Biking Where Black
By: Kiran Herbert, PeopleForBikes' local programs writer
A new study shows that areas with less bike infrastructure experience disproportionate ticketing, compounding the effects of racially biased policing and transportation policies.
To borrow a term coined by researcher Charles T. Brown, there are many ways — societal and institutional — in which the mobility of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) is arrested. From the disproportionate enforcement of jaywalking to the numerous highways that bisect majority-Black neighborhoods, it’s a fact that it’s easier to move around in this country if you’re white. A new study from Jesus M. Barajas, Ph.D., titled “Biking Where Black” and published last month in Transportation Research, lends credence to another unfortunate trend: Areas with less bike infrastructure correlate with higher populations of BIPOC and more bike-related tickets.
Barajas began his research while at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, inspired by a working relationship with Olatunji Oboi Reed, president and CEO at Equiticity, a Chicago-based nonprofit geared towards improving mobility outcomes for BIPOC. In 2017, Chicago adopted its Vision Zero plan, following a model that relied on the prescribed pillars of engineering, education and enforcement. As a racial justice advocacy organization, Equiticity saw the inclusion of “enforcement” as problematic for BIPOC communities. Inspired, Barajas decided to study Chicago’s enforcement of bicyclists, bike infrastructure investments, neighborhood demographics and safety statistics to see if any patterns emerged.
For three years now, Barajas has worked to analyze data related to the location of all Chicago Police Department bicycle citations, bicycle crashes and the city’s network of on-street bicycle facilities, geo-coding everything and compiling it all onto one layered grid. Although he used data from as far back as 2014, Barajas focused on 2017-2019 due to the quality of data available, controlling for crash incidences, police presence and neighborhood characteristics.
“Similar to the Chicago Tribune in 2017, we found that there was a significant disparity in where bike tickets were issued and that tickets did not match with incidents of bike safety,” said Barajas. “We also found less bike infrastructure in majority-Black and Latino neighborhoods and that it made a difference in where tickets were issued.”
Based on his research, Barajas adds that if we blanketed Chicago’s most cited streets with infrastructure, there would be an 8% decrease in the number of tickets issued. Another way of looking at it: The rate of ticketing would be cut in half by installing bike infrastructure on all of the streets with citations. In Chicago, the majority of bike citations were for riding on the sidewalk, an illegal offense that's the direct result of inadequate on-street bike facilities.
“There’s a behavioral response to a lack of infrastructure,” said Barajas, noting that anyone who feels unsafe biking on a street would naturally move to the sidewalk. “We need to figure out a way to make our streets safer and a big way to do that is through infrastructure.”
To be Black or brown in Chicago is to be denied a safe way to move around by bike and then later be fined for a natural act of self-preservation. What results is a no-win situation for BIPOC on bikes: In order to stay safe from cars, riders move to the sidewalk, where they expose themselves to the possibility of the financial risk of a ticket or, in the worst-case scenario, bodily harm at the hands of the police. What Barajas’ research illuminates is how the decisions of transportation planners can lead to racial disparities in the distribution of infrastructure, which then plays into the well-documented disparities in policing and enforcement. It paints a bleak picture of how the problem of policing and the historic lack of investment in BIPOC neighborhoods compounds to further inequity.
The recommendations for moving forward are as clear as the data: build more bike infrastructure in BIPOC neighborhoods. Between 2017 and 2019, 85% fewer tickets were given out and crash numbers declined on Chicago streets that had bike lanes. There’s also evidence that bike infrastructure encourages new riders and bike share users, not to mention the well-established environmental and health benefits of biking. Research has also highlighted how daily experiences with racism — such as suspect profiling and the stressors associated with even the possibility of police interaction — have a profound negative impact on the health of BIPOC. Thus, a lack of infrastructure in communities of color denies people a safe way to travel by bike, ultimately compounding trauma, limiting mobility, stymying our collective climate goals and depriving people of the joy and freedom riding offers.
Of course, in communities of color, there’s a strong perception that infrastructure such as bike lanes only arrive when a neighborhood is gentrifying. Even if data doesn’t support that fact, the perception still exists, making comprehensive community engagement a necessary component of any planning process. Planners not only need to prioritize historically marginalized neighborhoods but also need to work with residents there to ensure that any new infrastructure is meeting their needs. Likewise, it’s important to remain attentive to the intersections of identity and mobility, acknowledging that needs differ across groups.
Barajas’ research makes an equally compelling case for the removal of “enforcement” from Vision Zero policies, along with the abolition of bike laws that penalize people for riding on the sidewalk or failing to wear a helmet, use bike lights, obtain a bike license or register their bikes. Both aren’t novel concepts but rather part of a nationwide trend that’s been gaining momentum since the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
“We don’t see that connection to safety and given the history — particularly in Chicago — of racially biased policing, the role of enforcement needs to be rethought,” said Barajas.
In Chicago, after the Tribune analysis broke, the ACLU and the Chicago Police Department reached an agreement to reform the practice of investigatory street stops. As a result, by the end of 2019, ticketing for bike riders across the city declined by 64%. Still, as Barajas’ research shows, the racial disparities in ticketing only got worse, pointing to the need for more anti-bias training and general reform among the city’s police force.
“When police departments prioritize safety over pretextual stops, such as broken tail lights and expired registration, and really only focus on things like running red lights and stop signs and excessive speeding, there’s evidence that shows that the change in tactics reduces the disparities in traffic stops,” said Barajas. “But that needs to come from the top and instill its way into the entire force.”
Since the study concluded, Chicago has made some strides when it comes to building more bike lanes in the communities of color that saw more ticketing. But there remains a lack of infrastructure in other neighborhoods with higher rates of bike citations, especially on the South Side. Going forward, Chicago and cities across the U.S. need to continue to refine Vision Zero strategies and promote collaboration amongst various stakeholders, all with the goal of promoting equity.
Barajas has since left Illinois for the University of California, Davis, where he continues to research the connection between infrastructure and policing. In California, he’s scaling up the Chicago study to include Oakland, Sacramento and Los Angeles, where it’s not illegal to ride on the sidewalk. The underlying hope is that indisputable research might lead to widespread reform.
“You can imagine that the ‘cycling on the sidewalk’ law was put in place with the good intention of protecting pedestrians from cyclists, just like the ‘helmet law’ or ‘light law’ come from a place of wanting to protect people’s safety and health,” said Barajas. “All of these laws were made with the intention of improving safety but end up having harmful effects on communities of color. So the question is, how do we best protect vulnerable road users while also protecting vulnerable populations?”