Two-Wheeled Philanthropy: What Is It About Funders and Bicycles?

As we've reported often, funders are pouring a fortune right now into urban park systems that often include extensive biking trails. Other funders are behind efforts to expand bike lanes on city streets, such as in Los Angeles. Still others have thrown their weight behind bike-share programs, which are spreading fast to many cities. Grant dollars are also flowing to bicycle education and advocacy organizations, like the national group People for Bikes or the many local bike organizations now operating around the U.S. 

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Tracking all the money going toward bicycling lately isn't easy, because many of these investments are made locally and because up-to-date grants info is hard to find in this area, like so many others. 

There is no single national foundation most associated with the bike craze, but perhaps no big funder is more excited about bicycle-related projects than the Knight Foundation. While this isn’t explicitly a health or transit funder, bikes are a common theme in its arts- and community-focused grantmaking. The foundation's interest offers a window on increasing two-wheeled philanthropy.

Who doesn’t love a nice bike ride? Quicker commute, gets the old heart pumping, reduces city congestion and air pollution. As long as you can get over the fact that bikes are a U.N. plot to rob Americans of their liberty, bicycles offer seemingly endless opportunities to improve quality of life.

Which explains why bikes so often show up in the mix when it comes to things like urban parks, grassroots community work, repurposed spaces, public art, and even tech innovations, all of which are like catnip to many funders—including the Knight Foundation. Knight funds arts, media, journalism and community work in 26 American cities.

Cruise through its grants list over the past few years, and you'll find a lot of funding toward bicycles. 

The most recent examples emerged in the 2016 Knight Cities Challenge, which split $5 million across 37 projects. One winning project in Akron proposes turning a section of abandoned highway into a “bicycle park,” which has a nice twist of irony to it. Pedal to Porch is a bike tour of the untold history of Detroit’s neighborhoods. And Pop-Up Minimum Grid in Macon, Georgia, would expand a bike and foot trail system for car-free exploration. 

Related:Knight Grants Show How Creative Cities are Getting With a Tough Mix of Problems

One of the biggest examples to date is the 2015 announcement of the Knight Charlotte Cycling Fund, a $600,000 pool to make the North Carolina city more bike-friendly over two years, as a way to attract talented residents. Another sizable grant went to the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition in 2015, awarding $200,000 for Bikepool San Jose, also aimed at talent retention and reducing single-use car trips.

Knight has also backed mountain biking trails in parks, public art that doubles as bike racks, tech projects to map out regional trail systems, and mobile apps for bicycle route mapping. Other grants have benefitted city governments looking to embrace bikes, including airfare for representatives from several U.S. cities to Copenhagen for study tours.

So what’s with this abiding love of bikes? 

The interest of Knight and other funders in this area is because cycling is at a nexus of intersecting issues. These include pollution reduction, health and obesity, and access to resources, but also what you might think of as "hipster economic development."

Knight is very much interested in improving economic strength in its communities, and a bike-friendly city is a big draw for young professionals and companies that hire them these days. So bikes end up in the middle of a Venn diagram of boosting underserved communities, improving quality of life, and making those cool kids on fixies happy.

A last point: There's a view that investments in bicycling infrastructure is mainly of interest to better-educated whites and gentrifiers. But as a study by People for Bikes points out, riders of color are actually leading the U.S. biking boom. 

Related:What Indianapolis Can Teach Us About Parks and Trails Philanthropy

See more articles by Tate Williams.