Mike “Gizmo” Johnson and his partner, Christina, were riding their bikes along the Mississippi River in St. Paul last spring after heavy rains caused the river to flood its banks. On Harriet Island they came upon the dilapidated frame of a blue 10-speed Motobecane road bike, seemingly plucked from the river by the rising waters.“It was wedged between two thick tree logs,” Johnson says. “I took some parts that my friend gave me and put them on there.” He restored the bike back to working condition and added it to his fleet, which also includes a Peugeot and a Schwinn that he is steadily improving through DIY repair and restoration. He and Christina have gone on bike trips all over the Twin Cities, including one ride all the way from downtown St. Paul to the Mall of America.
Johnson’s bikes are not new. He doesn’t buy high-end parts for them or compete in road races. Thin and wiry, he prefers jeans and a tank-top over the stereotypical spandex racing gear that “serious” cyclists don. In 2008, he was living in the Dorothy Day homeless shelter in downtown St. Paul when he needed the wheels realigned on his 20-inch Gitane. A friend at the center pointed him to the Sibley Bike Depot, a shop on University Avenue that caters to low-income individuals who can rent bikes, learn bike maintenance, and earn points toward bike ownership by volunteering their services as bike mechanics.
Aside from his athletic physique, Johnson doesn’t fit into any of the stereotypes that contemporary culture—with generous assistance from national and local media—has perpetuated about urban bicyclists. He doesn’t dress or act like a hipster (whatever that is); he carries no messenger bag; he’s never bought a brand-new fixed-gear from a high-end bike retailer. He and Christina have a 3-month-old son, Michael, and a bike trailer for him. They are on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, and ride bikes not because it’s cool or healthy, but because it’s the most efficient, cost-effective option when cars and public transit are off the table.
The Unseen—or Ignored—Demographic
Just as popular music has its internecine camps—heavy metal, country, indie—cycling has its cliques: the roadies, the trail riders, the messenger wannabes. But there is one such clique that doesn’t cohere the way the others do, and doesn’t get much play from the media. This group includes immigrants who lack the proper documentation to obtain drivers’ licenses; low-income individuals who can’t afford cars; those who’ve had their licenses revoked for DUIs or other offenses; or residents of communities where public transit infrastructure is poor or nonexistent. This group includes cyclists like Mike and Christina, and it has been dubbed—for lack of a better term—the Invisible Cyclists.
“They’re not even seen by those of us who claim to love cycling,” wrote Dan Koeppel in Bicycling magazine in 2005 (reprinted here in the Utne Reader in 2006). “We’ll pick out a sleek Italian racing bike from across an intersection, but a dozen day laborers on Huffys dissolve into the streets.” Since I first heard the term a few years ago, I have wondered who the invisible cyclists of the Twin Cities are, and why we don’t see them.
Setting up Shop far from the Greenway
The Frogtown neighborhood in St. Paul does not boast a robust cycling infrastructure. The streets are not in great condition, and there are no bike lanes. University Avenue, currently undergoing construction for the light rail, is a mess of torn-up asphalt and traffic. Where cars can get through, they often travel over the speed limit, treating University Avenue like a freeway and leaving little room for cyclists to travel safely. According to the 2010 Census, Frogtown is 34 percent Asian, 30 percent black, 10 percent Latino and 1 percent American Indian—it’s the only neighborhood in Saint Paul with a non-white majority. More than one-third of its residents live below the federal poverty level, according to a 2010 report from the Greater Frogtown Development Corporation.
In these surroundings, the Sibley Bike Depot is ideally positioned. A mostly volunteer operation tucked away inside a single-story retail building, the Depot offers bikes, parts, and education to residents of the neighborhood and others who want to ride a bike on a budget, especially low-income individuals and teenagers. Jason Tanzman, the Depot’s outreach and development coordinator, isn’t a fan of the “invisible cyclist” designation. “Invisible to who?” he asks. “Invisible to the white cycling world, it’s an apt term. But it’s potentially problematic as a term because it’s putting front and center all the ‘normal’ cyclists, the non-invisible cyclists.”
