Sometimes people pushing for safer streets and more sustainable transportation comment about poor transportation planning of past generations. They usually sound something like this “Why do we have four lanes of fast traffic to begin with? Why did someone think this was a good idea?” The answer is always the same: perspective. Today these commentators see congestion, unsafe streets, and pollution. But 60 years ago people saw opportunity, speed, and convenience. Just look at this 1958 example from Disney. Magic Highway depicts a futuristic highway system that stretches forever and dissects our cities even more than today’s highway system. No thought is given to pollution, walkability, community, or even physical health (somehow everyone is thin and healthy when they sit all day). Density is clearly a bad thing. Nature is to be conquered or bypassed.
As we attempt to improve out streets through right-sizing and improving our communities through connectivity and walkability and bikeability we need to understand we are not just fighting against unsafe streets today – we are fighting generations of highway-hyped, car-centric culture that made the streets we see today.
Also keep an ear open for other pieces of American cultural history. Here are some of my favorites:
- Gender roles: Dad works while mom and kid shop, of course.
- Convenience: “From his private parking space, father will probably have to walk to his desk.” “Moving sidewalks make window shopping effortless.”
- Democracy: “The family vacation will always be decided by a family vote.”
- Progress: “New hopes, new dreams, and a better way of life for the future.”
Here in Seattle Bicycles are booming. Ridership has dramatically increased in the last several years. Just around the corner is Pronto Cycle Share brought to us by the same company that operates CaBi, CitiBike, Divvy, and many other systems throughout the US and abroad. It is a great time to be involved in the biking scene. But there is one serious problem I notice: biking is a class privilege. I usually put it this way: Seattle is on its way to be a biking city, but only if you are a “hardcore” cyclist with a bike worth as much as a used car. Or a hipster. Or both…(laughs)
It is not all hopeless. Bike Works is an amazing organization working to build community through bicycles and education. Operating in Seattle’s south end, Bike Works specifically targets low-income youth through its many programs including Earn-A-Bike where youth learn to repair bikes and receive a bike of their own after completing a number of volunteer hours. Cascade Bicycle Club’s Major Taylor Program introduces low-income youth from diverse backgrounds to the fun of cycling. Pronto Cycle Share will have an affordable annual membership that is on par with just one month of bus fare. Things are happening. But what about the culture? Will low-income and diverse communities take up cycling through these many initiatives? Is this something they even want?
Families learn to repair bikes together at one of Bike Works’ Family Bike Repair events.
Many of us who advocate cycling for its power to enhance social justice seem to think so, but a survey of low-income and predominantly non-white communities around Washington D.C. shows different. I am willing to bet Seattle is not so different, and we could learn a lot by changing our approach to thinking about cycling as an equitable means of transportation.Read CityLab’s full article for a good look at this topic. Here are some of the article’s main points about cycling and low-income, diverse neighborhoods:
- Poor respondents spend more time commuting.
- Most people, poor and non-poor alike, still want cars.
- Cycling just isn’t popular among the urban poor (yet).