Lessons from the Green Lanes? Listen to Communities of Color

There’s been a minor Twitter frenzy over the release of “Lessons from the Green Lanes: Evaluating Protected Bike Lanes in the U.S.” Why is this “first-of-its-kind” report causing such a stir?

The work of Christopher Monsere, Jennifer Dill, Kelly Clifton and Nathan McNeil at Portland State University’s National Institute for Transportation and Communities, with funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Summit Foundation and PeopleForBikes), the study is a rigorous and systematic analysis of overall usage, actual safety, and perceived safety of protected bicycle lanes. Based on both surveys of users and nearby residents, as well as video analysis of bicyclist behavior, the study provides an absolute goldmine of data from eight different protected bike lanes in five cities.

If you like to geek out on data, not to mention the creative methods employed to collect the data, then this study is for you. Since we happen to be such geeks, we’re just as excited by these findings as everyone else. But we also have a problem with the study and the commotion it has stirred.

Let’s look at the headlines to see the source of concern:

These headlines sound great! So what’s the problem? Bicycle advocates are after the holy grail–the piece of bicycle infrastructure, bicycling amenity, or other incentive that will move the “Interested but Concerned” cyclists into the “Enthused and Confident” group (this terminology is from Roger Geller’s “Four Types of Cyclists” typology, explained in brief here or in its entirety here). “Lessons from the Green Lanes: Evaluating Protected Bike Lanes in the U.S.” seems to build a case that in protected bike lanes we’ve finally located the grail. Still, if we’ve discovered the grail, then what’s the problem?

Let’s take a look at the data being highlighted and the infographics being produced by bloggers and the media:

Highlight #1–Protected Bike Lanes Increase the Volume of Cyclists

SOURCE: Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer, “The Protected Bike Lane Ridership Bump, City by City (Inforgraphic),” June 03, 2014

Well, here’s one problem. As Eric Jaffe points out, cycling is on the rise in cities everywhere, so by themselves these bumps in ridership could be misleading. The increases would be much more impressive if they were driven, at least in part, by new riders making the shift from “Interested but Concerned” to “Enthused and Confident.” One way to examine this, Jaffe goes on to explain, is to compare increases on protected bike lanes to citywide ridership increases:

A better baseline comparison comes by placing ridership in the new corridors against general trends across the city. Here, too, the protected lanes performed well. Ridership in the new lanes beat the city average along all but one street — and on that street (Milwaukee) it matched the average.

But our problem is not with how to make sense of the growth in cyclists that protected bike lanes produce. As we’ll explain below, our concern has more to do with the absence of deeper demographic and ethnographic understanding of who these cyclists are (and who is not getting counted).

Highlight #2–Protected Bike Lanes Increase Ridership of New Cyclists

SOURCE: Eric Jaffe, The Atlantic CityLab, “Protected bike lanes aren’t just safer; they can also increase cycling,” June 2, 2014

Encouraging new riders is good, right? In general, yes. But stick with us. An increase of traffic on a bike lane over and above citywide increases in bicycling might be a function of existing bicyclists shifting their routes to the new protected bike lanes. The study actually examines this deep in Appendix C, “Bicyclist Origin and Destination Analysis” (PDF). Much of the analysis is based on algorithms that produce hypothetical routes based on reports of a rider’s origin and destination during the bicycle intercept survey. Assumed shortest distance routes are then compared against routes using the protected bike lane. Again, if you like to geek out, check it out. Otherwise, here’s the takeaway: Bicyclists tend to want to connect origin and destination with as short a route as possible so that only about 10% of those surveyed were willing to deviate more than a quarter mile from their preferred routes to use the protected lanes. This would suggest that very little of the bump in ridership can be explained by existing cyclists changing their routes.

Luckily, the researchers also asked people “Before the new facility was built, how would you have made this trip?”

SOURCE: Figure ES-5, “Before the new facility was built, how would you have made this trip?” page 7 in “Lessons from the Green Lanes: Evaluating Protected Bike Lanes in the U.S.“; linked from Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer, “The Protected Bike Lane Ridership Bump, City by City (Inforgraphic),” June 03, 2014

Across all users, 10% would have traveled by another mode. On Dearborn Ave. in Chicago, an astonishing 21% would have chosen another mode. So, protected bike lanes increase ridership and they also seem to bring out people on bikes who would otherwise travel by another mode. This is good, right? As we said before, generally, “yes.” But stay tuned…

Highlight #3–Protected Bike Lanes Are Safer

The bicycle intercept survey and mail survey of residents living near the protected bike lanes found that “[n]early every intercepted bicyclist (96%) and 79% of residents stated that the installation of the protected lane increased the safety of bicycling on the street.” It’s worth noting that in the 144 hours of video analyzed, during which nearly 12,900 bicycles were observed moving through intersections, no collisions or near collisions were observed (6 minor conflicts, defined as precautionary braking and/or change of direction of either the bicycle or motor vehicle, were observed).

