As Biking Booms, Questions of Race, Class & Access

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A cyclist crosses the Williamsburg Bridge. A New York City Department of Health survey conducted in 2010 found there to be modest differences among income groups when it comes to cycling: In the highest-income areas, 11.8 percent of people said they biked regularly, compared to 7.7 percent in the lowest-income areas.

Photo by: Pearl Gabel

A cyclist crosses the Williamsburg Bridge. A New York City Department of Health survey conducted in 2010 found there to be modest differences among income groups when it comes to cycling: In the highest-income areas, 11.8 percent of people said they biked regularly, compared to 7.7 percent in the lowest-income areas.

Hordes of cyclists careen down the Williamsburg Bridge into Brooklyn on a pleasant late summer night, making a commute home that is sure to be more exhilarating and less frustrating than being in the hands of New York’s subway system. Still more bicyclists climb their way back toward Manhattan, creating an impressive level of traffic going in each direction – hundreds of bikes passing within minutes.

Cycling in New York City has come an incredibly long way over the past couple decades—and has progressed significantly in recent years. The city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) reports that there are now 540 miles of on-street bike lanes throughout the five boroughs, with 285 of them installed in the past five years. And those lanes are increasing bike traffic: the DOT’s annual “Sustainable Streets Index” in 2010 found that nine different lanes completed since 2007 increased their traffic by rates from 46 to 268 percent each over the previous year. Overall, commuter cycling increased four-fold between 2001 and 2011.

But the increase in bike lanes and the people who use them hasn’t pleased all New Yorkers. Some residents have grabbed headlines by opposing the location of the lanes, like the ones that offended homeowners along Prospect Park West or Hasidic authorities in Williamsburg.

Beyond the NIMBY complaints is the question of who’s getting the benefits of New York City’s bike boom. A 2010 study by professors from Rutgers and Virginia Tech found that the city’s cycling upsurge has mainly benefited trendy areas of Lower Manhattan and Northwest Brooklyn. And an impromptu, unofficial count taken by City Limits on the Williamsburg Bridge that summer evening found that of the 300 cyclists crossing the bridge over a span of approximately 25 minutes, 72 percent of riders were white in a city where two-thirds of the population are not.

Some critics say the class and race characteristics of the city’s bikers reflect the fact that bike lanes have been located in areas where many people already have bikes. At the same time, bike lanes passing through some lower-income areas have been found to stir resentment. Meanwhile, there are practical barriers to biking that poor New Yorkers face, which bike lanes alone cannot overcome.

Finding a lane

Statistics suggest that the socio-economic skew among city bikers is less dramatic that what City Limits saw that night on the Williamsburg Bridge. But it is still present. A New York City Department of Health survey conducted in 2010 found there to be modest differences among income groups when it comes to cycling: In the highest-income areas, 11.8 percent of people said they biked regularly, compared to 7.7 percent in the lowest-income areas.

Among racial and ethnic groups, 10.8 percent of whites said they biked several times a month, compared to 8.1 percent of Latinos, 6.1 percent of Asians and 5.2 percent of blacks.

When it comes to the geography of biking to work—which only about 0.8 percent New Yorkers do—there’s a more noticeable skew. Census data that tracked commuter cyclists in New York from 2006 through 2008 confirmed that the largest rate of biking was in Lower Manhattan and Northwest Brooklyn (representing close to 2 percent of commutes in those areas). East, South and even Central Brooklyn were found to have noticeably lower rates (generally between 0 and 1 percent).

Looking at the current cycling map of the city, it is evident that high commuter cycling rates mesh with the best facilities, with lower Manhattan, particularly south of 23rd Street, being extensively covered by bike lanes, and the network expanding out to Brooklyn along the Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Park Slope and even Bedford-Stuyvesant enjoy strong bike facility coverage, but the network thins beyond those areas. The more eastern and southern parts of Brooklyn, such as Brownsville, East New York, Sunset Park and Bensonhurst are underdeveloped by comparison.

Rutgers University professor John Pucher, who has studied the city’s bike system, contends that the lines on the bike map in the farther regions of Brooklyn simply don’t represent even close to the mileage of bike lanes in parts of the borough near Manhattan, nor do they represent the same high quality of paths – saying it’s tough to find a “state-of-the-art bike lane with a buffer area from car traffic” the farther out you go.

“I don’t think DOT is deliberately discriminating against low-income people or people of color,” he says. “I think that what they’re doing is they’re putting in facilities where they think there is the most potential for them to be used, which makes sense. But, the result is that in those lower income communities that are further out in Brooklyn or Queens or up in the Bronx or Staten Island, there’s almost nothing there.”

“There’s no question, what they’re doing seems logical. I’m just saying it’s also inequitable,” Pucher adds.

DOT spokesman Nicholas Mosquera rejected those claims, saying the bike network that is already in place is equitable.

“The bike network extends across a broad and diverse range of New York City neighborhoods,” he says, “including Hunts Point and the South Bronx, Harlem, Astoria, Bedford Stuyvesant, Bushwick, Crown Heights … to name just a handful.”

An obvious question is whether areas that lack deep bike-lane infrastructure actually want more. Sam Stein, a housing advocate who last year authored an award-winning case study called “Beyond the Backlash: Equity and Participation in Bicycle Planning” that highlighted strengths and weaknesses of the city’s biking program, notes that the community boards that need to cooperate with DOT for lanes to be added throughout the city often serve to make the disparity greater.

Boards in neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Park Slope have been open to the possibility of a more elaborate network, while boards farther out might approach bike lanes with hostility.

