In discussions of street safety, there is a tendency to stereotype pedestrian and bicycle advocates as hipsters, gentrifiers, yuppies, and a host of other terms that connote a young, white, upper-middle class demographic that bicycle lanes or streetscape improvements allegedly serve. But a new report by the American Community Survey (PDF link) tells a different story: low income Americans overwhelmingly rely on walking and bicycling to get around, and therefore are disproportionately affected by unsafe street designs. This revelation is nothing new, but it’s worth reinforcing.
The report shows that high rates of walking and bicycling to work generally correlate with low household income. Very low income households that make less than $10,000 per year rely more on walking (8 percent) and biking (1.5%) than middle class households that make $100,000-$149,000 (for which walking rates are less than 2 percent and bicycling rates are less than 0.5 percent). There is a small U curve in the national data for households making greater than $150,000, possibly reflecting the overrepresentation of these groups in walkable areas of New York, San Francisco, and other cities.
This data is by no means comprehensive: a number of factors suggest that trips by walking and biking are significantly undercounted. First, only certain trips via walking and biking are counted since only one mode may be listed—if you walk to the bus, for example, this is usually counted as a transit trip. Second, commuting data is collected in April, a time of year in which active transportation use may be affected by weather. Third, low income populations are generally underrepresented in ACS and Census data collection, and many who are unemployed do not show up in commuting data. Fourth, commute data only accounts for around 20 percent of all trips, and these trips are often longer (and therefore less accessible by walking and biking) than typical errands like grocery shopping. School trips for youth are also not counted as commute trips, which is another huge demographic dependent on walking and biking. Fifth, the national scope of the data skews the numbers away from walking and bicycling; individual breakdowns of cities would show higher percentages.
Despite these data shortcomings, a clear conclusion is attainable: on any given day, most of us are pedestrians and some of us bike, but lower income populations rely on walking and biking at significantly higher rates. In designing our streets, it’s important to recognize who we are serving, who we are not, and how we can achieve greater equity through improvements in street safety.