So, we now know that protected bike lanes increase the volume of cyclists, shift people from other modes to the bicycle, and are safe (and/or perceived to be safe). Here’s the problem: We need to be asking who is missing from this analysis.

Where Are the Invisible Cyclists?

Lessons from the Green Lanes” identifies significant benefits of protected bike lanes. Our point is that these benefits should be made available to all members of society. As we here at Invisible Cyclist explained in our inaugural post, invisible cyclists are the cyclists that are largely uncounted, unrecognized, and unrepresented, and for whom cycling is often a necessity rather than a choice. Based on this definition, there are at least two ways in which the  “Lessons from the Green Lanes,” and the attention it is receiving, render certain cyclists invisible.

#1–The “New” Bicyclist Bias

Strictly speaking, one might argue that if our goal in supporting bicycling as transportation is to reduce CO2 emissions (and other pollutants) of automobiles, then our strategy should be to build bicycle infrastructure (not to mention a bicycling culture) that gets people out of their cars. Period. Every piece of bike planning should be measured in terms of its ability to “convert” the “Interested but Concerned” and “No Way, No How” groups into bicyclists.

Not only does this line of reasoning produce inequitable outcomes in terms of transportation, mobility, and “right to the city,” it also overlooks an important point. Many invisible cyclists–especially those who as immigrants are new to American culture–aspire to become car owners. Dan Koeppel–author of the piece in which “invisible riders,” many of whom ride on sidewalks for safety, were first introduced–asked Guillermo Diaz what it would take for him to use the streets. According to Koeppel, Diaz “answered instantly, without a hint of irony: ‘Owning a car.'”

Invisible cyclists matter because they are human and deserve access to bicycle infrastructure that makes riding safer. But they should also matter to sustainability-focused planners and bike advocates because many of them, without adequate bike infrastructure to communicate that bicycling is culturally validated, safe, and efficient, will eventually be driving CO2-producing automobiles. We’ll return to this point shortly.

#2–How We Count

This sounds like a criticism of the research design that produced the “Lessons from the Green Lanes” report. It is not. Not exactly. Rather, what we would like to point out is how otherwise reasonably designed and implemented research produces results that further rendered invisible many of the individuals who daily ride their bikes on city streets. Take a look at the race/ethnicity data from the residential and bike intercept surveys.

PSU Protected Lanes Survey Demographics

SOURCE: Figure ES-3, “Resident and Bicyclist Survey Respondent Demographics,” page 6 in “Lessons from the Green Lanes: Evaluating Protected Bike Lanes in the U.S.

Asians, Latinos/Latinas and Blacks are underrepresented relative to their populations in the five cities where the protected bike lanes are located. What about relative to the populations adjacent to the protected bike lanes themselves? According to the report, the census tracts nearest the Dearborn Ave. protected bike lane in Chicago, for example, are 13% Black. Survey respondents were 5% Black. Underrepresentation was slightly less pronounced for Hispanics/Latinos (making up 5% of respondents across all five cities compared to 9% in the adjacent census tracts) and Asians (making up 6% of respondents  compared to 9% in the adjacent census tracts). Given that people of color account for 23% of all trips by bike, the bicycle intercept survey also seems to have underrepresented people of color who made up just 14% of respondents.

How does this happen? There are a couple explanations. One is that protected bike lanes tend to be located in neighborhoods that are affluent and/or predominately white. This is best evidenced in the case of the Barton Springs and Bluebonnet bike lanes in Austin. Citywide African Americans make up close to 8% of the population. In the census tracts adjacent to the bike lanes they make up 1%.

Another possibility is that protected bike lanes are evenly distributed but the researchers selected protected bike lanes that tended to be in more affluent and less diverse areas. Although protected bike lanes in communities of color do exist, the reality is that they are few and far between. In fact, given such low representation of people of color in the bike intercept survey, it’s possible that the protected bike lanes studied are not only located in more affluent and less diverse areas, but also fail to serve as connectors that people in poorer and more diverse part of cities might use to get to their jobs. This is certainly the case on San Francisco’s Fell and Oak protected bike lanes. One of us happens to use these lanes in a “reverse commute” to get from the TransBay Terminal in the Financial District to his university job in the gentrifying NoPa neighborhood. As the demographics of the bike intercept survey hint, the Fell and Oak lanes connect urban professionals from the city’s Richmond and Sunset Districts to the professional jobs in the Mid-Market, Financial and Mission Districts.

