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On Poverty, Obesity & Bicycling

Jamelle, a friend of the blog, writes about the link between obesity and the differences in grocery habits between low-income and high-income people. It's not surprising to me that rich people shop and Whole Foods and poor people shop where stuff is super cheap. It's also not surprising that the 'typical basket' at a Whole Foods has much healthier foods than the 'typical basket' at a Kroger.

(from Flickr user kalebdf)

Jamelle says one problem is that we overlook the challenge of food preparation.
...if there’s anything I’ve learned from watching my friends attempt to navigate the kitchen, it’s that cooking isn’t obvious. Unless you’re familiar with the basics of preparation and cooking, the act of taking a few ingredients — some cornmeal, a bushel of greens, an egg — and making a meal is mystifying. Poor people are simply less likely to have access to that kind of knowledge.
This basically describes me. If more than two or three ingredients are involved, I can't do it. It doesn't matter if I have a cookbook with exact recipes. It doesn't matter if I have a Youtube video to demonstrate - it's a skill that's lost on me. Maybe it would improve if I invested more of my time into the activity, but so far I have not.

Fortunately, food is only one side of the health coin. In the past few months I've been biking so many miles that I can basically eat whatever I want anyway, whether its a buttery grilled cheese I make at home or a plate of wings I order at my favorite bar.

In fact, one thing I noticed while biking everywhere this spring is that the activity is one primarily engaged in by hipsters, yuppies and hardcore cyclists. Yes, that's stereotyping, but I do it to point out that I see more well-to-do people, Whole Foods shoppers if I may, out in the bike lanes than I see low-income folks. In Cleveland, this is interesting, because the new bike facilities on Euclid Avenue cut through many of the city's lowest-income neighborhoods, but most of the people I see using the facilities use them for the same purpose as me: to cut from University Circle to downtown.

This is really too bad. Aside from the health benefits, more bicycling would reap significant financial benefits for people who need them the most. I can only imagine the reason that so few low-income people do it is a matter of culture. Whether education and other initiatives can change that culture is the question?


Randy said…
Hi! Long-time reader, first-time commenter.

It's substantially a matter of cycling culture and urban geography, since North American cities tend not to have sufficiently high densities to make destinations reachable in anything less than hours. This map showing the density of cyclists per census tract maps nicely onto maps of Toronto's population density.

There's also questions of the costs of biking. Many people--not only poor people--don't feel safe biking, independently of whether or not they've a chance. Commuters also want to get to work in a reasonable amount of time. It's an hour's bike for me to work from my home, and that's reasonably competitive with the 40 minute commuter, but if I live on the other side of Toronto I'll take the TTC--or drive, if I had the license.

Finally, I think it's a matter of most people not liking biking and physical exercise, seeing motorized vehicles as a more comfortable default. How do you change that in North American cities? Increased densification would be a start, to make the opportunity cost in time less.
ErictheTolle said…
There's a couple factors in bicycle use that would preclude it from being a common transportation mode, ones that well-to-do bikers might not consider.

First of all road infrastructure should be mentioned- not only in terms of repair, but the function of the roads. Bicyclists tend to come from areas that have roads with relatively low traffic, that are designed to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians as well as cars. Many low-income residents on the other hand tend to live in mixed-use areas, with heavy commuter, freight and other traffic, making bicycling actively dangerous. For an example, my residential neighborhood is separated from San Jose proper by an industrial section, and several very busy streets that cross the freeway and that include on and off-ramps. Between the trucks, service vehicles, students going to the university, and harried commuters, crossing into downtown is moderately hazardous for cars and pedestrians. It would be dangerous to commute to the city proper on a bike. However, outside of taking a several mile detour, there is no direct bike-accessible route between South San Jose and the downtown.

Secondly, there is the capital outlay that needs to be considered. Bicycles are nearly always secondary for the wealthy, however, low income people can generally only afford only one vehicle- and the price for a decent bike and a car that can be "made runnable" isn't as different as it may seem. Given a choice between a vehicle that has limited cargo and passenger capacity and foul-weather use, a car is a more practical choice.

Likewise, bicycles require a degree of mechanical knowledge to keep in good shape, mechanical knowledge that generally isn't as available in low-income communities. While nearly everyone knows someone who has mechanical knowledge, and who can teach the basics of keeping a car maintained, unless there's a pre-established culture of bicyclists in a community, learning how to maintain a bicycle may be difficult.

Finally, there is the problem in establishing a bicycling culture in the first place; generally before bicycles are thought of as commuter vehicles, they are thought of as toys for children.; In low-income families, a bicycle for a child may be considered a major expense. Combined with neighborhoods that are perceived as not generally considered safe for bicyclists, then a culture of seeing a bicycle as a practical vehicle will have difficulty in arising. In my time in low-income neighborhoods, I've rarely seen children riding bicycles anywhere except in the safety of parking lots, under the watchful eyes of parents.

This isn't to say that these are the only, or even primary reasons that bicycle use isn't common in low income areas. I've done no formal survey; these are merely my impressions from living in low-income areas.
Anonymous said…
Knowledge that isn't available in low-income areas? You learn to cook from your parents or grandparents, not in classes that you pay for. You learn to maintain a bike by trial and error.

Functioning bikes are available for next to nothing at Salvation Army stores, garage sales, etc. A tank of gas costs $30. For that, you could throw your bike away and buy a another one rather than repairing it. My bike cost $40 new at Walmart. It is not titanium.

Real reasons low income people don't ride - fear of crime and traffic, pride in owning a car (even a rust bucket), aversion to physical activity, and need to carry children and other passengers.
Michael Gill said…
Thank you, anonymous, for making those points. We have made and thrown away and left in the attic and garage so many bicycles in this country, that they can be had for less than $15 and even free any day of the week.

Further: Bicycles are simpler and less expensive to maintain than cars. You can look at a bike and see exactly how it works.

There is no sense at all in the suggestion that the difference in cost between a bicycle and a car is not much.

There are a few main deterrents to bicycle transport, and they don't have much to do with affordability or infrastructure.

Principally, people believe that cars are a lifestyle improvement, and that nicer cars are equitable to a better lifestyle. THey view bicycles as toys or sporting devices. This is a cultural outlook.

Secondly, people are indeed averse to exercise. It feels like a job to go to the gym. They transfer that to the idea of biking to work: the trip itself becomes a chore.

Commuting is easier in cities because things are closer together, and because traffic behaves differently. Two-lane roads are great for biking recreationally, and as long as there are no cars. But things are farther apart, which makes commuting more of a challenge, and when the cars do go by, they do so at high speeds.

--Michael Gill
Anonymous said…
Poor people do cook. If you're making class distinctions based on the contents of a grocery cart, you'd be closer to the truth to assume that the Aldi shopper has more convenience foods/prepared foods because both parents are working and there isn't time to cook. Same reason people drive instead of bicycle - schedules are tight, commutes are far, children have to be ferried to things at certain times, etc.

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