“Why is cycling such a ‘white’ sport?” asks this Monday’s headline on the Guardian’s bike blog. In the article, author Matt Seaton focuses specifically on cycling as a competitive sport, but later in the piece muses on urban cycling, speculating, “even in ethnically diverse inner-city areas, I bet that the vast majority of cyclists you see will be white (and probably middle-class, too — but that’s an issue for another day).”
It is exactly this perception that led U of T planning student Erica Duque to focus her thesis on the topic of ethnicity and cycling in Toronto. â€œI originally started thinking about it in terms of who cycles in Toronto; I just informally asked people,” says Duque. After these initial conversations showed a pattern in people’s impression of the cycling population as mostly white, Duque decided to pursue this line of questioning further, through an online survey and interviews with the cycling advocacy community. â€œI wanted to find out who other people thought cycled in Toronto and also get some demographic statistics on who cycled.â€ It is this relationship between perception and reality that began to form the crux of Duque’s line of thought.
While she faced limitations in getting demographical data that was accurately representative of Toronto’s cycling population, Duque’s survey results (some of which will be released in the upcoming issue of Spacing magazine — out August 25th) did indicate that a majority of people characterize the average cyclist in Toronto as white. This perception rang true across ethnic lines, as survey respondents who identified as white as well as those who identified as visible minority felt this to be the case. International cycling advocate and Executive Director of Mississauga-based organization, Walk and Bike for Life, Gil Penalosa, is unsurprised by this result: “I think they’re right. I think that that’s the perception and in this case I think the perception is reality,” going on to discuss how the cycling population is most likely disproportionately white as compared to Toronto’s overall ethnic make-up.
In a city that liberally boasts its multiculturalism, this is a problem. In a city where bike-lane debates take upwards of 7 heated hours, our municipal representatives duking it out over Toronto travellers’ best interests, this is an even bigger problem.
Suggestions as to why cycling might lack diversity range from simple to complex and multi-layered. Duque and Penalosa present a slew of potential causes, including socio-economic factors, systemic racism, Toronto’s lack of geographically dispersed cycling routes, and the status symbol that the car continues to possess within the “North American dream.”
This summer has seen a step in the right direction, as Culturelink Settlement Services and the Toronto Cyclists Union have teamed up to better battle these cycling inhibitors through concerted outreach to newcomers groups. This partnership is especially important because it has the potential to open up the cycling advocacy community to more diversity. Duque’s thesis showed that the cycling advocacy community may be even more racialized than the overall cycling population, indicating that the environmental movement, which cycling advocacy is often affiliated with, and activist community in general may not “connect with the racial/ethnic communities in the city.”
Penalosa agrees, taking this further to talk about a lack of opportunities for visible minorities not just on the advocacy level, but in community leadership and representation in general. “In the GTA when you meet anybody, within 5 minutes they are telling you how proud they are of how we are the most multicultural city in the world,” Penalosa says. “But in Mississauga, there is not one visible minority in the top 35 decision makers or not one visible minority on the City Council.” Visible minorities make up around 42% of Mississauga’s population.
To borrow from Seaton’s article, quoted above, perhaps that’s an issue for another day. The task at hand at the moment: more accessible education on the benefits of cycling, better effort to build alliances, and a geo-politically dispersed cycling map — all things that the CultureLink/Toronto Cyclists Union outreach campaign is working hard on. Leehe Lev, coordinator of the campaign, has been distributing posters — available in Toronto’s 15 most-spoken languages — to organizations that provide settlement services, cultural festivals, public libraries, and other cultural and community hubs. “It’s been very positive,” says Lev, despite the fact that she was faced with the added challenge of community centres and the City’s cycling department being closed during the strike. The campaign has been extended until October, so that Lev can work on a Toronto cycling handbook, also available in 15 languages.
Lev also hopes to use this time to focus more on the suburbs. Even the briefest glance at the bike map indicates this to be a priority, as bike routes are dramatically absent in the inner suburbs, where immigrant and visible minorities tend to be concentrated. Penalosa envisions a new, revamped cycling map to combat this problem. “In order to get more immigrants and people and everybody cycling is that we need safe bikeways. We need a grid. A safe bikeway is one that is physically separating the cyclists from the cars. All of the things that they city is doing — painting the lines — that’s a waste of moneyâ€¦ We need to build a grid.”
Hope is high on this front. “I’ve only been [working on the campaign] for three months, so I haven’t been able to implement that much change,” says Lev. “But it’s happening, it’s going to happen, it’s going to take a domino effect once we’re beyond the pilot stage of this project.”
Photo by antenne