Finally, there’s the possibility that the research design excluded certain participants. The bike intercept survey was conducted during typical commute times and, in some cases, on weekends. Many invisible cyclists ride because their shifts start or end when public transit does not operate. Such cyclists would not be counted during the morning and early evening observation windows the researchers employed.

Even if they were intercepted, invisible cyclists might not have completed the survey. As the authors report, “the bicyclist survey was designed as an intercept survey with riders receiving a postcard directing them to a web address to complete the survey electronically.” If there were lower income riders being intercepted, they may have been less likely to complete the web-based survey for obvious reasons. The researchers also distributed the web-based version of the survey to local advocacy groups in each city, again introducing the possibility of systematically excluding from the sample lower income and people of color who tend to be underrepresented in such groups. Fortunately, the researchers did not include data from this latter survey in their final analysis.

[Addendum (July 15, 2014): John Stehlin (2014) provides an excellent analysis of this process at work:

…wherein urban cyclists have become identified as valued users of urban space, techniques of gauging increases in ridership, and thus demand for infrastructure, become central activities of bicycle advocacy…This tends to undercount subaltern cycling practice, which may consist more of navigating social service providers, clinics and flexible or informal work, and often combines modes to reach these things across a more dispersed urban geography.

Although just underway, the Manchester Cycling Lab is a project aiming to employ more comprehensive measurement techniques to understand existing uses and needs of people on bikes.]

Historical decisions about where to locate protected bike lanes combined with methodological decisions about how to measure bicyclists and their perceptions result in  a catch-22: Planners locate protected bike lanes where bicycle traffic is high, but bicycle counts generally fail to include invisible cyclists. When the protected bike lanes are completed, ridership increases but primarily among those who are already riding and being counted and/or those who by their privilege live adjacent to the new infrastructure. As an aside, on the topic of privilege, Barb Chamberlain’s perspective on how a range of personal privileges, generally correlated with race and class, tend to be at least as important as infrastructure in lowering the barriers to biking is worth reading (see “Personal Privilege and Biking: It Takes More than a Bike Lane to Start Riding“).

One solution is to place bicycle infrastructure in communities of color (and in doing so involve communities in decision-making about the infrastructure design and placement). Until that happens, we need to design research on the impacts of bicycle infrastructure that oversamples people of color. Of the 2,225 people in the residential survey in the “Lessons from the Green Lanes” report, only 111 were African American. These numbers are so small that any further breakdown (e.g., according to income or education) results in numbers too small to run any meaningful statistical analyses.

If You’re Not Counted, You Don’t Count–Why We Need to Count the Invisible Cyclists

Why does all of this matter? Mostly because equity matters. But even if you want to be totally pragmatic, let’s go back to the “New Bicyclist Bias” which maintains that bicycle infrastructure should be designed to get people out of cars and onto bikes. What about keeping people from getting into cars in the first place? Or, perhaps more equitably, let’s ensure access to cars for a wider segment of the population (cars are still, after all, very useful for many purposes) while providing infrastructure to make bicycling the mode of choice. Owning one car does not seem to reduce significantly the frequency of a household’s trip by bikes. From 2001 to 2009, bike mode share grew the most among households with no cars or only one car (from 24% to 35%) (see Pucher et al., 2011).

Furthermore, the sustainability goal should factor in a need to support the segment of the population where trips by bike are growing the fastest. Which segment is this? According to “The New Majority: Pedaling Towards Equity” (PDF), a 2013 report by League of American Bicyclists and the Sierra Club, a Department of Transportation National Household Travel Survey found that from 2001 to 2009 the growth in percent of all trips made by bike was greatest among people of color (growth among African Americans, 100%; Asians, 80%; Hispanics, 50%; Whites, 22%). Who is most willing to support investment in bicycling and walking infrastructure? According to the same report, this time citing a poll by Princeton Survey Research Associates, 56% of people of color compared to 44% of white respondents expressed support for increased investment in walking and biking infrastructure.

And then there are the economic arguments. “The New Majority: Pedaling Towards Equity” highlights the burden of transportation on families with modest incomes:

The nation’s poorest families spend the highest portion of their income on their commute, spending more than 40% of take home pay on getting to work. Nationally, the average family with an income less than $50,000 spends 28% of its annual income on housing — and 30% on transportation.

