evening of fishing in Dorchester.

The outcry, he said, was almost nonexistent.

“Doan Bui — we didn’t even see a picture of him. That’s all I knew, he was a Vietnamese gentleman,” Tran said.

“Chris Weigl, he’s younger, he’s white, he’s in college — he has a bright future, whereas Doan is an immigrant, and he’s older,” Tran said.

The cycling community “empathized more with Chris.”

The notion that bike lanes are most used by college students has affected bike groups’ ability to persuade city officials to invest in bike infrastructure, Tran said.

“I do see some of the hesitation on the development of these things,” Tran said. “They’re thinking, ‘Why are we building it for [college students], and then they’re just going to leave?’ ”


Pressley agreed that the lack of diversity in bike advocacy circles is a problem city leaders have picked up on, and one that has caused them concern as the city’s bike movement gains steam. When councilors are fighting for issues in the city, she said, they have to believe that it affects many people, not just a small group.

“There are bound to be perspectives and points that are missing,” Pressley said. “Pragmatically, it is unfortunate, because it means that the policies that we are developing are underinformed.”

“There is a tight cycling community, and they do communicate what the hot spots are, and where they are more vulnerable,” she continued. “But if we are not aggressive about engaging other people, there may be valuable data we’re missing out on.”

Some specialists have argued that city officials are using incomplete data sets to determine where to put bike lanes — an issue that they say has affected the reliability of the city’s much-publicized bike crash data report.

Steven E. Miller, a founding board member of the LivableStreets Alliance, said he believes that the bike crash report was not comprehensive because people who are not native English speakers or who live in communities of color are less likely to contact police if they get into a crash with no serious injuries.

And Pete Stidman, director of the Boston Cyclists Union, said the city’s annual bike count places relatively few volunteers in Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan — so numbers of riders and those who wear helmets are harder to pin down there. Helmet use is likely lower in those neighborhoods, Stidman said, because there is a less cohesive community of cyclists pressuring one another to wear the headgear. But, he continued, that is hard to know for sure with less robust data.

Without good information on who bikes in communities of color, it is impossible to know how to foster further enthusiasm for bikes in those neighborhoods, said Sarah Braker of Bikes Not Bombs, a Jamaica Plain-based bike shop and advocacy group.

Yes, Braker said, bike lanes are important. But a lack of bike lanes is often not the biggest deterrent to young people biking in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan. Instead, she said, they need safe places to lock their bikes and access to affordable, good-quality locks.

And the relative dearth of bike repair shops in Boston’s predominantly black and Hispanic communities means that a broken chain or a flat tire can put a bike out of commission for months.

But that is not what often gets discussed at the highest levels of public advocacy, she said.

“It sometimes feels like the conversation starts and ends with bike lanes,” Braker said. “But there are more challenges to what real diversity should be.”

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.