Tanzman sees “bike culture” not as a single, unified phenomenon, but rather another imperfect buzzword. Bike culture is not a distinct culture; it’s just another slice of the population whose members have nothing in common beyond their mode of transportation. “For a lot of people, a bike is not a fashion statement or a lifestyle choice,” Tanzman says. “For a Mexican American immigrant who’s not able to get a driver’s license and is riding a beat-up, front-suspension Magna bike on the sidewalk or against traffic—that’s not them wanting to participate in bike culture, that’s ‘This is the way I’m gonna get around, because it makes the most sense.’ It’s a different set of experiences that lead people to make that choice. I think we sometimes conflate bike culture and bike economy. We define bicyclists as the people who post on Minneapolis Bike Love, or participate in Babes in Bikeland, or come to the Bicycle Film Festival, and we ignore people who ride bikes all the time, but aren’t going to come to the Bike Film Fest.”
Getting Rid of Two-wheeled Privilege
Somehow, one of humankind’s most practical, utilitarian inventions has been gentrified into a boutique item symbolizing white, privileged culture. How did it get this way?
“If you delve into conversations about bicycling, they’re dominated by the classic cyclist constituencies—the road bikers, white males who are in the upper or middle class,” says Bill Lindeke, a Ph.D. candidate in geography at the University of Minnesota, and the author of the urban infrastructure blog Twin City Sidewalks. (Lindeke has also contributed to Twin Cities Runoff.) “Those are the people who are spending lots of money on bikes, the bike industry is revolving around them, they have a lot of free time, they’re really passionate about it, and so they join all the biking groups, the biking clubs.”
There’s also the political cachet of cycling. With gas prices on the rise and climate change a growing concern, many cyclists are pledging to bike to work or even eschew their cars altogether as an act of environmental advocacy. Although this is a noble gesture, it also tends to come from a place of privilege, since the populations with the political inclination to bike for environmental reasons also happen to be the ones with greater access to bicycle infrastructure and efficient public transit. It’s paradoxical: Those with the wherewithal to live in large houses and drive expensive cars are the ones with the luxury of adopting a minimalist, low-impact lifestyle. “I don’t need a car, man, get that monkey off your back!” Tanzman says, doing his impersonation of this mentality with an amped-up, self-righteous tone. “I respect that attitude, and I still have it,” he laughs, “but for a lot of people, their car is their only means of getting around. We have a car-dependent society, especially for people who have fewer choices about where they work.”
While Tanzman and the Depot engage with the community at the street level, city agencies and non-profits look at top-down methods of getting more people on bikes. Bike Walk Twin Cities is an outreach program within the nonprofit Transit for Livable Communities (TLC) that administers funds from the Federal Non-Motorized Transportation Project of 2005, which distributed $21.5 million to Minneapolis and 13 surrounding communities for non-motorized transportation infrastructure and education.
“The [Bike Walk] program’s original work plan was that we’d work with communities of color, immigrant communities, and communities where people are most likely to bike and walk more,” says David Peterson, an employee of Bike Walk Twin Cities. The organization recently launched Bike Walk Move, which will work with the Minneapolis Department of Health and Family Support (MDHFS) to communicate the health benefits of biking to specific neighborhoods in North and South Minneapolis. The city also received funding from the Centers for Disease Control to help fund the Venture North Bike Walk Coffee on Glenwood Avenue in North Minneapolis, which opened this month and is operated by the Redeemer Center for Life. There’s also the Major Taylor Bicycling Club of Minnesota (named for Marshall Walter Taylor, the first black world cycling champion, who won the title in 1899), which promotes cycling in the African American community. The club often works with the Cultural Wellness Center and will help with programming at Venture North.
