Bicycles for Cultural Change

To an urban planner, one of the most essential components of a successfully designed city is ease and sustainability of transportation: particularly through public transit and bicycle accessibility in non-walkable circumstances.  However, the greatest hurdle that designers with such priorities face in the United States is an American mentality that opposes the reduction transit facilitates in the individuality that independent automobiles have fostered throughout the last century.  For apparent change to occur, societal perceptions of these more sustainable modes of transportation must evolve.  When it comes to bicycles, this progression is well underway.  The co-founder of World Bicycle Relief, Leah Missbach Day began her keynote speech at the Women’s Bicycle Summit by explaining that “the bike is a tool… that helps generate economic stability, community cohesiveness, and gender equality” (Addison).  As exemplified by the Empact Long Beach bike-sharing project at the Women’s Shelter of Long Beach, widening access to bicycles for underserved populations has the potential to begin a revolution in the American approach to alternative forms of transportation.

Bicycles provide the ideal epitome of the independent capability that cars do without the detriment to community of the latter mode.  Tatiana Séré, an advocate for the Empact LB project, describes this idea in the context of Empact LB’s clientele by saying “’when you are able to make decisions for yourself, it builds a sense of inner strength and responsibility…  Freedom is powerful; it can change your entire outlook on life’” (Addison).  Even if these are impacts that can be achieved with cars, the further potential of Empact LB and its ilk is the community that it builds.  Of course, on one hand, simply involvement in biking fosters this, as demonstrated by the community that has formed around the promotion of legislation and civil projects that are advantageous to bikers.  On the other, this project goes even further to teach bike safety workshops and organize community bike rides, creating trust and awareness.  Just as the simple de-emphasis of cars in walkable neighborhoods inherently creates these impacts, such bike-sharing programs offer the chance for communities to begin reaping the benefits without the resources and capital that complete redesign requires.

In places like Seattle, a secondary factor that adds to common rejection of public transit is an often unconscious (or at least taboo) concept: race relations.  Due to the fact that King County’s Metro system primarily caters to the lower-income population, it has greater ethnic diversity than many ideal Metro users experience in their workplaces and communities.  Because of the unification of values that bike advocacy and programs facilitates between races, it is possible that it could be a basis for a more inclusive public transit system that more individuals are comfortable using.  Head of Cali Bike Tours and partner on the Empact LB project Elizabeth Williams says “bicycling within the black community is viewed as child’s play: it isn’t for adults.  Leaving one’s bike behind represents… graduation into adulthood… It’s because we choose as a community not to normalize it through images and advertising that cater to a specific, limited audience” (Addison).  In working to make appropriate changes to such media such that representation is equal and thus identification with such advertisements is more equal, Williams offers a start to a cultural shift that could use biking as a basis to not only reduce the aforementioned discomfort with public transit, but improve race relations as a whole.

Finally, bicycle accessibility, either through free bike-sharing programs like Empact LB or through Williams’ proposal of a free distribution system for bikes with the condition of each receiver completing a bike safety and knowledge course, offers significant improvements to communities that both act as a catalyst for automobile use and trigger for the avoidance of areas by certain groups (primarily from different East Side Riderssocioeconomic classes).  Brian Addison poses the perfect example in his discussion of John Jones’ program East Side Riders in a blog post titled “Long Beach: Bridging the Racial Inequalities within Cycling”: “cohesive engagement—such as Jones’s work with local gang members to create Life Lanes that permit kids to ride in certain parameters in Watts with no fears of being attacked or confronted—with everyone from the Long Beach Police to neighborhoods overseers will override [the] fear [for children’s safety]” (Addison).  In making such changes, not only is car use decreased by the provision of this alternative method, but a reduction is facilitated in the belief that Addison cites as being that “all that bike lane did was remove parking and limit the ability to drive faster down a street” (Addison).  Furthermore, with a reduction in violence, not only are children safer, but also visitors to the neighborhood: new customers for local businesses and thus greater diversity as a whole.

By creating free bike-sharing or distribution programs in underserved communities, it is possible to change the face of the city, from both the perspective of transit and that of diversity and comfort of all citizens.  It makes communities safer, cleaner, healthier, and better integrated.  It makes individuals better capable of fulfilling their own responsibilities, making them better civil citizens.  It generates a sense of community by providing a unified “hobby,” and a frequent opportunity for events.  It has the potential to re-invent American paranoia surrounding alternative transportation, and make cities better places to live as a whole.

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