How to make biking for all, not just the rich or poor?

Why is it that cycling seems to be primarily for poor people in developing countries like India, rich people in developed countries with low cycling rates like the US and a middle class phenomenon in developed countries with high cycling rates like Denmark and Holland?

Most cyclists in developing countries are what is known as “captive users”. They are riding not because they want to so much as because they cannot afford other options such as busses, let alone cars.

When I was in India this summer, I learned that many of the people who are cycling are men who are delivering things, like milk or vegetables. What was really shocking was that many of these people earned so little money that they could not even afford to buy their own bicycles, even though they only cost about $50. Instead, they were renting them for about 10 cents/hour from local bicycle shops. To my knowledge, there is no one with a rent-to-own system, but it would be great to set one up if anyone is looking for a social entrepreneurship project.

Milk delivery man in Pune, India

Most anyone with any money in India will immediately start riding the bus or (in the case of delivery men) buy themselves a motor scooter. If they have a bit more money, they will buy a car and if they have even more money, they will buy a fancier car. If they really have some money, they will hire a private driver to get them around. Basically, the more money people have, the more likely they are to drive a motorized vehicle and the less likely they are to consider anything non-motorized (including walking).

There are a few crazy people in India who are wealthy but still ride bicycles. I think I spoke with all four of them while I was there. Personally, I feel that these are the people who will be able to make a push for cycling in India since they have the political and economic capital to make it happen. But this is the topic of another article to come.

I just recently came back from my home country, the USA. There are many exciting developments going on in the past few years and I truly applaud the efforts there. But one thing really struck me from my visit to DC and New York (see links for cycling maps): most of the cycling infrastructure being developed is in neighborhoods inhabited by mainly wealthy, well-educated people like Park Slope and Dupont Circle and not in poorer neighborhoods like the Bronx or Anacostia.

Innovative cycling infrastructure near Dupont Circle in DC

One could be cynical and argue that this because planners are themselves living in these neighborhoods. While there is perhaps a degree of truth in that (and I believe there are some race and class issues in the planning field that need to be discussed more), I think there is more going on.

In speaking with planners, they said that they had tried to make inroads in some of these communities, but that they had received lower adoption rates. For instance, the DC bikeshare scheme Capital Bikes has a station in Anacostia but it is not used as much as in other neighborhoods. They said that this use of the bikeshare system mirrored the cycling demographics in general.


Anacostia waterfront neighborhood in DC cycling infrastructure

I went over there and investigated that area. There was a big fancy new development near the station, but much of the rest of the neighborhood seemed a bit more lower class and black. Most people seemed to be driving around in big SUVs. I met a young white man on the train who said he liked my bike and that he had just moved to the neighborhood and wanted to get a bike but complained that there was no infrastructure.

My guess is that the neighborhood is gentrifying and that the people who are using the bikeshare there are the young, largely white and educated, professionals moving in- not the poorer, uneducated black population.

In Copenhagen, by contrast, cycling is a decisively middle class phenomenon. However, what constitutes “middle class” here would be considered quite upper class in the US or India: most people have a college degree (which the government will pay you to get), being able to afford a fur coat is practically considered a human (though not animal) right, everyone has free health care, and there are virtually no homeless people.

Middle class Danish SUV

In Copenhagen you will see ambassadors, politicians and rock stars riding bicycles next to the average Dane. What you won’t see, however, is many muslim immigrants on bikes, despite the world class cycling infrastructure. Is this a skills and training issue, or is it more about integration and culture? Is bike riding just a particularly nationalistic endeavor? Is it still something for rich, white, educated people here too and it’s just that Denmark is a more homogeneous society of rich, white, educated people?

I don’t know the answer to that question though I clearly have my suspicions. What we really need is more research, discussion and action on issues related to race, class, religion, culture and cycling. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating increasing inequities in cites under the auspices of creating a more equitable transportation infrastructure.


6 responses to “How to make biking for all, not just the rich or poor?

