12 September 2016

Off The Railroad And Onto Bikes: Reading, Pennsylvania

Whenever a city builds bike lanes or starts a bike share program, there is resentment.  As often as not, it's voiced as a class argument:  Cyclists are seen as young, rich and "privileged", and that poor working blokes are subsidizing their fads and fetishes.

One reason for this, I believe, is that most urban bike lanes have been built, and most bike share ports installed, in central downtown areas or in nearby areas where the young and affluent (who, as often as not, come from someplace else) congregate.  As an example, here in New York, the first Citibike ports installed outside of Manhattan were placed in the Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods closest to Manhattan:  the "Hipster Hook" communities situated directly across the East River and at the ends of bridges.  You won't find many marked paths or  Citibikes in East New York or South Jamaica, or even in relatively affluent (but further from Manhattan and less hip) areas like Mill Basin and Fresh Meadows.

What is often forgotten, however, is that in neighborhoods like the South Bronx and East New York--and in cities like Newark--there are people who ride to work, or wherever else they need to be, not because it's fashionable, but because they can't afford any other way besides walking.

They don't have the funds or a credit card to buy a new Linus "Dutch" bike or a Trek Chelsea.  The bikes they ride, in fact, may have come from tag sales or dumpsters, or been given to them.  Those machines may have parts that were not intended for them:  For example, a wheel may have been replaced by one of a different size.  And those riders aren't stopping in the trendy bike cafes for Marin Macchiatos or Linus Lattes.  If anything, they might be holed up in the local Dunkin' Donuts, if they can afford even that.

The communities in which they live have low percentages of people who ride to work.  Part of the reason for that is, well, a lot of them don't work:  They lost jobs and weren't able to find others, or they didn't have jobs in the first place.  

Many of them live in areas where there is little or no mass transit--and, even if it was available, it would be a strain on their budgets, if not financially out of reach altogether.  Or the nearest bus stop or train station is, say, a 45-minute walk away (as is the case for some residents of Red Hook, Brooklyn).  That makes it difficult, to say the least, to keep appointments with doctors, government agencies and the like, let alone get to work on time and have any time left for anything besides commuting and working.

Reading resident Harrison Walker doesn't own a car and bikes everywhere.

Almost everything I have said in the previous four paragraphs can be said about the city of Reading, Pennsylvania and its people.  Once a thriving railroad hub (If you've played the classic version of Monopoly, you've bought and/or sold the Reading Railroad!) situated halfway between the anthracite coal mines of central Pennsylvania and Philadelphia, this city was beset by many of the problems older industrial cities like Detroit and Cleveland experienced when their industries died or moved away.   

Five years ago, the New York Times published an article declaring Reading the poorest city (of 60,000 or more people) in the United States.  More than 40 percent of its residents were living below the Federal poverty line.  Things seem not to have changed much:  While the official unemployment rate has dropped, at 8.3 percent it still is three percentage points higher than the national average.  And, of course, that number doesn't include the people who gave up on trying to find a job or whose unemployment benefits ran out--or those who returned to school or entered some sort of retraining program after they could not find jobs in the industries in which they had been working.

Those un-, under- and never-employed Reading residents make up most of the city's cyclists. "Reading's poor, and a lot of people who live here are poor," explains Dani Motze of ReDesign Reading, a nonprofit group that's trying to revitalize the city.  "[S]o bike riding is how they get from place to place."  

The demography of Reading's cyclists may be a reason why the city hasn't attracted the attention of urban planners involved with cycling infrastructure--until now.  Craig Peiffer became the city's zoning administrator a few years ago.  He was shocked at what he found.  "As a planner here in Pennsylvania," he relates, "I've seen smaller towns--significantly smaller towns--where they were already putting in designated bike lanes."

He and a colleague decided they were going to make Reading a more hospitable place for cyclists. However, their aim in doing so would be different from what has motivated officials in other cities to make them more "bike friendly."  In those communities, bike amenities are often used to attract outsiders--especially affluent millennials and sustainability advocates.  "Other cities have used biking because biking is cool and hip," declares Brian Kelly, executive director of ReDesign Reading.  He has no problem with that, he explains, but that is not the point of what he, Peiffer and others are trying to do in Reading.  

Jason Orth, manager of the Reading Bike Hub, fixes a bike for a customer.

Instead, they are--in addition to working on acquiring the money for bike lanes--making cycling more affordable and convenient for the city's residents.  Bike racks have been installed on all of the city's buses.  The city has also launched a bike-share program.  But, perhaps most important of all, it opened Reading's first bike shop. Unlike the bike boutiques of trendy neighborhoods, the Reading Bike Hub, in addition to conducting safety workshops, sells used bikes and affordable parts--and loans tools.  "If I were to go buy this tool, I'd have to go to Sears,"  says Harrison Walker, who rides his bike "everywhere".  The tool he had just borrowed from the Hub would "probably cost upwards of $20 just for this one wrench," he observes.

I am glad that the folks at National Public Radio, where I learned of Reading's programs, were able to see and communicate some of the challenges faced by people who are forced to rely on their bicycles for transportation.  It is only with such knowledge that American cities can make bicycles a viable transportation option for all of their citizens.