My friend Michael related a conversation about transportation costs that he had recently with “Cheryl,” a social services professional who works with low income families. Michael assumed Cheryl had a good deal of insight into the challenges faced by people who struggle to make ends meet on minimum wage. He commented to her that given the employment and economic uncertainty that nearly everyone is facing, more transportation funding/planning/consideration should be devoted to public transit and bicycle infrastructure. To his surprise, Cheryl exclaimed, “bicycle what!?”
You know, bike lanes. Bike paths. Bike corrals. He explained that gas is expensive and cars require auto insurance and require often costly maintenance and repairs.
Cheryl didn’t understand. “Well, how are bicycles supposed to help with that?”
“People can bike to work or use them to go grocery shopping…if you don’t have to worry about car repair, you can buy food, pay the rent.” Did I mention that Michael is from a rather well-to-do family and has never faced nor will he ever likely face this situation himself? And he’s explaining this stuff to a social worker…
Michael was becoming exasperated. “People do it all the time. A lot of people do. Look around. People bike all over Flagstaff.” Michael is relating this story to me as we sit in a bar on South San Francisco Street. Cyclists whiz by, one after the other. My husband is among them and within minutes, he has joined us in the bar, bike helmet in hand.
Of course, Cheryl has never seen anyone bike anywhere in Flagstaff or apparently anywhere else. Ever! “Nobody would do that.”
“Well, I do. I bike in to work almost every morning and my wife and I bike to the grocery store all the time. We put our groceries on a bike trailer and in panniers,” said Michael. Since I didn’t know what a pannier was until four years ago, I assumed Cheryl didn’t, either.
Michael said that Cheryl remained unconvinced and just looked at him like he was a kook. The conversation went nowhere. Cheryl, the social services caseworker who helps economically disadvantaged people find solutions to keep clothes on their backs, food on the table and roofs over their heads, does not know that low wage workers are often one broken down car away from being unemployed. How can it be that the person who should know better is utterly clueless? As a poorly paid social worker (and I was once a poorly paid social worker so I know of what I speak), did Cheryl never think “damn, a new alternator and a motor mount? Looks like it’s Ramen noodles and beans for the next few months.”
I don’t mean to suggest in any way that bike commuting is only for the poor or for tough economic times. Yes, yes, yes — I ultimately chose to begin my initial experiment in bike commuting in order to reduce our monthly expenses. But the key idea is that I chose to do so. Just like I chose to sell my car after I discovered I really preferred to commute to work and just about everywhere else by bike. I didn’t have to. It wasn’t an emergency. Besides, we still had one car for times when it just wasn’t convenient to bike. I liked being a regular bike commuter, and the extra monies could be applied to my retirement account or just spent on drinks at The Rendezvous! And it really gives me no small bit of comfort to know that in the really unfortunate event that either my husband or I were laid off and could no longer afford gas or auto insurance, we could make it by combining our bikes with the bus. In other words, we’d still have transportation options.
One of the reasons that I was able to so easily make that choice was that I have access to a lot of great multi-use paths and bike lanes in my part of town. I owe that privilege largely to the fact that Flagstaff voters overwhelmingly have supported taxing themselves to help pay for the Flagstaff Urban Trail System. While Flagstaff has done a better job than most when it comes to bike friendliness, nobody agrees that we’re done. Many streets and roads still need work before significant numbers of people will feel comfortable traveling on them by bike. Flagstaff voters prioritize continuing to improve our network of bike trails and lanes for recreation and enhanced transportation alternatives.
But what about people like Cheryl? Sure, she is highly unlikely to become a bike commuter herself and that’s her choice. But, given her line of work, I find it very hard to understand her lack of empathy for people for whom car ownership is simply an out of reach luxury. I can’t believe that none of her clients has ever needed to apply for emergency funds to pay for yet another car repair so that they can get to work or keep doctor appointments. In my experience, those emergency funds evaporated during the previous quarter and won’t be replenished until the new fiscal year. For many people in that situation, if the bus service is unreliable or doesn’t go where you need to go, their only choice is a bike, probably an old one they remembered was in their dad’s shed. It’s so obvious! Why can’t she see it?
Is it the same blindness that explains why Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky views funding for bike infrastructure as frivolous? Or why his cohort Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma tried to hijack the recently passed six-month extension to the Transportation Bill unless it excluded funds for anything that wasn’t car-centric? Do they realize that with 14 million people out of work and 46 million living in poverty, a lot of folks can’t afford to own and operate a car? Are they ignorant or do they just lack empathy? I’m starting to suspect the later because both should certainly know better.
So yes, I’ve gone on a rant, but all of us, regardless of the economic times or our income, need and deserve transportation options. The ability to identify and exercise options in order to overcome challenges is one of those personal responsibility thingys that Senators Coburn and Paul certainly respect. In six months, the Transportation Bill will be back before Congress and another funding crisis will begin again. I hope our elected public servants will consider that, while we reflexively subsidize the choice of many to drive a car, it would also be nice to carve out a fraction of that amount to fund the bicycle infrastructure that provides a bit of extra safety and comfort to the not insignificant number of citizens for whom car ownership will always be an aspiration. Riding a bike is their only option.