Communities of color bear the brunt of sidewalk-biking enforcement

October 21, 2014

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer


Photo by waltarrrrr.

Of all the possible ways to break the law on a bicycle, pedaling on the sidewalk ought to be one of the most sympathetic.

Yes, sidewalk biking is unpleasant and potentially dangerous to everyone involved. But people wouldn't bike on sidewalks if they weren't in search of something they want: physical protection from auto traffic.

A person biking on a sidewalk is just trying to use the protected bike lane that isn't there. That's why sidewalk biking falls dramatically the moment a protected lane is installed. When a bike rider fails to follow this law, it's not good. But it's usually because the street has already failed to help the rider.

All of which makes it especially disturbing that bans on sidewalk biking seem to be enforced disproportionately on Black and Latino riders.

That's the implication of a recent study from New York City. City University of New York sociologist Harry Levine and civil rights attorney Loren Siegel coded the neighborhoods with the most and fewest bike-on-sidewalk court summonses by whether or not most residents were Black and Latino.

Of the 15 neighborhoods with the most such summonses, he found, 12 were mostly Black and Latino. Of the 15 neighborhoods with the fewest, 14 are home mostly to people of other backgrounds.


Chart by Harry Levine and Loren Siegel. Full data, including summonses as a share of population, available on their website.

One of the reasons for this gap may be that streets in these neighborhoods are more likely to be built like highways. Another: biking might be more common overall in these places. And local cultures might have different attitudes toward biking. Certainly, some of the reason is that police officers and court officials — like just about all of us — tend to treat people of different races differently, whether they want to or not.

Whatever the cause, this is what institutional racism looks like. Here's what the New York Times editorial board has to say about the situation:

Summons court — which handles offenses like public drinking, riding bicycles on the sidewalk or talking back to the cops, otherwise known as disorderly conduct — is anything but petty. It is a place where low-level offenses can lead to permanent criminal histories and lifelong encumbrances.

Reducing sidewalk biking by building the streets people actually want, with physical separation between bikes, cars and sidewalks, obviously won't fix institutional racism. But it's maddening when missing infrastructure helps make bikes part of the machinery of inequality. That's what's happening here, and it's just another price American cities pay when they relegate biking to the margins of our society and the gutters of our streets.

Thanks to Do Lee on the League of American Bicyclists' bike equity listserv for the tip. The Green Lane Project is a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets. You can follow us on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for our weekly news digest about protected bike lanes. Story tip? Write [email protected]

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