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Of Race and Socioeconomics

I’ve made an effort in this blog so far to talk about the ease/ability of walking/cycling as a basic civil right.  Many of our major cities have made great progress in recent years in improving our roads to make them useful to more people using various modes of transportation.  Unfortunately, these improvements tend to be highly localized to only certain portions of town.  Almost invariably, these are the wealthiest and trendiest portions.  To be clear, adding bike/ped infrastructure is always a good thing, it’s the distribution that causes concern.

a lovely new green bike lane in Arlington, VA

I recently moved to bike-friendly Arlington, VA and I love my new home.  Before that I lived just across the county line in Seven Corners, a neighborhood clustered around a tangled intersection of several major roads that is every bit as heinous as the name would suggest.  The area is home to a combination of large retail stores and apartment housing, much of it low-income.  Despite their close proximity the difference in walk- and bikeability between these two places is stunning.

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left: a crosswalk in seven corners, middle & right: approaching seven corners from the west on hwy 50  (click for full size)

I took the pictures above in/around Seven Corners.  The left panel shows a crosswalk leading to a Safeway grocery store; as painted it leads foot traffic right over a curb and grassy median and then to the middle of inbound/outbound traffic.  This is a terrible crosswalk.  The next panel shows normal afternoon traffic approaching Seven Corners from the west on Hwy 50.  Notice the metro bus approaching from the opposite direction; this is a major bus line (pdf) that provides service to Inova Fairfax Hospital.  In the right panel you can see a marked crosswalk near the bus stop with a series of bright yellow signs announcing it.  Drivers are required by law to stop for pedestrians attempting to use these crosswalks, yet it rarely happens on this busy corridor .  If the existence of laws is little help, enforcement isn’t any better: motorists nationwide are rarely charged in the event of a collision with a pedestrian (a recent case in point).

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chart from: the new majority – pedaling towards equity

A joint study conducted by the League of American Bicyclists and the Sierra Club was recently published that focuses on this topic: The New Majority – Pedaling Towards Equity (summary).  There has been much ado about the bike boom of the past decade, but the chart above suggests that there is another bike boom that has received much less attention.  The report contains some very revealing stats.  The fatality rate for Hispanic cyclists is 23% higher than for whites, and 30% higher for African-American cyclists.  The report notes: “While some residents of a city have access to a variety of transportation options, many communities of color in that same city are in transit deserts that lack safe streets for walking or biking.”

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a cyclist navigating an intersection in seven corners

At the same time that the cyclist in the picture above is cautiously making his way across an intersection in Seven Corners, Fairfax County is allocating nearly $1 billion over 20 years to the majority public-funded transformation of Tysons Corner into a walkable urban center.  This is in line with expectations as Tysons Corner is one of the wealthiest areas of Fairfax County.  Contrast this with the report’s findings that “areas with the lowest median household income ($22,656 annually) were also the areas with the highest number of bicycle and pedestrian crashes.”  Again, it’s not the improvement of Tysons Corner that’s the problem, it’s the neglect of low income areas.

The ability to move freely about one’s own neighborhood without fear of sudden death shouldn’t be treated as a luxury for the wealthy.  We can do better than that, we can demand equitable access to safe streets.

Update July 25:  I had to add a link to this fantastic article comparing the enthusiastic response to bike lanes in poorer parts of NYC compared to the ridiculous protests that have met bike lanes and CitiBike in wealthier parts of the city.

Transportation Series Index
Part 1: Freedom of Movement
Part 2: Coded in Law
Part 3: The Urban/Rural Divide
Part 4: The Source of Value
Part 5: Copenhagen
Part 6: E-bikes in America
Part 7: A Two-Day Trip?
Part 8: The Way Forward: Complete Streets
Part 9: Of Race and Socioeconomics
Part 10: The Power of Attitudes

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