Dollar Signs

11 Jun

I’ve highlighted the financial benefits of bike infrastructure and bicycling before, as well as the relatively tiny percentage of federal highway funds that go to bike and pedestrian infrastructure.  Now the League of American Bicyclists, together with the Sierra Club and the National Council of la Raza have produced a compact fact sheet that not only captures those numbers really well, but points out that transportation policy is also about social justice.

Here are a few of the most striking numbers:

• It may be hard to believe given our car-centric habits and communities, but fully 1/3 of Americans over 16 do not drive a car for transportation.  There are plenty of different reasons for that, including the choice to live car-free, but for some it’s not a choice: they can’t afford a car (see next statistic).  Lower-income and minority citizens are not always well-represented in bicycle advocacy, but in many places they have higher rates of cycling for transportation than white, middle-class folks.  And then there are all of the older people who reach the point that they cannot (or should not) drive any longer.

• The average cost to operate a bicycle per year is about $300.  The average cost per year to operate a car is over $8,000!  While on average Americans spend 16 percent of their total household budget on transportation (that’s already more than food or health care), that percentage is above 50 percent for low-income Americans.

• That difference — even accounting for the fact that may people who cycle for transportation still own and drive cars — translates into $4.6 billion per year in total savings for those who cycle (that they probably spend on other things).

• If all Americans made just one 4-mile round trip per week by bike, it would reduce consumption of gasoline by 2 billion gallons per year.

Issues of class and ethnicity have also arisen in cities like Chicago and Portland, where (as in many other places) cycling and cycling infrastructure is seen by some as a concern mainly of affluent white folks.  As reported in a piece in Grid Chicago (see also this piece by the same author on Urban Velo), this has sometimes translated into opposition to bike lanes based on fears of gentrification.  In Chicago’s Hulmboldt Park, known as a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood, that opposition was overcome with outreach and information, including an organization called West Town that promotes cycling in the area, particularly to kids.  Now the Paseo Boricua has bike lanes as well as new cross walks.

This doesn’t mean that the same thing will happen in response to sharrows and bike lanes in Richmond, but we would be wise to keep in mind that cycling and its infrastructure have powerful class and cultural aspects that go beyond the basic issue of changing habits associated with driving.  Race and class differences structure politics and life in general in Richmond, so we should not be surprised if they come up in the context of cycling too.  But if we are aware of these issues, promoting cycling — along with public transit — can be a very positive thing for all Richmonders, including those in less affluent neighborhoods.

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