Thursday, February 27, 2014

Race, class and bike infrastructure

So, I was at this conference at Yale over the weekend. I had originally wanted to go by bike, because I like the ride down to New Haven. The weather forecast called for horrific thunderstorms, so I drove. I stayed overnight at my friend Marko's and brought my bike because I'm bad at parking and didn't want to worry about my car the next day because I was moderating this panel. Also, you can probably imagine that I like riding my bike.

New Haven has bike infrastructure. Lots of it. It's pretty cool. There are racks everywhere, sharrows and a bike path that'll take you all the way to Cheshire. People use it, too. This includes a person who locked up their Richard Sachs and left it in the rain. I was happy to be able to use it, because Hartford is not as excited about bike infrastructure.

I was thinking and I never think positive things. I saw lots of people on bikes in New Haven, but they generally looked white and middle class. That in and of itself is not upsetting. I fall into those categories. And really, it didn't make me upset with New Haven. Instead, it made me upset with Hartford. People ride bikes in Hartford. Not just people who look like me, indeed mostly people who don't look like me. We've got some racks downtown, but not in very many other places. Although, they're put in a front places where bike riders don't usually go. There was this big master plan to put them in all neighborhoods, but that seems to have stalled. It would seem that not the right people are riding bikes in Hartford, so we aren't going to do anything to help that mode of transportation.

This led to other dark thoughts. The City never clears its sidewalks when it snows and people have to walk in road. Are non-automotive-base transportation modes only invested in or maintained when they're tools of gentrification? It reminded me of the hearing for the destruction of the skatepark/Downtown North. In trying to attract the affluent, we keep hearing about complete streets, walkability and bike lanes. I'm tired of bikes and walking being leverage points for something bigger development project. They're good ways to get around, but please stop co-opting for your luxury condos.

It wasn't always this way either. Ten-twelve years ago, sharrows showed up on Babcock and Lawerence, the bus lane north of Windsor Ave is also a bike lane and Tower Ave has a bike lane. I think this debate went on a long time ago in Brooklyn and it was determined that bike lane marking was a gentrification tagging. Of course, this doesn't explain the bike lane on Maxim Road that goes to the sewage treatment plant. I think that was bike lanes as means to try and stop street racing.

So, anyway, I've decided that I'm against bike lanes now that they're tools of the oppressor.

Ed. note:
This guy did some writing about it and I thought it was worth reading.


dario said...

Dear Brendan,

A "quick" response to your observations about bike lanes and gentrification. I've just read Stein's piece that you link to in your blog entry. Stein reports that in the minds of middle class drivers bike lanes either signal the coming of gentrification or are an effect of it. And he goes on to argue, as you point out, that this seems to reveal class/race prejudices. But he also argues that cycling needs to be promoted further. So just don't throw in the towel yet. With regards to Hartford, it cuts both ways I suppose. For example, Zion St. has a bike lane. I don't see a lot of gentrification going on there. It's more a way to slow cars down (probably like on Locust St., too). That said, I'm not sure I'm supportive of bike lanes either, and I'll try to articulate my reasons for that at some point. But let me just say here that there needs to be greater education and increased law enforcement (of existing laws, about speed, reckless driving, etc...). In brief, drivers have an enormous responsibility driving thousands of pounds of metal. Cyclists have a responsibility to follow the laws, too, and we all have to behave responsibly with pedestrians. What do I mean? Simple: Cars give the right of way to bicycles (always) and both always defer to pedestrians. By the way, I know this is the BeatBikeBlog, but we are ALL pedestrians, and pedestrians seem to lose out entirely in many of these discussions. In Hartford, there is a deeply rooted anti-pedestrian and anti-bicycle culture. How do I know that? From experience, but also from reading into Hartford's history. In his book from 1999, "Domesticating the Street: Social Reform in Hartford, 1850-1930", Peter Baldwin discusses how the increase of cars moved people off of the streets. The roads were once shared by horse carriages, pushcarts, pedestrians, cyclists and then cars, too. Baldwin doesn't blame the automobile only, but the underlying attitudes of Progressive Era social reformers (mostly middle class or elites) who promoted zoning and segregating public spaces. For those who haven't read it, Baldwin's book is excellent, by the way. Again, this is for another post maybe. My point? We know what the problem is (a legacy of anti-bike and possibly anti-pedestrian policies). Now we have to begin to change it. Otherwise, you can put in all the bike lanes you want (car drivers will park in them) and sharrows (which probably serve little purpose), and it won't make much of a difference.

Justin said...

I'm guessing you're joking (at least a little?) with your closing line Brendan...well actually it's hard for me to guess whether you're joking or serious.... so I'll respond as if you're serious. :)

My two cents:

It's clear to me that bike lanes are a middle- and upper-middle class thing. It's also clear that they are mostly a white thing. This is the more the case in New York City than it is in Oakland, California for instance. But even in Oakland, yeah, it's still mostly the case.

But I find it hard to say that we have to give up improving bike infrastructure because such infrastructure is correlated with and may even in some cases abet gentrification in some cities. It's really context dependent I think, and we have a chance here to say we want bike lanes in these areas and for these purposes. In Los Angeles for instance, the bike coalition is focusing most of its early efforts on poorer neighborhoods on the east side. True thing. And not because they want to gentrify them--but because they know people there ride bikes because they are often a necessity born out of not being able to afford a car.

I want to see bike lanes on Farmington Avenue for instance because I cringe every day as I watch everyday cyclists bike the 'wrong way' down the street, against traffic, because they clearly don't feel safe biking on the right side (rather than left side) of the street. Half the cyclists, at least, that I see on Farmington are black and brown folks on cheaper bikes. I want to see bike lanes for them, and I think they are incredibly important to put in even though I'm going to be moving away from this godforsaken street in a couple months.

There's a nuance to the debate over bike lanes and gentrification that gets lost in these debates I think. The real tool of the oppressor is obviously, overwhelmingly, and since the early 20thCE as Dario points out, the auto lane.

Dario I get what you're saying that changing the culture of driving and making this country less ped and bike unfriendly would go a long way toward improving the streets for these modes. I think mandatory, max 20mph or even 15mph speed limits would also go a long way. The problem is how do you effect this cultural change and do it faster than 20 years? I think calming streets with bike lanes and lower speed limits is the kind of unpopular, political action we have to take because while cyclists might signing up for vehicular cycling classes, motorists are by no means signing up for driving courses on how to drive more carefully around vulnerable road users anytime soon in Connecticut.

(Dario thanks for Baldwin's book, gonna pick it up).

Justin said...

...while cyclists might be signing up FOR vehicular cycling classes..

Tony C said...

"I was thinking and I never think positive things." - Brother I'm often doing the same.

Splendid post.