Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Can Cities Change the Face of Biking?

There's a growing trend of teaching young people (especially those from demographic groups that historically haven’t embraced biking) how to repair and ride bikes.

Der'eek Fields, 15, doing a safety check on a bicycle as part of the Baltimore Bike Experience at Digital Harbor High School.
J.B. Wogan
Andre Hopkins, 17, and Kevin Violenus, 19, huddled around a bike frame with a missing front wheel in their high school's garage. In one hand, Hopkins palmed a magnet tray; in the other, he lifted a fastener to the fluorescent light. Check for gashes in the metal before reassembling the headset, he told Violenus.

The two teenagers are part of a bike club at Digital Harbor High School, nestled in a gentrifying neighborhood east of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. About a half dozen students meet on Wednesday afternoons to learn how to build, repair and ride bikes. The nascent program -- officially called the Baltimore Bike Experience -- relies on the generosity of volunteers like Nima Shahidi, a bike and automotive mechanic, and three high school teachers who serve as club advisors. Nearby bike shops and the Baltimore Police Department have donated bikes and parts to the club. Later in the spring, the students plan to sell reconstructed bikes as part of a larger fundraising campaign.

To make the Baltimore Bike Experience permanent, the club needs revenue. “You can use volunteers as adjuncts to a program, but having something that is completely volunteer-run is incredibly difficult to keep going,” said Chris Merriam, executive director of Bikemore, a nonprofit that supports the Digital Harbor club. “The people need to get paid for their time.”

This appears in our free Infrastructure e-newsletter. Not a subscriber? Click here.

Baltimore is one of a growing number of cities with nonprofits that use bicycles as a youth education tool. The city of Albuquerque, N.M., for example, has its own community-based bike shop, which hosts two-hour classes on basic tune-ups, brake systems, ball bearings and wheel truing. In general, local government isn’t the driving force behind these programs, but it often provides important support in the form of municipal grants or in-kind contributions like Digital Harbor’s garage.

Youth bike programs could lead to a higher percentage of city bike commuters, but to achieve large-scale change, the clubs would likely need to expand biking to demographic groups that historically haven't embraced biking. Many of the nonprofits organize rides through the city or even to other cities, which promotes exercise. Merriam said he would like to see Baltimore schools treat bike repair classes as a hands-on form of physics education. Some schools elsewhere already do. The nonprofit Bike Works Seattle visits a high school each year for a two-week unit on physics concepts demonstrated through bicycles.

But groups like Baltimore Bike Experience could be attractive to policymakers for another reason: They teach job skills. Hopkins, one of the students, now works on Saturdays as a bike mechanic at Race Pace, a local shop down the street from the school. Shahidi said he’s talking with a handful of other shops about finding summer employment for the students. That experience could come in handy for finding permanent employment after high school.

As biking becomes more popular across the United States, demand for bike mechanics is likely to grow. “Bicycle repairer” ranks among the top 85 growing occupations in the next 10 years, according to a 2013 analysis by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The nation will add about 2,700 bike mechanics by 2022, an increase of about 25.1 percent from 2012, the bureau predicted.

Youth bike programs like the one in Baltimore also have the potential to convert would-be drivers into lifelong bikers. “Cars are not getting cheaper. Public transportation isn’t getting better, so I want to help these kids ride bikes,” Shahidi said, adding that he hopes to see the club expand to other schools and eventually go citywide.

In Baltimore about 1 percent of workers commute by bicycle, according to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. About 70 percent of Baltimore workers commute by car. Youth bike programs could lead to a higher percentage of city bike commuters, but to achieve large-scale change, the clubs need to expand biking to demographic groups that historically haven’t embraced biking.

Demographics of Baltimore's Bike Commuters

  Black White Other Race
Racial Group 8% 87% 5%
  Less than Bachelor's Bachelor's Degree Above Bachelor's
Highest Education Attained 22% 37% 41%
Source: 2007-2011 Census American Community Survey microdata obtained from IPUMS-USA, Minnesota Population Center
Of the few workers in Baltimore who commute by bike, a disproportionate share -- about 87 percent -- are white, according to aggregated five-year estimates by the Census. More than three-quarters have a bachelor's degree or higher. In contrast, the overall population of city workers is 39 percent white and about one-third have a bachelor's degree. Commuting to work by bike, "while not massively popular among any subset of Baltimore's population, is even less-so among low-income and black citizens," Merriam said. "To be blunt, it is seen as a white, middle- and upper-class thing."

It isn’t clear yet to what extent the Baltimore program can change local commuting behaviors, but parallel efforts by the city may help. Since 2006, the city has installed 140 miles of cycling lanes. By early summer, the transportation department plans to launch Charm City Bikeshare, modeled after the network of public bike stations in Washington, D.C. and New York City.

Commuting Data

Commuters who bike to work are clustered in cities and ridership in those cities appears to be on the rise. Data from the Census may underestimate the true number of bikers. For instance, the survey results do not count riders who use bikes as a small part of their commute, but not as their primary mode of transportation; they also fail to capture people who ride for recreation.

The following illustration shows each racial group's approximate share of all Baltimore commuters for a given means of transportation to work, which matches trends seen in other large cities across the country.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
Special Projects