The Biggest Obstacle to Cycling's Egalitarian Aspirations? Distance

Biking as a class issue isn't going away; on the contrary, it's just beginning.

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters

City politics, like physics, is a zero-sum game. Progress in one direction produces resistance in another.

But for advocates of bicycle infrastructure, the backlash to the boom continues to be a source of consternation. And it's the tenor of the arguments against bike lanes and bikeshare programs – rather than specific complaints about funding, parking or community involvement – that's inspiring all the angst.

Invoked to symbolize gentrification, wealth, whiteness, and oppressive elitism, bicycles have become fuel for the demagoguery of tabloid columnists, talk-radio hosts and politicians. In New York, mayoral candidates have scrambled to distance themselves from Michael Bloomberg's bike-friendly infrastructure campaign. In Washington, D.C., bike lanes were a sort of kryptonite for former Mayor Adrian Fenty, an insult interchanged with "dog parks" or "cupcake shops" to indicate the mayor’s perceived close relationship with the white community. In L.A., drive-time radio hosts attack the "tyranny of the bike cult."

These arguments are the source of much hand-wringing and outraged debunking in the pro-bicycle world. But behind the exasperation lies confidence: bicycles are winning this war. It has always been tenuous to champion the car in the interests of the urban poor, since the poor are less likely to own cars, and riding a bike is cheaper than using mass transit or driving. Bicycle infrastructure costs, too, pale in comparison. The number of Americans commuting by bike is growing quickly -- up 47 percent nationwide over the last decade -- and Americans of color are taking to two wheels faster than most. Polls show widespread approval for bike lanes, and bike share systems have near-universal approval. Even the curmudgeons on the Wall Street Journal editorial board sound desperate, an Onion-style parody of themselves.

But as bike travel begins to work its way into the mainstream of urban American routine, its claim to egalitarianism will be challenged. Cyclists are right that bicycle travel ought not be limited by race, by wealth, or by culture. But as they attempt to diversify cycling, they will find a more intractable barrier, one that threatens to make urban bicycle commuting the mode of the privileged: distance.

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Last week's report from the Sierra Club and the League of American Bicyclists [PDF] brought good news for diversity in cycling. America's Hispanic, African American, and Asian American populations are cycling more: their share of bike trips rose from 16 percent in 2001 to 23 percent in 2009.

Yet despite that growth, the numbers lag behind overall population demographics, and bicycle advocates aren't sure why.

Bike-share is an area of particular concern. Two weeks ago, Capital Bikeshare, Washington D.C.’s system, released its annual survey [PDF] comparing riders to regional employees. The differences are striking: CaBi members are 80 percent white, though whites make up only 53 percent of the regional workforce. Hispanics are underrepresented as CaBi members by a factor of two, and African-Americans by a factor of seven.

And while CaBi survey respondents make slightly less money than employees in the region, due to the system's high participation rate among young people, (nearly two-thirds of users are under 35), the general level of income is still quite high. Four-fifths of CaBi users have household incomes over $50,000 per year.

But the biggest difference between CaBi users and the working population is level of education. Even taking into account the fact that the Washington metro area is the best-educated region in the country, with nearly half the population holding a bachelor's degree, Capital Bikeshare's membership is shockingly learned. Ninety-five percent of CaBi users have a four-year college degree, and another four percent have "some college."

In city after city, the results are the same: minorities and low-income populations are consistently under-represented. The racial divide is especially stark. In Boston, one percent of Hubway users are black, though the city is more than 20 percent black. In Denver, which has the nation's oldest bike-share program, 90 percent of users are non-Hispanic whites, though they make up only 52 percent of the population.

Some have pinned the imbalance on financial barriers: while bike-share is cheap to use (annual passed tend to cost less than a monthly transit pass), it requires credit. Some systems require users to have credit cards, while others will accept a debit card and a deposit. Either method may pose an insurmountable obstacle to those who live paycheck to paycheck. In addition to the "underbanked," one in twelve Americans is unbanked. For them, bike-share is often inaccessible. This effect is particularly pronounced for minorities: half of America's black and Hispanic populations are unbanked or underbanked [PDF].

(REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth)

Cities have made efforts to bridge this gap. Boston has sold hundreds of subsidized memberships to low-income residents and those receiving public assistance. Their memberships are $5 per year, rather than the customary $85. They also receive a free helmet and an hour of free riding, instead of the usual half-hour. D.C.’s Bank on DC program partners with Capital Bikeshare to set up no-minimum bank accounts with credit towards membership. New York's Citibike gives residents of public housing a 37 percent discount on annual membership.

