So I’m reading an excellent new book from Microcosm Publishing titled Bicycle/Race, written by Dr. Adonia E. Lugo (who helped start the CycLAvia open streets events in Los Angeles years ago) and I’m reminded about something I knew but now am seeing more clearly. A significant percentage of people riding bikes in the United States today are black and brown men on their way to and from low-wage jobs. They are often referred to as “invisible” as they are rarely part of city planning meetings or other community outreach efforts. Some are on broken or ill-fitting bikes and most ride on sidewalks to reduce the chances of mixing it up dangerously with motor vehicles, thus leading to medical or legal expenses they cannot afford (even though riding on the sidewalk has its own dangers, and unreported deaths are not uncommon).
But they are not actually invisible. They register in our sub-conscious and contribute to the negative association (and thus pushback) some people have about bike riding, or, in larger terms, access-for-all in our shared public spaces known as streets. As I’ve been driving my car during rush hours to and from a hospital to be with my mother (we’re on Day 11 here now), I look around in the four metropolitan Atlanta suburb-cities through which I pass (Dunwoody, Sandy Springs, Roswell, and Alpharetta) and sure enough, there they are. Black and brown men. On bikes. On sidewalks. Not many, mind you. But enough to be a thing.
I do not pass one Middle Aged Man in Lycra whipping along in the empty too-narrow-to-ride-in-safely bike lanes to the Live/Work/Play extravaganza known as Avalon (although I will see pelatons full of this profile on a weekend morning). I do not pass one parent on a cargo bike taking his or her children to school (although I pass several schools during carpool drop-off), or a group of teens heading to high school (as I pass often when I ride at rush hour on the Atlanta Beltline). I do not pass one senior on an electric tricycle or a mom on the way to the Whole Foods on an upright bike with panniers (although I do see people like this on the isolated, connected-to-nothing greenway at lunchtime each day when I take my daily ride to nowhere). Just a speckling here and there of black and brown men, mostly in jeans and hoodies, riding old bikes on the sidewalk to their destinations.
And thus it finally all snaps into focus for me. If suburb-cities require the expense of a car in order to fully access their communities, they ensure that only those with cars can succeed there, thus securing its exclusivity. Providing “access-for-all” would, yes, make it easier and safer for women and children and seniors (who are all on record as preferring separated, protected bike access to actual destinations), but it would encourage more of those who do not have the means to own or maintain a car, and the unwritten understanding in traditional suburbia is that would have ripple effects that are not desired. By adding only too-narrow bike lanes, city representatives placate members of the road-cycling subculture and boost the appearance of bike-friendliness for their suburb-cities in the national scorecards but they actually make bike riding an easier option for only one user — the recreational weekend road rider (usually male, middle-aged, and moneyed, whom current city leaders are willing to satisfy in order to reduce their appearance at city council meetings).
The racism and classism deeply embedded in the historical founding of these communities as a result of the discriminatory GI bill and exclusionary lending practices post-World War II plays out now in veiled statements such as “we want to maintain our suburban nature,” “we’re all built out and have no room for protected bike lanes,” and “most people here only want to ride bikes in parks and on vacation.” So bottom line, suburb-city representatives don’t care if I can ride my bike to the supermarket or city hall, or if a child can ride a bike to school or the pool. They don’t actually want #OneLessCar. Suburb-city representatives will deny this, but the truth is that until we face the truth, there is no way to have a productive conversation about bike riding in these self-proclaimed “family friendly” places.
Our only hope for safe bike infrastructure that truly meets best practices*, in all honesty, is Millennials who are loving those electric scooters and starting to ask for safe places to ride them while commuting from mass transit stations to their corporate headquarters in our major cities, and yes, even out here in the burbs.** What will happen next is anyone’s guess. (Will the ‘burbs ban them? Will they allow them on sidewalks? Will they finally build safe routes?) But truth is at a crossroads, and I’m not left guessing anymore about why I can’t buy an avocado without putting my life at risk.
* Must I mention Pointy again? See my book. You may also enjoy the suburb-city-related chapters titled Pedaling as Fast as I Can and Noodle Lady, as well as the epilogue. Click here to purchase on Amazon in either print or digital editions in all global markets.
**The suburb-city where I live is the largest concentration of Fortune 500 headquarters in the southeastern United States.