How Low-Income Commuters View Cycling

Three policy lessons for cities trying to achieve more transport equity.

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Adam Fagen/Flickr

New data from the U.S. Census Bureau offers encouraging news for cyclists: Nationally, bicycle commuting increased 61 percent between the 2000 Census and a 2008-2012 survey. But there's considerable work to do before we bike ride into the sunset. Our research shows that in some places, the people who ride are mostly wealthy and white.

Take Washington, D.C., for example. American Community Survey data show that D.C. bicycle commuting increased an astounding 208 percent between 2000 and 2012. Yet biking to work is far less common in the lower-income areas east of the Anacostia River. Despite the recent additions of substantial cycling infrastructure, many mobility challenges remain.

Our research examines mobility barriers, perceived or real, among low-income residents in Washington.  As cyclists ourselves, our initial study aimed to help the Washington Area Bicyclist Association plan its advocacy in D.C.'s Wards 7 and 8—areas that are more than 94 percent African-American, and with above-average poverty. With a $29 budget and a team of American University students, we surveyed more than 260 commuters in two surveys in 2012 and 2013. Below are three of our key findings.

Poor respondents spend more time commuting. We knew already that Ward 7 and 8 residents earn less, travel longer, and use public transit more than the city as a whole. Our surveys found that low-income commuters in these wards still spend more time traveling than their non-poor counterparts. In 2012, low-income respondents reported spending nearly four hours more in weekly commute times compared to higher-income respondents in the same area. In 2013, low-income respondents reported commuting 24 minutes longer per day.

This makes sense for two reasons. First, the poor use public transit more, and workers using public transit in large U.S. cities have substantially longer commutes (48 minutes) than the mean (26 minutes). (Other ACS data shows this finding is not peculiar to D.C.). Second, transit-connected housing is often more desirable and therefore costly, relegating the poor to ever-more inaccessible neighborhoods.

Most people, poor and non-poor alike, still want cars. In 2012, survey participants ranked car ownership as the most desirable among nine transportation mode options. In 2013, 55 percent of respondents strongly agreed with the statement "I want to own my own car." Even increasingly popular car-sharing was not satisfying for respondents; when asked if they would "rather share a car through a program like Zipcar or Car2Go than own my own vehicle," 35 percent strongly disagreed. Also, 32 percent strongly disagreed with "I want a lifestyle where I don't need to own a car."

Our study showed that African Americans were statistically more likely than other demographic groups to desire to own a car. But they were also less likely to include biking in their ideal mode of transit. Notably, our respondents were concerned about transportation costs and cognizant of car-related expenses. While recognizing many downsides of car ownership, our respondents said they wanted cars nonetheless.

This suggests that, for low-income people, cars may have merits beyond simple cost-benefit use calculations. Automobility remains a paradoxical cultural and status symbol, such that while wealthier people increasingly reduce their car dependency, poor people still aspire to car ownership.

Cycling just isn't popular among the urban poor (yet). In 2012, respondents ranked cycling seventh out of nine transport modes, ahead of only taxis and bike sharing. Cycling barriers included poor road safety, poor or lacking infrastructure (e.g. bike lanes, racks, or storage), distance, and physical exertion. In 2013, respondents reported more than 30 barriers to cycling or walking. Physical safety (32.6 percent), distance (30 percent) and comfort/cold/sweating (25.4 percent) were the most common objections. Other barriers included the difficulty of carrying bulky items, work attire, not knowing how to ride, theft risk, poor health or disability, the slower speed, "laziness," and a lack of desire. One respondent said, simply, "I just want a car."

In 2012, only one respondent, a homeless man, reported regularly using a bicycle. In 2013, four said they biked along with other modes; none listed cycling alone as their primary mode. Few respondents explicitly stated that biking belonged to a different ethnicity, gender or economic class, though 6.4 percent said cycling was socially unacceptable.

Our survey respondents face a number of transportation challenges, including long travel times and multiple physical and social barriers. It is not surprising, then, that they want cars and that cycling may not satisfy their travel needs. These findings have some important implications for urban planners and sustainable transport advocacy. If transportation systems should speak to the reality and desires of communities they serve, our findings suggest policies might need to do a better job of listening to the poor.

First, we advocate gradual policy changes in the short-term. Substantial infrastructure investments like protected lanes and cycle tracks are important, and may even increase cycling rates in the long run, but they probably do less for people who are currently uninterested in cycling and disproportionately pressed for time. A focus on making multimodal transit easier without substantially increasing time or cost—offering bike space inside subway cars, for instance, or creating secure bike parking at bus stops—might have more immediate success.

Second, excessively denigrating automobiles might hinder cycling adoption and even poverty reduction goals. Yes, there are many ecological and social costs to car-dependent transport. But poor people face enormous multimodal challenges that should be considered in conjunction with such concerns. The rationale that leads some poor people not to desire a car-free lifestyle is likely very different from the rationale of planners and advocates who do. Cars have long symbolized social success and represented greater socio-economic freedom; indeed, some research suggests cars provide economic opportunities for low-income families. Reducing reliance on cars remains important for transportation systems, but we must also seriously consider the expressed desires of the most vulnerable members of society.

Finally, transportation policy must support a socio-cultural shift towards bicycling. Infrastructure alone cannot address the many barriers our respondents cite.  Locally, bicycle clinics and workshops targeting the areas where ridership is lowest is a great first step. Citywide and community events like Bike to Work Day, Bike Party, and Critical Mass can help—as long as they're inclusive. The League of American Bicyclists recently began an equity initiative, and similar concerns are being raised elsewhere, nationally and globally. We welcome a conversation about how public and private policy can foster development that is socially equitable and also environmentally and economically sustainable. 

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

About the Authors

  • Eve Bratman is an assistant professor at American University's School of International Service. Her research and teaching involves urban development and socio-ecological sustainability politics in the Americas.
  • Adam Jadhav is a Fulbright-Nehru researcher in India. He earned his master's degree from American University's Global Environmental Politics program.