Bike Lanes Aren’t Just a White Thing

Neighborhoods of color are often more dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists, but they are also often left behind when local officials redesign streets to make them safer. How can we change this?

A woman wearing sitting in a motorized wheelchair smiles as she navigates her way up a temporary path in Baltimore.
In Baltimore, the temporary Big Jump path is accessible by foot, bike, and mobility devices like wheelchairs. Photo courtesy Side A Photograhy
A blue and yellow bus is stopped along a Seattle street that has three lanes, the middle is for turning only.
The 23rd Avenue Corridor in Seattle wa upgraded to improve safety conditions for those who walk, bike, drive, and use public transportation. Photo courtesy of the Seattle Department of Transportation

Baltimore bike lovers’ efforts to complete an extended network of protected bike lanes took a hit this summer.

City officials constructed the two-mile long, east-west portion of the route along East Monument Street, directly past Fountain Baptist Church. This is a largely Black area of the city where, according to census data, more than half of the population lives below the poverty line and most residents do not own a car.

After church leaders cried foul because they lost some on-street parking spots, the city removed a portion of the lane, redirecting southbound bike users to the sidewalk, over the objections of bike advocates who said that made the lane less safe.

The Fountain Baptist Church flap illustrates a problem plaguing communities nationwide. Neighborhoods with less affluence and with more people of color are often more dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists, but they are also often left out of the planning and design phases when local governments decide to redesign streets to make them safer for everyone. In the Baltimore case, the politically powerful church leaders exerted more influence than Complete Streets advocates.

Advocates for safer sidewalks and roadways say there are numerous reasons why marginalized communities would get a raw deal when it comes to Complete Streets, the increasingly popular transportation policy approach that envisions roadways that are designed to be safer for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians.

Changes to street design come about in any number of ways, but they’re often the result of communities pushing for increased safety measures following crashes. Residents of a Cary, North Carolina neighborhood called for speed enforcement in September after a motorist killed a 52-year-old pedestrian.

Complete Streets tools include safety measures like widening sidewalks, lowering speed limits, and constructing bump-outs (also called curb extensions) to aesthetic changes like adding street furniture like benches or bike racks, which advocates say furthers the idea of a street and sidewalk as public spaces.

Adonia Lugo, an urban anthropologist and board co-chair of Los Angeles-based People for Mobility Justice, says a major problem with the Complete Streets philosophy is that it’s focused on redesigning neighborhoods often with little or cursory input from the people who live in them.

”It’s just a reflection of the broader reality that a lot of times marginalized communities have not gotten to be participants in planning processes,” Lugo says.

Alarming Trends

There’s been an alarming rise in the number of pedestrian fatalities in the United States. There were 6,227 pedestrian deaths in the United States last year, up from 4,109 in 2009, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). That means 1.9 pedestrians were killed for every 100,000 Americans in 2018, compared to 1.3 in 2009.

The percentage of pedestrian fatalities from traffic crashes is also rising, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Of the 37,423 total fatalities in 2008, 12 percent were pedestrians. By 2017, total fatalities dipped to 37,133, but the percentage of victims who were pedestrians rose to 16 percent, according to the NHTSA.

The GHSA study does not break out victims by race or age. But a 2019 study from Smart Growth America, which advocates for Complete Streets nationwide, says senior citizens, people of color, and people walking in low-income neighborhoods are disproportionately represented in fatal crashes involving pedestrians. The study, which examined pedestrian fatalities from 2008 through 2017, explains the disparity by saying lower-income neighborhoods are significantly less likely than higher-income communities to have sidewalks, marked crosswalks, and traffic-calming measures in place.

The number of pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 is about 2.5 in census tracts where the median household income does not exceed $36,000, according to the Smart Growth America study. The figure drops below 1 in areas where median income exceeds $79,000.

More cyclists are also dying. In 2017 the number of bicyclists killed in traffic incidents was 783, up from 701 a decade before, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

This is the environment that has contributed to the rising popularity of Complete Streets policies. Oregon is credited with starting the movement with its 1971 “bike bill,” which mandated that a portion of highway funds be set aside for bike paths. Since then over 1,400 Complete Streets policies have been passed in the United States, including 33 by state governments, according to Smart Growth America. Ninety percent of them have been enacted in the last decade.

Advocates for safer sidewalks and roadways say the kinds of improvements that help increase safety— protected bike lakes, curb extensions, roadway narrowing—are often disproportionately implemented in affluent, whiter neighborhoods. There are numerous reasons for this, they say: systemic discrimination against people of color, and lack of public outreach to marginalized communities.

Also, lower-income people often don’t have the time or means for the aggressive advocacy it takes to force local governments to implement neighborhood improvements, says Julie Nelson, a senior fellow at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley and senior vice president at Race Forward, a nonprofit that campaigns for racial justice.

“If you’re working two jobs, if you don’t have a cell phone, if decent affordable housing is not available—all those things quickly add up to the end result,” Nelson says. “There’s [also] different levels of trust in government.”

This distrust can be seen when communities reject the efforts that are made to implement Complete Streets tools in their neighborhood. A planned “road diet” of Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena was abandoned after a meeting where drivers screamed at city officials, saying that narrowing the road would lead to increased traffic. Officials in Jersey City, New Jersey, planned to install a bike-share station in a section of the city that was experiencing an influx of newer, wealthier residents. A group of longtime residents, upset about the lost parking spaces, sat on the street where the station was going to be installed, so city officials eventually called off the plan.

Symbols of Gentrification

Resistance to bike infrastructure as symbols of gentrification also comes into play. Lugo says bike lane opponents fear such lanes are a symbol of economic growth, and thus resident displacement.

Liz Cornish, executive director of the Baltimore-based cycling advocacy group Bikemore, says part of her challenge is to overcome those concerns.

