A classmate of mine posted this article on facebook responding to charges biking, vegetarianism, and other "progressive" causes in living a more sustainable life as elitist. While I'm sympathetic to the goal there are some problematic aspects to this post.
Choosing to bike in our auto-centric world is certainly a sacrifice. It dictates where you decide you'll live, work, shop, and play. Making and committing to that choice, especially going so far as to not own a motor vehicle at all is admirable. But it is still a choice. And it is the recognition that is a choice that places the choice in a position of privilege. In a country where the built environment worships at the altar of the car, committing to bicycling as your primary mode of transit is largely the province of those who choose to bike for cultural/political reasons and those who bike by necessity.
As mentioned earlier, we live in a society where our built environment is designed for automobile travel. We still have metropolitan areas defined by commercial and industrial districts that are commuted to, primarily by automobile, over relatively long distances from residential areas. Being able to live close enough to your work that you can comfortably bike there is not something that all people have access to. It's awesome that you can bike to work, but what do you say to a worker who lives across town in a cheaper neighborhood because that's the section of the city where he or she can afford to stay? Not everyone can live close enough to their place of employment to make biking a primary mode of commuting transit. The same critique holds for access to grocery stores, community centers, or houses of worship. All of these things exist within space and access to these areas is limited by income. It may not be feasible or desirable to bike to these spaces. Simply because you choose to do so doesn't make you a martyr. It means you have the power to decide. Many people do not. Not recognizing that is indeed an issue of privilege, and yes, in certain respects, elitism.
We should also recognize that there are different cultural and professional expectations that people have to meet and biking may not be amenable to these. For example, many black women in professional or service occupations would go out of their way to NOT bike for hair-care reasons. In many professional and service areas black women are expected to wear their hair straightened or in some cases in braids or other labor-intensive ways. Sweating out your new do by biking in the heat or in the rain is a no-go AND incredibly expensive. The fact that you can go to work in an environment where you aren't particularly judged on your appearance is, again, a position of privilege. We can attack a system that judges women on their appearance and reinforces white beauty standards, but to not recognize them as mitigating factors in travel mode choice is, again, a privileged position.
Succinctly, biking may not be elitist, but to not explicitly recognize it as a choice that incurs social and economic cost just as you lambast driving as a choice, places you in a position of privilege. People may counter that the saved income people have from not owning a car will mitigate those costs. To a certain extent this is true, but that still does not address cultural issues and expectations, like the hair issue, or presenting a certain kind of appearance at a house of worship or place of work. We should absolutely work on normalizing bicycling as a primary means of transport, but articles like this that do not recognize that there are legitimate reasons why people choose not to are not only privileged, but they do make certain bicycling advocates elitist.