ELI Primary Menu

Skip to main content

Why Are Bike Equity Initiatives Needed and How Should Cities Incorporate Them?

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Zoe Bertol-Foell

Research and Publications Intern, ELI

If you have walked across downtown Manhattan recently, you may have been blinded by the new colorful green pavement marking protected bike lanes. NYC is one of many cities flaunting their new bike safety initiatives in political speeches, tourist brochures, and subway ads. Given the multiple economic, health, and environmental benefits of replacing car trips with bike trips, their pride is well-deserved. But in order for such initiatives to serve all New Yorkers, they must go a step further.

bike pathUnfortunately, the majority of this new infrastructure is designed to benefit whiter, wealthier neighborhoods. This is true despite the fact that low-income workers are more likely to rely on bikes for transportation and have the least agency to change their bike route to accommodate for safety. Moreover, Black and Hispanic cyclists face higher fatality rates from biking-related accidents, and more bike and pedestrian accidents occur in low-income neighborhoods. These realities highlight the need for targeted initiatives to make biking safer and more equitable and to ensure that the benefits of such initiatives reach low income communities and communities of color.

Furthermore, a large portion of potential minority riders don’t bike because they don’t feel safe doing so. As a result, they miss out on all the health and economic benefits of biking. Surveys indicate that people of color would like to bike more but don’t because they worry about safety in traffic. Installing safe bike infrastructure can change this perception. About 60% of people of color and those earning less than 30k per year say that more bike lanes and trails would encourage them to ride more. Access to a functional bike is another common barrier to biking, especially for those making less than 40k per year and women. While bike-sharing programs can help address this barrier, they are often prohibitively expensive and mostly located in wealthier neighborhoods.

Many of the initiatives that can make biking safer and more equitable require funding and planning. To encourage a more equitable provision of physical infrastructure, stakeholders can use bike-related grants targeting disadvantaged communities. There are a variety of types of targeted grants that can go to different stakeholders playing different roles in equity initiatives. Some grants go directly to bike shops to support programming to increase ridership among underserved populations. Other, often company-sponsored, grants go to bike-share programs to make them more affordable and accessible. Grant-givers may also tailor prioritization criteria to ensure that bike infrastructure serving disadvantaged communities gets greater prioritization in the funding time line.

Adequate representation in the bike-lane planning process is also necessary so that the interests of those who stand to be most impacted by planning are well-represented. This is especially important with respect to the location of infrastructure in relation to criminal activity, which can deter potential riders. One study found that low-income participants feel safer when infrastructure is placed on busy streets because of the perception of lower crime rates there, while high-income planners may prefer side streets to avoid traffic. These findings suggest that a one-size-fits-all design will not produce the same outcomes in all neighborhoods.

Implementing physical bike infrastructure on its own isn’t sufficient to ensure that it is used to its fullest capacity. Giving low-income residents access to a functional bicycle that they know how to safely operate is also imperative. One type of program that has been successful in this area are the “earn-a-bike” programs in which participants learn from volunteers how to repair a bike and receive a free bike in return for repairing one. These programs have proven to result in positive impacts for ridership. One Kansas City earn-a-bike program increased participants’ time spent cycling by 68%. Another important step is to make educational and safety resources available in the languages of the communities in which initiatives are being implemented. In addition to making such resources accessible to a more diverse population, translating educational materials can improve collaboration among stakeholders, including school officials, police officers, and residents.

This map, which overlays average household income and bike infrastructure in Brooklyn, reveals a pattern prevalent throughout many U.S. cities: infrastructure is consistently concentrated in the wealthiest neighborhoods. Aside from the disparities in infrastructure density, planners should note the clear geographical disparities in types of infrastructure present. For example, while the lowest-income areas of Brooklyn do have some bike infrastructure, they mostly consist of bike sharrows, which are painted markings indicating a road is shared among cyclists and drivers. In the wealthiest areas, by contrast, there is a high concentration of standard separated bike lanes. Multiple studies have shown that bike lanes with a physical barrier between the cyclist and traffic are the most effective at reducing accidents, while bike sharrows can actually have the opposite effect and make cycling less safe.

Some cities have made successful efforts to include equity as a factor in bike-related investments. One such city is San Jose in Santa Clara County, California. Santa Clara County residents voted to approve a tax-funded competitive grant program that included prioritization criteria points for projects in which at least 50% of the project limits were located within “Communities of Concern” or traditionally disadvantaged communities. As seen in this map, San Jose’s bike infrastructure is not stratified by income. In fact, the majority of the proposed lanes (in blue) are located in the lowest-income neighborhoods. San Jose’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) also successfully addresses the lack of access to a functional bike barrier by committing to having at least 20% of their bike-share stations located in Communities of Concern. In addition to purposeful station placement, funding was provided for multilingual targeted outreach for discount membership information. The successes of these types of initiatives can be seen today. Thirty-five percent of bike-share stations are in Communities of Concern, exceeding the original goal of 20%. Furthermore, 81% of San Jose’s bike-share program members qualified for the discount Bike Share for All membership, and more than one-half of all bike-share trips were made by qualified Bike Share for All members. San Jose’s equity successes provide a blueprint that other cities could follow.

Outcomes like those seen in San Jose are rare in the United States. Although in many cities, bike infrastructure and bike-sharing systems are starting to expand into low-income neighborhoods, they always begin in wealthier whiter areas. The prioritization of bike initiatives in these areas is a major issue, given that minorities are more likely to rely on biking for transportation and be involved in a biking accident. The good news is that many grants are now available to fund programs aimed at getting low-income users access to free or low-cost bikes and bike safety education. Although these programs have been shown to have positive results, they must be implemented alongside expanded infrastructure to realize their fullest potential impact. The COVID-19 era reminds us to reflect upon how inequalities impact human vulnerability. Changing this prioritization and getting infrastructure to low-income communities quickly has the potential to save lives and yield the multitude of benefits from ridership increases.

All blog posts are the opinion of its author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ELI the organization or its members.