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Sociocultural Factors Impacting Bicycle Use


As active transportation, bicycling has considerable potential to lower rates of inactivity-related illnesses in the United States. However, while Census data has shown that the greatest share of bike commuting happens among very low-income individuals and increasingly in mixed race and Hispanic populations (McKenzie, 2014), the predominant image of bicycling as a special interest has led to community opposition to these projects (Lubitow and Miller, 2013). Because most research on cycling has focused on measuring level of service and improving facility design, little is known about the beliefs different populations hold about bicycling and why they may or may not see bicycling as a transportation or recreation option. This makes it difficult to design bicycle promotions and infrastructure that will be used by a given population, and raises questions about the ability of bicycle planners and policymakers to ensure that such projects will serve users equitably (Lugo and Hoffmann, forthcoming).

While understanding the cultural contexts in which individuals choose or do not choose bicycling would greatly benefit efforts to understand and manage bicycle usage, research on this topic is sparse. Where it has occurred, its interdisciplinarity suggests that qualitative methods have much to contribute to bicycle research. Research on bicycle user groups includes studies on the historical development of specific bicycle subcultures, reports on the cultural meanings of bicycling in particular times and spaces, and theoretical analyses of bicycling’s shifting values across these times and spaces. Bicycle advocacy organizations have also contributed to this area of inquiry, reporting on the cultural barriers to bicycling in immigrant communities and the growing number of cyclists who are people of color.

Synthesizing and formalizing this approach to bicycle research would create a method for integrating differences across populations into the scope of planning and design, as suggested by the “social network activity promotion” model in public health (Versey, 2014). Furthermore, a growing number of cities are using bicycle projects as an economic stimulus at the same time that poverty is growing in suburban and less bike-friendly areas (Brookings Institution, 2011). Research into the different meanings of bicycling among different populations is timely if one is to understand the role of transportation in inequality and economic development.


The proposed research will strengthen the approaches of engineering-oriented bicycle researchers by articulating how qualitative research on social factors in bicycling makes bicycle projects reach wider populations. The research should suggest strategies, based on these findings, to increase participation in bicycling by underrepresented groups. In addition to the user community listed in the draft RNS, bicycle advocacy groups, the FHWA and civic organizations could be included as users.


Social network activity promotion applied to active transportation provides an equitable solution for increasing health, but research in this area is needed to determine appropriate methods for execution. Implementation of this research would provide substantial knowledge of the unique challenges various individuals face in choosing to ride bicycles.


1. Literature review and synthesis of current practice - A comprehensive review of the literature focusing on state of the art concepts, population-specific studies, and interdisciplinary approaches.

  1. Review a statistically valid cross section of recreational bicycle clubs across the country to determine racial, ethnic, gender and income level makeup of members and then compare their membership makeup to the nation in general to determine whether perception matches reality in terms of minority populations participating in bicycling consistent with their population percentages.

  2. Review images of bicyclists in several issues of popular bicycling magazines including Adventure Cyclist and Bicycling to determine how reflective of the images of bicyclists are of the US population.

  3. Survey statistically valid numbers of elected officials, based on racial makeup of their districts (e.g. majority Latino, majority Asian, majority white, majority African-American) to determine how they prioritize promoting bicycling and bicycle facilities in their districts.

  4. Survey statistically valid households in terms of race and ethnicity to determine how they prioritize promoting bicycling and bicycle facilities within their communities.

  5. Survey bicycling advocacy groups with boards of directors and paid staff members (e.g. League of American Bicyclists, Alliance for Biking and Walking, International Police Mountain Bicycle Association, Association of Bicycle and Pedestrian Professionals, statewide and local bicycle advocacy groups) to determine racial, ethnic and gender makeup of their directors and paid employers and compare with national racial, ethnic and gender makeup.

  6. Research same bicycle advocacy groups to determine how many have outreach programs that support inclusion (e.g. LAB’s Equity and Diversity Initiative program and assess the degree of success of such programs).

8. Produce Report - Discuss methods to integrate results of qualitative study with current practice in bicycle encouragement.


This research would influence the design of promotions, programs, and facilities intended to increase bicycle usage.


User Community: state DOTs, local governments, health departments, TDM personnel, community engagement personnel, bicycle and pedestrian planners

Sponsoring Committee:ACH20, Bicycle Transportation
Research Period:12 - 24 months
Research Priority:High
RNS Developer:Adonia Lugo, Michael Jackson, Krista Nordback
Source Info:Lubitow, A., Miller, T.R., 2013. Contesting Sustainability: Bikes, Race, and Politics in Portlandia. Environmental Justice 6, 121–126.

McKenzie, B., 2014. Modes Less Traveled: Bicycling and Walking to Work in the United States 2008-2012 (No. ACS-25), American Community Survey Reports. U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, D.C.

Suro, R., Wilson, J.H., Singer, A., 2011. Immigration and Poverty in America’s Suburbs, Metropolitan Opportunity Series. Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.

Versey, H.S., 2014. Centering Perspectives on Black Women, Hair Politics, and Physical Activity. American Journal of Public Health 104, 810–815.
Date Posted:01/10/2015
Date Modified:04/14/2015
Index Terms:Bicycle travel, Social factors, Bicycle commuting, Culture (Social sciences), Ethnic groups, Planning, Policy making,
Cosponsoring Committees: 
Pedestrians and Bicyclists
Planning and Forecasting

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