Bicycling and equity: Heed the call, expand the movement

Street Fight covers the National Bike Summit and its outreach to women and minorities

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US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx addresses the National Bike Summit.
Jason Henderson

STREET FIGHT In the face of increased gasoline prices and congestion, more public awareness of the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and driving, and interest in physical activity, bicycling has experienced a mini-boom throughout the US. Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, Pittsburgh, Portland, Seattle, Washington, DC, and many smaller university cities, such as Boulder and Madison, have seen impressive increases in utilitarian bicycling.

In San Francisco, 3.5 to 6 percent of all trips are made by bicycle, amounting to roughly 150,000 bicycle trips in the city each day, a jump from around 1 percent of trips in the 1990s. The majority of these trips are for utilitarian purposes such as shopping and commuting, not recreation. Stand on Market and 10th streets on any weekday and you'll see that bicycling has surged in San Francisco. In parts of Hayes Valley, the Mission, and Upper Market, over 10 percent of commuting is by bicycle. The city's official goal — 9 percent of all citywide trips by 2018 and 20 percent in the next decade — is important for making San Francisco more livable.

But it's also fundamental for making San Francisco more equitable. That's right, equitable.

In many respects, bicycling is among the most equitable forms of urban transportation because it is affordable and accessible to almost everyone. Bicycling is far cheaper, safer, healthier, and cleaner than driving, and when considering global equity, far saner for a national climate policy. And for many low income workers, bicycling is also an affordable conveyance that enables not just physical mobility but also financial stability.

Indeed, US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx points out that nationally, a third of all bike trips are made by adults making under $30,000 and that the bicycle can have a substantial role in reducing the overall cost of living for the working class. But unfortunately lower class, non-white cyclists are also more likely to be in fatal collisions.

Speaking at the annual National Bicycle Summit in Washington, DC, earlier this month, Foxx, an African American former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., said that the federal government needs to devote more attention to making bicycling part of everyday life for the working class. Emphasizing the need for safety and convenience, Foxx was especially enthused about cycletracks — bikeways that are fully separated from automobiles and offer space for women, children, and older Americans to safely navigate cities by bike.

Foxx's address followed a day of equity-themed panels and plenaries attended by more than 700 people. The League of American Bicyclists, focused on lobbying Congress and the White House, announced a new equity agenda to reach out to women, people of color, and to focus on reinvigorating a more progressive and egalitarian tone for bicycle advocacy.

Social justice advocates and community organizers had a strong presence at the summit, which has historically reflected a whiter, upper-middle-class male constituency. One presenter discussed bicycling and women's prison rehabilitation, sharing how women who suffered from abuse, drug addiction, and imprisonment found bicycle riding to be normalizing and helpful for personal growth and for managing depression and anxiety.

A panel session titled "Learning from Los Angeles" showed how advocacy for bicycling can also come from community-based organizations, not just bicycle groups. Social justice issues are fundamental to LA's inner city bicycle movement; over a third of South Central Los Angeles households are car free, and community organizers there have made a clearer connection between economic inequity and environmental problems.

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