Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Bike-Friendly Cities Should Be Designed for Everyone, Not Just for Wealthy White Cyclists

Insights + Opinion
Bike-Friendly Cities Should Be Designed for Everyone, Not Just for Wealthy White Cyclists
This narrow street, lined with parked cars but devoid of people, is both unwelcoming and unsafe for cyclists. Anne Lusk, CC BY-ND

By Anne Lusk

Designing for bikes has become a hallmark of forward-looking modern cities worldwide. Bike-friendly city ratings abound, and advocates promote cycling as a way to reduce problems ranging from air pollution to traffic deaths.

But urban cycling investments tend to focus on the needs of wealthy riders and neglect lower-income residents and people of color. This happens even though the majority of Americans who bike to work live in households that earn less than $10,000 yearly, and studies in lower-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Boston have found that the majority of bicyclists were non-white.


I have worked on bicycle facilities for 38 years. In a newly published study, I worked with colleagues from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Boston groups focused on health and families to learn from residents of several such neighborhoods what kinds of bike infrastructure they believed best met their needs. Some of their preferences were notably different from those of cyclists in wealthier neighborhoods.

Cycling Infrastructure and Urban Inequality

Bike equity is a powerful tool for increasing access to transportation and reducing inequality in U.S. cities. Surveys show that the fastest growth in cycling rates since 2001 has occurred among Hispanic, African-American and Asian-American riders. But minority neighborhoods have fewer bike facilities, and riders there face higher risk of accidents and crashes.

Many U.S. cities have improved marginalized neighborhoods by investing in grocery stores, schools, health clinics, community centers, libraries and affordable housing. But when it comes to bicycle infrastructure, they often add only the easiest and least safe elements, 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. Cycle tracks—bike lanes separated from traffic by curbs, lines of posts or rows of parked cars—are more common in affluent neighborhoods.

Compared with white wealthier neighborhoods, more bicyclists in ethnic-minority neighborhoods receive tickets for unlawful riding or are involved in collisions. With access to properly marked cycle tracks, they would have less reason to ride on the sidewalk or against traffic on the street, and would be less likely to be hit by cars.

In my view, responsibility for recognizing these needs rests primarily with cities. Urban governments rely on public participation processes to help them target investments, and car owners tend to speak loudest because they want to maintain access to wide street lanes and parallel parking. In contrast, carless residents who could benefit from biking may not know to ask for facilities that their neighborhoods have never had.

Substandard bike lanes, like this one in Seattle, expose cyclists to unsafe passing by motorists and collisions with cars turning right at intersections or pulling out of driveways. Joshua Putnam, CC BY

Protection From Crime and Crashes

For our study, we organized 212 people into 16 structured discussion groups. They included individuals we classified as "community-sense"—representing civic organizations such as YMCAs and churches—or "street-sense," volunteers from halfway houses, homeless shelters and gangs. We invited the street-sense groups because individuals who have committed crimes or know of crime opportunities have valuable insights about urban design.

We showed the groups photos of various cycling environments, ranging from unaltered streets to painted sharrows and bike lanes, cycle tracks and shared multi-use paths. Participants ranked the pictures according to the risk of crime or crashes they associated with each option, then discussed their perceptions as a group.

Studies have shown that awareness of criminal activity along bike routes can deter cyclists, and this is an important concern in low-income and minority neighborhoods. In a study in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood, I found that African-American and Hispanic bicyclists were more concerned than white cyclists that their bikes could be stolen. Some carried bikes up three flights of stairs to store them inside their homes.

From an anti-crime perspective, our focus groups' ideal bike system was a wide two-way cycle track with freshly painted lines and bike stencils plus arrows, free of oil or litter. Conditions around the route also mattered. Our groups perceived areas with clean signs, cafes with tables and flowers, balconies, streetlights and no alleyways or cuts between buildings as safest. They also wanted routes to avoid buildings that resembled housing projects, warehouses and abandoned buildings.

