Protected Bike Lanes Could Bridge America’s Empathy Gap

“The more that Americans opt out of interacting with each other … the greater the ‘empathy gap’ grows.” Ben Hecht, President and CEO of Living Cities, wrote this in a response to the findings of a study showing that the majority of U.S. public school children live in poverty. While his observation addressed education and housing patterns, it’s also true for transportation.

In other words, the more that people drive alone in cars rather than bike, walk or take public transportation, the less we interact with each other or understand each other.

This “empathy gap” plays a significant role in the perpetuation of inequality. When people of different classes, ages or races “opt out” of communicating, of sharing the same spaces and engaging in the same activities, it becomes that much easier to dismiss, marginalize and dehumanize each other. Last week’s attack in Charleston, SC, is a stark reminder of this.

While we work to create healthier, more engaged communities for all people, protected bike lanes offer an alternative to isolated driving, not to mention all of their other perks. But it isn’t enough to build them and hope that everyone will benefit; we have to think about equity from the start. Otherwise, protected bike lanes, just like highway projects, have the potential to further divide us.

What would an equitable approach to transportation look like?

Community Engagement—A new resource from People for Bikes and the Alliance for Biking and Walking, Building Equity: Race, Ethnicity, Class and Protected Bike Lanes, highlights the value of community engagement. One of its key lessons is that if we build protected bike lanes without involving routinely underserved communities, then we’ll only intensify existing inequities. Engaging a community for any sustained effort can be challenging, though, and the challenges increase when the goal is equity and the approach is as multifaceted as community change. Community Engagement for Equity, an Active Living By Design resource, provides leaders with field-tested, strategic guidance to help them navigate this process.

Mode Match—The vast majority of this country’s transit budget is devoted to automobile infrastructure, thus dramatically underserving the mobility needs of the one in ten American households that don’t own a vehicle. Advocacy has long been a means of tackling systemic issues like this, and the League of American Bicyclists’ Equity Initiative seeks to bridge the current gap between diverse communities and bicycle advocates. As more voices join the ranks, we should work to better allocate transportation spending to modes that all people, not just car-drivers, can use.

Connectivity—Protected bike lanes provide bicyclists with a safe and dignified means of transportation. When those lanes are laced into a network that connects affordable neighborhoods with economically robust places and jobs, the mobility needs of low-income workers (who may not be able to afford a car) are better met.

But what if you aren’t a planner or policy maker? You can still help. Ask your local decision makers if they’ve worked to include young, elderly, minority and low-income people when prioritizing investments. Drop in on your local transportation advisory board (TAB) meetings to make sure that equitable connectivity is a goal. (As a member of my local TAB, I can tell you that the voices of community members make a difference.)

Finally, take a spin on a protected bike lane, and make friends with your fellow bicyclists! There are communities across the country that would love to see people enjoying a safe, low-stress bike ride on the lanes they’ve worked so hard to build. Let’s all start bridging the empathy gap.