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Who Bikes? Who Cares?

Brian Ladd has a really interesting post up at Planetizen titled The Motorist's Identity Crisis. Historically, he explains, bicyclists and public transit users have been viewed by society as losers, unable to afford to own or operate their own automobile. Now, in some cities, they've become cool trend-setters.

(from nevermindtheend on Flickr)

Of course, because of the way our cities and suburbs are built and designed, cars will continue to be the most practical means of transportation for many, but those who don't drive won't be cast under the same dark shadow that they used to be.

Public transit users, I'll agree, have faced a stigma for a long time. But bicyclists? Is it true that they're viewed in the same light?

Ladd's story seems to overlook a phenomenon that's occurring in some cities, where bicycling has become very popular among certain groups. In DC, for example, my own analysis of Census data confirms that bicycle commuting is highest in upper-end neighborhoods, so planning and construction of new bike infrastructure has been criticized as a hand-out to the well-to-do folks who ride bikes. April Streeter has a post up at GOOD exploring what can be done to fix bicycling's 'white bias' in Portland.

In a sense, in DC and Portland and other cities, it's bicyclists that seem to be having the identity crisis.

In theory, there's no reason why people who can't afford cars can't use bikes or bike infrastructure to get around; but the truth is that bike lanes and trails seems to be getting the most use by people who use them, more or less, 'by choice'. This has created a host of new problems. Questions about bike infrastructure shouldn't focus on who actually uses it, but rather who potentially could use it.

Furthermore, bike lanes seem to pop up in neighborhoods were citizens are relatively politically influential, fueling the belief that cities paint bike lanes because rich people want them. It's a bit of a chicken and egg question. Yes, better bicycling infrastructure is conducive to more bicycling, but what compels governments to build it in the first place?

Ultimately, neighborhoods with good urban design will be more desirable than neighborhoods that are poorly designed; and they'll command higher prices. Who doesn't want to live on a quiet block in a tight-knit community? Alternatively, who really wants to leave right on a heavily trafficked arterial with cars zooming past at 50 mph day and night?

The natural solution is to improve walkability and street life city and region-wide, but that's a challenge when our cities have been ripped apart to make motoring a little bit easier. It would be great if we could turn back the clock on urban design; but it's not going to be very easy.


Peter Smith said…
Questions about bike infrastructure shouldn't focus on who actually uses it, but rather who potentially could use it.

don't think we agree on much, but on this, we do! :)

Furthermore, bike lanes seem to pop up in neighborhoods were citizens are relatively politically influential, fueling the belief that cities paint bike lanes because rich people want them.

i think this statement is either not accurate, misleading, and/or just plain wrong.

1) for instance, we know that rich people often, if not always, get what they want, and that applies to getting bike lanes, to preventing bike lanes, parking, sidewalks and prevention of sidewalks, taxes, various city policies, etc. if it is somehow worth noting that bike lanes are treated specially/differently, then it's be a worthy discussion topic when talking about the rationale for putting down bike lanes, but otherwise it's just a meaningless tautology -- rich people get what they want, so, therefore rich people get what they want, and such.

2) as i already alluded to, rich and politically-connected communities often manage to block and/or remove bike lanes, sidewalks, etc. so, bike lanes are not generally preferred by rich folks, and in many cases, block and/or remove them. examples are the Hasid bike lane that was disappeared in Brooklyn, the Prospect Park West bike lane that is under great pressure to be removed in Brooklyn, bike lanes just removed in Charlestown/Boston (a rapidly-gentrifying nabe), sidewalk prevented in rich nabe in DC, etc.

3) Then we have to factor in that some low-income nabe groups resist bike lanes because they fear rapid gentrification.

4) also, bike lanes in neighborhoods either are or should not be necessary, whereas it is the main travel and business corridors that everyone uses that often need them. so, 'bike lanes in neighborhoods' is kind of a weird statement to me -- it's like saying 'oxygen in space' -- yeah, there's a trace of it, somewhere.

5) changing the status quo takes activists and advocates -- activists in poorer nabes are trying to figure out how to get jobs for residents, whereas activists in richer nabes are trying to figure out how to get bike lanes for residents/commuters. that's why bike groups should work with local community groups in poor nabes to get bike lanes in/thru poor areas/nabes.

6) the suggestion that 'bike lanes are for rich/politically-connected people' is obviously false and exactly backwards -- they are for poor/politically-disenfranchised people. this is why they remain under such unwithering attack, particularly from rich/politically-connected people.

7) if rich people want world peace, that does not necessarily mean we should oppose them. we should decide if world peace is something we're interested in, and then decide whether or not to oppose them (or even join them). so, if rich people do/did, in fact, want bike lanes, then we should consider whether this is something we actually want or not, and then decide whether to oppose them or not (or even join them).

8) if there is a belief that bike lanes are for rich people, or only rich people get bike lanes, or any other similar argument, then it's our job to challenge these assertions and try to find out if there actually is that said belief, and then find out if it is valid or not -- to question it. if there's no evidence to support it, then we should say so. generally speaking, i call 'bs' -- bike lanes are for everyone, including and especially the poor and politically-disenfranchised. whether, where, and how the rich/politically-connected may be pushing for bike lanes is important, of course, but it doesn't, or shouldn't, challenge the fundamental human right to basic self-powered mobility.
Peter said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
B. P. Beckley said…
Actually, I think there is a stigma about bike riding, but it's class related -- the lower your socioeconomic status, the more likely that you think bike riding is something to be looked down upon. And that makes sense -- it's those folks who do it out of necessity as adults, not out of choice.

A cute anecdote: I went to Public Square in Cleveland on my bike to participate in a Critical Mass ride, so there were hundreds of people on bikes in that particular spot. While I was standing around waiting for something to happen, a seedy gentleman who happened to be standing around asked me "Are you all riding for fun?" and I said yes, and he said, "I used to do that too, when I was a kid...". Like, he was kind of disapproving of the whole thing as being something adults shouldn't be doing...and then he hit me up for spare change.
David Pritts said…
Seems that everyone bikes here in Beijing... and this trend might increase as 1500+ cars continue to be sold or come into the city every DAY, meaning that the traffic situation (already terrible) is going to become a disaster.

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