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Bike Equity: Rethinking How We Serve the Overlooked Cyclists in our Community

Serving the needs of everyone in our community.

It’s a concept we all can get behind. If you asked 100 people on the street, they’d probably all agree it’s something we should do. If you asked city planners, they’d say the same thing. But at least one group has noticed a big difference in what we say—versus what we do.

Anne Lusk’s powerful article “You Can’t Design Bike-Friendly Cities Without Considering Race and Class,” published in CityLab, should be a call to action for all bicycle advocates. In it, Lusk calls out urban planners across the country—not for their progress in building bike-friendly infrastructure, but because they have overlooked the people who likely need it the most. According to Lusk, “Urban cycling investments tend to focus on the needs of wealthy riders and neglect lower-income residents and people of color.”

Let me explain:

Urban cycling is a growing trend. Cities are being rated for their “bike-friendliness”. But research shows protected or painted bike lanes and urban trails are all popping up in moderate- to high-income areas. A look at Central Florida’s trail network shows just that: Cady Way trail in Winter Park, the Orlando Southeast Trail in Lake Nona and the Shingle Creek trail that will soon connect tourist areas like the Mall at Millenia and Windermere.

By contrast, Lusk says cities often add only the easiest and least safe elements in marginalized neighborhoods, such as painting sharrows (stencils of bikes and double chevrons) or bike lane markings, and placing them next to curbs or between parked cars and traffic.

It gets worse:

In fact, “the single biggest group of Americans who bike to work live in households that earn less than $10,000 yearly,” according to one study.

Low income areas, where more people depend on only bicycles for transportation, many times face higher risk of collisions and fatal crashes. In Central Florida, some of our most dangerous high-crash corridors are where high-speed roads and low-income residents coincide. Case in point: State Road 436, Orange Blossom Trail, Semoran Blvd and Pine Hills Rd.

Here’s the disconnect:

Lusk worked with a group from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, to learn what low-income, non-white bicyclists in Boston and Brooklyn wanted. What kind of bike infrastructure best met their needs? Spoiler alert: this may seem counter-intuitive.

Lusk’s team showed people in the survey, who included workers at the local YMCA, residents and former criminals, several pictures of places where people could ride a bike and asked them the rank them from the safest to the least safe. People in the study perceived neighborhoods, especially low-income apartment complexes, as a very dangerous places to ride their bikes. Many said they were worried about being mugged or robbed—especially in areas like public housing or neighborhoods with rundown homes. In contrast, they saw busy commercial corridors, where people are always present, and streets are lit better as safer from potential crime.

This may feel backwards to you. In higher income areas, neighborhoods are seen as the most safe, comfortable places to ride, for two reasons: 1) they are relatively free of crime 2) cars traveling at slower speeds pose less of a risk of crashes. Baldwin Park is a great example of a significant investment of bike infrastructure into an upper-class neighborhood.

So by this logic, urban planners should spend less money and time planning bike lanes in low-income neighborhoods, and more thought into keeping cyclists safe on main thoroughfares like Orange Blossom Trail, Semoran or Pine Hills. Once again, the viewpoints of the most in need are overlooked.

So why is it this way?

Like many equity issues, it seems to be a failure of the system. City and county leaders listen to their constituents (as they should), most often in the forum of a commissioners’ meeting. So, who has the ability to leave home in the evening and drive down to a public meeting in order to advocate for new bike lanes? It’s probably not the single mother of three with no car. It’s probably not the father who’s working two minimum wage jobs to support his family. And because their voices aren’t always heard, their needs can be overlooked. Again, a failure of the system that affects real people.

What should we do?

We, as a community, should work to get input from all stakeholders in an issue, making sure no one is overlooked. And it will take work. It will also take the people in charge “rethinking” the way they approach certain issues. Rather than having just having people speak at a commissioner meeting or hold a public meeting in the evening at a library, we should go out and seek the opinions of people who can’t access those meetings. We should work to get a wide range of opinions, insight and suggestions before deciding where to spend our money. We should think about people who use their bikes for transportation in addition to those who use it for recreation.

Orlando, like many other big cities, still has a long way to go. It is Bike/Walk Central Florida’s mission to advocate. Our vision is to help create a Central Florida where biking and walking are normal activities, and no one is overlooked.


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