While listening to a Tuesdays at APA podcast entitled “Just Green Enough: Contesting Environmental Gentrification” on New Years Eve, I was dismayed to hear the presenter say that bike lanes are now seen by many lower-income Americans as the ultimate symbol of gentrification. Apparently they are being described as “gentrification lanes” by some. Really? Needless to say, as an avid bicycle commuter I was surprised and taken aback by this assertion, though I must admit where I bike commute does not have a diverse socio-economic strata from which to judge such a transformation.
The larger question is whether the assertion is really true, whether the bike culture is being made out to be the fall guy, or is this just another urban legend being repeated. Given that bicycles can often be the only affordable, viable, and reliable form of transportation for many less fortunate citizens, at first glance it would seem the speaker’s conjecture is incorrect. But then I looked the topic up on the internet and found it to be a very active ongoing concern.
So, as an avid commuting cyclist, am I only looking at this debate through rose-colored glasses? Does the addition of bike lanes tend to cause a corresponding acceleration in gentrification of adjacent poorer neighborhoods into newly adopted hipster havens?
My guess is that there are places where this has happened and others where it has not (how’s that for fence-sitting). I am certain that other factors come into play beyond the bike lanes – as they say in the real estate industry, “it is all about location, location, location.” At the same time, this may be a part of a much larger social and economic justice issue that cannot be taken lightly. Here are weblinks to several thought-provoking articles on the topic:
Needless to say, many cyclists including myself, would be appalled for bicycling to be the cause of class displacement. As a result, it is imperative that we urban planners take this concern into serious consideration while reviewing development or redevelopment projects. Similarly, we should insist that such projects always include a fair proportion of affordable housing to assure that any displacement that does occur is limited.
Otherwise, the neighborhood where bike lanes are installed may indeed become less diverse as property values rise and those who cannot afford the newfound prosperity are forced to relocate elsewhere. I would dare say this loss of diversity would also ultimately weaken neighborhood rejuvenation and certainly would lead to a discernible loss of cultural vibrancy. Finding the proper balance is the key. As planners, we do that all the time, so this shouldn’t be rocket science. That being said, it is not necessarily easy to counterbalance growth and development inertia either.
For cyclists and bike commuters, pent-up anger is percolating beneath the surface in many less advantaged communities towards us. We cannot dismiss this factor, as it is not just a public relations problem, but part of a much larger socio-economic one. Perhaps then, we need to seriously rethink the paradigms of our bicycling culture to make sure it is more inclusive, more diverse, and more open to differing opinions. The last thing we want to become is the 21st century version of the interstate highway system – often known more for its displacements than its achievements. That, my friends, would be a sad legacy indeed.