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Drilling Down to the Real Role of Bike Lanes in Social Equity

A detailed new report tries to quantify the impact better bicycle infrastructure can have in lower income communities.

PeopleforBikes

Can better bicycle infrastructure help make cities more just and equitable places? That may be asking too much of some simple bike lanes. But a new “idea book” from PeopleforBikes and the Alliance for Biking & Walking called “Building Equity: Race, Ethnicity, and Protected Bike Lanes” explores the possibilities.

The report looks to community-based bike advocates around the country for their take on the complex intersection of race, class, and bicycle infrastructure. It contains some thought-provoking initiatives, suggesting that conversations about how bikes fit into local streets can be a meaningful part of bigger discussions about fairness, economic opportunity, and health.

“A lot of times, the nuances of what’s happening around equity are very local,” says Martha Roskowski, who directs the Green Lane Project for PeopleforBikes. Roskowski says her organization has been discussing these issues over the last three years, as it works with cities interested in improving facilities for people who ride bikes. “We wanted this report to be helpful to cities and others who wanted to build better bike infrastructure.”

Realizing the complexity and importance of the conversation, the group sought out local advocates to find out how the discussion about bike infrastructure is playing out in their particular communities.

In Atlanta, they highlight the work of Nedra Deadwyler, who runs a business called Civil Bikes on Auburn Avenue, which in the early 20th century was the backbone of one of the most prosperous African American neighborhoods in the country. Deadwyler, who leads bike tours that explore the area’s history and heritage, sees protected bike lanes as part of a package of street improvements that could bring much-needed vitality to a boulevard that is currently a shadow of its former self. “Calm the cars down, make our sidewalks more interesting,” Deadwyler says. “Make the bike lanes more visible. … It’s not that bikes have rights that we should take the entire street. But we can share this, you know? Figure out a better way to use the space.”

In the Inland Empire region of Southern California, a suburban environment heavily dominated by cars, PeopleforBikes turned to Marven Norman, a 26-year-old teacher who is vice president of the Inland Empire Biking Alliance and who started riding his bike for transportation in order to save money. He observes that the best bike infrastructure often gets installed in areas where residents are more educated, affluent, and connected to government structures—not necessarily the places where the most people are riding.

“The part of town where the buffered bike lane is is where you see one bike a day, maybe three,” Norman says. “The part of the town where everyone is pedaling around the corner all the day? There are no bike lanes. Everybody’s on the sidewalk.”

In South Central Los Angeles, the report focuses on the work of Nancy Ibrahim, executive director of Esperanza Community Housing. Her organization runs a community market and cultural center called Mercado La Paloma, which supported a recent redesign of one of the neighborhood’s major thoroughfares, Figueroa Street. That redesign, which was approved only after the community mobilized in support, will include a protected bike lane, waiting islands for bus riders, and a dedicated bus lane. Ibrahim talks about the connection between better bike and transit infrastructure and the local economy, saying the reconfiguration of Figueroa “is putting in a level of accessibility and connectivity to working folks, including working poor folks, who contribute profoundly to what’s best about this neighborhood.”

When it comes to bicycle safety, PeopleforBikes points out, Hispanic and African American riders have the most at stake: according to 1999-2011 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, they were more likely to die in bicycle crashes than whites or Asians.

(PeopleforBikes)

The report also cites figures from a 2014 PeopleforBikes survey of more than 16,000 Americans about their participation in cycling. The survey results indicated people of color ride bikes for transportation more than white people, and they were also more likely to say that the presence of protected bike lanes would encourage them to ride more. African Americans and Hispanics were also more likely than whites to say they saw biking as a convenient way to get from one place to another.

When it comes to income levels, the PeopleforBikes survey indicates that people who make less money tend to bike more for both transportation and recreation. Yet as other surveys have shown, many low-income people—including those in communities of color—still see car ownership as the ideal.

(PeopleforBikes)

The socioeconomics of bike infrastructure can get thorny. In some cities, such as Portland, Oregon, the debate over bike lanes has been colored by historical conflicts over urban renewal and gentrification. And the stigma attached to bicycling as the transportation option of last resort is a powerful one.

In an interview with Albus Brooks, a Denver city councilman who rides his bike for the sheer joy it brings him, the report touches on these complexities and stereotypes. Brooks tells the story of going to a meeting with African American leaders in the city. “I came in in a suit and a bike helmet,” Brooks is quoted as saying. “These were all middle-class African-Americans that do not ride bikes. And they looked at me as if I were an alien.” Brooks goes on to say he hopes that by opening streets for special bike events, he can introduce these same people to the health and economic benefits of biking. “We’re going to go on cultural rides where we block off a couple miles of streets and try to introduce to leaders in the community what bike infrastructure is all about.”

Roskowski says that PeopleforBikes is interested not in issuing definitive pronouncements, but in participating in a broader discussion. She believes that advocates like herself, who want to see more protected bike lanes in communities around the country, can do a better job of articulating the economic benefits of such infrastructure—and a better job of including all of a city’s people in the conversation.

“Even people who would rather be driving than riding a bike should have a safe place to ride a bike,” she says. ”A lot of our advocacy and our planning still tends to marginalize those people. Biking is low-cost transportation that should be accessible and available to everybody.”

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear
    Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.