Having access to a car is one of the highest privileges in our society. If you are an immigrant, a senior, a woman, BIPOC, a refugee, a kid or part of any other marginalized group and you have access to a car, you can reach more services and amenities the city has to offer than a white straight guy who does not have access to a car. And in some cases, you are safer too.
But here is the thing, privileged people drive much more often than everybody else and there are individual and systemic reasons for that.
Some marginalized groups don’t drive for obvious reasons. Many people might not be able to afford a car. Cultural, physical or mental health issues might prevent someone from getting a driver’s license. And kids depend entirely on their parents to drive them around (although in some countries they can independently bike or take transit as early as 6-years old).
How walkable is your neighbourhood? How close are you to work opportunities? How much green space do you have easy access to? How much investment and development is directed to your neighbourhood? Are you close to industrial districts? Do you have well maintained roads and bike lanes near your house? Urban design matters. Equity-seeking groups tend to be farther away and have less access to what their city has to offer because, intentionally or not, the urban design created those conditions.
From a spatial perspective If we add up the land taken up by roads, parking, gas stations, car dealers, rentals, car washes, and all other amenities that exist to serve cars exclusively, it will represent more than 50% of the land use in many neighbourhoods in a typical North American city. That’s an incontestable proof that the way we are designing our cities, we are stating that cars matter more than housing, education, food, health, nature or anything else.
Biking in a North American city is in itself an equity issue and it has a compound effect, given that those who do not have access to a car (and mobility in general) are the ones already left behind.
We subsidize racism, ageism, ableism, and sexism by subsidizing cars. And we’ve been doing that considerably. A study shows that for every dollar someone spends driving a car, society pays $9.20. And for every dollar someone spends riding a bicycle, society pays $0.08. Sprawling, another big deterrent for biking and walking, also costs us a lot. Suburban households require, on average, 250% more tax dollars than urban households. Finally, in Canada the fossil fuel industry received $18billion in subsidies in 2020 alone!
Every time we expand a road, create more parking, and drive we reinforce inequality and oppression. We take away from those who have less and give to those who have more. Some sort of a perverse backward Robin Hood.
We have a mobility gap that turns vulnerable groups into second-class citizens with fewer rights to the city. The gap exists whether you’re biking or driving. The first national bike count in Canada shows a disproportionately high number of white men cycling. But there is a key difference here. While the barriers to driving are either unfeasible or undesirable to overcome, the barriers to cycling are relatively easy and highly beneficial to break.
A better city is possible and is already here
We have the knowledge and the material resources to rewrite our story. I could cite cities that are leading the charge with cycling highways, multi-storey bike parking facilities, hundreds of miles reclaimed for people temporarily or permanently, and even bold plans to become complete carfree by 2050.
There is no special condition that makes those cities more capable than Canadian cities, nevertheless, I will stick to examples of Canadian cities that are doing a much better job than London. The solutions can be categorized into three broad groups, all three of them essential to a thriving cycling city: infrastructure, access to bikes, and cultural change. In the first and most important category, we need a safe and convenient cycling network (Vancouver; Edmonton), popup bike lanes (Brampton, Calgary), and widespread bike parking (Montreal). In the second category, we need bikeshare systems (Toronto) and subsidies to buy bikes (Granby). And in the third category, we need to normalize and elevate cycling for regular daily trips to work (Victoria) and school (Hamilton).
Towards Mobility Equality
What Individuals Can Do
As an individual action, the most obvious one is to ride a bike. That is not necessarily the most doable. As citizens we can also show our support to our elected officials, the principal of the school our kids go to, our manager at work, and shops we generally go to. We need to let them know how cycling can help our cities and we want to see them taking action. We can also support organizations that are trying to create a bike-friendly city. In my city, we have London Cycle Link. Velo Canada Bike is the national network organization in Canada.
What Business Owners Can Do
If you own a business, you can join Bike-Friendly Business initiatives,encourage clients and/or employees to ride a bike and offer incentives for them to do so. Just ensuring that cyclists are welcome goes a long way.
What School Teachers/Principals Can Do
If you work at a school you can host a cycling training program such as Ride To Thrive or Ride Smart. It is also important to provide adequate bike parking protected from the weather and theft. Finally, initiatives like the Ontario Active School Travel provides lots resources to organize a Bike To School ride, guidelines to ensure there are safe cycling routes to your school and how to work with municipalities.
What City Officials Can Do
As a city official you can educate other decision makers about this issue and strive to shift the systemic injustices created by inequitable mobility and actively work towards the three groups of measures that foster a bike-friendly city (infrastructure, access to bikes, and cultural change).
As we can see from this list, we all have a role to play whether we are part of the government, a business leader, a community champion or just a regular citizen. The only missing piece is, are we willing to do what it takes for a just, equitable, and sustainable urban mobility?
One way to strengthen our will is to understand the challenges we are facing and the lived experiences of families facing mobility inequality. We will be publishing a series called Urban Mobility Stories to shed a light on how mobility inequality impacts our community. The articles will be a collage of true stories of real people. Names, places and dates will be fictional to protect privacy.
If you have a story (your own or someone you know) that you would like to share, get in touch with me. I would love to hear about it. I am also looking for visual artists that would be willing to offer a drawing, painting or other form of art to illustrate each story since I wont be using photos from the people portrayed.
This article is an expanded version of the article published for the London Community Foundation on the Be The Change London website.
Illustration by Karl Jilg/Swedish Road Administration