14 June 2019

Bike Infrastructure: A Path Out Of Poverty And Pollution

I share at least one attitude with poor black and brown residents of New York, my hometown:  a dislike of the bike lanes.

Our reasons, though, are very different.  My criticisms of those ribbons of asphalt and concrete are that too many of them are poorly conceived, designed or constructed.  The result is that such paths start or end without warning, aren't really useful as transportation or recreational cycling conduits or put us in more danger than if we were to ride our bikes on nearby streets.

On the other hand, members of so-called minority groups see bike lanes as "invasion" routes, if you will, for young, white, well-educated people who will price them out of their neighborhoods.  I can understand their fears:  When you live in New York, you are never truly economically secure, so you always wonder whether and when you'll have to move. (Those Russian and Chinese and Saudi billionaires with their super-luxe suites don't actually live here; when Mike Bloomberg famously called this town "the world's second home," I think he really meant the world's pied a terre.)  Also, as I have pointed out in other posts, cycling is still a largely Caucasian activity, or is at least perceived as such.  

My experiences and observations have made, for me, a report from the United Nations Environment Programme's "Share the Road" report all the more poignant, and ironic.  In one of its more pithy passages, it pronounces, "No one should die walking or cycling to work or school. The price paid for mobility is too high, especially because proven, low-cost and achievable solutions exist."  Among those solutions are bike lanes and infrastructure that, in encouraging people to pedal to their workplaces and classrooms, will not only provide cheap, sustainable mobility, but also help to bring about greater social and economic opportunities as well as better health outcomes.

Tanzanian girls ride to school on bikes provided by One Girl, One Bike, a non-governmental initiative.

All of this is especially true for women and girls in developing countries.  Far more women are the main or sole providers for their families than most people realize.  I think that in the Western world, we think of such domestic arrangements as a result of marriages breaking up or the father disappearing from the scene for other reasons.  Such things happen in other parts of the world, but in rural areas of Africa, Asia and South America, for example, a father might have been killed in a war or some other kind of clash.  As for girls, very often they don't go to school because a family's limited resources are concentrated on the boys--or because it's not safe for girls to walk by themselves, or even in the company of other girls.

Now, of course, bike lanes in Cambodia or Cameroon are not a panacea that will resolve income and gender inequality, any more than such lanes by themselves will make the air of Allahabad, India as clean as that of Halifax, Nova Scotia.  But bike infrastructure, as the UN report points out, can help in narrowing some of the economic as well as environmental and health disparities between rich and poor countries, and rich and poor areas within countries.  

Of course, it might be difficult to convince folks of such things in non-hipsterized Brooklyn or Bronx neighborhoods.  Really, I can't blame them for fearing that, along with tourists on Citibikes and young white people on Linuses, those green lanes will bring in cafes where those interlopers will refuel themselves on $25 slices of avocado toast topped with kimchi and truffle shavings glazed with coriander honey and wash them down with $8 cups of coffee made from beans fertilized by yaks and infused with grass-fed butter and coconut oil.

(About the avocado toast:  I can't say for sure that anyone actually makes the combination I described, but it wouldn't surprise me if somebody does.  On the other hand, the coffee concoction is indeed mixed in more than a few places.  I tried it once.  It tasted like an oil slick from the Gowanus Canal.  Or maybe I just couldn't get past the oleaginous texture.) 


  1. Oil slick coffee! I'm with you-- awful! Tried it. Yuck but know people who love it.

    Bike lanes are good/bad...like you mention, often dumping into traffic. The worst are the ones that dump on in narrow bridges. Scary!!
    Haven't heard of the bikes for girls in Africa. Will look it up.

  2. Dragonfly—I love your ID. “Oil slick coffee” is indeed bad enough. But people actually pay $8 for a cup!