If the bicycle was a viable form of transportation, with its annual operating cost of about $308, people would have more money to save and more money to spend locally. As any good bike advocate knows, “bicyclists are better customers than drivers for local business“. The arguments go on and on. Just check out Elly Blue’s Bikenomics series at Grist or her book, Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy.

Advancing the Dialogue

We know that the researchers behind “Lessons from the Green Lanes“–one of whom is a co-author of the equity-focused report “The Path to Complete Streets in Underserved Communities: Lessons from U.S. Case Studies” (PDF)–are acutely aware of all of the issues raised here. Many of the bloggers and bike advocates on twitter who have been tweeting the report are also acutely aware of these issues. If anything, it speaks volumes that despite this awareness we still cannot integrate into our analyses invisible cyclists and the underlying issues of equity and diversity. Fortunately, there are good resources out there. The League of American Bicyclists’ Equity Advisory Council and its bicycle equity toolkit are good places to start.

But we need to do more. We need to know more. Next time we proclaim to have learned “Lessons from the Green Lanes,” these lessons need to include lessons about invisible cyclists. As researchers, we look forward to a dialogue with others on how we can ensure this, including through the use of ethnography as pioneered by Adonia Lugo and others in the Bicicultures Research Network. As bike advocates, we look forward to more from the bicycle advocacy innovators who are learning how to listen to communities of color. Together we ought to be able to build better bicycle infrastructure that not only meets transportation needs equitably, but also strengthens local economies and communities.


9 thoughts on “Lessons from the Green Lanes? Listen to Communities of Color

  1. Thanks for such a thorough and thought-provoking blog post! I am in the beginning stages of some research in underserved communities near a bicycle shop that caters to lower income residents. Your call to “over sample” particular populations is right on and highly justified. And helpful to my own work!

    When I was reading your post I was once again reminded of the problematic bicycle counts that are so popular in the U.S. People love to pull out those numbers, especially in Minneapolis. Recent counts showed an upswing in women cyclists. Great, but WHAT women? White, middle-class women? Somali women? I have talked to numerous leaders of these counts and they insist that there is no good way to count people of color. Gender, for whatever their reason, is easier to guess//assume than one’s ethnicity. My point: we need to find a way to count people of color on bikes. We need the numbers. I am growing tired of people saying that we cannot do it.

    And one way that can happen is if people of color are in leadership positions in the bike world.
    We can’t continue doing research from a white man’s perspective–it is limiting. (this is NOT comment on the released data collection)

    Thanks again for such a detailed post! I had a brain itch about the cheerleading of protected bike lanes and am happy to see this discussion happening from a pro-bicycling standpoint.

  2. Great points. I want to let you know that the authors are paying attention to your comments/concerns, which are valid and spot on. We obviously have more analysis we can do with these data and that we need to be careful about the conclusions one can draw from the aggregate statistics reported here. Obviously, we have more work to do – both in additional analysis and in careful consideration of our research design in the future.

    I would like to address the most critical piece – the equity component. In our defense, we academics did not choose the locations where cities built the infrastructure evaluated in the study. While we cannot change this aspect of the study, I do hope that the results encourage more cities to invest in cycling (and pedestrian) infrastructure, starting with communities that can benefit the most from it – including our most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities.

    That said, I support the oversampling of under-represented groups in cycling research. After all, cyclists were similarly under-represented in most of the long history of transportation research and only when efforts to oversample cyclists and pedestrians in studies increased did they “count” in research and in policy. To address this, we first need a few studies that focus exclusively on these “invisible” cyclists – to understand more about their cycling behaviors, concerns and needs – in order to understand how to oversample them effectively and accurately.

    Thanks for the careful and concerned examination of our work.

  3. Hear hear — thanks for this important and persuasive critique of the research I’ve been spending most of the last two weeks trying to unpack.

    Dr. Clifton’s comments above are useful, too.

    I’m actually about to start working on a new project focused specifically on the connections between bike infrastructure and transportation equity and would like to speak with you about it. I’ll try to get in touch.

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  5. Michael, it’s been great to see the response to our post so far. Sounds like everyone is on the same page and now it’s just a matter of leveraging the shared concerns to advance our understanding of all bicyclists’ needs, perspectives, and behaviors.

    Please feel free to get in touch. Julian’s more useful to address approaches to intercultural perspectives more broadly whereas my expertise is in research design. Putting our heads together, along with the other highly qualified researchers passionate about bike equity, we ought to be able to push the research (and hopefully advocacy and outcomes) in some new and promising directions.

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