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Enlisting Bikes In the Fight Against Inequality

Liz Cornish of the bicycle advocacy group Bikemore talks about how bike infrastructure can help solve a host of woes in Baltimore.

The new Maryland Avenue cycle track in Baltimore, part of the city's emerging network of protected lanes. (Bikemore)

After a sluggish couple of decades, this was the year Baltimore suddenly got into the bicycle infrastructure game. The city’s first bike-share system, which was years in the making, opened recently, along with a small but meaningful network of protected lanes, including a pair of cycle tracks that are protected from traffic. These may not be the sort of deluxe bike highways that would make a Portlander or Montrealer envious, but their arrival represents a major leap forward for a city that’s struggled, historically, to put the pieces together, mobility-wise.

In typically Baltimorean fashion, the road forward has not been entirely smooth. When my local neighborhood association debated the installation of a protected cycle track, residents packed public meetings to hurl profanities at the city, and each other, over the issue. And the rollout of the bike-share system had drawn criticism of a different sort. Ellen Worthing, a Baltimore blogger and open-data advocate, made a series of revealing maps that overlaid bike rack locations, bike share stations, and bike lanes with the city’s racial demographics; Lawrence Brown, a community health professor and activist at Morgan State University, observed on Twitter that, like so many transportation amenities, bicycle infrastructure appeared to be concentrated in the city’s more affluent—and whiter—districts, a band of waterfront that extends northward in a strip known locally as “the White L.”

Baltimore’s struggle to address racial and economic inequity issues in transportation, appease skeptical motorists, and turn the corner on better bicycling infrastructure mirrors similar debates taking place in other cities, from New York City to London. The culture of bicycle advocacy itself is often seen as a movement that can unwittingly accelerate the displacement of low-income communities—and confronting that perception has become a key challenge for bike advocates nationwide. Liz Cornish, who leads the bike-boosting nonprofit Bikemore, has been getting a crash course in this phenomenon.

As Women Bike Manager for the League of American Bicyclists in Washington, D.C., Cornish had been working to help encourage more women riders; previously, she had been involved in educational nonprofits and worked for Outward Bound in Omaha, Nebraska. “People were very curious about why I moved to Baltimore,” she says. “They asked me, ‘What’s it like there?’ I think they were expecting me to say it’s hard to bike here when you have to dodge violent crime all the time. But the single hardest thing to deal with in Baltimore is this belief that comes from decades of mistrust and mistreatment and disinvestment that says, ‘Nothing good can happen here.’”

Cornish talked to CityLab about the culture-changing power of bike lanes, and how to—and how not to—convince citizens and lawmakers to build them. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

You’re a relative newcomer to Baltimore; how did you end up fighting for bike infrastructure in a city that’s never had much of a reputation as being bicycle friendly?

What has always motivated me was making cities healthy and safe places for kids to grow up. I used to think school reform was the way to do that. But what I found was that the fastest way to get people engaged was to improve neighborhoods—figuring out ways to make it nice for people to walk and bike places, and then making it easy for business owners to create places for people to walk and bike to.

When I worked for Outward Bound in Omaha, I got involved in an organization called the Benson Ames Alliance. That was the first time I learned about things like urbanism and designing streets for biking and walking. The transformation I witnessed in Benson was something I’d never seen before. You had this streetcar suburb that had been annexed many decades before, and the streetcar had gone away and you were left with this Main Street that, design-wise, was great—lots of mixed-use development, with stores on the bottom and apartments on the top. But the storefronts were empty. Over the course of three years, they all filled up. There was this shine on a neighborhood that had been forgotten. And then suddenly people started to care deeply about the quality of the education that was happening in that neighborhood high school.

It seems like there's a growing understanding, even in places that are not thought of as particularly progressive on bikes, that they can encourage all kinds of positive changes.

Think about Indianapolis and their cultural trail—not just the economic development that's been spurred by that trail, but the shift in that town’s culture. Cities are a great place to work in if you are a natural problem solver, because they’ve got lots of problems. Biking is a tool with which you can address all these different problems. So if you want to talk about public health inequities, let's talk about how to design neighborhoods where there are safe places to get exercise, because we know that cardiac disease is one of the leading drivers of public health inequities.

In these discussions about bike equity, people are often thinking only in terms of the physical infrastructure—where the bike lanes or bike-share stations are located. That's important. But biking also lends itself to having a macro discussion about equity. We've designed our cities in such a way that it can produce terrible air quality. In Baltimore City, the number-one reason why kids miss school is asthma-related illness. And we know that reducing a single car trip can improve air quality. We don't think about that as an equity issue. But I do. In some ways, getting anyone out of their car and reducing traffic congestion is a win for that particular equity issue. Biking is a very cheap solution to that very complex health problem.

Let’s talk about those costs a bit. The cycle track that just opened is part of a $3 million bike infrastructure build-out. In Baltimore—as in many cities—plenty of taxpayers object to those costs, which they see as only benefiting a relative handful of recreational riders.