  1. Good questions! I really don’t know the answers. However, I do think that here in the U.S. — and probably in both India and Denmark as well — one major social/psychological factor is the perception of vulnerability. In the US, it’d be more accurate to say that bikes are embraced by both the very marginalized poor (who, as in India, are captive users) and the socially (if not economically) powerful educated urban classes, who feel pretty secure in most parts of their lives. In between and outside of those groups are a lot of people who feel scared of the people around them, and therefore want the perceived security of a metal box surrounding them wherever possible. That includes not just poor, black Anacostia residents, but relatively wealthy white suburban people in places like Herndon, VA and Short Hills, NJ (to say nothing of Houston or Atlanta…). You’ll see SUVs in both places. Bike use tracks at least as much with communitarian vs. individualistic politics as it does with income. Native-born, socially integrated Danes and Dutch are famous around the world for reporting high levels of happiness, security, and trust in institutions. Immigrants in those countries — not so much. So, I suppose what I’m saying is that while class does matter a lot, the important aspect of class here is not income, as such, but the perception of security and trust in fellow citizens.

    [It should be said that the physical patterns of urban development matter a lot more than these psychological factors. But they’re still important.]

    • Great comments. I would agree that it is probably “culture” that is really the issue here (since I am an anthropologist, not an economist). Class and income can be a bit of a proxy for this, but it’s not just the money or education per se that make the big difference. I should probably write another piece about the role of the “flat” society in getting high bike rates- not just topography, but socially as well as economically.

      There was a study I heard of that suggested that protestants in Holland bike more than Catholics. I think there is likely some truth to it. Why is it that all the countries with high cycling rates are protestant in northern Europe (all with national rates between 5-30%) and all the ones with low cycling rates are catholic in southern Europe (>1% cycling)? It isn’t the weather. And it isn’t the topography. I don’t think it has something to do with their religious beliefs, but that there is likely some cultural aspects (different values, behaviors, beliefs, practices, etc.) that are coupled to those religious beliefs. I would love to see a study of cycling rates between northern Belgium (Flemish) and southern Belgium (French) looking at this topic.

      I think that physical development matters. But if it is primarily a question of physical development, why are we seeing biking spike across pretty much every OECD country and fall in every BRIC country? Why did every country see cycling rates tank (literally cut at least in half) between 1945-1975?, even in the so-called “bike friendly” countries? I really think that the physical piece is getting more credit than it deserves.

      The physical development is a reflection of the culture, it is not that the physical development is the key driver of that culture. We develop cities the way we do because people demand certain things. Once we build them to meet those demands, we make other possibilities less feasible. Copenhagen had the highest cycling rates 100 years ago (roughly twice as high as today) long before they even knew what a bike path was. Bike paths were later built out to put bikes in their place, and clear the way for cars by reducing conflict. It really wasn’t until quite recently that people started to think that bike lanes would actually help encourage more people to ride bikes.

      What seems to matter most is distance. And American cities have been built with the bake in assumption that vehicles will be personal and travel 60 mph. So people will now travel 20-25 miles to get to work and live more spread out (since they want ‘space’). This is what kills biking as an option for many. But it is the cultural desire for freedom, independence and personal space coupled with business opportunities (in real estate and automobiles)- along with a few historical elements- that creates the market demand and subsequent construction of these low density, spread out physical patterns of development. The physical development patterns aren’t just a given. We built them. And we built them because people actually like them. And they like them for a reason. We should be asking why.

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  4. There are definitely more Flemings than Wallloons cycling, but the reasons aren’t all cultural and religious (by religious I mean background, including lapsed Catholics, non-Jewish Jews and other non-practising people). Flanders is both richer and flatter, and its cultural neighbour is bike-beacon Netherlands. Wallonia is the Belgian rustbelt, hillier and its neighbours in Northern France aren’t at the forefront of the development of cycling culture there.

    Here in Canada, at least Central/Eastern Canada it is the opposite: Montréal is one of the most cyclable cities in North America, while in Toronto, the current city administration is waging war on cyclists and actually removing bicycle lanes.

    As for Muslim immigrants, I have seen quite a few teenage girls and young women cycling in Muslim headscarves in eastern Amsterdam, but never any middle-aged women like myself from those backgrounds. They seem to only be walking or taking public transport.

  5. great article, however, the photo that you identify as Anacostia is not. That is in SW DC — Anacostia would be on the other side of the river, not that SW has much to brag about in terms of cycling infrastructure. You just needed to take the green line a few more stops!

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