By Elly Blue
We’re all rich, and poor, and freeloaders
My new book, Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy came out this week! During my research on the book, I ran up against a bunch of myths about people who ride bicycles. Like all good myths, these contained a kernel of truth. Likewise, they all miss the boat while trying to describe the reality of the pedal-powered economic revolution that’s quietly spreading across the US of A.
Myth 1: We’re rich
There’s a persistent stereotype that cyclists are elite hobbyists (or pedigreed college students, take your pick), selfishly hogging the road while regular working people (in motor vehicles, of course) are trying to go about their real work. Sure, plenty of people who ride bikes have a lot of money—and you often need to be relatively well-off to participate in some sports that happen to use bikes—but that’s hardly the whole story, or even a small slice of it. People who ride bikes are all over the economic spectrum. The kernel of truth: Research suggests that among people who ride bikes, higher-income folks tend to do so more for recreation and exercise, whereas lower-income folks tend to be pedaling for transportation purposes.
Myth 2: We’re poor
Somehow the stereotype that cyclists are all penniless, unemployed, DUI offenders, illegal immigrants, or hapless college students manages to persist at the same time as the idea that we’re all spoiled scions. Sure, plenty of us fit all these categories as well; and for many more, the ability to ride a bicycle instead of owning a car or being beholden to the bus is the factor that makes all the difference in that fine line between getting by and not. One of the great things about bicycling is that it can be a social leveler—rich, poor, or in between. When you’re out there on two wheels, you’re just like everyone else.
Myth 3: We’re cheapskates
It’s common for noncycling business owners to assume that most of their customers come by car; cyclists are either too broke or too frivolous to actually come in and spend money (see above). As a result, every time someone suggests replacing car parking with bike parking or even a bike lane, revolution clouds the air. The reality tends to be much different—especially in a neighborhood where biking, walking, and transit are all attractive. In fact, the pent-up demand for bikeability is so strong that when bike lanes and parking do go in, business owners often experience the opposite problem. It turns out that bicyclists are great customers—as are people who love to walk, drive, or take transit to retail districts with friendly, safe streets—which can all lead to rising property values and rents. Either way, it’s important for cities and advocates to listen and mitigate concerns, and for businesses to adapt and build goodwill so they can thrive as more of their customers arrive by bike.
Myth 4: We’re freeloaders
This one has been debunked many, many times but I’ll just put it out there again: Only about half of all road funding in the US comes from gas taxes and other such user fees. The other half is paid for from more generalized funding sources including income, sales, and property taxes, and bonds that your kids will get to pay the interest on. So if you ride a bike most of the time, you’re actually subsidizing your neighbors who drive. That’s not just in terms of road maintenance (your bike is not exactly wearing potholes in the local highway); on a bike, you also aren’t competing for valuable street-parking real estate, causing fiery crashes, tying up traffic, clamoring for a wider freeway, clogging up everyone’s lungs, polluting local waterways, and, perhaps most economically important, straining the health-care system and missing work thanks to the consequences of a stressful car commute.
Myth 5: We just help ourselves
Cyclists don’t just help other cyclists. It isn’t just about bike people supporting local bike shops, coffee shops, and microbreweries, though those are all well and good. Rather, the bicycling economy is everyone’s economy, whether or not you ever get on a bike in your life. In a community that’s been built to (usually unsuccessfully) make it really easy to get around by car, the bicycle is often the only really feasible alternative. For as much as $9,400 a year less than the cost of driving, you can go more or less as far and as fast as you can in a car, especially in cities where average car speeds are quite low. You can go anywhere you like, leave whenever you like, and with the right setup you can carry whomever or whatever you like along. And as more and more people figure out how to make bikes work for them, they create demand for small, local businesses in neighborhood retail districts, bikeable streets, and other infrastructures that make the world easier, safer, and more affordable to navigate by foot, on transit, and even in a car. But this should be available to everyone, not just a few gentrifying communities, which is why we need to work to make every street a bike street, rather than just developing certain neighborhoods.
You can read about all this and more in my new book, Bikenomics.