Cycling Infrastructure and Inequalities: Making Milwaukee Bike Friendly for All Urban Residents



Designing for bicycles has become a hallmark of modern forward-looking cities around the world. Assessments of bike-friendly cities abound, and advocates promote cycling as a way to reduce problems ranging from air pollution to deaths from traffic accidents.

But investments in urban cycling tend to focus on the needs of affluent cyclists and overlook low-income residents and people of color. This happens even though the majority of Americans who cycle to work live in households that earn less than US $ 10,000 per year, and studies in low-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Boston have found that the majority cyclists were not white.

I have worked on cycling facilities for 38 years. In a recently published study, I worked with colleagues at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and health and family-focused groups in Boston to learn from residents of several of these neighborhoods what types of cycling infrastructure, according to them, best met their needs. Some of their preferences were noticeably different from those of riders in wealthier neighborhoods.

Cycling infrastructure and urban inequalities

Equity in cycling is a powerful tool in increasing access to transportation and reducing inequalities in American cities. Surveys show that the fastest growth in cycling rates since 2001 has occurred among Hispanic, African-American and Asian-American cyclists. But minority neighborhoods have fewer cycling facilities and cyclists there face a higher risk of accidents and accidents.

Many American cities have improved marginalized neighborhoods by investing in grocery stores, schools, health clinics, community centers, libraries, and affordable housing. But when it comes to cycling infrastructure, they often only add the easier and less secure elements, like painting sharrows – bicycle stencils and double rafters – or trail markings. bikes, and place them next to sidewalks or between parked cars and traffic. Cycle lanes – cycle paths separated from traffic by sidewalks, rows of poles, or rows of parked cars – are more common in affluent neighborhoods.

Compared to wealthier white neighborhoods, more cyclists in ethnic minority neighborhoods receive tickets for illegal driving or are involved in crashes. With access to properly marked cycle paths, they would have less reason to ride on the sidewalk or against the street, and would be less likely to be struck by cars.

In my opinion, the responsibility for recognizing these needs lies primarily with the cities. Urban governments rely on public participation processes to help them target investments, and car owners tend to speak louder because they want to maintain access to wide traffic lanes and roads. parallel parking lots. In contrast, car-less residents who could benefit from cycling may not know how to request facilities that their neighborhoods never had.

Protection against crime and accidents

For our study, we organized 212 people into 16 structured focus groups. They included people we categorized as ‘community sense’ – representing civic organizations such as YMCAs and churches – or ‘street senses’, volunteers from halfway houses, homeless shelters and gangs. We invited street groups because people who have committed crimes or who know of crime opportunities have valuable information about urban planning.

We showed the groups photos of various cycling environments, ranging from unmodified streets to painted sharrows and bike paths, bike paths and shared multi-use trails. Participants ranked the images according to the crime or accident risk they associated with each option, then discussed their perceptions as a group.

Studies have shown that awareness of criminal activity along bicycle lanes can deter cyclists, which is a significant concern in low-income and minority neighborhoods. In a study in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, I found that African American and Hispanic cyclists were more concerned than white cyclists that their bikes would be stolen. Some carried bikes up three flights of stairs to store them inside their homes.

From an anti-crime perspective, the ideal bike system for our focus groups was a wide, two-way cycle path with freshly painted lines and bike stencils as well as arrows, no oil or litter. The conditions around the road also mattered. Our groups perceived areas with clean signs, cafes with tables and flowers, balconies, lampposts and no alleys or cuts between buildings as the safest. They also wanted routes to avoid buildings that looked like housing projects, warehouses and abandoned buildings.

For safety in the event of an accident, the participants preferred cycle paths separated from the cars by physical separations; large areas of cycle paths, colored red to designate them as space for cyclists; and bicycle stencils and directional arrows on the tracks. In their view, the safest locations for cycling facilities had traffic lights for cyclists, clearly painted lines, low traffic levels, and did not pass near bus stops or intersections where many streets converge.

Rules for the road

We compared our results with widely used bicycle design guidelines and principles of crime prevention through environmental design to see if these sources reflected the priorities of our participants. Guidelines produced by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the National Association of City Transportation Officials provide technical specifications for the design of cycling facilities that focus on the elements of the road – paint, boundary posts, and signs. – but do not describe the design features that would protect vulnerable humans cycling in an environment at night. Our study asked people what types of marks and surface features in the surrounding area made them more comfortable.

For example, our groups have favored street-scale lighting to illuminate the surface of cycle paths. In contrast, the large highway cobra headlights typically used on busy urban streets extend above the roadway, illuminating the road for drivers of vehicles equipped with headlights.

In higher income neighborhoods, cyclists might choose bike lanes on side streets to avoid heavy traffic. However, people in our study felt that side streets with only residential buildings were less safe for cycling. This suggests that bicycle lanes in low-income neighborhoods of ethnic minorities should be concentrated on main roads with commercial activity where more people are present.

Decisions about public rights-of-way should not be based on the number of car owners or the number of cyclists present at public meetings. Our study shows that municipal authorities should create wide, stenciled, painted red, surface-lit, barrier-protected, and bicycle-only cycle lane networks in low-income ethnic minority neighborhoods along main streets. This would help residents get to work affordably, quickly and safely, and improve public health and quality of life in communities where these benefits are needed most.


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