Bike lanes are meant to create a safe division between vehicular traffic and cycling traffic. But in many U.S. cities bike lanes may as well be a sign of socio-economic divisions: in some communities, they’re seen simply as a pathway for gentrification.
Though cycling advocates are quick to point to the benefits of alternative transit for low-income populations, cities are slow to engage communities about biking (and for that matter, often don’t work to break down some of the cultural and economic barriers that stand in the way).
What should municipalities be addressing? Here’s a look.
Many cyclists are white and wealthy. But not all of them are.
There are a lot of white and wealthy people cycling these days. But they aren’t the only ones.
In fact, the 2008-2012 American Community Survey found those U.S. respondents who identified as two or more races or “some other race,” along with Hispanic workers, had the highest rates of bicycle commuting at 0.8 percent and 0.7 percent, respectively. Black workers had the lowest rate of bike commuting at 0.3 percent.
Across educational levels biking also varies: While the most highly-educated workers reported the highest rate of bicycle commuting at 0.9 percent, the next highest rate of bike commuting, 0.7 percent, was among the least educated workers.
But here’s the thing: these numbers are for the entire country, not specific to urban areas where much of the debate over cycling and gentrification are taking place.
That matters because of the effort in cities to attract what Richard Florida in 2002 called the Creative Class, described as “college educated intellectuals working in either the Super-Creative Core (designing new commercial or consumer goods, creating ideas or technologies on a daily basis) or knowledge-based industries (healthcare, finance, business, etc.).”
Florida found a strong correlation between cities where more people bike to work and cities that are more affluent, according to his 2011 article in The Atlantic:
“First off, metros where more people cycle to work are more affluent. Metros with a greater share of bike commuters have higher average wages (with a correlation of .5). They have higher levels of education or human capital (a correlation of .5) and more knowledge-based economies as well. Cycling to work is positively associated with the share of creative class jobs (.3) and negatively associated with working class jobs (-.4).
Attracting this Creative Class is at the core of many economic development policies in U.S. cities. Conflicts arise when the policies and priorities aimed at this new demographic are applied to neighborhoods they don’t call home.
Imposing versus proposing
Biking and bike lanes do not cause gentrification; blocking a bike lane will not change economic policies already underway in cities across the country.
Yet many long-time and lower-income residents rightfully worry about policies aimed at luring new, younger or more affluent residents, which often overlook the impact those newcomers have on existing residents.
“Bike lanes are not driving the wave of gentrification,” Martha Roskowski, Director of the Green Lane Project, said at The Equity Summit. “It’s a much broader economic and social trend. But much of the process of change is behind the scenes, as properties are bought and sold and new businesses open and new people move into an area. Then, when there’s a public meeting about bike lanes, people feel they finally have a chance to say something about the many changes in their neighborhood.”
There are plenty of meetings about bike lanes, but not as many on how a neighborhood is changing.
Take Chicago, which in 2003 moved to extend a recently-added system of bike lanes from rapidly-gentrifying Wicker Park to Humboldt Park, a largely Latino and African-American community.
“Back then bicycles were seen as a tool of gentrification rather than a tool for community building. There was a sense that bike lanes were being imposed rather than proposed,” Alex Wilson, executive director of th nonprofit West Town Bikes / Ciclo Urbano, told Grid Chicago.
That’s the crux of the matter: imposing versus proposing.
Cities need to solicit input, listen and adjust plans to get community buy-in for things like bike lanes.
“There’s this mindset among planners, ‘Build it and they will come,’ Wilson told Grid Chicago. “But sometimes I think [bike] education and encouragement doesn’t get a fair shake. The city needs to think about the folks who will actually use all these new bike lanes. They should consider, how much is this a plan for pavement and how much is it a plan for people?”
Gentrification comes from so many complex policy decisions and local economic factors that cannot be simply heaped upon bike lanes. But the real perception that bike lanes bring in a new group of people, or are meant to serve more recently-arrived residents, very much exists.
The challenge for cities is to remove that perception. How? De-couple the association of bike lanes with wealthy newcomers. Bike lanes are a benefit for all residents regardless of status: They reduce congestion, create a safer road environment, incentive healthy behavior and create access to jobs and economic centers.
Cities need to do a better job communicating with residents about how they can benefit from some of the changes happening around them, including from bike lanes.