What Does Bicycling Mean for Our Future?
For this year’s National Bike Summit, I collaborated with New Orleans-based urban planner Naomi Doerner, now the executive director of Bike Easy, to create a historical overview of bicycling and bike advocacy in the United States. The project grew from a discussion we had about how to visualize bike equity for Summit attendees. You can view the report here.
The major finding of the research I did for the timeline was that bicycling’s elitist image is nothing new. In the 1890s, cartoonists portrayed cyclists as entitled road users blissfully unaware of the havoc they caused. One series of cartoons rested on a running joke that “darkies” riding would be completely ridiculous. To think they’d have the audacity to ride like wealthy whites!
It is important to look back at this kind of ugliness because this past reality had some profound effects on the landscape we work in as bike advocates today. Humans develop ideas about what is best through living and thinking with friends and family, and because so many Americans chose or were forced through the twentieth century to fraternize only with those who matched them, we have some deep divides in our ideas about many things, transportation included.
Today was the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. While this is a milestone to celebrate, our country is far from erasing inequality, as these charts about the enduring ties between inequality and race show.
As many of you have no doubt noticed when you’ve encountered opposition to bike projects, the segregation that continues to characterize so many American communities severely limits the potential for bicycling to improve health and wellness. Even in circles decrying discrimination, inequality, and a lack of opportunities for people of color, the central role that car ownership has played in making it possible for people to live far from services and employment mostly goes unremarked. So intertwined are status and driving that there are an awful lot of people out there who question many kinds of social inequality but not how we mistreat each other in the street.
Bicycling’s benefits (it’s cheap, fun, healthy, transportation, recreation, stimulating the local economy, energy generator, you name it) seem so obvious to those of us who experience them. But we never finished the project of building a cultural consensus around bicycling. As long as we ignore this need, we will face opposition to expanding bicycling opportunities for more Americans. As long as we ignore this need, our own expressions of identity and community on bicycles will continue to be scapegoated for larger problems such as inequality and gentrification. We need to come together and form a powerful consensus around what bicycling means for our future.
This is why the League is hosting Future Bike in Pittsburgh this September 11. If you’re ready to find strength in bicycling’s diversity, join us.