Monday, May 23, 2011

How minorities and the poor fit into America's rising "bike culture"

My wife is a saint. Aside from putting up with someone who is roughly four feet shorter than her, and sports fashionable adult braces (me), she also puts up with my incessant need to compare the United States to Colombia. My tendency to compare everything in these two countries is something I do (largely) unknowingly. As a result, I end up comparing how different things function, look, feel and even smell. Even seemingly small things, like the thickness and fullness of grass in either country can cause me to easily descend into a twenty minute comparative study of grass species and cutting techniques. I try to be fair in my comparative assessments, and openly admit when a certain aspect of American culture or American infrastructure functions better than its counterpart in Colombia. As of late, one particular item that I've been thinking about is the layout and strategy behind how and where bike lanes are located throughout most American cities, as well as how these bike lanes reflect just who this much-touted "bike culture" is meant for.

The comparison
Comparing a city or country's bike infrastructure to Bogotá's is rather unfair. By most accounts, Bogotá's bike path network is the most extensive in the world, but that's not the point. It's not the amount of kilometers or miles of bike paths or bike lanes, though it is worth point out that Bogotá's bike paths are actual paths, always sheltered from the road, and not merely semi-imaginary lanes that come about because of paint on the roads. What I've actually been thinking about is how in Bogota, it has always been understood that bikes lanes should reach all neighborhoods and areas of the city, but should especially service poor communities.

While individuals with disposable income in Bogotá may ride their bike to work (and they do), or they may ride for fun and fitness (they do), it's obvious that poorer individuals (those who don't own a car, and have a difficult time accessing public transportation) can use the bicycle as primary mode of transportation. They are the priority. It's this point in particular that I've been thinking about. Although I have admittedly not done an extremely thorough study of where bike lanes in American cities are, I have noticed that in every city I've been to, bike lanes are seldom (if ever) meant to service poor neighborhoods. They may cross through them (a necessary nuisance in the eyes of some), but the impetus and reasoning behind most bike lanes is to service the type of communities where organic markets, and yoga studios seem to crop up. Beyond bike lanes and bike paths, few of the end results that this great "bike culture" has brought about affect the people who ride their bikes the most and out of sheer need. Ride-To-Work events, parties, workshops, all the numerous events that "bike culture" has brought about are largely meant for those who want to ride bikes, those choose to ride bikes, but seldom for those who have to ride bikes.

Sheltered bike path in Bogota, along Calle 26 (Avenida El Dorado). This is one of many paths that connects very poor areas with the city center, as well as surrounding neighborhoods.

For those who plan where bike lanes should go, I would imagine that this is a difficult choice. Do you service a community that is vocal about their need for bike lanes, and one which is likely to use them right away, or a community whose needs you've never looked into, and one that seldom has a voice in this or any other issue. This reminds me of the debate I once heard a rather sizable roadie have with himself at a bike shop. Should he buy a wheelset that helped him "be better" at what he had difficulty with (climbing), or one that would make him better at what he felt he was good at (flats). In his case, I'd say he should forego buying a wheelset altogether...but in the case of bike lanes, the choice is not so easy. At least not in the United States. Not in Bogota, where poorer communities are always a priority. Because in the long run, they will have more use for this type of infrastructure.

The video below illustrates this. Skip ahead to 1:42 to see what I mean.

What is a cyclist?
Even typing the phrase above made me nauseous, because its a stupid question, and one I detest. It's also one that I don't care to answer, much less consider. Along with terms like "bike culture" and "bike scene", the manner in which people often define "cyclist" makes me cringe. But let me explain why I bring this up. I mention this because I've often heard people say that a cyclist is a person who rides a bike because they want to. They may have another choice, they could possibly afford something else, but they ride a bike because they chose to...either for commuting, or fitness/competition. You may have heard a definition along these lines at some point yourself. But let me ask you, what about those who ride a bike because they have to, for transportation or for work?

If you've been to a city like New York, you probably know what I'm talking about. Countless men crisscross Manhattan on their cheap mountain bikes, delivering food all over the place. They do this to make a living. They don't love their bikes. They don't think about what wheelset they should buy next. As a matter of fact, the may even detest their bikes. But they don't have a choice. So does this mean they're not real cyclists? It's true, many of them would probably take another job if they could, and many of those who ride their bikes to get to their job would gladly drive a car if they could afford it. So while those commonly involved in the aforementioned "bike culture" might insist that only the needs of individuals who ride by choice should be delivery men continue to ride their bikes through snow and rain. They ride every single day. Their needs are seldom addressed, because if they were given a choice, they might take up a different mode of transportation. Never mind the fact that such an alternative may never come. The pizza delivery-man rapture will never take them and put them in the driver's seat of a Lexus SUV. So they will keep riding, but the neighborhoods they live in are seldom (if ever) considered a priority. Perhaps because they lack yoga studios.

For those of you who have been reading this blog for a while, the ones who may suspect that I am sensitive about this subject because many such delivery men are immigrants (often latinos, like me)'d be right.

I don't envy people who work with or for a city looking to put in bike lanes. I'm certain that it's a challenging (and at times maddening) position to be in. Having said that, the question remains: Should American cities (this may apply to some European cities as well, for all I know) continue to make those who choose to ride a bike a priority? Or should those who must ride a bike, those who could realistically use a bike as a primary and sole mode of transportation be thought of? It would be great to have both, as Bogotá does. But we may not be so lucky.

What are things like where you live?


