Bikes’ image problem in low-income communities

July 22, 2014

Most urbanites are familiar with the stereotypical bike commuter: white, wealthy, yuppie. Yet, as the Atlantic’s CityLab blog reports,  there are significant reasons underlying the unfortunate (yet often true) stereotype — and three lessons for working towards making cycling a viable, reliable option for diverse, low-income communities.

bicycle locked to signpost

Bikes haven’t caught on in underprivileged communities. A recent study explores why. Image from Chad Kainz.

First, the positive news: U.S. Census Bureau data shows that bike commuting jumped by 61 percent between the 2000 Census and a 2008-12 survey. However, research conducted by Eve Bratman, an assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service, and scholar Adam Jadhav, shows that in certain places, the majority of people who bike are both wealthy and white.

Washington, D.C., is a prime example: As the authors report, D.C. bike commuting is growing by leaps and bounds there. Data from an American Community Survey reveals that bike commuting in D.C. rocketed by 208 percent between 2000 and 2012. However, biking is much less prevalent in the lower-income neighborhoods. The researchers studied limitations to bike commuting, both “perceived and real,” in D.C.’s low-income areas.

Backed with a $29 budget and a group of American University students, the researchers originally intended to assist the Washington Area Bicyclist Association “plan its advocacy in D.C.’s Wards 7 and 8—areas that are more than 94 percent African-American, and with above-average poverty.” They conducted two surveys, in 2012 and 2013, targeting more than 260 commuters. Bratman and Jadhav discovered three key points:

  1. “Poor respondents spend more time commuting.”Those living in Wards 7 and 8 use public transit more than the rest of the city, earn less, and spend more time commuting. The researchers discovered that these poor residents spend more time commuting than their “non-poor counterparts.” How much time? In 2012, low-income commuters said that they spent almost four additional hours weekly, in comparison to higher-income commuters residing in the same area.  The following year, low-income survey respondents reported an extra 24 minutes spent in commute.The explanation is a simple one: Poor people tend to use public transit more; throughout the U.S., those who use public transit face longer commutes. Plus, housing located near transit options is frequently more popular and, as a result, more expensive, driving the poor further into remote neighborhoods.
  2. “Most people, poor and non-poor alike, still want cars.”Multiple surveys show that owning a car — not sharing one, such as through ZipCar or a similar program — remains a very desirable option among commuters.In this particular study, African Americans were “statistically more likely” to desire car ownership, and also less likely to cite biking as a preferred transport option — a sentiment held true despite respondents’ concern about car costs. Car ownership remains a status symbol in the low-income communities surveyed: “While wealthier people increasingly reduce their car dependency, poor people still aspire to car ownership.”
  3. “Cycling just isn’t popular among the urban poor (yet).”Respondents in the 2012 survey ranked biking seventh of nine transportation options, citing a number of related limitations: poor or limited infrastructure, lacking road safety, and physical exertion.In the following year’s survey, respondents noted 30 limitations to biking or walking, with physical safety, distance, and physical discomfort top concerns. Other obstacles included theft risk, poor health or a disability, slower speed, lack of knowledge of how to ride, and difficulty of carrying unwieldy items, among others. (There was only one respondent in the 2012 survey, a homeless man, who said he regularly biked; the following year, four respondents said that they biked, though none stated biking was their primary mode of transportation.)Given low-income commuters’ contentions with long commute times and a range of physical and social challenges, note the researchers, “it is not surprising… that they want cars and that cycling may not satisfy their travel needs.” Analyzing the communities’ needs requires policies and planners “to do a better job of listening to the poor.” 

How can low-income communities encourage cycling? The researchers offer three suggestions:

  1. Improving “multimodal transit,” such as creating dedicated bike space within subway cars or secure bike parking at bus stops to support biking.
  2. Accepting the cultural importance of cars, especially among the poor, as “excessively denigrating automobiles might hinder cycling adoption and even poverty reduction goals.”
  3. Lastly, the researchers recommend instituting bike events, bike clinics and workshops, especially in low-ridership communities.

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Category: Bicycles, Resources

About the Author ()

Katy is a writer, reporter and editor who, in addition to writing for RoadTrafficSigns, has worked with the United Nations Development Programme, Hamptons magazine, Hearst Corporation, The Daily Mail, People Magazine, and a variety of other publications and nonprofits. After graduating with honors from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2011, and distinctions on her thesis and in the consumer journalism seminar, she moved to Milan, Italy. In Italy, she worked as a writer and consultant for an international magazine, editing and translating text and reporting on such events as the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, the annual design fair. A born and raised New Yorker, she has lived in three of five boroughs, relying quite a bit on public transport until getting her driver's license at the admittedly belated age of 21.

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