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Bicycling as Part of Equitable Urbanism

In the October 20 issue of the New York Times, an opinion piece by David L. Kirp considered a dilemma: living in suburbs is clearly better than living in cities, but suburban dwellers do not want poor families moving into their neighborhoods for fear of property devaluation. Low-income people should be able to leave what he calls “the woes of the inner cities” for the “white-bread pleasures of suburbia,” despite these suburban biases. Fortunately, Kirp reports, a new sociological study has shown that affordable housing in suburbs may not adversely affect the value of existing homes.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Kirp’s argument expresses an underlying belief that all Americans want to leave cities for suburbs. Speaking from the perspective of a bike advocate who has been observing cities for the past five years, I can’t say this seems very accurate today. Not only does it fail to consider that flight to the suburbs harmed American urban centers through segregation and deliberate disempowerment of communities of color, it glosses over the very real problem of urban gentrification.

If the only solution to urban misery is providing avenues for working families to escape the city, well, this problem is solving itself. According to a 2011 Brookings Institution report, more and more low income families are moving to the fringes of cities to find housing they can afford. As rents skyrocket across American cities, it is undeniable that while some communities must still grapple with the disadvantages of race and class bias, their presence is no longer considered sufficient reason to avoid city dwelling by more privileged individuals. There’s more than blight in the city today.

The question isn’t how to get more struggling families into suburbs, it’s how do we bring the benefits of urban redevelopment to all Americans? Bicycling is a key part of this question.

With the rise of interest in the sustainable and creative life possible in urban centers, we’re seeing a return to cities that is having positive economic effects for some and negative displacement effects for others. Many of us see urban life as a better choice because density decreases our carbon footprint, and we crave the access to diversity that suburban development was designed to eliminate. There are many movements arguing that a return to the city just makes sense, calling for livability, complete streets, new urbanism.

In all of these movements, which often look abroad for design inspiration, using bicycles as urban transportation is a given. More and more leading American cities are competing to add bicycle projects to show that they are great places to live and work. But the gentrification effects of these projects could undermine the fight for social justice, for environmental justice, for equitable outcomes in health for all Americans.

Obesity and other illnesses related to inactivity are connected to American over dependence on driving cars. As an active alternative to driving, bicycling should be healthy, affordable transportation. But too many Americans believe that biking is unsafe, unwise, and unsuccessful. This is more than a problem with street design; it’s a cultural problem. We’ve been using cars as status symbols for nearly a century. If driving a car tells people how we’ve made it, riding bikes, buses, and walking tell people that we haven’t.

But these images are changing as part of the movements to redefine cities.

Now many sustainability advocates promote an image of bicycling that’s professional, with a guy in a suit or a woman in heels riding a rented bike to an office job. The rapid pace at which the face of bicycling is changing in America shows that bicycling is not just a healthy way to get around, it’s a multifaceted world of diverse people who use bikes together. And some of these people have worked together to make bicycling better in unexpected places. The positive experiences that turn us into bike advocates can be the result of infrastructure designed to accommodate bicycling, but it can also be the result of the friendships we form through bicycling. When I lived carfree in Los Angeles, I did it with the help of a network of knowledgeable bike advocates who worked to improve the city’s infrastructure network at the same time that they rode the existing streets.

If fostering diversity in bicycle advocacy is part of building a strong bicycle network, how are we working as a movement to ensure that all Americans have access to positive experiences with bicycling that will transform them into advocates? How are we working as a movement to ensure access to bicycling regardless of income?

I see the Equity Initiative at the League as a statement about what a national organization can do in the bike movement. While the League coordinates policy strategies across many cities and states, we can also strategize about impacting the social and cultural components of our movement. We need to transform the cultural value of bicycling, and keeping equity in mind means making that transformed value into something accessible to all.

We still have a long way to go before all Americans have access to neighborhoods that support healthy, active living, but we can make that journey shorter by working to make bicycling fit equitably into the shifting landscape of American cities.

Adonia Lugo is the League’s new Equity Initiative Manager.

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