  1. So while you were writing this fine post this morning, addressing social injustice, important questions of urban infrastructure and pizza delivery, I was chasing a Big Bird around a trailer park. But lucky for me, I Am Poor, so I understand where you are coming from. In fact, my good friend Coyote is a pizza delivery man.

    Our bike paths serve rich and poor alike here in my backwater Florida town. Not for reasons of justice but because we all live in the same neighborhoods. I can stand in front of my trailer and throw a rock through a rich man's window...iN FACT, I'll be right back...

  2. love your work lucho

  3. If the poor are hungry, then they should eat their pie plates.

  4. Once again you wrote a very insightful and clever post. And it applies also, have a good laugh..., to many French cities. The French are perhaps even more "all for the cars" than the Americans. Is it because they struggle stupidly to keep up with the trends the US considered "modern" twenty years ago ? Whatever... when there are bike lanes they are of the most silly sort that runs from nowhere to nowhere. Most of the time it feels better (and makes sense) to ride the streets. Watch out, be fast and don't dream is the word. Does being rich make a country stupid ? I don't know. But pretending by all means being rich, certainly does. Despising the bicycle as a valuable transportation tool is part of that game.

  5. Jackseph,
    Thank you.

    Racist Roadie,
    what if your bike didn't come with one? Tough choice.

    Thank you for weighing in! Colombia is trying to keep up with certain american and european trends, even if some of them are now dated.

  6. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I live, it seems that the earlier bike lanes were built to serve folks with money who ride their bikes recreationally.

    The first path that I remember riding on when I moved here about 11 years ago was down Summit Avenue of Saint Paul (Minneapolis's neighbor city). This is a street that holds two expensive private colleges and hundreds of mansions and ritzy condos.
    At that time there was also the cedar lake trail, an off road bike "highway" created to bring suburbanites from the wealthy western 'burbs into downtown Minneapolis to work. Other trails and lanes existed, but I agree with you, they were not created to serve poorer communities. They were there for the folks with the money and the political voice.

    Things have changed. Now there are paths that serve those communities but, like you have written, I believe they mostly exist because they connect more affluent points together and happen to pass through the "rougher" parts of town.

    In the mid-2000s I attended college on St. Paul's east side, a historically poorer and immigrant populated area. I rode that Summit avenue path from my apartment on the west side. The ride was always wonderful until I got downtown. At that point any kind of connector trail or path had obviously been ignored into that poorer neighborhood. I was funneled onto very busy surface streets that didn't even have parking shoulders to take refuge in until I got to my school up on the hill overlooking downtown. The ride was ridiculous compared to the luxury of riding in the richer part of town. I don't want to totally whitewash: there are paths that will take you into the east side. But they certainly aren't very convenient for people who are looking to ride to work. Again, they were mostly created for recreational riders and take you to see various pretty sites and views. A simple painted bike shoulder running into the east side on that main road would have made the ride safer for a lot of folks.

    So anyway. Long rambling comment is over. Maybe now we are living in the age of trickle-down bike-lanes?


  7. A cyclist is someone who is riding a bike and should be treated in accordingly, regardless of their motives, purpose or intent.

  8. "A cyclist is someone who is riding a bike and should be treated in accordingly, regardless of their motives, purpose or intent."

    Love it. Thank you.

    Thanks for weighing in. I've only had a layover in Minneapolis, so I know nothing about it (I had Kirby Puckett rookie card at one point though). Oddly enough, I was amazed by how I could see numerous bike lanes and paths from the plane. That was highly unusual.

  9. there's these 3 mexican dudes that work at the pizza place by my house. i always BS with them about soccer, wrestling and horrible mexican techno. they ride their magnas (or whatever) all the way across town (mostly on the sidewalk) everyday. i figured that they ride about 200-250 miles a week with plenty of tough-ass climbs. i always wondered how "good" they were, so i challenged them to a race. they laughed at me and told me only a colombian would think a bike race would be a good idea. i asked them if they knew who raul alcala was. they didn't, but told me if he wore tight shorts like mine, he wasn't a "real" mexican anyway. i'm a dork, i know. i get a lot of free pizza, tho.

  10. Yes! I often feel very lucky to live in a place where we have lots of bike paths. They exist here because we have lots of people dedicated to their creation; both "regular people" and politicians.


  11. Minneapolis (and Saint Paul!) has, in fact, recently been judged to be the top bike-friendly city in the States. I live here and get around by bike myself, and will attest, our cities are working to expand bike paths and lanes and to improve connectivity. Thanks for the post, I had no idea about Bogota's bike path network.

  12. I'm also from Minneapolis, MN. Nearly all of the early bike paths were created for recreation and the are still being built with that in mind. There are some exceptions like the greenway and bikelanes on roads but generally bike paths seem to be places that you take your bike to in or on a car and then ride it. You dont ride the bike there.

    This has suddenly caused me to wonder what the percentages are in different countries for number of bikes compared to bike racks for cars in the same country.

  13. atlanta is an odd case. most of the bike lanes are in gentrifying neighborhoods. example: for about 2-3 miles from georgia tech, there are bike lanes and bike signs on roads indicating that cyclists frequent those streets.

    one of the major bike lanes runs from inman park (rich) through edgewood (transitional, street by street), and old 4th ward (still kind of hood), into downtown. BUT that street (edgewood avenue) is a street along which several restaurants and boutiques have opened up. had that street remained a patch of boarded up buildings, i doubt there would be a bike lane. and the bike lane actually stops once the neighborhood starts to get a bit dodgy.


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