The Social Determinants of Biking

Maria goes over the particulars of the bike with her class.

Up until now most of my efforts as a bicycle advocate have been focused on encouraging people to ride bicycles again, to ride more, and to ride farther. However, in my work as a health advocate for underserved youth I've realized that what is really needed for this community are classes and programs to promote biking to those who have never owned a bicycle to begin with.

Last month I taught my first in a series of youth-focused workshops titled "License to Ride: Bicycles and Transit" and it brought up some issues I’d like to further explore with you in regards to the factors affecting a person’s likelihood to ride a bicycle. I call these the social determinants of biking, and it’s nothing new.

With the growing discussion about health inequities, bicycles are making their way into public health conversations as an enjoyable way to combat obesity and stress. Unlike walking as a mode of transportation, however, many young people cannot instantly reap benefits of biking per the concerns listed below.

My curriculum for "License to Ride: Bicycles and Transit" was designed to create a dynamic discussion about traffic skills and safety on bikes. Out of 15 participants, all were avid riders of mass transit and only two owned a working bicycle; the experience of riding a bike is almost foreign to the rest. They cited costs, theft concerns, neighborhood safety, storage issues, lack of bike lanes, and fear of riding with cars as reasons for not biking. Thinking on my feet my lesson plan changed quickly from “how to be a confident cyclist” to “how to get your first bike and what to do next.”

Though some of them have thought about biking, "it isn't realistic." Some believe biking could ease their local travel challenges and “make the day more interesting and fun,” but without it they could still get around with the help of buses and rail, especially with local agencies providing bus tokens as incentives when accessing medical or case management services.

These young people rely heavily on Metro to travel between home, school, health-related appointments and everywhere else. Homelessness, unemployment, immigration status, and lack of family support are also common to some of them. Clearly, they have greater concerns in their daily lives than adopting the biking lifestyle to be eco-friendly or as an alternative to the indoor fitness club experience.

The group talked about desired improvements to their current transit options and gave feedback about Metro including customer service concerns and paying the proper fare using a TAP card in a system with unlocked turnstiles.

We identified places to buy their first bike, groups to join for social rides, and classes to take. The group was excited to hear about the Bicycle Kitchen, a local nonprofit bicycle repair educational organization offering services with sliding-scale model for payment and the Earn-a-Bike program. I also covered the benefits of biking and highlights of the evolving bicycle culture in L.A. And though most didn't have biking experience, I introduced the ABC Quick Check, defined vehicular cycling, and identified road hazards anyway.

Although this wasn't a Traffic Skills 101 class (which requires a working bicycle to participate and a much longer day), the group actively asked questions about biking scenarios as if they were going to ride that afternoon and apply this new knowledge.

They expressed interest in free workshops, donations, scholarships, mentorships, and employment related to bicycles—just a few ideas for tackling the social determinants of biking that will require the efforts of communities, local leaders, advocacy groups, government agencies, and educational institutions to fully address. In the meantime, I’ll continue developing workshops and advocating to improve the availability of services (bike-related or not) to support the people who need them most.

For more information, please contact Maria Sipin at A Healthy Design.

The"License to Ride: Bicycles and Transit"  workshop is part of a monthly series covering topics such as grocery shopping at bargain stores, dressing for job interviews, and opening a checking account. The Life Skills Group housed at the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Children's Hospital Los Angeles creates a forum for young people ages 12-24 to learn basic life skills as a way to support youth beyond providing medical care.