It’s Not Just Privileged Urbanites…

Background Reading

Summary

A runner and a bike commuter on the southern portion of Chicago’s lakefront PHOTO: MICHAEL TERCHA/CHICAGO TRIBUNE

A runner and a bike commuter on the southern portion of Chicago’s lakefront PHOTO: MICHAEL TERCHA/CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The article begins:

Last month, Andrew Keatts of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research had a great post on something that consistently bothers me: “Memo to Cities: Most Cyclists Aren’t Urban Hipsters.”

Keatts looked at the demographics of people who bike to work in Houston—technically, those who are lumped into the category of “commute by bike, taxi, or motorcycle” by the U.S. Census—and which populations are most likely to do it.

What he found may surprise you, especially if you’re a member of the media who dismisses cyclists as faddish, privileged post-adolescents:

Everywhere he goes, he says, he sees a particular type of cyclist: a working-class person – usually a minority and often a recent immigrant – riding to work on whatever type of bike he can get his hands on. Those cyclists are men and women for whom biking isn’t an environmental cause or a response to an urban trend but a means of transportation that’s cheaper than a car and faster than walking.

[snip]

Nationally and in cities across Sun Belt, the bulk of those who bike to work – based on our best available data – are low-income people. Nationwide, 49 percent of people in the cycling category earn less than $25,000 per year. In Houston, the figure is closer to 42 percent.

And more than 40 percent of commuters in the cyclist community living in Austin, Dallas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and San Antonio earn less than $25,000 per year.

I was curious as to how that played out here in Chicago, in part because Sun Belt cities have, unfairly or not, a reputation for having less-than-great public transportation. Maybe it’s different here, for that or other reasons.

Turns out, not so much. There are obviously a lot more people who drive alone or take public transit than people who commute by bike. So I looked at it by the percentage of people who use each mode, using 2014 data. And among the people in Chicago who do commute by bike—or taxi, or motorcycle—there’s an interesting pattern. Here’s how it breaks down.

commute

Bike commuters are over-represented among people who make $10,000 to $25,000, as well as people who make more than $75k. This matches up with findings from the Active Transportation Alliance, using older but more fine-grained data:

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Biking is highest among the poor, declines with increasing income, and then goes up a bit among the highest income bracket—perhaps because those with the most money can afford to live in the city center, likely placing them near their jobs and making bike commuting more convenient.

The percentage of people who bike to work is still small, but it also represents a population in the low five figures, and the areas with the highest percentage of bike commuters are actually on the West and South Sides. Again, from the ATA:

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To borrow a term from Keatts, these are all too often “invisible cyclists,” at least when it comes to building infrastructure. But they’re there—on the streets and in the data.


TakeAways

There are several reasons that lower income bicyclists are represented in surprising numbers. In places all over the country where the Hispanic population is likely to be undocumented, bicycling is one of the few ways to get around that does not require some sort of licensing. And for that reason many of the members of the Urban Cycling Community are strongly against having cyclists be licensed. I strongly disagree with that position myself. I believe that everyone who lives here should either be a citizen or a guest worker and not have to ‘hide in the shadows‘.

As for the bulk of the low-income riders who are members of the ‘elite‘ class (i.e. Caucasian) it is true that most are working menial jobs. This is likely to be one of the reasons that there is such strong resistance to things like buying lights, reflective clothing and other amenities which are required to safely and successfully ‘drive a bike‘.

But there is also a trend in this day and age for people who are ‘underemployed‘ by choice. This is what drives the growth of the ‘sharing economy‘. But in many communities (e.g. the African-American cycling community) there is a rather interesting divergence.

Groups of cyclists who are black tend to be middle-class and above in terms of income. They also tend to be cyclists who are ‘roadies‘. If you see them at fund-raising events they are usually dressed in Lycra and Spandex. And their choice of bicycle is usually something European and high-end. They in fact resemble their white Suburban counterparts more than anything else.

Trying to convince themselves that they are not elitist white Hipsters in the cities are desperately looking for some sort of profile that marks them as ‘everyday people‘. But if you visit the groups that meet to discuss issues you most often encounter those folks with at least a college education and while perhaps not exactly under-employed are doing well enough to own more than a single bicycle.

In fact on discussion forum groups cyclists frequently fall to comparing their latest bicycle purchases and wondering aloud whether owning a half dozen bicycles is somehow a sign that they are profligate spenders without a real purpose.

Finally the statistics which are broken out by income can be misleading. A person who is under-employed is not de facto a person-of-color. In this day and age people are tamping down their tendency to buy things in favor of borrowing. That makes it possible to live on a smaller income.

What is interesting however is that the younger millennial population are bucking the trend of the older readers of articles like this one. That group and those even younger are in fact looking to manage wealth, live in suburbs and most certainly are helping to drive the strong movement back to the automobile that is taking place even as we write this.