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The Poor Bike, the Rich Bike-Share

A chart-filled look at the cycling gap that’s emerged in U.S. cities.

A cyclist rides by a Pittsburgh bike-share station in June 2015. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Over at The Urban Edge blog, Andrew Keatts reports that some bike advocates are worried their community isn’t representing the largest sub-population of cyclists: the poor. Even the term used by advocates to describe this group—“invisible cyclists”—is problematic in that it marginalizes the marginalized. To the detriment of disadvantaged riders, many urban bike movements have aligned with a city’s elite:

“A number of people are wondering how we can do more comprehensive bike advocacy that includes people who can’t afford to get involved,” said Adonia Lugo, an anthropologist who left her job at the League of American Cyclists earlier this year because of a disconnect she perceived between bike advocates and those who ride bicycles regularly. “They’re on bikes, so they should be involved.”

“The big issue with why this matters is, there’s this cultural gap between bike advocates and others who bike,” she continued. “The strategy became, to market bicycling as an urban lifestyle. You don’t do it because it’s cheap and you need to get somewhere. It’s presented as an opportunity to be part of urban chic fashion.”

Keatts is right that lower-income households form the bulk of all bike riders, though he misses some of the strongest evidence to his point. The American Community Survey from 2008 to 2012 (also compiled in Commuting in America, 2013) breaks down bike travel by household income among the working population. Lower-income households bike to work in greater shares than higher-income homes:

U.S. Census

The uneven income brackets above obscure the raw numbers. When we realign the data into $50,000 increments, we see just how many more total members of lower-income households commute by bike. And given that commutes represent a minority of overall trips, it’s reasonable to expect that complete travel data would show even greater bike usage among the poor:


Meanwhile the data for bike-share use, as Susan Shaheen and some collaborators analyzed for a Mineta report last fall, reveals a very different picture. Here we see that in several North American metros, higher-income residents are over-represented among bike-share members while lower-income households are under-represented. Here’s the data from the Twin Cities:


Newer data on workers without car access, compiled by Brian McKenzie of the Census Bureau, gives a fuller picture of what’s happening. Between 2006 and 2013, the share of all such no-car bike commuters rose from 2.6 to 3.2 percent. But while the lower-income (up to $25,000) share saw a modest rise from 3.1 to 3.5 percent, the higher-income share (over $75,000) more than doubled, from 1.1 to 2.4 percent.


Altogether the figures suggest two very different types of bike riders. One can afford to live in an expensive part of the city so close to work that owning a car isn’t necessary. There’s probably a bike-share station nearby, as a neighborhood amenity, because enough wealthy residents live in the area to sustain it financially. Riding in general is easier because there’s plenty of bike infrastructure in place.

The other lives in a more remote part of town and likely would prefer to own a car because their commutes by bike or transit take a very long time. There’s probably no bike-share station nearby, because despite their potential role as a transit complement, these systems have struggled to make their way into poor areas (though some cities are trying to do better). Bike infrastructure is inadequate, if it exists at all.

This type of disparity isn’t unique in urban America’s new era of rising income inequality. But it does help explain why the bike advocacy community in some cities is difficult to unite. In many ways it consists of members who want and need very different things.

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