by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders
During the pandemic, record numbers of people have (re)discovered bicycling as an enjoyable way to maintain health and fitness in a physically-distanced, outdoor setting. Cities are also encouraging bicycling as a way of reducing crowding on public transit while keeping privately-owned motor vehicles from overwhelming already-congested street systems. Public officials are additionally promoting bicycling as part of economic-survival plans that allow restaurants and businesses to stay in operation by spreading out into places previously reserved for cars.
Bicycles also have a role to play in the growing demands for social justice and racial equality. Studies have found that bicycles build equity. They cost a fraction of the amount needed to buy, insure, repair, park and fuel a car. They are perfect for people who cannot afford a personal automobile or who have better uses for the almost $10,000 per year typically consumed by car ownership. Bikes inexpensively expand the range of car-free people, increasing job opportunities, creating resilience against unexpected expenses and promoting upward economic mobility from one generation to the next (Litman 2020).
In 2017, People for Bikes and the Alliance for Biking and Walking released a report about how protected bike lanes can help reverse a century of inequality on our streets: Building Equity: Race, ethnicity, class, and protected bike lanes – An idea book for fairer cities. In a dozen case studies from cities in the U.S. and around the world, advocates explain how “…protected lanes make biking safer and more accessible for more people – lowering household transportation costs, enabling compact development, broadening individual autonomy and increasing mobility and access for low- and no-car households” (Anderson and Hall 2017,4).
As told by Building Equity, a chicken-and-egg syndrome partly explains the lack of protected bike lanes in disadvantaged neighborhoods. In 2005, 21 percent of Black households in the U.S. did not own a car. But Black and Hispanic cyclists in the U.S. have the greatest likelihood of being killed by motorists as determined by deaths per capita between 1999 and 2011. According to Building Equity, dangerous roadways in disadvantaged neighborhoods discourage cycling, producing low bicycle counts and allowing public officials to rationalize putting safer bike lanes elsewhere.
Not surprisingly, the survey results summarized in Building Equity found that a higher percentage of people of color want to bike more frequently than people in other categories. Similarly, a larger percent of people of color want to be physically separated from motor vehicles by a barrier than people in other categories.
As usual, some success stories found in Building Equity come from outside the United States. In Denmark, the low-cost mobility provided by good bicycle infrastructure partly explains why people born in the poorest households in Denmark are twice as likely as poor Americans to improve their economic situation by middle age. In Bogota, Columbia, a policy of democratizing road space has produced a 180-mile network of protected bike lanes that feed this city’s extensive bus system. In Hangzhou, China, 84 percent of the city’s main and secondary roads physically separate motor vehicles from bikes, resulting in 31 percent of trips here occurring on cycles in 2007 despite a steep decline in poverty.
Although the U.S. is late to this party, the INVEST in America Act now under consideration by Congress offers an opportunity to reverse policies that favor private motor vehicles over the equity-building potential of other transportation infrastructure, including protected bike lanes. This $500-billion bill, if signed into law, would prioritize safety and equity along with many other good things like climate action, passenger rail and transit-oriented development. To improve safety, the act would require streets to be designed for all people and all modes, including pedestrians and bicyclists, and change the current insanity of letting law-breaking motorists determine our speed limits (Doyle 2020).
Funding a transportation system that does not leave behind those who walk, bike or take public transportation would be one way of acting on the flood of recent statements calling for racial equality and social justice.
Anderson, Michael and Lauran Hall. 2017. Building Equity: Race, ethnicity, class, and protected bike lanes – An idea book for fairer cities. Accessed 6-25-20 at file:///C:/Users/Richard/Documents/Equity%20and%20Bicycling.pdf.
Doyle, Sean. 2020. What you need to know about the INVEST Act. Smart Growth America. Accessed 6-27-20 at https://smartgrowthamerica.org/blog/.
Litman, Todd. 2020. Evaluating Active Transport Benefits and Costs: Guide to Valuing Walking and Cycling Improvement and Encouragement Programs. Victoria Transport Policy Institute. Accessed 5-29-20 at https://www.vtpi.org/nmt-tdm.pdf.