Having been a resident of Humboldt Park for 9 months now, I occasionally commute to work and class by bike and despite the 35-40 minute ride to downtown and getting used to the hustle and bustle of biking the streets (I am a transplant from a suburban city where biking to commute is seen as a last desperate option), I absolutely adore riding through my neighborhood. I find it thrilling to riding through the business district on Division Street under the giant Puerto Rican flag arches that border of that area and thanks to the widely marked bike lane, it feels safe to me. It always hasn’t been this bike friendly here, in fact, these bike lanes were newly built two years ago.
Even with the growth of these lanes, there have been perceptions, or I should say, misperceptions about bike use in the South and West sides. Why is it spawning so much controversy? To discover why, we need to recognize that there are cultural dynamics about cycling that is different in these neighborhoods, biking is often perceived over there as something poor people do when they don’t have access to a car. Jamal Julien, one of the co-founder of the Slow Roll Chicago bike movement, also points out that in these neighborhoods, biking is often “perceived as an activity for children or something affluent Northsiders do”.
Even though African-Americans are the fastest growing demographic of bicyclists, a rate that doubled in size from 2001 to 2009 according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, despite those statistics, there has been a lack of education about biking and equitable bike infrastructure in these neighborhoods because the people in those neighborhood simply don’t want it. Bill Lindeke, a bike advocate blogger from the Twin Cities, calls it the “gentrification paradox”, when citizens oppose improving infrastructure such as bike lanes, out of fear that they will be priced out of the neighborhood. Debates about gentrification often focus on the surface while not addressing more concealed issues of economic inequality, which is the hidden root of the controversy.
In the midst of the growing bike culture in the city, community engagement is essential when planning new bike-friendly infrastructure in these neighborhoods. During the 2013 Summit on Bike Lanes & Equity at Austin, TX, transportation leaders and participants from six cities identified six common themes to create better bike lanes in low-income and minority communities. Most of these themes revolved around considering the wants and needs of the existing community and addressing the inequitable issues associated with biking. Despite, the growing bike users among minorities, the interest and demand seems to be stifled by a lack of equitable distribution of bike infrastructure and culturally sensitive outreach.
Where do researchers and planners fall into this? They can start by breaking down the barriers of these misperceptions and research on groups that have historically unrepresented in bike infrastructure planning and seek for more innovations in the decision-making processes that will lead to more equitable neighborhoods.
Joseph Cunanan has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Florida. He is currently a 2nd year graduate student from the School of Public Service, pursuing an M.S. in Public Service Management with a concentration in Metropolitan Planning and Urban Affairs. His most recent study abroad trip was to Curitiba, Brazil on behalf of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute to evaluate the city’s civic policies and innovative transit system that has made it a highly livable urban area into the 21st century. He is currently an intern for the Congress for the New Urbanism, a non-profit that works with multi-disciplinary professionals to promote walkable, neighborhood-based development as an alternative to sprawl. His current research interests are urban greenways and their effects on community and economic development.