Low-income commuters and bicycles

The following article came out about a month ago, but it’s worth a read. It’s about a preliminary study conducted in the Washington D.C. metro area, where low-income commuters were asked a series of survey questions about “mobility barriers” and how cycling fit into the overall picture:

New data from the U.S. Census Bureau offers encouraging news for cyclists: Nationally, bicycle commuting increased 61 percent between the 2000 Census and a 2008-2012 survey. But there’s considerable work to do before we bike ride into the sunset. Our research shows that in some places, the people who ride are mostly wealthy and white.

Take Washington, D.C., for example. American Community Survey data show that D.C. bicycle commuting increased an astounding 208 percent between 2000 and 2012. Yet biking to work is far less common in the lower-income areas east of the Anacostia River. Despite the recent additions of substantial cycling infrastructure, many mobility challenges remain.

The highlights are pretty interesting, even if not much of a surprise to many of the article’s commenters or anyone who follows transportation policy. Take a look at the full article by clicking here.

I have long had real concerns about the development of bike infrastructure in many cities, and have seen firsthand that a lot of new bike lanes, bike racks, and other bike-friendly amenities tend to pop up in more affluent areas and business centers. That same infrastructure rarely penetrates into lower-income neighborhoods. Despite Tampa, Florida’s poor track record with bicycle fatalities and a general disregard for two-wheeled travelers, some of the city’s main cycling thoroughfares (laned roads and ample signage) serve low-income neighborhoods within the “urban corridor”, and this was part of the design all along, not just a coincidence. This is a positive development, obviously, and I have seen similar initiatives in neighborhoods closer to where I live (suburban DC metro area). Still, the focus on developing bike infrastructure tends to be on areas that are more affluent.

Also, as the article points out, the car is still a powerful status symbol in American culture. The dream of owning a private automobile is strong among lower-income populations, and that’s a harder problem to address. So, it’s not as simple as just building bike lanes and saying, “ok, now get on your bikes and ride”. Along with that infrastructure must come tailored programs to educate people on the benefits of bicycles-as-transportation…something to break the car-centric stranglehold.

Your thoughts on this? We’d love to hear them — just hit us up in the comments below.


  1. Charming

    Your point about the car as a status symbol is completely spot on. This will not change in the short term, but something we can keep working on little by little. Every time we commute to work as a middle or upper-middle income person, we open up that as a valid method of transportation.

  2. WillyC

    The cost to ‘start’ bike commuting, even on the cheap is anything but cheap. Unless you work across the street, or down block, you cannot simply jump on your bike and start commuting. There are too many variables to consider, like distance [will i need to shower?], my current setup [will my bike make it to work more than once?], safety [lights, helmet, etc], is there a safe route to get me there, and let’s not forget the weather, which in most cases all but requires a whole new wardrobe [for each season], plus rain gear, fenders, the list goes on and on.

    The comment “…mostly wealthy and white…” Doesn’t surprise me [at least the wealthy part]. I found there was a significant investment in time and $$ just to get started commuting. I cut every corner I could; got an old used bike, thrift store shopping for clothes, etc. helped, but it still adds up, and keeps adding with each new season.

    Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade it for a car.

  3. Ghost Rider

    @WillyC — not at all in my experience. It really IS as simple as jumping on a bike and starting to commute. The perceived “need” for specialized clothing and accessories is purely a middle- and upper-class cycling phenomenon.

    I’ve seen more than my share of people riding to work on kids bikes or rusty heaps because there was no other way for them to get where they needed to go. RL and his friends who fix bikes for the homeless in southern California also sees many, many people using such bikes as transportation. Helmets and moisture-wicking clothing is simply not part of that equation, and it has nothing to do with not being able to afford it.

  4. @Dan

    There is little to no preparation to bike commute. I bike commute to a white collar job in dress pants and my polo, in the South where it gets hot during summer, very hot. The idea that you need to look like an alien makes bike commuting a “fringe” activity as opposed to mainstream, which is my goal. I also drive a hybrid, an appropriate bike for a suburban commute.

  5. WillyC

    Point[s] taken. I moved to Portland last summer, and decided it was time to start commuting by bike. At first I did just jump on my bike and go. I found out quickly that I had to lug a 17 behemoth laptop home every day. Add a backpack = sweaty back when I get to work. Then I chose to start adding things like panniers, and when the rains came, fenders, and when winter came, heavier stuff, it all adds up. But you are correct, these things were all comfort level things for me. I work in an office, and need to present myself as ‘professional,’ and sweaty/stinky/etc doesn’t exactly shout professional.

    @Dan, mad props, I lived in SW Louisiana for a year, and the 1.5 miles flat bike commute was enough to turn the sweat on full blast.

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