Bikes Are Not a Sign of Poverty, They Are a Great Equalizer

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Meredith is a Summer 2014 intern at Mobility Lab. She is a government and psychology double major at Claremont McKenna College in California.
June 17, 2014

In the documentary Urbanized, the former mayor of Bogota, Enrique Penalosa, speaks about how his focus on bike use has had an impact on the social hierarchy in the city (he also does so in the short Streetfilms video above).

The introduction of bike paths in the Colombian capital opened up opportunities for people of all socioeconomic classes: a citizen on a $30 bike is as equally important as a citizen driving a $30,000 car. The bike paths connect the poorest neighborhoods to the center of the city and beyond.

Penalosa said this is “democracy at work.” There is no longer shame for people who are using a bike instead of driving. These bike paths elevate the status of everyone to the same level of importance.

Bogota bikeIf this same policy were implemented in Washington D.C. and surrounding counties and cities, there could an expansive network of bike paths connecting all types of neighborhoods to opportunity hubs for jobs or other social activities. Increasing the amount of bike paths throughout the District could enable people to gain mobility without polluting or taking up much space. More bicycle storage ports could be installed in or near Metro stations, and parking lots for cars could turn into parks with bicycle storage.

For many, public transportation does not reach as far as we need, or simply does not exist. A network of bicycle lanes could extend further into neighborhoods than what traditional bus and rail systems typically allow.

Personally, while coming into work today, I had to decide on how to get to the Metro station, about a mile-and-a half away from my house. I decided to take the bus on Duke Street in Alexandria, Virginia. Yes, I could have biked, however, if anyone has driven on Duke Street during rush hour, it is hectic. If a protected bike lane or just a bike lane existed, it would ease the commute for many. Instead I had to walk to the bus stop and wait an extra 10 minutes once I got there. Some do not live in the heart of a city – bike lanes would help complete the first and last mile of a commute with a healthy, sustainable option.

Though it is idealistic, it is a simple solution to many problems cities face around the world. It is not only for connecting people, but raising social statuses, erasing stigmas, and increasing the self-esteem of cities.

Also, bike paths would allow people to have more control over their time and be more autonomous. Bike paths would boost the economy, help the environment, and change the social climate of a city, producing more equality.

Photo of bicyclists in Bogota by Patton

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Joseph June 18, 2014 at 5:24 PM

It’s worth noting that Enrique Penalosa is a Green Party member. Maybe we need to start electing those in our cities if we want the real, positive social change that they saw in Bogota.

avatar ndw_dc June 25, 2014 at 3:40 PM

I am also a DC resident, and would wholeheartedly support any new bike and pedestrian infrastructure in the District. I am a regular user of both the Metropolitan Branch Trail and the First Street NE cycletrack, and I can definitely attest to the fact that I feel much more comfortable cycling because of that infrastructure and I am certain that there are countless others in the area who feel similarly. I regularly see people of all types using the trails – young and old, men and women, all races and ethnicities – and while I don’t know someone’s income just from looking at them, I am assuming that the range of people I see (riding all manner of bikes) is also at least somewhat reflective of DC’s income diversity as well.

However, I also wanted to point out that cultural attitudes towards cycling – and how cycling is mixed-up with perceptions of class and personal identity – are very different in the US and Colombia are are actually bigger challenges than merely building new infrastructure.

In America, it is my sense that most people – even those of lower income – see a nice car as an aspirational good. In America, we see a nice car as something cool to have, as a reflection of our personal identities. We are more interested in the car as an outward symbol of our own identity than merely as a utilitarian form of transportation. Do I see myself as cool and sporty? Drive a Mustang. Do I see myself as primarily an outdoor recreation enthusiast? Drive a Jeep. Do I see myself as progressive and environmentally conscious? Drive a Prius. Do I want my personal opposition to climate change embodied in the kind of car I drive? Then I’ll drive a gas-guzzling pick-up despite the fact that I have no need for it at all, etc., etc.

Unfortunately but perhaps understandably – given our society’s overwhelming auto-fixation and general hatred of the poor – lower income Americans have, I think, also bought into the typical American fixation on the car as the symbol of personal identity. And the last thing that any American wants, above all, is to be thought of as being poor. Nobody wants their outward presentation to the rest of society to be as a poor person. Nobody wants the indignities that they are already forced to endure – no access to jobs, no quality education, police discrimination and indiscriminate incarceration, substandard housing, no access to quality fresh food in many cases, etc. – to be compounded by using an “inferior” form of transportation. In too many instances, being seen riding a bike (or even taking the bus in many US cities) is only one of many ways in which the poor are forced to socially segregate themselves from the rich. When given the chance, buying a car can be rational not merely from an economic point of view but from the point of view of personal dignity.

Improving bike infrastructure will go a long way toward making it economically justifiable for most lower income Americans to bike to work or for utilitarian trips, as many low income areas are currently desperately separated from job centers and poorly served by transit. These improvements are hugely important and will certainly help encourage some segment of lower income Americans from pursuing car ownership. And to the extent that they somewhat lessen the social distance between those who choose biking freely because of its many benefits and those forced to bike because they couldn’t afford a car, the improvements should be pursued all the more.

But I think the larger challenge in the US, sadly, is the cultural piece. If we want to encourage cycling by all income levels in America, we have to both separate the view of personal identity from what kind of car one drives as well as remove the large social stigma of the poor. It cannot be seen as “being poor” to ride a bike, while at the same time it should not be encouraged to buy a car as a means of displaying high status and personal identity. Perhaps in Colombia, there is less of a car fixation and one’s mode of transportation is not so tied up with income.

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