07 July 2016

Bike Shares-- And Social Class?

Yesterday, I wrote about the bike-share program that begins today in Los Angeles.  I was happy to learn that such a program is commencing in one of the first cities people associate with the automobile.  And I found it interesting, to say the least, that city officials hope that the bike-share program will help to bolster ridership in the city's Metro system, which has been on the decline.

If that goal is realized, it will buck trends seen in other cities that have bike-share programs.  In some places, like Washington DC, those who commute on share bikes are using them in lieu of subways and buses, not automobiles.  

Although I have not seen such data for my hometown, New York, I would suspect something similar is happening.  After all, the commuter who is most likely to ride a Citibike--or to be a bike commuter--lives somewhere in Manhattan below 125th Street, or in Astoria (where I live), Long Island City, Greenpoint, Williamsburg or other Brooklyn or Queens neighborhoods just across the East River from the United Nations.

Before they started riding bikes to work, those commuters were probably taking the subways, which bisect their neighborhoods. If they work in downtown or Midtown Manhattan, they would have been riding the subway for only a few stops:  fifteen or twenty minutes, no more than half an hour.

In contrast, someone who drives to work--or takes one of the express buses or trains--probably lives further away, in southern and eastern Queens neighborhoods like Bayside or Cambria Heights or southern Brooklyn areas such as Mill Basin or Dyker Heights.  Or they live outside city limits altogether.  Typically, those who drive to work or are taking the Long Island Rail Road (Yes, it's spelled as two words!) or Metro North have commutes of an hour or more each way.  Needless to say, few of them are going to start riding bicycles to work, even if Citibike installs ports in front of their houses!

Now, some of those commuters--particularly those who live on the North Shore of Nassau County or in certain parts of Westchester and Bergen counties--are rich. But most are middle- or working- class people who live in those areas because they simply could never afford a house, or even an apartment, big enough for their families in Manhattan or the nearby Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods.   More than a few of them are contractors or have other kinds of businesses that requir them to haul a lot of equipment into, and out of, Manhattan or the areas near it.   I am not a sociologist, but I feel confident in concluding, from my own observations, that most such commuters are not cyclists.

I mention all of these things because reading about the launch of the LA bike share program got me to thinking about things I've noticed during the three decades I've been cycling in New York.  As I've mentioned in other posts, back in the mid-'80s, the neighborhoods that now comprise what I call Hipster Hook were mostly blue-collar, white-ethnic enclaves (Greeks and Italians in Astoria, Poles and Irish in Greenpoint, for example).  In those neighborhoods, people simply didn't ride bikes once they were old enough to drive. (Many never rode bikes, period.)  Very often, I would ride along the East River and New York Bay from Astoria Park all the way to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge--or even to Coney Island--without encountering another cyclist.

People who rode for fun, or even to commute, lived mainly in places like Greenwich Village, the Upper East and West Sides and Park Slope.  Those were home mainly to single people or young couples with varying amounts of disposable income--and without children.  Most didn't live far from where they worked, or they were artists or independent business people of one kind or another.  

In those days, the blue-collar and middle-class people I've described rarely, if ever, encountered cyclists--or anyone--from the milieu I described in the previous paragraph. But, as places like Williamsburg started to fill up with trust-fund kids on fixed-gear bikes, older and poorer residents looked at them as "privileged children" who were "taking over" their streets and sidewalks--and other public spaces.

Thus, older residents started to equate bicycles with privilege.  I guess it's easy to resent someone who looks like he or she is having fun--and is younger and fitter than you--when you're fighting traffic (or the crowds on the buses and trains)  to get to and from a job you hate so that you can pay for things your kids don't appreciate.  

I can't help but to notice that any time people express their displeasure over new bike lanes that take away one of the lanes on which they were accustomed to driving, or when a Citibike port appears on their block, they say that the city is catering to "privileged children".  Yes, they--as often as not--use that phrase.

I guess that, even at my age, I am one of the "privileged children"!

Joking aside, I got to thinking about the experiences and observations I've described when I learned that LA city officials hope that the new bike share program will bring riders back to the Metro system.  What I found especially revealing is the finding that one cause of the decline in Metro ridership is gentrification:  working- and middle-class families are being priced out of the areas that offer mass transportation.  So, while I hope the new bike share program is successful, I can't help but to wonder how it will entice people who've had to move further away from their jobs--and, possibly, had to take second jobs--to ride bicycles to a Metro system--or jobs--that are further away from wherever they were living before they were dispalced.

In brief, I couldn't help but to wonder whether the LA Bike Share program--or, more important, the hope that it will bring people back to the Metro--might reveal, or magnify, social and economic class differences in the way people commute.  


  1. Having been to L.A. several times, I can say that if I lived/ worked in the area, I would try just about any means to not have to drive anywhere, if I could help it. The traffic is comically bad.

    In the scenario of folks that live in the outer 'burbs and commute in to L.A. for work, or whatever, I can see the possibility of riding a bus in to the city, then using the bike share for the "last mile" of their trips.
    Also, many bus systems have a "park and ride" set-up at the outer-reaches of their routes for people that live beyond the limits of the bus routes.

    Another thought is that with L.A. being so spread-out, just the notion of not driving from, say, your workplace to go somewhere for lunch, or whatever other errand is anathema to most people. Even for short distances. Maybe a convenient bike-share system will help take the edge off of the traffic contribution of those only going a few miles (or few blocks, even).

    At any rate, if the Land of Autos can see the light and understand that bikes are not a bad thing, maybe that is the start of a positive trend in the US. I hope it works out there, whatever the use-case ends up being.


  2. Wolf--Everything you say makes perfect sense. I am happy to see LA get a bike share program because, for the reasons you've given, if it can succeed there, it can succeed just about anywhere!