Comment of the Week: ‘When I was broke, I barely rode my bike’

Comment of the Week: ‘When I was broke, I barely rode my bike’

I often wonder how many activists have ever really struggled with poverty or even personally know anyone who has.

We talk a lot about infrastructure at BikePortland, because it matters to people who bike. But it’s very far from the only thing that matters.

In a comment beneath Monday’s post about the driving habits of rich and poor people, BikePortland reader Ellie wrote about a time in her life when she was too poor to drive but when her life was too fragmented and unpredictable for her to bike.

Both the argument against gas taxes and increased parking fees use the added burden on poor people as a reason not to increase associated costs, but it is mostly a red herring, an excuse to avoid extra taxes and fees for higher income earners. However, bike activist and urban planning activists due similar things. I often wonder how many activists have ever really struggled with poverty or even personally know anyone who has. One of my biggest frustrations with a certain sort of bicyclist is that they seem to think that since they do not find public transit useful, it isn’t important.

When I was broke and living in SE Portland. I barely rode my bike, and I certainly didn’t use it regularly for transportation. I lived with roommates in the only place we could find that we could afford and was willing to rent to us with our limited, inconsistent incomes. Though we were living toward the outer edge of inner Southeast Portland, in one of the more bikeable parts of Portland, it didn’t matter. Though I tried finding work close to where I lived, I had limited work experience and skills. I took whatever jobs I could get. I was working as a waitress in Beaverton and picking up part time work walking dogs and tutoring where I could find it. I took public transit everywhere, because I couldn’t afford a car and biking was completely unrealistic when I could be traveling 30 or 40 miles a day and showing up sweaty or soaked by the rain could have gotten me written up for unprofessional appearance. I spent a lot of time on buses and the MAX, and any improvements in public transit coverage or frequency would have been appreciated. While this is my personal experience, I think it reflects the lives of a lot of other people as well. Instability in where you live and work is very common when you’re at a certain level of poor. People in these circumstances are not necessarily in a position where biking as transport is reasonable and infrastructure concerns take a backseat. There are more pressing issues like moving due to rent increasing again or hours getting cut at work.

I was lucky. I have since gotten a good job, where I have steady hours, and I don’t have to try to cobble together multiple part time jobs to make ends meet anymore. I have a stable income. If my group at work is between projects and I don’t have much to do, I don’t get sent home without pay like I did working at restaurants. I also make enough that I can choose to live close enough to work to comfortably bike everyday, and I know that if I need to I can also choose to take public transit. For me, biking is now a smart, economical transportation option, but that is very much the result of privilege. This is why poorer or underfunded communities do not always like the addition of bike lane to their communities, and why they are often seen as a part of gentrification.

This isn’t to say that I don’t agree that poor people drive less, or that we shouldn’t raise parking fees or add a gas tax because these things will hurt poor people. I just wish these conversations seemed to recognize the reality of what it can be like to be poor. Sometimes you live where you can find a place, and you work what jobs you can get. Sometimes this means spending hours on public transit because you are going across town between jobs. It can also mean that a car is the only practical way to get around because you need to be able to get places quickly or at odd hours, if you get called in. If people are really concerned about the poor, they should be lobbying for improvements to public transit and affordable housing.

I realized that this is a bit of a tangential rant from the original post, but I felt compelled to add something about what it is actually like to be poor in Portland. So many of the comments here seem to be about hypothetical poor people.

(Also check out Ellie’s follow-up exchange with another reader about the tradeoffs involved in regulating small businesses.)

Biking can be hugely useful for building a great city and a great transit system, and some of the issues Ellie mentions might be helped if biking were seen as more normal and mainstream. But biking will never be enough on its own. Great cities need mass transit, plentiful jobs, safe neighborhoods and a variety of housing options that all different kinds of people can afford.

And great cities also need people with opinions that they’re willing to share.

Yes, we pay for good comments. This regular feature is sponsored by readers who’ve become BikePortland subscribers to keep our site and our community strong. We’ll be sending $5 and a little goodie bag to Ellie in thanks for this great addition. Watch your email!

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 –

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