Bike Walk worked with a consultant to create a video and presentation geared toward African Americans. The video “How Does Walking or Biking Fit into Your Life?” features testimonials from citizens and community leaders about how biking has been integrated into their preexisting routines and doesn’t have to be an extraneous activity with no relevance to their daily lives. Bike Walk also partnered with Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio (CLUES, which translates to Latino Communities United in Service) to train community health workers in bicycle education and to hire native Spanish speakers as cycling instructors certified through the League of American Cyclists.
From Lakeshores to Streets: Regional Equities in Bikeways
Comparing the roads in Frogtown to the bike lanes in more affluent areas like Summit Avenue, the extensive lakeside trails around the Chain of Lakes, or the Cedar Lake Trail that connects Bryn Mawr and the northwestern suburbs to downtown Minneapolis, one might be tempted to assume that bike lanes and other amenities only exist where there are higher-income residents to use them. While the 2010 debut of Nice Ride, the Cities’ bike rental program, was largely a success, it drew some criticism for not placing any rental stations in North Minneapolis. Do routes and amenities for cyclists just follow the money?
The answer is yes and no. “In 2009, the city asked us to look at regional equities in bikeways,” Peterson explains, showing me maps indicating preexisting routes for non-motorized transportation. “You can look at this through a couple different lenses. If you look at the trail network, then there are parts of the city which are clearly underserved. North Minneapolis and the central part of Northeast have large gaps in trail networks. This is also a historical thing: One of the reasons Minneapolis is considered a great place for biking is that we preserved all this parkland, mostly around the lakes and the river.”
At the end of the 19th century the first bike paths were constructed around Lake Harriet and along Kenwood Parkway, the Mississippi River, and Minnehaha Creek. They went through a period of disuse and restoration over the next hundred years as the popularity of cycling fluctuated, but set a precedent for ambitious parkland preservation projects by parks superintendent Theodore Wirth, including the prescient goal of integrating bike infrastructure into the city’s trail networks.
But who gets to live near the parks, the lakes, and the river? Impressive bike trails therefore proliferate in affluent neighborhoods because affluent neighborhoods tend to form around lakes, parks, and the river—a wonderfully synergistic development for cyclists who reside and travel in these areas, but less advantageous for lower-income individuals who live farther away, deep in the the city’s grids, where bike infrastructure is less intuitive, and less sexy. Peterson acknowledges that the low-hanging fruit—bike projects where the topography favors trails, and residents are vocal about their desire for them—has been plucked. Projects in lower-income, underserved areas will come less naturally, and only with community engagement.
As an example of a demographically egalitarian step in the right direction, Peterson cites the Midtown Greenway, which bisects the entire city of Minneapolis in an abandoned railbed just north of Lake Street. “It’s a $30 million trail that goes through a lot of very low-income neighborhoods,” he says. “It’s one of the most-used bikeways in the nation. I don’t think you can say that the Greenway is underserving people in terms of where it is.”
Jason Tanzman agrees that the Greenway is a great example of infrastructural equity, up to a point. “It doesn’t [discriminate], seemingly, because it goes through a diverse row of different neighborhoods including Phillips, including Uptown,” he says. “But there needs to be more intentionality about how we create entrances and exits that are near commercial hubs.” He points to the Nicollet Avenue entrance to the Greenway, which consists of an awkward switchback along a very narrow segment of the trail. This entrance is on the Midtown Greenway Coalition’s list of future improvements, which envisions a “green open space with ‘graceful’ bike ramp,” perhaps similar to the expansive plaza connecting the Greenway to the Midtown Global Market.
“But I think we are making progress,” Tanzman continues. “The bike community is growing; rising gas prices are making more people ride bikes whether there’s good infrastructure or not. In general, the Twin Cities have made enough of an investment in infrastructure for bicyclists to have a 10 percent mode share”—i.e., the infrastructure exists for 10 percent of all trips in the Twin Cities to be made by bike. Currently the actual mode share for trips by bicycle is 3.9 percent, second nationally only to Portland’s 5.8 percent, according to data compiled by the League of American Bicyclists. “But we need to think about the social justice aspect of it: Where are our lanes not serving? What are the communities that are not connected by bike lanes?”
