How minorities and the poor fit into America's rising "bike culture"

My wife is a saint. Aside from putting up with someone who is roughly four feet shorter than her, and sports fashionable adult braces (me), she also puts up with my incessant need to compare the United States to Colombia. My tendency to compare everything in these two countries is something I do (largely) unknowingly. As a result, I end up comparing how different things function, look, feel and even smell. Even seemingly small things, like the thickness and fullness of grass in either country can cause me to easily descend into a twenty minute comparative study of grass species and cutting techniques. I try to be fair in my comparative assessments, and openly admit when a certain aspect of American culture or American infrastructure functions better than its counterpart in Colombia. As of late, one particular item that I've been thinking about is the layout and strategy behind how and where bike lanes are located throughout most American cities, as well as how these bike lanes reflect just who this much-touted "bike culture" is meant for.

The comparison
Comparing a city or country's bike infrastructure to Bogotá's is rather unfair. By most accounts, Bogotá's bike path network is the most extensive in the world, but that's not the point. It's not the amount of kilometers or miles of bike paths or bike lanes, though it is worth point out that Bogotá's bike paths are actual paths, always sheltered from the road, and not merely semi-imaginary lanes that come about because of paint on the roads. What I've actually been thinking about is how in Bogota, it has always been understood that bikes lanes should reach all neighborhoods and areas of the city, but should especially service poor communities.

While individuals with disposable income in Bogotá may ride their bike to work (and they do), or they may ride for fun and fitness (they do), it's obvious that poorer individuals (those who don't own a car, and have a difficult time accessing public transportation) can use the bicycle as primary mode of transportation. They are the priority. It's this point in particular that I've been thinking about. Although I have admittedly not done an extremely thorough study of where bike lanes in American cities are, I have noticed that in every city I've been to, bike lanes are seldom (if ever) meant to service poor neighborhoods. They may cross through them (a necessary nuisance in the eyes of some), but the impetus and reasoning behind most bike lanes is to service the type of communities where organic markets, and yoga studios seem to crop up. Beyond bike lanes and bike paths, few of the end results that this great "bike culture" has brought about affect the people who ride their bikes the most and out of sheer need. Ride-To-Work events, parties, workshops, all the numerous events that "bike culture" has brought about are largely meant for those who want to ride bikes, those choose to ride bikes, but seldom for those who have to ride bikes.

Sheltered bike path in Bogota, along Calle 26 (Avenida El Dorado). This is one of many paths that connects very poor areas with the city center, as well as surrounding neighborhoods.

For those who plan where bike lanes should go, I would imagine that this is a difficult choice. Do you service a community that is vocal about their need for bike lanes, and one which is likely to use them right away, or a community whose needs you've never looked into, and one that seldom has a voice in this or any other issue. This reminds me of the debate I once heard a rather sizable roadie have with himself at a bike shop. Should he buy a wheelset that helped him "be better" at what he had difficulty with (climbing), or one that would make him better at what he felt he was good at (flats). In his case, I'd say he should forego buying a wheelset altogether...but in the case of bike lanes, the choice is not so easy. At least not in the United States. Not in Bogota, where poorer communities are always a priority. Because in the long run, they will have more use for this type of infrastructure.

The video below illustrates this. Skip ahead to 1:42 to see what I mean.

What is a cyclist?
Even typing the phrase above made me nauseous, because its a stupid question, and one I detest. It's also one that I don't care to answer, much less consider. Along with terms like "bike culture" and "bike scene", the manner in which people often define "cyclist" makes me cringe. But let me explain why I bring this up. I mention this because I've often heard people say that a cyclist is a person who rides a bike because they want to. They may have another choice, they could possibly afford something else, but they ride a bike because they chose to...either for commuting, or fitness/competition. You may have heard a definition along these lines at some point yourself. But let me ask you, what about those who ride a bike because they have to, for transportation or for work?

If you've been to a city like New York, you probably know what I'm talking about. Countless men crisscross Manhattan on their cheap mountain bikes, delivering food all over the place. They do this to make a living. They don't love their bikes. They don't think about what wheelset they should buy next. As a matter of fact, the may even detest their bikes. But they don't have a choice. So does this mean they're not real cyclists? It's true, many of them would probably take another job if they could, and many of those who ride their bikes to get to their job would gladly drive a car if they could afford it. So while those commonly involved in the aforementioned "bike culture" might insist that only the needs of individuals who ride by choice should be delivery men continue to ride their bikes through snow and rain. They ride every single day. Their needs are seldom addressed, because if they were given a choice, they might take up a different mode of transportation. Never mind the fact that such an alternative may never come. The pizza delivery-man rapture will never take them and put them in the driver's seat of a Lexus SUV. So they will keep riding, but the neighborhoods they live in are seldom (if ever) considered a priority. Perhaps because they lack yoga studios.

For those of you who have been reading this blog for a while, the ones who may suspect that I am sensitive about this subject because many such delivery men are immigrants (often latinos, like me)'d be right.

I don't envy people who work with or for a city looking to put in bike lanes. I'm certain that it's a challenging (and at times maddening) position to be in. Having said that, the question remains: Should American cities (this may apply to some European cities as well, for all I know) continue to make those who choose to ride a bike a priority? Or should those who must ride a bike, those who could realistically use a bike as a primary and sole mode of transportation be thought of? It would be great to have both, as Bogotá does. But we may not be so lucky.

What are things like where you live?