Thursday, April 16, 2015

Poverty and the Pedal

Three times in the past year alone our firm has completed work in low-income communities and asked questions about alternative transportation options - one of them being - do people bike? In one bike-friendly west coast city, the response, from an African-American community organizer was "most of our folks consider that a hipster thing". And while there were lots of people biking through the historically African-American community, I had to admit that it was true, nearly every cyclist that past us by was Caucasian.

CityLab did some research on this issue last year and found that "while wealthier people increasingly reduce their car dependency, poor people still aspire to car ownership." Or as our West coast community organizer said, "people have the attitude that only losers ride bikes." Fortunately, this mindset is changing, and we should encourage a paradigm shift among minority communities through education, bike infrastructure (i.e. safe places to park your bike so it won't get stolen) and support (free bikes and helmets anyone?)

Would you walk this street with a bag of groceries?
More recently, we have been working in another low-income urban neighborhood on the outskirts of a major downtown in Connecticut. The neighborhood had been labeled a "food dessert" and our original scope was to help them attract a grocery store. But here was the problem. While there wasn't a grocery store within the specific boundaries of that neighborhood, there were multiple food stores within a five to eight minute drive - the trade area that most grocery stores consider when considering site selection.

The good news was that the area was poised to get a grocery store at a new development immediately adjacent to the neighborhood at a major highway interchange. So problem solved, right? Wrong. The street connections to the future grocery-anchored community shopping center could not have been less hospitable to residents coming by alternative transportation means. No sidewalks or bike lanes and desolate streetscapes all made what was only a few minute long walk both unpleasant and in some places dangerous. Yet in a community where 48% of households do not own a car (compared to the state average of 85%) and meager public transportation at best, improving access to the shopping center for residents without cars should be a driving priority. Hey, if you can't bring the supermarket to people you can at least do everything in your power to bring the people to the supermarket. This means bike infrastructure, dedicated bike lanes and safe places to park your bike once you get there. In this community, it also means slowing cars down on a one-way street that should be made two-way. And finally, it means education in the local public schools (bikes are cool, right!) and yes, maybe free bikes and helmets for kids and their parents.

Biking is not a panacea, but it should be a viable option for those who don't have other options. And right now, there is tons of room for improvement on that front.

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