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Extending Boston Bicycling Opportunities to Low-Income Communities

Bicycling is one of the most efficient – and cheapest – ways to get around urban cities like Boston and surrounding communities. As noted by the Rice Kinder Institute for Urban Research, the majority of bicyclists aren’t young, wealthy hipsters making their way on two wheels by choice (though there’s nothing wrong with that either). Many include the working poor who bike out of necessity. Unfortunately, Boston bicycle attorneys know these are among the residents for whom bicycling infrastructure – and thus safety – is least accessible. Bicycle injuries for these groups tend to be more common.Boston bicycle injury lawyer

These are sometimes referred to as “invisible cyclists.” Working class. Typically a minority. Often a recent immigrant. Commuting to work. Uninterested in the color or sleekness of bicycle style, as long as it works. For these individuals, bicycling isn’t an environmental cause or an interesting thing to do with friends. It is a means of transportation, cheaper than a car, faster than walking and more reliable than public transit.

Other difference in these two types of bicycle riders:

  1. Can afford living in the priciest part of the city (i.e., owning a car isn’t necessary); lives in an expensive part of the city, close enough to work so owning a vehicle isn’t a necessity; lives near a bike-share station built as a residential amenity because local wealthy residents sustain it financially; Riding is generally easier because bicycle infrastructure is in place.
  2. Lives in a more remote part of town; would prefer to own a vehicle due to long transit times to-and-from work; Living area lacks adequate bike-share, docking stations and other bicycle infrastructure.

Some cities, including Boston, are attempting to make it more equitable.

Although Boston has had a bikes-share program since 2011, the city’s Blue Bikes only last year started trying to tackle this issue with income-eligible biking. Those who receive an array of public assistance benefits (free/reduced lunches, SNAP, SSDI/SSI, WIC, public or Section 8 housing and more) can use proof of participation in these programs to be eligible OR can obtain income-based fares upon providing proof of income. Those who reside in homeless shelters and transitional housing within the city are also eligible to ride for $5 annually.

But that still doesn’t address the inequality with regard to biking infrastructure – separated bicycle lanes and connectivity to-and-from Boston proper to surrounding communities of urban poor. Most of the 194 bicycle stations throughout the area are concentrated in higher-income areas.

Harvard: Bicycling Preferences May Vary By Race

Minority populations (black and Hispanic) in Roxbury, a low-income Boston neighborhood, have different bicycling preferences compared to higher-income white riders, according to a 2017 Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study published in the journal Preventative Medicine Reports. For example, they tend to use more away-from-traffic routes, such as cycling tracks, and they tend to seek bike parking areas that are more well-lit than theft prevention.

But Roxbury, like many similar communities throughout Boston, does not have access to these amenities. As noted by study authors, the safest bicycle infrastructure systems are those build after intense lobbying from bicycle advocates – which means there need to be not only people who have knowledge about the various bicycle design options, but also who have volunteer time to making the call for action.

As a long-time Boston bicycle lawyer and advocate, Attorney Andrew Fischer has seen firsthand the out-sized risk these residents face – because we work directly with those who are harmed in bicycle-versus-vehicle crashes. Our team has long pushed for safety reforms for the people and neighborhoods who need it most.

Analyzing Biking Data By Income

Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau reveal that it’s not just in Boston or Massachusetts, but across the country – in both urban areas as well as those more vehicle-dependent suburb areas – the majority of people who use bicycles regularly are those in low-income brackets.

In a sense, it’s not just that researchers, governments and marketing firms are ignoring these so-called “invisible cyclists,” it’s that these invisible cyclists comprise the largest share of those in low-income brackets.

Even the data we do have from the Census Bureau only classifies primary transportation mode by income – even then strangely pooling together not just cyclists but also those who commute by motorcycle and taxi. (Bicycle safety advocates have long pushed for bicycling to have its own classification to capture more adequate information.) Still, the data gleaned does show it’s the poor income bracket that tends to travel more often by these methods.

In other words: It’s the disadvantaged – not hipsters – who most often bike to work.

Researchers who have delved deeper into the data found that roughly 49 percent of those who use a bicycle to get to work are those who earn less than $25,000 annually.

The main reason, as noted by the author of Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the Road, is simple: Bicycling is cheaper than other methods of transportation.

Analysis conducted by Portland State University, the Community Cycling Center and the Initiative for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovation, found that most bicyclists are younger and male, but that little-to-no existing research exists on cycling behavior among those who are:

  • Women
  • Low income
  • Minority

What these researchers sought to discover was what barriers exist to bicycling in these communities. Chief among them was cost. Many said bicycles were expensive, they didn’t know how to repair them and/or didn’t know where to take them to get them repaired. Others didn’t know how to ride or felt they were unable to ride with a group (especially their children) – issues with safety and/or resources.

Neighborhood Social Inequality and Traffic Crashes

Boston bicycle injury lawyers have seen anecdotally that a disproportionate number of bicycle accidents occur in the community’s poorest communities as opposed to the richest. This was underscored in a 2012 study by the American Journal of Public Health.

Controlled for traffic volume, intersection geometry and traffic volume (pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicles), researchers discovered that lack of safety infrastructure in poor urban areas explains the excess rate of injuries in these areas.

Specifically, in economically disadvantaged areas compared to the wealthiest, the rate of traffic injuries was:

  • 6.3 percent higher for pedestrians;
  • 3.9 percent higher for bicyclists;
  • 4.3 percent higher for motor vehicle occupants.

This statistically significant inverse relationship is one our bike injury lawyers hope Boston and other cities will be successful in tackling. In the meantime, we are dedicated to fighting for safer streets and the legal rights of all bicyclists.

If you or someone you love has been injured in a Boston bicycle accident (we prefer the term “bike crash”), call for a free and confidential appointment at 617-777-7777.

Additional Resources:

Neighborhood Social Inequalities in Road Traffic Injuries: The Influence of Traffic Volume and Road Design, June 2012, American Journal of Public Health

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