Bike and proud: Red Bike and Green promotes cycling to African Americans

[This piece appeared in print in Checkerboard City, John's weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

All Chicagoans should have a chance to reap the benefits of urban biking: cheap, convenient transportation, improved physical and mental health, and good times with friends and family. The proliferation of nonprofit bicycle shops and youth education programs, along with the rising popularity of fixies among inner-city teens, is starting to broaden the demographics of cycling here. But the local bike scene still doesn’t reflect our city’s ethnic and economic diversity. Eboni Senai Hawkins, 34, wants to change that. She recently launched the Chicago chapter of Red Bike and Green, a nationwide group that promotes bicycling in the black community.

Raised in New York City, Hawkins first experienced transportation cycling as a teen after she won a scholarship for a study abroad program in southeast Thailand, doing volunteer work with Laotian and Hmong refugees. “There were no phones and biking was the main way to get around,” she says. “If you wanted to talk to someone you had to bike to their house in heavy traffic.” Her interest revived when she moved to the bike-crazy San Francisco Bay Area seven years ago for art school.

In Oakland, a multiethnic East Bay city with a large African-American population, she began riding with Red Bike and Green (RBG), named after the tricolor Black Liberation Flag. Jenna Burton founded the group there in 2007 with the goal of creating a “relevant and sustainable” black bike culture. “She’s kind of the momma of it all,” says Hawkins. Burton drafted a “3 Point Plan” outlining the power of cycling to address some of the challenges facing African Americans: health problems caused by lack of exercise and access to nutritious food, economic hardships and exposure to air pollution due to “environmental racism.”