Biking is thought of by certain populations as an activity for rich or at least middle class people. They only see two groups. The first group is competitive cyclists, where people spandex up and purchase expensive racing gear. The second group is the style-conscious crowd riding pricey city bikes and carrying specialty handbags. Besides the fact that this categorization leaves out the majority of folks who are somewhere in-between those extremes, it completely ignores an often-invisible group of people who need to bike for transportation – low income folks who have few other choices.
Transportation is a choice between expense or inconvenience no matter where you live – and in some unfortunate places, you’re stuck with both. In places with little public transit, you must own a car, which has the cost of gas, insurance, and maintenance past the initial upfront price. For people who cannot afford a car, a bicycle is often the only option to get back and forth from work, even if roads are not safe or well-lit.
Even places with good public transit can be limiting. The D.C. metro area has some of the best public transit in the country, and yet it has major issues. The train is extremely expensive – more than $10 round trip during rush hour to the suburbs and back – and has patchy service at night and on weekends. Housing in areas that are in walkable neighborhoods or near Metro stops is substantially more expensive than equivalent housing elsewhere. Nationwide, properties located within five to ten minutes of a transit station are 20-25 percent more expensive than comparable properties further away. In my area, bus service is good in places, but terrible in others. The line that runs past our house leaves the Metro station like clockwork but only comes every half-hour and stops shortly after midnight. Plus, bus service doesn’t run everywhere. Many trips involve transferring between multiple buses, waiting a long time to catch the next one, or needing to walk a long distance to your destination. Considering these factors, a bicycle can still be the cheapest, most convenient option.
Both data and personal experience support the evidence that there are plenty of people who bike because they have to, not because they want to. As this article reports (based on this study out of Rutgers and Virginia Tech), 31% of all bike trips are done by people in the poorest quartile, while 21% are done by the second poorest. As that includes all bicycle trips, including those for recreation, I would expect those two quartiles to make up a significant proportion of commuter cyclists. Personally, I’ve seen a similar proportion of people around my town. In my suburban but traditionally lower-income neighborhood, I constantly see folks on bicycles that don’t fit them and/or riding at night without lights. I believe they just can’t afford proper equipment, which can be deadly. This article includes a particularly tragic story about an immigrant in L.A. who was killed as he rode at night in an area with particularly infrequent bus service. While most people who ride at night aren’t killed, he’s far from the only one forced to make this choice.
How do we serve this population who doesn’t have the time or resources to participate in bicycle advisory groups or advocacy? It’s essential for those of us who do have the opportunity to keep a diversity of needs in mind, not just those relevant to our circumstances. Transportation is a basic need that we should be able to provide for everyone. People have the right to get to work and back safely, no matter what their income. The article with the story mentioned above has a particularly moving reflection on this subject, where the author compares Martin Luther King’s social justice work to the very real social justice work needed for to guarantee safe, convenient, affordable transportation for everyone.
On a more practical note, it’s essential to get good bicycle infrastructure everywhere people bike, not just the places where bicyclists are the loudest or richest. Gentrification happens in part because some neighborhoods gain amenities while others stay the same or decline. If we can work to institute essential safety measures across-the-board, like consistent enforcement of driving laws, separated bicycle lanes or correctly installed traditional lanes, and well-lit streets, everyone will be safer. Outreach programs should also target the lowest income folks that cycle, focusing on providing them expensive safety equipment like lights and helmets for free or a discount.
Fortunately, it looks like more and more bicycle programs are beginning to acknowledge and serve this population. The Washington Area Bicycle Association has done its “Got Lights” giveaway for years, but recently started targeting cyclists “riding dark” in low-income areas. Similarly, when bikeshare finally comes to my town this spring, it will offer free memberships and helmets to low-income folks and focus on installing stations at centers of employment. Another local blogger and grad student at Virginia Tech is actually doing his senior thesis on making bikesharing systems more equitable.
So the next time someone accuses all bicyclists of being “hipsters” or “yuppies,” let them know that you want transportation for all. Some people are going to be out cycling to work no matter what and they deserve to get there safely.