For crash safety, participants preferred cycle tracks separated from cars by physical dividers; wide cycle track surfaces, colored red to designate them as space for bicyclists; and bike stencils and directional arrows on the tracks. In their view, the safest locations for bike facilities had traffic signals for bikers, clearly painted lines, low levels of traffic, and did not run near bus stops or intersections where many streets converged.

Rules for the Road

We compared our results with widely used bicycle design guidelines and Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design principles to see whether those sources reflected our participants' priorities. The guidelines produced by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the National Association of City Transportation Officials provide engineering specifications for designing bicycle facilities that focus on road elements—paint, delineator posts and signs—but do not describe design features that would protect vulnerable humans bicycling through an environment at night. Our study asked people about what kinds of surface markings and features in the surrounding area made them feel most comfortable.

As an example, our groups preferred street-scale lighting to brighten the surface of cycle tracks. In contrast, tall highway cobra-head lights typically used on busy urban streets reach over the roadway, illuminating the road for drivers in vehicles that have headlights.

In higher-income neighborhoods, cyclists might choose bike routes on side streets to avoid heavy traffic. However, people in our study felt that side streets with only residential buildings were less safe for cycling. This suggests that bicycle routes in lower-income ethnic-minority neighborhoods should be concentrated on main roads with commercial activity where more people are present.

Decisions about public rights-of-way should not be based on how many car owners or how few bicyclists show up at public meetings. Our study shows that city officials should create networks of wide, stenciled, red-painted, surface-lighted, barrier-protected, bicycle-exclusive cycle tracks in lower-income ethnic-minority neighborhoods along main streets. This would help residents get to work affordably, quickly and safely, and improve public health and quality of life in communities where these benefits are most needed.

Anne Lusk is a research scientist at Harvard University.
Disclosure statement: Anne Lusk does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond her academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

A meteorologist monitors weather in NOAA's Center for Weather and Climate Prediction on July 2, 2013 in Riverdale, Maryland. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

The Trump White House is now set to appoint two climate deniers to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in one month.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A plastic bag caught in a tree in New Jersey's Palisades Park. James Leynse / Stone / Getty Images

New Jersey is one step closer to passing what environmental advocates say is the strongest anti-plastic legislation in the nation.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Did you know that nearly 30% of adults do, or will, suffer from a sleep condition at some point in their life? Anyone who has experienced disruptions in their sleep is familiar with the havoc that it can wreak on your body and mind. Lack of sleep, for one, can lead to anxiety and lethargy in the short-term. In the long-term, sleep deprivation can lead to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Fortunately, there are proven natural supplements that can reduce insomnia and improve quality sleep for the better. CBD oil, in particular, has been scientifically proven to promote relaxing and fulfilling sleep. Best of all, CBD is non-addictive, widely available, and affordable for just about everyone to enjoy. For these very reasons, we have put together a comprehensive guide on the best CBD oil for sleep. Our goal is to provide objective, transparent information about CBD products so you are an informed buyer.

Read More Show Less
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) talks to reporters during her weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center on Sept. 18, 2020 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

The House of Representatives passed a sweeping bill to boost clean energy while phasing out the use of coolants in air conditioners and refrigerators that are known pollutants and contribute to the climate crisis, as the AP reported.

Read More Show Less
Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington comforts Marsha Maus, 75, whose home was destroyed during California's deadly 2018 wildfires, on March 11, 2019 in Agoura Hills, California. Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images

By Governor Jay Inslee

Climate Week this year coincides with clear skies in Washington state for the first time in almost two weeks.

In just a few days in early September, Washington state saw enough acres burned – more than 600,000 – to reach our second-worst fire season on record. Our worst fire season came only five years ago. Wildfires aren't new to the west, but their scope and danger today is unlike anything firefighters have seen. People up and down the West Coast – young and old, in rural areas and in cities – were choking on smoke for days on end, trapped in their homes.

Fires like these are becoming the norm, not the exception.

Read More Show Less

Support Ecowatch