In a fascinating post over at Next American City, Dave Steele observes a big divide among bike commuters: the affluent, geared-up, environmentalist, health-conscious cyclists by choice, and those who are commuting by bike because they can’t afford other means:
“For a lot of people, biking is a neccessity. Rather than a source of pride, riding is often a source of shame, a visible symbol of poverty.
“I encounter many of these Unseen Bicyclists in my daily travels. Usually riding without a helmet or other safety gear, these cyclists keep their heads down and go about their business, riding to work and other places where the bus routes don’t go. I often see them engaging in dangerous practices, such as riding on the sidewalk or against traffic. Their bikes are often in poor condition, with squeaky wheels and gears. With major cutbacks in transit service in recent years, and a huge increase in bus fares (and the price of gasoline), I’ve been seeing more and more of my fellow citizens biking out of neccessity.
“The urban poor and working class take work when and where they can get it, which often means third or second shift and far from home, out of reach of public transit. Long bike commutes in the dark, without safety gear, lead to a high rate of injuries and fatalities among low-income bikers in many cities.”
As soon as I read it, I knew who he was talking about. When you first say “bikes” and the urban poor, I think the image that flashes into many minds (certainly those of many of my on-edge neighbors) is groups of teenagers cruising the streets, sometimes two to a bike, often careering in and out of traffic and giving drivers heart attacks.
But I know the other group Steele means. The adults, quiet and serious, sometimes with precarious loads, often tired looking, heading where they need to go.
What does it mean about class gaps and attitudes that I have never once heard of (nor thought of, to be honest, before now, despite being a cyclist) including bicycles in journey-to-work or transportation access programs? (This detailed report mentions the word “bicycle” only twice — once negatively, as something to be overcome.)
Why do we work on fixing up old bikes for low-income kids, but never consider helping the working poor or people trying to transition off public assistance get a functional, safe bike, with a helmet, headlights, and a child seat? Surely it wouldn’t help in all cases, but I know of plenty of employment centers around here that could be theoretically bikeable from downtown.
Such assistance would not only be cheaper to do up front, but a lot more sustainable for the recipient to maintain than the donate-a-car type movements.
Of course on the activism side, this would mean more focus on bikes in transportation justice organizing, and more focus on the bike accessibility of low-wage job centers for bike activists and planners.
The rub may be the gap in attitudes. Can those forced to bike commute come to embrace it and fight for safe bikeways? Can the cyclists by choice interact with cyclists by necessity and not start off scolding them about needing a helmet and following traffic rules?