12 Illuminating Facts About Race, Ethnicity, Income, and Bicycling

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

As hard as we try to avoid doing so, humans tend to base racial assumptions around our personal experiences.

This can sometimes lead us to odd conclusions. As Homer Simpson once put it: “White people have names like Lenny, whereas black people have names like Carl.”

This shows up everywhere in American life, including bicycling policy. One goal of the new report about race, ethnicity, class and protected bike lanes by PeopleForBikes and the Alliance for Biking and Walking was to help more people (including us) think more clearly about the actual differences between Americans of different backgrounds when it comes to biking. In addition to interviewing and profiling experts and advocates around the country, we gathered statistics and studies that helped us understand how these issues intersect with good street design. Here are 12 of the most interesting findings in the report.

1) Bicycling is growing faster among people of color

Last year, we showed how bicycling has continued to grow among young adults, but not nearly as fast as it’s been soaring among older adults. There’s a similar story when you look at our racial and ethnic backgrounds: Bicycling has become a more important travel activity for white Americans, but not nearly as fast as it has among Americans of color.

In part, this is because people of color were harder-hit by the Great Recession, which caused all racial groups to scale back expensive car trips as the number of inexpensive bike trips increased.

2) People of color are more likely to ride bicycles

Source: survey by Breakaway Research Group, 2014

All told, 34 percent of Americans age 3 and up ride a bicycle at least once a year for one reason or another. That number would be lower if only white Americans and African-Americans were counted. But people of Hispanic backgrounds and others (Asian, Native, Pacific Islander and more) bike quite a bit more.

A note of caution: The survey used in this question and the next few was conducted only in English, which (according to the U.S. Census) only two-thirds of self-described Hispanic or Latino people speak “very well.” However, there’s no particular reason to expect that Hispanic people would give dramatically different answers based on which language they speak the most.

3) People of color are more likely to be regular riders

Source: survey by Breakaway Research Group, 2014

These figures look at people who get on a bike on a truly regular basis — at least a couple of times per month on average, or on a weekly basis during summer and fall. Other than Hispanic Americans’ tendency to ride recreationally more often, there’s not a lot of variation in the sort of bicycling Americans tend to do the most: riding for fun. But the rates of riding to get around vary quite a bit.

4) People of color are more likely to want to bike more than they currently do

Source: survey by Breakaway Research Group, 2014

Most Americans would like to bike more than they do. But for whatever reason, that’s slightly more so among Americans of color (and yes, these differences are statistically significant). Related: Americans of color, especially black Americans, are a bit more likely to see bicycles as a convenient mode of transport.

5) People of color are more likely to say protected bike lanes would affect their riding habits

Source: survey by Breakaway Research Group, 2014

This is another survey response where the variation isn’t huge; many Americans report that physical barriers between bikes and cars would make them likelier to ride. This makes sense, since physical barriers are standard in the cities where bicycling has become a regular activity for a third of the population or more: Copenhagen, Rotterdam, Hangzhou. But interestingly, the Americans most likely to say that barriers would matter to them are people of color.

6) Clean air is a social justice issue

Unfortunately, part of the reason Americans of color say they’d respond more strongly to protected bike lanes may be that they’re more likely to live in neighborhoods with dense or heavy auto traffic. This has many other effects, including air quality. These numbers from California show the dramatic disparities.

7) Professional planners are disproportionately white

Source: APA random sample survey of members, 2013

Though the urban planning profession is more diverse than it once was, that’s a sadly low bar. These figures from American Planning Association members show one of the big challenges cities face in distributing resources equitably: Almost all of the people whose job it is to convene people and assess community needs come from a single racial background.

This can contribute to unequal distribution of infrastructure and other resources.

8) No U.S. ethnic group has more at stake in improving bike safety than Latinos

This is probably in part because Latinos are so likely to spend time on a bicycle (see above). But more car-oriented streets in Latino neighborhoods (again, see above) and disturbing patterns in the ways people treat vulnerable road users of color may also be at work here. Whatever the reason, this is a disparity no one wants to see.

9) Access to physical activity is a social justice issue

Everyone needs some exercise to feel healthy and be healthy. That doesn’t have to happen on a bike, of course — but biking is a terrific way to get it into your routine, especially for those of us pressed for time. This federal study found big differences by race, ethnicity and income, including that lower incomes are linked to lower rates of regular physical activity.

10) The lowest-income households bike the most, for recreation as well as transportation

Source: survey by Breakaway Research Group, 2014

It might be no surprise that Americans who make less than $20,000 a year are twice as likely to bike for transportation as other Americans. What’s less discussed is the fact that bicycling is an important way for lots of low-income Americans to have fun. At an estimated 10 cents per mile, it sure beats the multiplex on price.

It’s interesting that outside that lowest-income group, bicycling is more common for wealthier households, especially for recreation. One thing to keep in mind: generally speaking, wealthier households simply do more things for fun. People earning $20,000 to $40,000 may not be living in poverty, but they’re probably not flush. People working multiple part-time jobs or raising kids on single incomes don’t have time for much of anything beyond bare essentials.

11) The poorest Americans commute by bike the most

What if we set aside recreational trips and lunch runs and look only at the longest trip most adults take each day: the journey to work? Bike commuting is very income diverse — moreso than walking, riding transit, or driving to work — but it’s clearly most important to the lowest-income workers.

12) As income increases, so does driving

Source: survey by Breakaway Research Group, 2014

This fact should probably be obvious. But in recent years, as the cost of living has increased in some central cities, an inaccurate idea has spread that driving is more important to poor people than it is to rich people, and that making it faster or more convenient to drive or park a car will help low-income people.

The opposite is true. Though most Americans drive regularly, wealthy Americans drive far more.

The fact that suburban poverty is on the rise isn’t likely to change that, or at least not much; cars remain expensive. What if instead of pretending that suburban poverty justifies subsidies for driving, we worked to make car ownership more optional in our suburbs? Because of the way suburbs are built, bicycles are an ideal tool for suburban transportation. And after all, most Americans want to bike more than they do. Pretty sure we read that somewhere.

Interested in these issues? Check out our new report Building Equity: Race, Ethnicity, Class and Protected Bike Lanes. It combines these statistics with stories and insights from people of color around the country working to use protected bike lanes to improve their communities.

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