Tanzman points to Franklin Avenue’s recent redevelopment as an illustration of gaps in infrastructure. “They put a bike lane in Seward, from the river to Cedar, and then it ends right before it goes into Phillips. Then there’s this really long stretch where there’s not any good bike routes. There was no technical challenge—the challenge for that section of Franklin was a political one: Why were we not able to get the political forces necessary? What was the business resistance to removing parking, even in some places where people never actually park? What were the barriers to that moving forward, and why were the needs of that community of both cyclists and potential cyclists not met? That would be a very interesting discussion.
“We need to build long-term relationships with organizations that are already doing work and organizing in the community, with leaders in the community, and work in collaboration,” Tanzman continues. “There’s no way that Sibley Bike Depot, with a mostly white staff and board, can do it alone. We need to acknowledge that we need those community organizations. We need the Major Taylor Bike Club, the Aurora Saint Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation, the Summit-University Planning Council, the Camphor Memorial United Methodist Church.
Who Is a Cyclist?
“It’s so interesting to me that bicycling has become defined by the white, liberal elite,” Tanzman says, “because there’s so much synergy of the functionality and affordability of biking within lower-income, under-served communities, yet so often those communities see a bicycle and say, ‘That’s something for rich people, or white people.’”
This discouraging mentality is abetted by the lifestyles and daily routines of lower-income populations. “If people are working two jobs, they might not feel like they have time for exercising, they’re really tired at the end of the day,” Peterson says. “They see biking as something that takes a while, and maybe their environment isn’t conducive to biking. We know that in some of these communities, obesity is more prevalent, so literally starting to do this is harder.” The barriers to cycling originate with habit more than distance: Regional census and travel data shows that 40 percent of the trips in Minneapolis were under two miles, but we took 75 percent of those trips in our cars.
Once these individuals do get on bikes, their perception of cycling can still be problematic. Because many adults return cycling for the first time since childhood, they often ride as children do—on the sidewalk, or into oncoming traffic, and without safety equipment like helmets and lights. Part of Sibley’s outreach is breaking cyclists of these bad habits and providing them with the equipment necessary to stay safe—and on the right side of the law. “People who have really beat-up bikes and no lights—they’re getting harassed by cops in much higher degrees,” Tanzman says. “I’ve had multiple instances of people of color coming in here and asking what the cheapest lights are, not because they want to be lit, but because they don’t want the cops to harass them.”
More than just Butts on Bike Seats: Giving All Cyclists Fair Access to Maintenance and Safety
Getting bikes and gear into the hands of riders is only the beginning of Sibley’s work—the rest is education. “We do a variety of programs,” Tanzman explains. “We do a lot of programs that are mechanic-based. We train youth on how to fix up bikes in a sort of job-training environment. We do build-a-bike programs where youth and low-income adults can come in, volunteer, take a class, get a bike that they fix up and keep at the end of the program with a lock and a helmet, and we’ve started making lights available, for free.
“We have three staff members who are certified League of American Bicyclists cycling instructors,” Tanzman says. “One of the programs we have is the bike library, where we have these 220 bikes that we’ve lent out to low-income and under-served community members for six-month periods. In that group, we have a variety of sidewalk riders, so we’re trying to support people in feeling comfortable on their bike. We’ll do group rides where we take people out and ride in the street. There’s a lot of people who won’t ride a bike off of the sidewalk; that’s just where they are for the time being. But maybe three years from now, if they’re riding a couple times a week, they’ll build that confidence. Our goal is to empower people, to create opportunities for people to get more involved, to ride more, to feel more safe and confident, cycling for transportation purposes.”