“It feels like gentrification”

Running counter to Pucher’s criticism about the lack of bike lanes in low-income areas are separate complaints about the bike lanes that do exist in lower-income New York. In August 2011, a cyclist named Stephen Arthur was struck in the face with a brick, tossed by a group of teenagers from overhead as he passed under a bridge that connects the Ingersoll and Walt Whitman housing projects in Brooklyn. He was using a bike lane on a road that cut in between the projects – a route he used to get home to his residence in Park Slope.

The following months were contentious in the area, with Arthur and a number of supportive cyclists eventually convincing the city to place a higher fence on the walkway over Navy Street, which has made it more difficult to carry out such assaults on cyclists and pedestrians passing below

The attack on Arthur could have had more to do with an ill-advised teenage prank than a political statement. But advocates who work in the area say there is resentment of the bike lanes.

“Ingersoll has the poorest infrastructure in all of Brooklyn, [and they’re] next to some of the highest income people in the borough,” says Lucas Shapiro, an organizer with Families United for Racial and Economic Equality. “So I think that is a recipe for animosity when you have billions of dollars [in the form of luxury apartments, along with other construction and infrastructure] coming into an area without it having a tangible benefit for a lot of long-time residents.”

As Stein wrote in his study: “Long-term residents are alienated by capital investments in their streets [in this case, cycling lanes] that appear to arrive only after their neighborhood has been gentrified. This can be especially true in neighborhoods where residents have been long-time cyclists, but have not seen street improvements targeted to their needs until now.”

Because so many of the city’s biking hotspots tend to be home to wealthier residents, bike lanes have come to symbolize a threat to lower income residents when they come through their neighborhoods. The arrival of a bike lane “feels like gentrification,” according to Stein.

“In no way do bike lanes cause gentrification,” he says. “But when you only put bike lanes in neighborhoods that have been or are being gentrified, then people feel like, ‘OK, that’s gonna happen to me now. White yuppies in spandex going up and down those lanes.'”

This perception rests in part on the ubiquity of resentment of “hipsters,” whom many blame for making New York less affordable. Sites like DIEHIPSTER.com generally indict cyclists as part of the influx that is ruining the culture of Brooklyn and the city as a whole. “Here comes offbeat Ursula; the 18 month Brooklyn veteran cruising down the street on her rusty Schwinn (just not in the bike lane she fought for) in her clay stained granny dress from her pottery making hobby job,” read one recent posting.

This perception has led some cycling advocates to stress the different backgrounds that make up the city’s cycling population. Last year, StreetFilms produced a series of videos showing non-hipsters—even a firefighter—navigating New York on two wheels.

The path ahead

Pucher’s research partner, Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech, remains optimistic about the future of cycling in New York, saying it’s generally on the right track and is new to the game compared with American bike cities like Portland and Minneapolis, let alone the cycling “gold standards” of Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where bikes are involved in a whopping 30 percent of trips. The question is how New York’s bike routes evolve from here.

Mosquera says the DOT has an ongoing project with the Department of Health and the Brownsville Partnership in Brownsville/East New York that will work with the community to plan the best bike routes, along with public workshops to help promote cycling in the area. DOT also says bike paths could extend further into areas like Crown Heights, East Flatbush and a number of Bronx neighborhoods, and stresses the importance of tacking on new routes to its web of bike lanes.

“One key determinant for a bike path is connectivity,” Mosquera says. “It’s important that a new bike facility connect with the rest of the network.”

Buehler agrees that the possibility of a full citywide network of bike lanes would certainly increase cycling numbers, but also points out that most people “aren’t going to bike from Coney Island to Manhattan.” He suggests that the city look for bike lanes to play a different role in the more remote areas of the boroughs, many of which can be dead zones for public transportation.

“I think linking [cycling and the subway] is kind of natural because the bicycle can really enlarge the catchment area for the area that you can reach around the transit station,” he says.

Buehler and others support the idea of a park-and-ride system for such commuters and subway riders, whose commute is different from Lower Manhattan and Northwest Brooklyn, where subways are plentiful, commutes can be shorter and cycling is often done as a preference.

But wherever it goes, the presence of a bike lane doesn’t mean residents can use it. They also need bikes.

“You would expect cycling to be a cheap mode of transportation everybody should be able to afford,” Buehler says. “So you should see pretty much everybody on the bike because it’s the cheap, inexpensive thing to do.”

Indeed, while expensive shops for avid cyclists offer priced in the thousands of dollars, somewhat friendlier options exist. Recycle-A-Bicycle, a shop that refurbishes old bikes and parts to make them fully functional again, sells road bikes starting at $300. Target’s road bikes start at $169.

But the issue of storage and the potential for theft are barriers for would-be bikers in lower-income New York. Shapiro notes these as notable drawbacks. Even if the bike is cheap and does the trick, is there space to keep it in? And can you trust the lock if you attempt to commute through a park-and-ride system, as Buehler and Pucher suggest?

Buehler says that providing parking facilities—safe ones—would be a huge step forward. He adds: “Bike sharing would be huge because theft would not really be an issue,” at least for individual bikers. The city will soon launch a pilot bike sharing project, Citi Bike, in March 2013.

In the meantime, Dan Suraci, Communications Manager of Bike New York, reports that the organization’s cycling education programs have been consistently full throughout the five boroughs, with all socioeconomic groups being represented.

“I wouldn’t say that all the people doing it are at one end of the spectrum over the other,” he says. “People want bike education. They want to know how to be better, safer bikers, and it’s really exciting to see this transformation. People really want to embrace this new form of transit.”