Club Soda and Salt

No more stains

The soft bigotry of bike lanes

Posted by clubsodaandsalt on April 25, 2010

I posted a couple of months ago about the difficulty the livable streets movement has in connecting to the low-income communities that should be our natural allies. While some of the blame lies with the movement itself, sometimes the issue of a complete street becomes just another front in the much bigger gentrification wars. This doesn’t seem to be as big an issue in the Bay Area, but back in New York it crops up all the time. For example, a bike lane project in the Navy Yard area of Brooklyn (which is home to a very large housing project: Farragut Houses) went up against some rather heated rhetoric last week:

Rev. Mark V.C. Taylor, pastor of the Church of the Open Door, a black congregation on Gold Street, read prepared remarks accusing DOT of displaying a “deep and profound racism that masquerades as change,” adding bike lanes for “young white newcomers.” “DOT’s concern for black cyclists is non-evident,” he said, concluding by asking DOT to “transport ideas like this into the waste bin with ideas like slavery.” About a third of the audience belonged to Taylor’s congregation.

You’d hope that a black pastor would be a bit more careful about comparing things to slavery, but here we are. The interesting thing here, though, is that you didn’t see the typical claim that taking space away from autos has negative impacts on black and low-income areas. Rather, Pastor Taylor refers to “black cyclists” above, and some of the complaints focused on the fact that turning Flushing into a one-way street would force bus riders to wait on the highly unpleasant Park Av, a perfectly legitimate complaint in a transit-dependent and not always safe area.

Moreover, the complaints seem generated less by a desire to keep parking spaces than by resentment for gentrification, of which the bike lanes are perceived as part. Back to the post on Streetsblog:

From what I heard, a major question from long-time local residents wasn’t necessarily “Why a bikeway?” but “Why now?” A few people spoke about riding bicycles when they were kids and wanted to know why the city wasn’t proposing this sort of thing 20 or 30 years ago.

In other words: why don’t any of these activists give a shit about bike lanes until white people start moving in? It’s not a fair perception – as Streetsblog points out, this greenway has been in the works since the early 90s, and certainly transit and bike advocates in New York have agitated for better access in a number of neighbourhoods like the South Bronx, Flatbush, and Sunset Park. That said, the DOT’s newfound enthusiasm for these projects has coincided with a noticeable uptick in gentrification throughout Brooklyn in particular. It’s frankly not shocking that these improvements are getting caught up in the broader gentrification issue, and as long as the two are linked, we can expect more vitriol like the stuff from the good pastor.

I have to admit that I don’t know how to solve this problem. As with anything, having more black faces in the movement and doing better outreach to community leaders (like pastors) would certainly help. And the news isn’t all bad – as the post points out, surveys conducted in the nearby projects indicate that cycling is a common mode of transport. But as long as bike lanes and other street improvements are seen as harbingers of gentrification, we can expect pretty severe headwinds in places like Brooklyn.


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