Well, in Baltimore’s Southeast Transportation plan, one of the projects being recommended in the current draft of the plan is $50 million to widen a quarter-mile stretch of Boston Street. We know that widening streets only induces demand, so while it may relieve congestion for a few years, five years later we are right back where we started. $50 million is also the cost of Portland’s entire investment in bike infrastructure, and it’s also the price tag for Paris’ bike-share system, which is one of the largest in the world. $50 million dollars is also what it would cost to repair every single sidewalk in Baltimore City. If you went to taxpayers and said, “Would you rather have that quarter-mile stretch of street widened, or would you rather see every sidewalk in the city repaired,” I think we know what most people would say. And yet most of our decision makers don't see it that way. They are prioritizing car travel over literally everything else.

You can’t talk about investing in neighborhoods in Baltimore without talking about inequality and race. How do you address the cultural issues in bike advocacy on this?

We know that some of Baltimore's challenges are the direct result of the decades of disinvestment in our black neighborhoods—the strategic disinvestment in black neighborhoods. So we have to figure out how to correct for that. I just came back from a conference called The Untokening, which was a gathering of biking advocates from around the country that were interested in creating a learning space to center racial justice in their work on mobility. Having been to plenty of biking and walking things over the last few years, you get used to seeing all the same people. When I got into this room, I knew the organizers, but I didn’t know everybody else. They did a really great job of bringing people that normally may not have that access.

There are countless examples of cities that are challenged in this area. Memphis is now launching their bike-share system, and the intention with which they are doing community engagement before they launch is really impressive. The city was completely open to the idea of doing the outreach and then hearing, “We don’t want bike share.” The goal of advocacy shouldn’t be to get tunnel vision and just champion your cause. The goal should be about helping to lift up everyone you can with your work. I’m only a good advocate if there are people in every neighborhood that are also championing a similar ideal or vision.  

That’s why moving to Baltimore has been such a humbling experience. No matter what my background is, there’s no winning in terms of changing the way people think about transportation if this is a conversation that’s only centered around a tall blonde white lady from the Midwest. There’s no winning in making that happen. So I’ve had to think creatively in terms of engaging as many people around this conversation as possible.

So how do you go into say, West Baltimore, where there has been real resistance to bike lanes in the past, and have that conversation?

You can’t lead with bikes. That’s not the point. The point is safety. The point is health. So I have to be able to sit and listen to neighbors who’ve lived in that neighborhood for longer than I’ve been in Baltimore, and rely on their experience and knowledge of the area, about what works and what doesn’t, and what has been tried and what’s failed. We try to remind people that we know that commute time is one of the most significant indicators of someone's ability to move out of poverty. And we know that some of Baltimore's most vulnerable neighborhoods have some of the longest commute times. They are in the city but they can't get to jobs or amenities like healthcare and schools and groceries without being on the bus for an hour.

So, what are you asking? Are you saying, “I’m gonna put a bike-share location here—is that a problem?” That’s a terrible way. When I ask people what do they want their neighborhood to feel like, there isn’t a single neighborhood in this city, or a single person I’ve talked to, that hasn’t said things like, well, I wish the cars drove slower. And I wish there was a safe place for my kid to learn to ride a bike and play. And I wish there was something for me to walk to, like a restaurant or a coffee shop or a dry cleaners. These are universal quality-of-life things that every neighborhood desires. After I hear that, that’s an opportunity for me to say, actually, there are solutions to some of these things. And one of many solutions is building a bike lane. It calms traffic. It makes the crossing distance shorter. It provides connectivity to things inside and outside your neighborhood. That’s how you have the conversation. And it hasn’t failed me yet.

There’s been criticism here about what parts of the city are now receiving bike-related investments, and you see similar questions raised about Citi Bike in New York City, which is under some pressure from activists to expand into lower-income parts of the city.

That impatience when it relates to equity is 100 percent valid, and I share it. I think I’m still learning how to address that. The critique has been levied: Why isn’t this happening in other neighborhoods? There’s a really long answer that deals with funding, and the city’s over-reliance on community organizations to help guide master planning. What if your community doesn’t have someone with an urban planning degree on their board to get things done? How do you champion these things if you say you’re only going to come there if you ask for it? That’s one reason we focus on high-level policy change, because this stuff should be standard. Bike lanes should be standard operating procedure, not something you have to fight for.

But I don’t think we were going to be able to shift our thinking until we had something tangible that said, “It works here,” so that people could see the sky doesn’t fall when you take away a lane of traffic. Without having something in the ground, it’s really hard to make the kind of sweeping change people are asking for.

I do feel like that’s the reason Bikemore has been able to be modestly successful. I believe it can happen, and it deserves to happen. And it doesn’t matter how many people say it can’t or it won’t. I’ve lived in enough places that are just like this. I’ve seen it happen. The ball is already rolling down the hill. I’m just hanging on, and trying to point it in the right direction.

UPDATE: This post has been updated with additional information.

About the Author

  • David Dudley
    David Dudley is the interim editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.