The racial, economic, and educational divide of bike-share does not always reflect the overall demographics of bicycle commuting. Hispanics are slightly more likely than whites to commute by bicycle, though they are also a disproportionately urban population. African Americans are the fastest-growing group of cyclists, though they still ride less than any other group.

Organizations working outside the bike-share system have tried to boost the rates of cycling in minority populations with a focus on cultural promotion. In Oakland, Chicago, and Atlanta, Red, Bike and Green works to increase the popularity of biking in the black community. In D.C., the organization Black Women Bike D.C. aims to get a doubly under-represented group into the city’s bike lanes. Multicultural Communities for Mobility in Los Angeles helps promote cycling among immigrant workers.

But the emerging consensus is that more than money or culture, the main barrier to diversity in cycling is the poor provision of infrastructure [PDF]. Critics have rightly accused cities of not providing cycling infrastructure to low-income and minority neighborhoods. An analysis by the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition reported that minority neighborhoods had a drastically lower distribution of safe bike lanes and paths [PDF]. In Denver, politicians have complained that bicycle infrastructure skirts Hispanic neighborhoods. In New York, where the country’s largest bikeshare system debuted last week, only a handful of the hundreds of stations are located in census tracts with non-white majorities.

To some extent, this is a new chapter of the old story in which poorer residents, lacking influence in city government, are shorted on services like garbage collection, police coverage, or transit provision. But in many places, the problem is more fundamental: cities are concentrating bicycle infrastructure where bike commuting will be convenient, in dense neighborhoods close to central business districts.

Bicycle commuters prefer short rides, with over half of U.S. bicycle trips under a mile. This is demonstrably true for bike-share programs, whose bikes aren't designed for speed and whose financial incentives aren't arranged for distance. But it is by and large true for bike-owning commuters as well. That's why, despite huge percentage gains for bicycle commuting in places like Philadelphia, Denver, and Minneapolis, the top metro areas for bicycle commuting all have fewer than 500,000 people.

In 2009, Corvallis, Oregon, topped the American Community Survey's list of metros for bike commuting  [PDF] with 9.3 percent of workers commuting by bicycle. Other metros with high percentages included Eugene-Springfield, Oregon; Fort Collins-Loveland and Boulder, Colorado; Missoula, Montana; and Santa Barbara-Santa Maria-Goleta, California. The nation’s top large city for bike commuting that year, Portland, had a mode share of 5.8 percent, according to the ACS – good for third on that list, and well above second-place Minneapolis, at 3.9. But the Portland metro didn’t crack the top ten, illustrating the huge divide in bicycle commute preferences between cities and suburbs.

The current population shift, in which bikeable areas of New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and other cities grow wealthier and more homogenous while their suburbs grow poorer and more diverse, is increasingly putting minorities outside the bike-friendly commute zone.

Take Brooklyn. With its low rates of car ownership, it's a prime market for bicycle commuters. But Brooklyn's famous diversity is being pushed south and east, away from the borough's downtown. Neighborhoods within striking distance of Lower Manhattan have grown wealthier and whiter. In Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, where proximity to the East River bridges makes them excellent cycle-commute bases, the black percentage of the population dropped a startling 18 percent between 2000 and 2010, while far-flung Canarsie and Flatlands showed growing black populations. The Hispanic population dropped in Williamsburg, Bushwick and Greenpoint, near the Williamsburg Bridge, and increased around JFK Airport and the far reaches of the Bronx. Not surprisingly, the former neighborhoods are part of Citibike’s first-wave installation; the latter are not. A bicycle commute from Canarsie to 23rd Street and Broadway would take well over an hour, double the average NYC bike commute length of 35 minutes and triple the average Citibike rental time of 20 minutes.

Elsewhere in America, the trend is not racial but socio-economic: the country’s poor are moving to the suburbs in greater and greater numbers. These statistics aren't news, but they seldom appear in analysis of cycling's diversity. The consequences of gentrification's centrifugal effects go well beyond cycling, of course. Suburbanization could reduce the visibility and mobility of the poor, change voting patterns, and more. But as bike advocates work to increase cycling's diversity, developments in economic geography -- features of what Alan Ehrenhalt has called the Great Inversion -- are working against them.

For decades, living in a neighborhood where jobs and services are accessible by bicycle has been considered a choice. What if it becomes a privilege?

Top image: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.