Thursday, September 6, 2012

Bicycles for beggars, or the white picket fence of the the fantasy green village of tomorrow?

In this post I thought I would divert briefly from the practical aspects of deindustrial cycling, and examine attitudes towards cycling in the modern world. Specifically, I want to meditate on a comment made by Bill Pulliam on the Archdruid Report post which gave birth to this blog:

"There is a bit of imprinting of an image of happy people pedaling their way into a green future; it shows up in pop culture fairly often. It's kind of the white picket fence of the the fantasy green village of tomorrow. If wishes were bicycles then beggars would ride..."

Unfortunately I did not get to reply at the time, but the first thought that crossed my mind was of an experience I had some months ago.

A beggar and his bicycle

I was outside the local Whole Foods. Yes, that's probably one of the stronger representatives of the "fantasy green village of tomorrow", as swallowed up and regurgitated by consumer culture. In my defence I was trying to buy ethically sourced essentials, and to avoid the insidious marketing of unnecessary and overpriced luxuries. Anyway, as I was loading my shopping into the fold-out baskets on my bicycle, the beggar sitting nearby complimented me on the baskets, noting how useful they were. This began a long chat about his bicycle, and ways to carry cargo on it. I suggested he try strapping a milk crate to his rack, as they are readily (if not strictly legally) available for free, and well suited to the purpose. I also directed him to a local community bike shop who I know try to be accommodating of people of low means. I figured that the advice was probably worth more to him than a dollar coin would have been.

The point of this story is that, at least in Vancouver, beggars do indeed ride. In fact, among "binners" (people who collect bottles and cans for the deposit), bicycles are a fairly common means of transporting their haul around. In fact, for a time, there was a community bike shop set up on East Hastings Street (the poorest part of town) with the explicit mandate of helping binners to repair their bikes. This was set up by United We Can, a charity aimed at uplifting and empowering the poor through their participation in recycling and other environmental projects (like growing local food). Pedal, another local charity, dedicated specifically to cycling, also has an earn-a-bike program. Through the program, the poor can exchange volunteer time for a bicycle, while learning how to repair and maintain the bicycle through the volunteering. Perhaps this is an exception in the overdeveloped world, but Vancouver certainly has ways of enabling cycling among the poor.

But what of the statistics?

In discussing social dynamics, it is also important to examine statistics, which can be viewed, for example, in this regional cycling strategy document from Translink, the local transportation authority. On page 18, figure 10 shows the breakdown of cyclists by income bracket. There is a very strong correlation with income, and around 34% of all commuter cyclists earn over $100K/year, while the truly poor account for around 2.5%. In Vancouver, the rich seem to bike a lot, and the poor bike the least.

The per-suburb mapped data on page 19 of that report tells more of the story. The biggest hotspots (~10% mode share) are neighbourhoods inhabited by "bourgeois bohemians" (rich, left-wing, probably ex-hippie types): Point Grey,  Dunbar, Kitsilano. These are neighbourhoods where the imaginings of a happy, white-picket fenced green future are probably alive and well. Curiously, the truly richest neighbourhood in Vancouver, Shaughnessy, has an extremely low cycling rate. The 1% are split into more and less green groups, who do not generally choose to live together.

There is another trend in the map data. Around Mount Pleasant and Commercial Drive, somewhat poorer areas with many younger, less bourgeois bohemians, the cycling rate is also moderately high (~5%). Among a certain group of young people, cyling has become "hip", as well as a practical and cost-effective means of getting around.

The last trend in the map data is the extremely low rate of cycling (1-2%)  in the Southern neighbourhoods. These are areas with high numbers of relatively recent (past few decades) immigrants. Unfortunately, for many people, part of the dream of coming to an overdeveloped country (the American dream?) is to own a car. A car is a symbol of status and wealth, and the ways things were done in the old country are to be left behind.

My experience

As part of our outreach work, the bike co-op I work with run regular Cycling Resource Centres at local farmers markets, where we answer questions, hand out information, and tune up bicycles for free. In the process, I get to see and chat with a wide cross-section of local cyclists. There are definitely a disproportionate number of BoBos and fantasy green village of tomorrow types (indeed, the farmers markets themselves walk a fine line between encouraging true sustainability and the luxury green market). I also see a fair share of young, fired-up, slightly bohemian types. But, I also see many regular folk who just happen to be cyclists, as well as a few truly poor people. While the trends tend towards the cycling rich, I do not believe there is a segment of society in which cycling is nonexistent, or inaccessible.

The future

This blog is, of course, looking to the deindustrial future, and so far I have just talked about the present in a city in the overdeveloped world. The picture here is not pretty: cycling seems to often be a token gesture by which the rich can absolve themselves of guilt over their deeply unsustainable lifestyles, rather than an enabling and empowering mode of transportation for the poor. But yet, in the less-developed world, the opposite is largely true. I suspect that as the overdeveloped world deindustrialises, a second peak of cycling mode share will begin to grow again at the low end of the income spectrum.

Furthermore, oil shocks have had a historical tendency to increase cycling (see, for instance, the 70s). This is already happening now; oil prices are high, and creeping upwards, and bicycle mode share in the overdeveloped world is slowly rising. At least through the scarcity industrialism phase of the decline, it is likely that cycling will make a strong comeback. Further ahead, I suspect that regional differences will play an even bigger role than they do now, particularly as production begins to localise. For now, the task of cycling advocates will be to continue to support the poor among their local communities, and to be prepared for an upswing in the number turning to cycling.