While African-Americans comprise the fastest growing demographic of bicyclists, doubling from 2001 and 2009 according to U.S. Department of Transportation data, bike lanes proposed for African-American neighborhoods in several cities have drawn controversy.
There are widespread feelings in some African-American communities that bike lanes are the opening act of gentrification, says Adrian Lipscomb, a bicycle project coordinator for the city of Austin, Texas who is writing a Ph.D dissertation on African-Americans and biking. One woman in the historically African-American neighborhood of East Austin told Lipscomb, "When the bikes came in, the blacks went out." However, Census data shows the percentage of the population that was white in the neighborhood increased only one percentage point between 2000 and 2009, while the percentage that was Latino climbed eight.
(The numbers of Latinos biking in the United States rose nearly 50 percent between 2000 and 2009, compared to 22 percent for whites. Whites and Latinos now bike at the same level.)
The racial dynamics of bike lanes flared up in a traditionally African-American neighborhood in Portland that is seeing an influx of young white people. Long-time residents raised the issue of bike lanes fueling gentrification two years ago at a public meeting about a protected bike lane project for North Williams Street.
"The bike community was surprised at the reaction to the project," recalls Michelle DePass, an avid bicyclist and African-American leader, who notes that there was little attention paid to improving traffic safety in the neighborhood when it was predominantly African-American. (Nationally, African-Americans suffer a bike fatality rate 30 percent higher than for whites, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control; for Latinos it is 23 percent higher.)
The controversy is not really about bike lanes, reported the Portland Mercury newspaper. "The public process on Williams is a hot vent for a community that's been grieving city-imposed change and loss for 60 years," referring to a freeway project and hospital expansion in the 1960s that ripped apart the community.
Planning for the North Williams project was put on hold for several months as further research and community forums were conducted and more people of color added to the project's Stakeholder Advisory Committee. Though the conversations were sometimes painful and emotionally charged, a new plan was enacted 18 months later with full community support. The plan included improvements for people on bikes as well as public art that recognizes the neighborhood's history as Portland's African-American hub.
In Memphis, Tennessee, however, the story was quite different because a community development corporation founded by the St. Thomas African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church was a key player in building bike lanes in the South Memphis neighborhood. More than a thousand community members were involved in the planning process, which was part of a broader revitalization effort.
Martha Roskowski, Director of People For Bikes' Green Lane Project, describes how demographic changes are affecting perceptions about biking and gentrification. After decades of population decline, many cities are now seeing a boom fueled by entrepreneurial industries and young well-educated workers seeking a compact urban lifestyle, which includes safe places to bike.
"Bike lanes are not driving the wave of gentrification," Roskowski observes. "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. "
6 Ways to Broaden Support of Better Bike Lanes
Diverse participants identified common themes to create better bike lanes and better neighborhoods, especially in low-income and minority communities at the Bike Lanes & Equity Summit held in Austin earlier this year, which was sponsored by the Green Lane Project.
1) It's important to involve local community leaders and residents early in the process, listening carefully. As South Side Chicago Alderman Pat Dowell emphasized, "The majority of the work with bike lanes is community engagement."
2) Project planners need to understand and be respectful of an area's history, especially if there is a history of underinvestment or injustice. Outreach efforts should be tailored to the particular conditions of an area, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
3) As much as possible, link bike infrastructure to other community improvements such as safe sidewalks and crosswalks, traffic calming, street lighting, waste removal, crime prevention and economic development. As Dowell noted, "If you can tie bike lanes to a community seeking more economic opportunity-- that's powerful."
4) Recognize the pivotal role that churches and other social institutions play in neighborhoods, especially in communities of color.
5) Community-led education campaigns help overcome some people of color's unease and unfamiliarity about biking. Veronica Davis from Washington D.C. told the story of how she was biking to meet a friend for a movie when an African-American child proclaimed, "Mommy, mommy there's a black woman on a bike!" That was the genesis of Black Women Bike, an organization that conducts workshops on the ABCs of getting around on two wheels.
6) It's crucial to address the status issues associated with biking. Eboni Hawkins, co-founder of Chicago's chapter of the national advocacy organization Red, Bike & Green that sponsors community rides and other events to promote biking, noted, "The automobile has long been marketed as a symbol of independence and wealth. For a group of people that has been systematically disenfranchised, this is an important socio-cultural marker. So we've distilled the idea of riding stylishly."