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A new study reportedly found that the installation of protected infrastructure for bicyclists does not cause the displacement of people of color or of low-income residents of U.S. cities. This, however, does not mean transportation leaders always do a good job of advancing comprehensive mobility justice for underserved groups when they improve cycling infrastructure, as Streetsblog wrote in a recent article.
In the new study, researchers at the University of New Mexico analyzed socioeconomic and demographic changes in predominantly residential neighborhoods in 29 cities across the U.S. that had made investments into bike facilities between 2000 and 2019. The UNM team reportedly scrutinized thousands of satellite images on Google Earth to catalogue exactly what kinds of cycling infrastructure each city had installed and when, which offered a more complete glimpse into the displacement impacts of different forms of investment into sustainable transportation.
Aside from statistically very small decreases in the rates of new rich and white residents moving into neighborhoods with new bike facilities, the results showed there was no correlation between the installation of new bike facilities and major shifts in the socioeconomic makeup of those neighborhoods. This means bike lanes, trails, and even sharrows were not found to be associated with residential displacement, either along racial or economic lines.
However, study author Nick Ferenchak was careful to note that the finding did not mean that U.S. transportation planners are necessarily doing a great job at using cycling as a tool for broader mobility justice. The data actually revealed that transportation leaders aren’t delivering equal access to new bicycle infrastructure for people of color. Moreover, they couldn’t determine whether transportation leaders were delivering equitable access to the transportation infrastructure for which those communities are actually asking, if leaders are even asking at all.
The study also offered surprising insights that complicate common narratives about how bike infrastructure is distributed throughout U.S. communities. Earlier studies have shown that white neighborhoods receive disproportionately high percentages of bike facilities, but researchers have tended to calculate based on all bike facilities and not necessarily safety infrastructure. Sharrows, which don’t physically protect riders from potential car crashes, is much of what’s built in said white neighborhoods.
“We hear cities say all the time that they’ve got 1,000 miles of bike lanes, but when you look at it more closely, they’ve actually got 999 miles of sharrows,” Ferenchak reportedly pointed out. “When we remove sharrows from the equation and just look at bike lanes, the numbers are much more even [between rates of new facility installation in white and BIPOC neighborhoods.]”
Meanwhile, low-income people are getting better access to meaningful bicycle infrastructure than some may expect. The percentage increase in new facilities on low-income blocks was slightly higher than on richer blocks. But when considering that 39% of bike commuting is done by the lowest-income quartile in the U.S., the small increase is not that impressive.
The researchers also found that “a rise in income in a neighborhood led to the installation of bike facilities more so than increases in white populations led to more bicycling facility installations.” This could mean that wealthy cyclists move into neighborhoods that lack bike infrastructure and then leverage their privilege to get it, while the poorer cyclists struggle to either move to bike-lane-rich areas or get lanes built where they already live.
“Yes, we have mobility justice issues in our neighborhoods that we need to address, and gentrification is a complex set of forces that goes beyond displacement. But if displacement is our primary concern, yeah, we can go ahead and build the bike lanes. We know we’re not going to be displacing people just by doing that,” Ferenchak reportedly concluded.