Elly Blue knows a thing or two about bikes. In fact, she’s been riding, talking and writing about them for most of her adult life. Her most recent book, “Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save The Economy,” is a thoroughly researched, straightforward and skillfully written look into the role bicycles are playing within the economic state of affairs in America.
In addition to writing, participating in the Portland Society (which she co-founded) and traveling for her Dinner & Bikes tour, Blue also runs the Wheelwomen Switchboard, an online community for women interested in bicycling.
Recently, I caught up with Blue to talk about her book, investments in bike infrastructure and equity within the bicycling world.
Q: You discuss equity and access for bicyclists quite a bit in your book. Why did you choose to dig into these topics?
[In her book, Blue writes, “Bicycling didn’t cause the gap in equity in this country; rather, it reflects the problems of broader society. But bicycling does represent an opportunity for change. Today, there is a myth that people of color do not like bicycling and do not want the sort of infrastructure changes that make cycling more appealing. Despite a long history of discrimination and unequal access, this has never been widely true, and today the barriers are coming down rapidly, thanks in part to the growing inclusivity of traditional bicycle advocates, but in much larger part to the efforts and leadership of a growing number of grassroots social and advocacy groups.”]
A: I’ve been writing about the economics of bicycling since 2010; I wasn’t the first to write about it, [however], I have helped make economics more of the standard frame for talking about bikes in our society. But I have some misgivings about how the economic frame works in reality.
Not only is equity really important, it’s the most important piece of all of this. We are trying to create a more equitable world, and I see bikes as a tool to help with that.
Q: Why is it important for you to make the economic case for bikes in today’s society?
Because the economy is terrible! In fact, the economic case has very little to do with bicycling. It has to do with our energy economy and how we have built our cities in the past century. Bikes are not the end all, be all, but they are a way that people are taking back public space, and it is a way to show how powerful we can be when we organize around bikes.
Q: In your book, you also discuss the myth—believed by some Americans—that those who ride bikes are freeloaders; they benefit from the infrastructure but don’t pay for it. How has this myth become so pervasive, and why is it important to dispel it?
A: It is an interesting historical question to see how the myth has become so pervasive. Rugged individualism has something to do with it, and the desire to own the status quo, to own what we have. But what we have is supremely broken. Our Highway Trust Fund is in rough shape. The gas tax has not been raised since 1993, our deficit is emense, people are driving less and yet we’re still building out a highway system that we won’t be able to afford.
It’s important to bust the myth [that bicyclists are freeloaders], because whenever you look at a budget that’s in trouble, you have to find the actual cause.
Bicycling is the only form of transportation that doesn’t just break even, but brings wealth into the community. Bike infrastructure was once seen as a boondoggle; now its absolutely necessary.
Q: Some people ask how the federal government could spend money on bike projects when the country is so strapped financially. But research has shown that the return on investment for bike and pedestrian infrastructure is incredible. How do you think it is possible to reconcile these two ways of thinking?
A: By looking at the math. The mayor of Indianapolis [Greg Ballard] put it really well; he said that when governments are spending money on roads and cars, it is an expense, and it’s an expense that requires more spending in the future. But when you spend money on bicycle infrastructure, you are making an investment.
The housing crisis at the personal level is a good analogy for the infrastructure crisis at the civic level. We are agreeing to make payments that are beyond our budgets, either for bigger houses on a personal level, or mega-highways on the civic level.
In fact, if we took the advice of any personal finance blogger when it came to transportation funding, then every city could be as bike friendly as Portland. When people look at the actual numbers, it really is common sense, and the case for investing in bike infrastructure is clear.
[This is the case for recreational trails as well. In her book, Blue uses Iowa as an example. “In the last two years, the state has spent less than $3 million a year on recreational bike trails and seen a $21 million-a-year increase in sales tax revenue along those trails...”]
Q: Why is it important to get more women on bikes, and what is the best way to do that?
A: It’s not only about getting women to ride bikes. There is a gender gap in bicycling, and it all comes back to the equity discussion. What factors influence that gap?
In terms of advocacy, has the focus been too narrow?
Listening is the first step to closing the gap. Advocacy can be inclusive when the concerns and needs of everyone, not just the traditional groups, are part of the larger narrative.
Photos courtesy Elly Blue
Katie Harris is a member of RTC's communications team. She is a frequent user and advocate of active transportation and recently completed a bike trip across the United States.