Apparently. The biking community in Portland is overwhelmingly white and seems to be comprised of the ultra fit who routinely go on 300-mile bike camping trips or insist on biking long and hilly distances in town, scoffing at those who choose easier, multi-modal ways of getting around. Don’t get me wrong, this level of fitness and dedication is laudable, certainly. But it’s also very intimidating and unusual.
The biking community in Portland, at least the biking community I have been exposed to, tends to skew heavily (or should I say muscularly?) toward fit and environmentally conscious white people. Granted, biking will make you fitter, but the truth is, you don’t have to be fit enough or even interested in biking the 241 miles to Crater Lake from Portland to get on a bike.
Bikier than thou
Some of my friends who bike have found the biking community in Portland to be too exclusive, homogenous, cliquish and a little out of touch with reality. They feel judged for not being “bikey” enough, for perhaps owning a car or not being perfectly environmentally conscious in their transportation and occasionally taking a plane to travel around the country instead of doing it on their bikes. A friend of mine owns a car but he keeps it secret from his bikey friends. He makes sure to bike not drive to parties that will have bikey people there so they don’t see his car. What does it say about a community when you have to hide a part of your life to feel accepted?
The biking community emerged from a group of long-time bike advocates that have been around since the beginning of Critical Mass in Portland and who deserve a lot of credit for making Portland the bike-friendly city it is today. But, this same group of people has unintentionally excluded a large majority of the population from joining the world of biking and instead has attracted other people who are similar to them – environmentally concerned white people who are immersed in the biking culture which includes having a variety of bikes, bike accessories, going bike camping, moving house exclusively by bike, going to a lot of bike-related events, etc.
But what if you’re not an environmentally concerned white person who wants to be immersed in biking culture? Can you still be welcome to biking? Can you enjoy biking, even be a bike commuter, but be a little overweight and slow going up the hills, just own one measly bike, no bike trailer, have a car and still be welcome? Or do you have to be the perfectly accessorized bikey person with athletic endurance who composts and only eats organic food to be embraced by the biking community?
Sustainabler than thou
I am environmentally conscious, but not nearly as conscious as many of the people I’ve met in Portland. Yes, I believe we must all radically change the way we do things if we are to slow climate change and rectify the wrongs we have committed to our planet over the last couple of centuries. I think we all need to be much more environmentally conscious. But environmental consciousness becomes a problem when it is used to elevate and separate ourselves from other people. It is a problem when we use it as a measure to judge people’s morality and the worth of people. It is a problem when we use it as a way to exclude people from our communities. Sadly, when we become environmentally arrogant, we prevent good practices from taking hold on a wider scale. Instead of becoming ever more stringent and obsessive in our own practices, we could stand to learn to speak the language of marginalized populations, the poor, ethnic communities that aspire to have cars and others who aren’t on board with environmentalism to affect equitable change that benefits everyone.
Less judgment, more acceptance
The biking community could open its arms a little wider and accept people into it who are not perfectly fit or perfectly sustainable or perfectly white, not only in their skin color but in their culture. And it could stand to be a little less bikey.
Imagine that to feel as if you belonged in the car-driving population, you had to become a car enthusiast who mostly talks about car stuff, owns the latest car accessories, and goes to a bunch of car events. That is largely the state of bicycling in Portland. Our goal should not be for the bike community to become ever more bikey and self-referential, but for the biking population to become as widespread, as diverse, and as “normal” as the car population is. You don’t need to have special car accessories, be a NASCAR-level driver, or know everything about cars to feel accepted as a car-driver. All you need is a driver’s license and a car and you’re in. Biking in Portland, and in the US in general, needs to get to the level of openness and accessibility of automobiles – all you need is a bike in your possession and you’re in. Biking isn’t just for the environmentally conscious or for the fit or for one ethnic population, it’s for everyone. It’s imperative we shift bicycling from being an exclusive hobby for enthusiasts to being a normal, everyday tool for everyday people of all walks of life.
Photo Credit: Photo by U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Aaron Ansarov. [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsTags: bicycling, biking community, equity, inclusivity, portland