“Baltimore is a majority-Black city so mathematically it’s pretty clear and evident that there are people of color riding bikes that exceed other demographics, but what you see is predominantly middle class-to-affluent white people both championing this kind of change in the streetscape, as well, and because of that, somewhat benefiting in these central neighborhoods that are predominantly white,” Cornish says.

Every major project Bikemore has advocated for has seen opposition, according to Cornish, from critics showing up at community meetings where plans are presented or writing letters to elected officials to “toxic online discourse.”

Bikemore lobbied the City of Baltimore to install a 2.6-mile protected bike lane that runs north to south and the 2-mile one that runs east to west that ran into trouble with the church. Another initiative was The Big Jump, a bike-and-pedestrian path that gives non-motorists a safe way to cross six lanes of highway near the city’s Druid Hill Park. The Big Jump was part of a national campaign to build neighborhood-specific bike networks. Baltimore’s Big Jump, which took away a lane of traffic from a busy highway, continues to make motorists grumble.

The flap about the bike lane in front of Baltimore’s Fountain Baptist Church included an illustrative, if disputed, moment. Baltimore Mayor Bernard Young sided with church leaders and approved moving a portion of the bike lane to the sidewalk. Robbyn Lewis, a Baltimore lawmaker who advocated for keeping the bike lane where it was, said Young told her privately that “protected bike infrastructure is not a concern of African-American people.” Young, who is Black, denied saying this.

The idea that people of color don’t have an interest in bike infrastructure persists—bike lanes have even been referred to derisively as “white lanes”— but Charles Brown, a senior research specialist at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, says data does not back up the claim.

Brown, who has over 12 years of experience in urban and regional planning, policy, and research, published a study in 2017 on how people of color feel about biking. The results showed that 85 percent of respondents do want bike lanes. The problem, Brown says, is when marginalized communities feel like their needs are being ignored in favor of someone else’s.

“They are pushing back because they feel that there are other priorities that they’ve been requesting and asking of the city and have not gotten, yet the city has been strategic and aggressive at pushing bicycle infrastructure,” he says. “So they’re not opposed to biking. [But] they want housing, they want jobs and other things first.”

Brown’s study, which he completed with fellow Rutgers academic James Sinclair, offers a few revealing conclusions. People of color reported barriers to biking—fear of robbery or assault, fear of being stranded, and fear of being profiled by police—that often go unmentioned by white, affluent bike advocates.

Lugo, with People for Mobility Justice, says this is one of the problems she has with the Complete Streets philosophy: that it doesn’t take into account neighborhood problems that are distinct from a bad intersection or unsafe crosswalk.

“So, yeah, it may be that there’s a street where there’s not a bike lane or there’s not a good sidewalk,” she says. “But that same street may also have problems with over-policing of Black people, or a feeling of vulnerability for people based on their concerns of gender-based harassment, or perhaps feeling insecure because of their immigration status. So the Complete Streets model, it’s not something that encompasses those other vectors of what makes people safe or not safe.”

Cornish says Complete Streets advocates who want safer roadways and sidewalks must see that transportation and land use are linked, so you can’t push for Complete Streets without having specific goals around economic development, job access, and affordable housing.

“All these things are connected,” she says. “That’s really the basis of our advocacy. That’s how we get people on our side.”

Getting Everyone on Board

So how do you make streets safer for everyone? Brown said a critical component of earning the buy-in from marginalized communities for, say, a bike lane they didn’t ask for, is to concede that they have long had priorities that have been ignored.

“It’s about acknowledging that there are other challenges that are of higher priority for these populations,” he says. “So as you’re engaging with them, confirm with them that these things that they need are of importance to you and you will do your best to, say, put them in contact with the agencies that are responsible for that. You don’t want to lead with bike lanes.”

In December 2018, Baltimore finalized its Complete Streets policy, one that supporters say will start to address the “disparity created by decades of structurally racist and car-oriented road design.” They say a fixation on designing roadways for air-polluting vehicles has led to higher rates of asthma for Baltimore’s population (12 percent of Baltimore adults have asthma, compared to 8.4 percent statewide, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene) and prioritized out-of-towners over city residents (1 in 3 Baltimoreans do not own cars, Census data shows). Investing in infrastructure that encourages biking and walking will also help connect the city’s poorer neighborhoods with those with more economic development, they say.

“When we spend money on Complete Streets instead of less equitable projects, we improve more communities and create more jobs than we would otherwise,” Baltimore Councilman Ryan Dorsey said last year.

Nelson of the Haas Institute and Race Forward said Charlotte, North Carolina, and Seattle are two cities that work to include all stakeholders when they decide how to make streets and sidewalks safe. Nelson once worked for Seattle, directing its civil rights office.

Seattle has what it calls a racial equity toolkit that project managers who oversee city initiatives must fill out before they can proceed with a project. Susan McLaughlin, an urban design manager for the Seattle Department of Transportation, said the toolkit advises the project’s team on the questions they should be asking: which neighborhoods will the project impact, what are the area’s racial demographics, has the project manager involved the area’s residents, and more.

McLaughlin, whose own team oversees Seattle’s Complete Streets program, said it’s imperative for the community to lead when neighborhood improvements are contemplated.

“Don’t lead with the objective of just delivering a project. Lead with the objective of serving that neighborhood,” McLaughlin says. “Make sure the project enables community building right at the offset, even if people aren’t that jazzed about the actual thing you’re delivering.”

This piece appears in the Fall 2019 edition of Shelterforce magazine. Help keep Shelterforce strong by subscribing here.

1 COMMENT

  1. I know in So Cal a lot of poor people use bicycles for economic reasons! If in other cities people what to call bike lanes “white lanes,” they could at least find out how many of their own people are economic bike riders.

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