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The World of Bicycle Advocacy Has An Equity Problem. How Do We Fix it?

The World of Bicycle Advocacy Has An Equity Problem. How Do We Fix it?

As bicycle commuting increases in the US, more and more cities are ramping up bike infrastructure improvements, which in turn normalize biking as a way to get around. Bike advocates have worked long and hard to make cities acknowledge the benefits and safety issues surrounding biking, and we have seen encouraging results in cities like Seattle, Portland and Minneapolis. In 2009, the New Jersey State Department of Transportation adopted a Complete Streets Policy, which also supports bicycling. As of March 13, 2020, 167 municipalities and eight counties in the state have incorporated this policy through resolutions. Cities like Jersey City and Hoboken have improved bicycle facilities and added bikeshare as part of their transportation network.

US Bicycle Commuter Trends 2005-2013

Chart 1. U.S. Commuter Trends 2005-2013, Percentage of Commuters Who Bicycle
Source: 2016 Benchmarking Report: Walking and Bicycling Report in the United States

However, the space of bicycle advocacy has remained largely white and middle class. In many communities, the stereotypical image of a bicyclist is white and upwardly mobile. Contrary to the stereotype, the largest share of bicyclists is people of color [i].

According to The New Majority: Pedaling Towards Equity (2013)[ii], among commuters, Native Americans and Latinos have the highest share of bicycle commute trips in 2010. White population only ranks third. Growth in the percent of total bicycle trips has also been the fastest among people of color. From 2001 to 2009, bicycle trips have increased 100% among African Americans compared to 22% among White population (see Chart 2).

Growth in the Percent of All Trips by Bicycle 2001 -2009

Chart 2. Growth in the Percent of All Trips That Are by Bicycle 2001-2009
Source: The New Majority: Pedaling Towards Equity (2013), The League of American Bicyclists & Sierra Club

The 2016 Walking and Bicycling Benchmarking Report shows that lower income households are more likely to bicycle to work or school, to run errands, and to visit family and friends[iii].

Bicycling Trips, by Income and Purpose

Chart 3. Bicycling Trips, by Income and Purpose
Source: 2016 Benchmarking Report: Walking and Bicycling Report in the United States

The lack of representation creates tension and lack of communication between planners and minority groups. It leads to inequitable planning.

Bicycle advocates have long championed the mentality of “build it and they will come,” but in communities of color and lower income communities, the issue is a lot more complicated and controversial than simply building infrastructure. History and culture also play a significant role.

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Figure 1. An African American bicycling in a green bicycle lane Photo credit: NJ Bicycle and Pedestrian Resource Center

In some communities, such as Portland, Oregon, and Washington, DC, bicycle lanes have been associated with gentrification in rapidly changing communities. Many marginalized communities have been scarred and divided by urban renewal projects in the 60’s and 70’s. Now they face the threat of gentrification again, tearing their remaining community apart. The recent history looms large among community members, making them skeptical and fearful of any potential change that may exacerbate the current situation.

Take the example of Portland, where the North Williams Avenue bicycle lane project spurred controversy among African American residents. In Melody Hoffman’s book Bike Lanes Are White Lanes, the author documented the contention of the project. N Williams Ave is located in Albina, a historic black neighborhood that is quickly gentrifying. The title of the book was inspired by community members’ attitude toward the project.

The bicycle lane project stemmed out of the increase of bicyclists on N Williams, which raised concerns about bicycle safety. Bicyclists were seen as the newcomers in the community, most being white and middle class. Some community members were upset that only bicycle safety brought attention to their neighborhood, but their complaints for pedestrian safety were ignored for a long time. As one Stakeholder Advisory Committee member argued in the planning process, “You say you want it ‘safe’ for everybody, how come it wasn’t safe 10 years ago? … We wanted safe streets back then; but now that the bicyclists want to have safe streets then it’s all about the bicyclists getting safe streets.[v]

With a history of divestment and displacement, marginalized communities often lack trust in government and feel excluded from the planning process. In the case of N Williams, the neighborhood was divided in two when in 1966 Interstate 5 was built through the thriving downtown of the black community, displacing many residents. Later, an urban renewal project displaced more residents as the city attempted to eliminate “blight.” Now, as the neighborhood becomes more popular and receives more real estate investment, the community members once again are concerned about losing their community. In this context, it is understandable why a bicycle lane project sparked such tension. It is hard for community members to not connect the priority of bicycle investment with racism and classism.

What does an equitable bicycle project look like? In her book, Hoffman provides an example of a bicycle and pedestrian trail project in Milwaukee. Aimed at addressing segregation between two adjacent neighborhoods, the project was a collaboration between two architecture students and local community organizers. The trail is designed with the vulnerable community members as primary users. To do this. the architects canvassed the adjacent neighbors in the beginning and hired community organizers to engage with residents of color. With intense engagement from the beginning, the team gave the residents opportunities to participate in the design process and voice their needs and concerns. It features standalone classrooms, bleachers, stages, and a large table for community meals. The process led to buy-in and support from the community. As Hoffman pointed out, this project is “a strong example of bicycle equity planning because it addresses inequity instead of ignoring it.

History and culture matter. The equity conversation around bicycle advocacy should not focus on infrastructure planning, but lead with community engagement and community decision-making. It is paramount to understand the past and to ask community members to identify their barriers and needs.

Leaders also matter. Many community members of color feel frustrated that white/middle class bicycle advocates are ill-equipped or uncomfortable discussing racism and segregation. Some are skeptical of their motives. It is important for community members and advocates of color to lead the process because they understand the specific issues and complexities their community faces.

For example, a lot of the street safety issues in communities of color are not only about traffic safety, but also about personal safety. The report Effect of Crime on Walking (NJ Bicycle and Pedestrian Resource Center, 2017) found that residents in high crime neighborhoods in North Jersey tend to walk more[vii]. One potential explanation to the counterintuitive conclusion is that low income people do not have alternatives and live in more walkable, dense neighborhoods. The exposure to crimes still creates a barrier to being outdoors and makes community members more vulnerable. The need for more policing and the fear of police violence further complicate the issue. To address these concerns, we need listen to the community.

 

Equitable bicycle advocacy and projects are dependent on context, but here are some strategies to start with:

  • Lead with community engagement, not project proposals
  • History matters. Understand neighborhood’s past experience with the municipality and community members’ concerns
  • Culture matters. Design culturally specific projects to engage community members. Create a sense of ownership by designing infrastructure appropriate to the community
  • Elevate the voice of communities of color and advocates of color. White bicycle advocates should support inclusive and equitable projects, but they shouldn’t be the leaders


[i]  Aaron Golub, Melody L. Hoffmann, Adonia E. Lugo, Gerardo F. Sandoval. 2016. Bicycle Justice and Urban Transformation: Biking for all? New York, NY: Routledge.

[ii] The League of American Bicyclists, Sierra Club. 2013. The New Majority: Pedaling Towards Equity. Washington, DC. Available online: https://bikeleague.org/sites/default/files/equity_report.pdf.

[iii] Alliance for Biking and Walking. 2016. 2016 Benchmarking Report: Bicycling and Walking in the United States. Available online: https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/livable-communities/documents-2016/2016-WalkingBicyclingBenchmarkingReport.pdf.

[iv] Melody L. Hoffman. 2016. Bike Lanes Are White Lanes: Bicycle Advocacy and Urban Planning. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Devajyoti Deka, Charles T. Brown, and James Sinclair. 2018. “Exploration of the effect of violent crime on recreational and transportation walking by path and structural equation models,” in Health and Place Issue 52: 34-45.