Bike-friendly cities should be designed for everyone, not just for wealthy white cyclists

Designing for bikes has become a hallmark of forward-looking modern cities worldwide. Bike-friendly city ratings abound, and advocates promote cycling as a way to reduce problems ranging from air pollution to traffic deaths.

But urban cycling investments tend to focus on the needs of wealthy riders and neglect lower-income residents and people of color. This happens even though the majority of Americans who bike to work live in households that earn less than US$10,000 yearly, and studies in lower-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Boston have found that the majority of bicyclists were non-white.

I have worked on bicycle facilities for 38 years. In a newly published study, I worked with colleagues from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Boston groups focused on health and families to learn from residents of several such neighborhoods what kinds of bike infrastructure they believed best met their needs. Some of their preferences were notably different from those of cyclists in wealthier neighborhoods.

[embedded content] Thanks to recent investments, New Yorkers can ride an almost continuous stretch of protected bike lanes, greenways and bridges for 25 miles through four boroughs of the city.

Cycling infrastructure and urban inequality

Bike equity is a powerful tool for increasing access to transportation and reducing inequality in U.S. cities. Surveys show that the fastest growth in cycling rates since 2001 has occurred among Hispanic, African-American and Asian-American riders. But minority neighborhoods have fewer bike facilities, and riders there face higher risk of accidents and crashes.

Many U.S. cities have improved marginalized neighborhoods by investing in grocery stores, schools, health clinics, community centers, libraries and affordable housing. But when it comes to bicycle infrastructure, they often add only the easiest and least safe elements, such as painting sharrows – stencils of bikes and double chevrons – or bike lane markings, and placing them next to curbs or between parked cars and traffic. Cycle tracks – bike lanes separated from traffic by curbs, lines of posts or rows of parked cars – are more common in affluent neighborhoods.

Compared with white wealthier neighborhoods, more bicyclists in ethnic-minority neighborhoods receive tickets for unlawful riding or are involved in collisions. With access to properly marked cycle tracks, they would have less reason to ride on the sidewalk or against traffic on the street, and would be less likely to be hit by cars.

In my view, responsibility for recognizing these needs rests primarily with cities. Urban governments rely on public participation processes to help them target investments, and car owners tend to speak loudest because they want to maintain access to wide street lanes and parallel parking. In contrast, carless residents who could benefit from biking may not know to ask for facilities that their neighborhoods have never had.

Substandard bike lanes, like this one in Seattle, expose cyclists to unsafe passing by motorists and collisions with cars turning right at intersections or pulling out of driveways. Joshua Putnam, CC BY

Protection from crime and crashes

For our study, we organized 212 people into 16 structured discussion groups. They included individuals we classified as “community-sense” – representing civic organizations such as YMCAs and churches – or “street-sense,” volunteers from halfway houses, homeless shelters and gangs. We invited the street-sense groups because individuals who have committed crimes or know of crime opportunities have valuable insights about urban design.

We showed the groups photos of various cycling environments, ranging from unaltered streets to painted sharrows and bike lanes, cycle tracks and shared multi-use paths. Participants ranked the pictures according to the risk of crime or crashes they associated with each option, then discussed their perceptions as a group.