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Marshall W. Taylor, the 'Worcester Whirlwind'.
Marshall W. Taylor, the 'Worcester Whirlwind'.

Ending the Cycle of Poverty By Bicycling Out of It

Two separate studies, one in America's capital city, the other in the capital of Denmark, suggest that bicycle commuting can play an important role in ending the cycle of poverty when accompanied by wise policy making, as well as infrastructure funding.

Mo'ne Davis is the talk of the Little League World Series this year. Only one of two girls in the annual championship series in Williamsport, PA., her phenomenal pitching propelled the 13-year-old from Philadelphia into the international spotlight.

But Mo'ne isn't the first 13-year-old African-American youth to cause a stir in the world of sports. Go back more than a century and another 13-year-old from Chicago named Marshall W. Taylor similarly captured the public imagination when he unexpectedly won his first bicycle race in the Windy City in 1891. Known at the time as "Major" Taylor, the teenager earned his nickname because he wore a uniform while performing cycling tricks outside the bicycle shop that hired him to attract business. It was at the start of the cycling craze in American and the bike shop owner entered the teen in the race more or less as a publicity stunt.

Finishing six seconds ahead of the other riders, the teenager went on to become one of the most famous bicycle racers of the era. Like Mo'ne, Marshall was black. That's his picture above. Here's his story from the Smithsonian.

Two articles I came across recently triggered this blog: "How Low-Income Commuters View Cycling" in CityLab and "How Bike-Friendly Streets Help Denmark Combat Inequality" on StreetBlog USA. Both focus on the impact cycling has on those living in poverty; how the poor in America rank cycling as a low priority in their lives compared to those living at the bottom of the economic ladder in Denmark.

In the case of the USA, the researchers surveyed residents in Washington, D.C.'s 7th and 8th Wards, the poorest in the district, about their attitudes towards cycling as a transportation option. Their respondents ranked it seventh out of nine. Besides the real or perceived disadvantages of bicycle commuting, the researchers discovered a deeply ingrained desire to own a car as much for the social status value it represents in America as the increased economic freedom it appears to offer.

There's a very good reason for this attitude. Heavily dependent on public transit, the researchers found that low-income residents reported commuting nearly 30 minutes longer per day than higher income earners. Notes CityLab:

This makes sense for two reasons. First, the poor use public transit more, and workers using public transit in large U.S. cities have substantially longer commutes... Second, transit-connected housing is often more desirable and therefore costly, relegating the poor to ever-more inaccessible neighborhoods.

Despite understanding the"downsides of car ownership," noted the researchers, "our respondents wanted cars nonetheless."

They also found a few respondents who "explicitly stated that biking belonged to a different ethnicity, gender or economic class, though 6.4 percent said cycling was socially unacceptable."

Apparently they had never heard of 'Major' Taylor.

The study of cycling and poverty in Denmark reveals an important aspect to this question: how many people remain in poverty in a culture where it's okay for anyone and everyone to cycle: poor, middle class, the rich.

Michael Andersen observes in his StreetBlog that "...only 41 percent of the poorest Danes’ trips happen in cars, compared to 72 percent of trips by the poorest Americans. More than anything else, this difference is because of bicycles: quick, cheap, direct and easily combined with good public transit."

A lack of easy access to 'good public transit' is part of the reason it takes longer for residents in D.C.'s 7th and 8th Wards to get to and from work. It just isn't available. Recall reason two above.:

"…transit-connected housing is often more desirable and therefore costly, relegating the poor to ever-more inaccessible neighborhoods."

Andersen points out, as did the authors of the D.C. study:

"Living carless in most American cities can mean being cut off from many of the family and friends who help people find work, feel happy, care for children, or recover from emotional or economic bad fortune."

"This problem," he writes, "shackles both the poorest American adults and their kids."

Unlike Denmark, where three-quarters of their poorest citizens largely escape poverty by middle age, only a third do so in the United States. Four in ten spend their lives stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Both the D.C. researchers and Andersen acknowledge that getting the poor onto bicycles more isn't the answer to poverty, but as the latter points out, "it’s made poverty much easier to escape. And one of its tools in that fight has been making it normal and comfortable to do the daily business of one’s life on a bicycle."

The CityLab study made three recommendations in this regard:

(1) Focus more on improving multimodel transit "by offering bike space inside subway cars, for instance, or creating secure bike parking at bus stops."

(2) Stop excessively denigrating cars. Wealthier citizens may have option of driving less and cycling more; the poor may not have that luxury.

(3) Transportation policy needs to recognize that building out cycling infrastructure alone won't attract a wider economic demographic. Inclusive bicycle clinics and workshops in areas with lower ridership may be more effective in attracting the poor to the benefits of biking it.

In one of those sad footnotes of history, Taylor, who earned as much as $30,000 a year in the 1890s and 1900s, died in poverty at age 53 during the Great Depression. Yet he was stoical about his meteoric rise and tragic descent, stating in his 1929 self-published autobiography,The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World, "I felt I had my day and a wonderful day it was too."

Unbeknownst to him , he would be followed by Jessie Owen, Joe Lewis, Jackie Robinson… Mo'ne Davis.

Posted By: Bill Moore [27-Aug-2014]

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