A group of bicycling advocates gathered for a conference in Pittsburgh earlier this month, and it was pretty much the Portlandia sketch come to life that you might think.
At a "Future Bike" panel, Adonia Lugo of the League of American Bicyclists passed out sheets of paper with the outline of an elephant and asked audience members to jot down what they thought was missing from the national conversation about bicycling—the elephant in the room. The panel discussion began only after audience members had gotten to know their seatmates. (My seatmate worked for Seattle Neighborhood Greenways and sported an intricate butterfly tattoo.) And the panelists—Keith Holt of the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation and Barb Chamberlain of Washington Bikes—engaged in a little politically self-aware banter. "Our first thing here," said Chamberlain with a smile, "will be whether the black man talks first or the white lady."
The rough consensus was that bicycle advocacy needs more candid conversations about race and class and gender. Chamberlain ("the white lady") spoke first at Holt's urging, and read the note she had written outside her elephant. "I'm white and that's OK," she told the audience. "We can get past that." Holt's elephant had a different message. "White people need to stop being scared to step up and also need to let go of making mistakes while doing this," he said. "And to all my people of color, we need to let them in." At one point, a panelist cried.
City leaders might be tempted to roll their eyes at these kinds of conversations. But they ignore such discussions at their peril. Consider, for example, the fate of Adrian Fenty, the former mayor of Washington.
The exit polls from Washington's 2010 mayoral race showed that Fenty, an avid bike proponent in a bid for reelection, won 53 of the city's majority-white census tracts but just 10 percent of predominantly black ones after enjoying overwhelming popularity in the previous election. Among the frequently cited reasons for his loss that year was an emphasis in his first term on bike lanes—specifically, Fenty's "paint-first, ask-questions-later" approach. Longtime D.C. residents, particularly those in poorer parts of the city, felt the city's bike system had been designed without them in mind. Biking had come to be viewed as the province of the city's young, white professional class.
Fenty's electoral prospects never recovered from that perception. Yet that bike lanes and bike sharing should be the sole province of the white and wealthy doesn't make any sense empirically. A recent article in Forbes contrasting the costs of biking and driving found that the average operating cost of a bicycle is $308 per year, compared with $8,220 for the average car. At $75 per year—or $7 in monthly payments—D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare is an even better deal. So how did this most egalitarian mode of transportation come to symbolize the gentrifying class? And what's being done to change that?
A 2013 report on Washington's Capital Bikeshare program, the largest bike-sharing program in the country, underscores the problem. Compiled by LDA Consulting, the study found bike-sharers to be typically young and male. Eighty percent of them were white and 95 percent had a bachelor's degree or higher. Most striking of all: just 3 percent of the Bikeshare users were black in a city that's half black.
The bike-sharing system in D.C. and its surrounding metro areas is at least aware of the problem now. "We consider our Bikeshare system part of our transit system, so it has to be accessible to everyone, and everyone has to be able to use it on their terms, just like public transit," said Chris Hamilton, the chief of commuter services in Arlington County, Va. This summer his department held no fewer than five outreach events and recently hired a full-time Hispanic outreach coordinator. They've also worked with D.C. and surrounding areas to implement a $7 per month payment plan instead of making users foot the $75 annual membership fee up front.
In other cities, the vision is even more forward-thinking.
Next spring, the city of Philadelphia will roll out the country's newest bike-sharing program. City planners there have the benefit of learning from Washington and other early adopters. They are focusing on "hard barriers" to access, such as where stations are located, monthly versus annual payments, and the use of credit cards, which is thought to impede access to low-income users. "You will not have to have a credit card to use the bike-share system in Philadelphia," Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter promised advocates at the conference in Pittsburgh.
In a conversation after the conference, Andrew Stober, who oversees the mayor's office of transportation and utilities, elaborated on the city's vision. "It's only typically a couple times in any given century that a city gets to introduce a new form of public transportation. This is one of those times," he said. "And it's very important that you do it in a way that creates as much opportunity as possible for as many citizens as possible, especially when you're introducing a new low-cost form of transportation like bike share."
With the help of a $6 million grant from the JPB Foundation ($3 million of which is to be spent in Philadelphia), the city has made a commitment to accessibility and equity in one of its core components. (The other $3 million will go toward creating a set of national best practices for bike share, among other things.) In addition to addressing logistical barriers for potential low-income customers, many advocates would like to see an emphasis on the cultural barriers, or "soft barriers."
"We're really taking into consideration the voices of all folks up front—so that includes high-income, middle-income, and low-income—and we're asking them for their feedback prior to launching the system," says Carniesha Kwashie, who oversees the use of the bike equity grant at Nutter's office. One way they're doing it is by putting down sticker medallions at 90 potential bike-share sites and asking community members for feedback both onsite and online. After just one week, Kwashie says, the system received 4,700 responses.
Katie Monroe of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, who's working with Kwashie on surmounting soft barriers, has less than soft goals—namely, to have 20 of the final 60 stations be in places where 50 percent or more of the households live at or below 150 percent of the poverty line or areas where the median household income is at or below 80 percent of Philadelphia's median household income.
If everything goes well, Philadelphia could be the star in the crown of a new equity movement that's gaining traction nationally—at least within the world of urban planning. The Philadelphia planners' stated goals certainly sound a lot like the conversation that took place among the biking advocates in Pittsburgh.
Some activists there pointed to collective-style models, including Community Partners Bike Library in St. Paul, Minn., which focuses on making bikes available to people of modest means and teaching them how to use the bikes. Others said they would like to see a more diverse bike leadership in government and advocacy organizations (it's hard to imagine participating in a culture if there's nobody who looks like you at the top—or even, less ambitiously, on front of the website where you go to sign up). As one Pittsburgh conference attendee put it: "I often feel like the only one. I often am the only person of color in a room of 'decision makers.' "
Groups such as Black Women Bike DC are helping to change those leadership paradigms by example. But so far, city bike-share programs continue to benefit not just Caucasians, but the middle and upper class. That's in part because those are the people bike advocates originally targeted in rolling these systems out, according to Lugo, who spearheaded the panel in Pittsburgh and whose work with the League of American Bicyclists focuses on these issues.
"I think the fantasy of seeing professionals on bikes is the fantasy that bicycling will be legitimized and people who have greater social power will be on our side and not against us because that's what it feels like right now," Lugo told me over coffee. "But because there hasn't been much analysis of things like race, class, age and gender, a lot of people get left out of that picture."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.