Can Bike Lanes Connect Divided Communities?

A new report examines the role bike lanes play in creating racial, social and economic equity.

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Photo by Juan Felipe Rubio

Photo by Juan Felipe Rubio

What do bike lanes, racial equity, and economic equity all have in common? According to a new report by PeopleforBikes, quite a lot.

The recently released report, “Building Equity: Race, Ethnicity and Protected Bike Lanes”, is the result of the organization’s efforts to hold conversations with bike advocates around the US on the complex and often overlooked intersections of race, class, and bike infrastructure. PeopleforBikes wanted to examine how the distribution of bike resources in American cities affect low-income communities and communities of color, with the hope for providing a best-practices idea guide for cities currently in the midst of cycling infrastructure planning.

Photo courtesy of Civil Bikes

Photo courtesy of Civil Bikes

Through discussions with advocates from minority communities, along with some serious data crunching, PeopleforBikes has produced a report that suggests that inequities in the distribution of bike resources actually serve to exacerbate many of the issues facing low-income and minority communities in the US, and offers some insights on how bike equity could contribute to overall social equity, both in the US and abroad.

In many American cities, low-income neighborhoods where the majority of residents cycle for transportation out of economic necessity are the very same neighborhoods that are neglected in bike infrastructure planning. In many cases, residents are forced to simply ride on the sidewalk. Conversely, the neighborhoods that receive the most bike infrastructure are typically affluent neighborhoods where the residents are overwhelmingly white, educated, and have access to social capital (according the report, a full 88 percent of professional city planners in the US are white). Meanwhile the rates of transportation cycling – as opposed to leisure or recreative – are actually much lower in these neighborhoods.

In large part due to these disparities, Hispanic riders make up 28 percent of those killed while cycling in the US, with African-American riders making up 23 percent, while non-Hispanic white riders and Asian riders account for 18 and 13 percent respectively. The lack of safe cycling infrastructure is sorely felt. Of the 16,193 Americans surveyed for the report, 48 percent of black respondents and 53 percent of Hispanic respondents agreed that they would ride more if there were protected bike lanes, while only 44 percent of white respondents said the same.

But the impacts of this unfair distribution of resources are not only limited to physical safety. Cycling provides quantifiable social, environmental and economic benefits to communities and individuals at almost every level. It significantly lowers individuals’ and families’ transportation costs, improves the physical health of residents, improves the environmental health of the region, increases emotional well-being, and boosts the economy of low-income or struggling neighborhoods, not to mention the less measurable – but wholly recognized – interpersonal and social benefits of a strong biking community. So the lack of safe and accessible cycling infrastructure in low-income communities and communities of color is not merely a transportation issue, but actually prevents those communities from accessing the significant positive feedback loops of cycling, thereby exacerbating the social and economic inequalities between them and their white, higher-income counterparts.

In their report, PeopleforBikes looks to places around the world where planners have recognized the importance of equitable cycling infrastructure for tackling racial, class, and ethnic divisions in their communities. Institutionalized egalitarianism in Danish cities, democratization of urban spaces in Bogotá, Colombia, and the alleviation of poverty by transportation equity in Hangzhou, China. They also profile a number of bike advocates and activists with the US already working to create healthier, more vibrant communities with safer streets. The result is an inspiring (and fact-filled) benchmark guide and call to action for North American city planners to do the same.

9 Comments

  • Timothy Fish

    We shouldn’t be too quick to say that bicycle lanes make the difference. My experience has been that even when infrastructure is available, the people in the lower income segments tend not to use it. They’ll walk down the center of a street, even when there is a sidewalk. They’ll walk through traffic to cross a street, even when there are walk/don’t walk lights. They won’t bother pushing the button. They tend to wear clothing that isn’t very visible. They ride bicycles on the wrong side of the street. They let their small children play out in the street. Infrastructure doesn’t solve these problems, but these problems do result in more people being killed.

  • Emilio

    Karel Martens (@karel_martens) has writtten extensively about this subject. Some of his articles like “The role of cycling in limiting transport poverty in the Netherlands”, “Accessibility and potential mobility as a guide for policy action” and “Using principles of justice to assess the modal equity of regional transportation plans” can be downloaded from http://radboud.academia.edu/KMartens. Hope it helps!

  • Nina the bicycling Midwife

    Interesting article. In Brooklyn there seem to be more bike lanes in mixed or predominantly Black neighborhoods. Unfortunately many are on busy, commercial streets as well, so not always safer for anyone.

  • Thanks for highlighting this disparity, interesting article.

  • Linda

    Good article Hilary. Food for thought.

  • mike

    Building better biking infrastructures is a great idea. But it won’t fix some material inequalities such as the poor will probably still have crappy bikes while the more fortunate will have bikes that cost in the exess of 1K…

  • Jessie Mathieson

    Love it, Hilary!

  • Fiona

    Very thoughtful intersection of issues.

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