What bicycle advocacy and community organizing have in common is that nothing happens overnight, and the results aren’t always tangible. The Sibley Bike Depot is increasingly successful now because it’s been active in Saint Paul for ten years. Meanwhile, Bike Walk Twin Cities has only been around for a few years; the results of David Peterson’s outreach may only become apparent with time. This underscores the need for advocacy groups to remain rooted in the neighborhoods they serve, to actually become fixtures of the community, as Tanzman and the others at the Depot have done.
Demonstrating Outreach: Open Shop at the Sibley Bike Depot
Even on a rainy October night, the main workroom in the Sibley Bike Depot is bustling. The Depot is holding Open Shop, when anyone can come in and work on their bike for free. The walls are lined with work benches and tools, cabinets and shelves containing bicycle parts. Amongst a ramshackle arrangement of furniture in the room’s center, Mike and Christina’s son, Michael, is asleep in his stroller. The majority of the floorspace is devoted to workstands into which various bikes are clamped, awaiting the care of their owners. Novice cyclists and experienced volunteers work alongside each other, exchanging knowledge and getting assistance from staff as needed.
About a dozen adults are here tonight, some of whom are staff or volunteers, like Essie Schlotterbeck, a Macalester student who gets paid by the college’s work-study program for the hours she spends here. Everyone else is simply here to work on their bikes. Many are kids—adolescents, mostly, though some smaller children scurry around amidst the stands and parts. A boy who looks to be about ten wheels his dirt bike into the room and immediately addresses Micah Thompson, the Depot’s youth coordinator.
“Can I earn a new cover for my bike?” the boy asks.
“For what?” Thompson asks, confused.
“For my bike,” the boy repeats, pointing to his front tire.
“No, a cover.” The boy points to the tire again.
“You want one of these guys?” Now Thompson is pointing to the tire too.
“That’s a tire.”
“No, a cover.”
Thompson grins. “I think we’re speaking a different language here.”
Laqueshia Moran, a senior at Gordon Parks High School, works on a bike at one of the stands, surrounded by younger children. She rides a bike because “it’s a getaway. It gets me places, I can move around.” She has been volunteering at Sibley since June, when she began a youth apprenticeship. She learned about Sibley from one of her mentors at her church, Camphor Memorial United Methodist. “I got a bike made from here,” she says. “We built our bikes. [Micah] took us to other shops to see how they’re run, so we got to build our own bikes. I grew up around bikes…my older brother had a little garage and it was filled with bikes. The whole neighborhood would come and we fixed their bikes for them.”
Walter Oksanen is a slim older man working on a red Motobecane. He’s been coming to the Sibley Bike Depot since March. “I hadn’t ridden a bike in years, but I found myself in the city without transportation, and the bus leaves much to be desired. The standing and waiting…in the time I sat there waiting for the bus, I could just take my bike there.”
Oksanen began taking classes and was soon volunteering as a mechanic. “It’s rewarding for people who come in here for Open Shop. People come in and [the bike] is all they’ve got, it’s just a piece of junk, and we can fix it up for them.” He earned an old Huffy with his volunteer hours, then traded it in for something nicer. Finally, he found the Motobecane abandoned near his apartment. “It was just laying there for weeks, and it needed a lot of work. I brought it in here and got it mostly fixed up in a day. I’m glad I saved it; it might have gone into the dumpster before long. Sibley will take any bike, and some of them they’ll just scrap out. There’s a lot of recycling going on here; a lot of people aren’t that particular—if it doesn’t look nice, it’s just something for getting around.”
Oksanen is unemployed, though he expects to be getting some seasonal employment soon. He doesn’t have a car, but hopes to get one again someday. “I never expected to take up riding a bicycle again. When I was a teenager, I got a car and [thought], ‘who needs a bike anymore?’ But it’s worth it for the health; if you’re not employed, a buck seventy-five seems like a paltry sum for the bus, but two directions, you’re saving three and a half bucks if you take the bike. It fits the need for me and a lot of people like me.”