With more than 120 miles of on-street bike lanes, Minneapolis is a great cycling city. There is no debate about that. Those double white lines give me and many other cyclists a sense of belonging. It’s my little strip of pavement that motorists must respect.
But in her book “Bike Lanes Are White Lanes,” Dr. Melody Hoffman argues that the systems and advocacy that have led to those bike lanes are also leaving underrepresented groups out of the discussion as cycling infrastructure continues to grow.
The author notes that the cycling populations of people of color and the working class are increasing rapidly, yet “advocacy for bicycling has focused mainly on the interests of white upwardly mobile bicyclists, leading to neighborhood conflicts and accusations of racist planning.”
To make her point, Dr. Hoffman examined three prominent U.S. cities, all of which have strong cycling communities and could be considered progressive hubs: Milwaukee, Portland and right here in Minneapolis.
Hoffman examined the famed Riverwest 24 as her case study for Brew Town. The event is a 24-hour bicycle race that dominates the Riverwest neighborhood for a full day every year in July. According to the event website, the race “is a way for our neighborhood to welcome new people, strengthen relationships within the community (and beyond), and show everyone why Riverwest is amazing.”
Dr. Hoffman noticed that the event’s participants, organizers and volunteers were overwhelmingly white, in a neighborhood that is known for its ethnic diversity, with a significant percentage of black residents, as well as growing populations of Hispanic, Russian, Iranian and Asian denizens. In a recent sit down, she explained to me that the Riverwest 24 is almost wholly organized by whites, and that intentional work needs to be done in order to include underrepresented communities and make them feel welcome in a space dominated by white faces.
While researching her book, the author asked then Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak why he was investing so much money into bicycle infrastructure, at a time when it was not politically popular to do so. She says that he told her that he was using it as a recruitment tool, making the city more attractive to young, creative educated people. Hoffman explained to me that, by doing this, “people of color and low income people are going to be totally left out of the picture” as it pertains to planning bicycle infrastructure. As such, the unintended consequence is a system that caters to certain populations of riders while ignoring others.
Only a few years ago, a proposed bike lane along North Williams in Portland led to conflict between longtime residents and city planners. It was one of the first times that community organizers identified a proposed bike lane as a tool of gentrification with racist undertones. Once the bike lanes were installed, Hoffman says she saw the area become “hypergentrified at a rate I had never seen before,” with small locally-owned business being replaced by boutique stores and high-priced housing.
While bicycle advocates suggested that the lanes would increase safety along the well-traveled corridor, some of the black residents saw it as an affront to their community. In 2011, Donna Maxey, a black resident of the neighborhood, attended a community meeting about the proposal and spoke of a friend who was killed in first grade on North Williams. She gave impassioned testimony echoing the sentiments of Dr. Hoffman’s thesis:
“What is causing the anger and resentment is that it’s only an issue of safety now that whites are the ones who are riding bicycles and walking on the streets. Because we have been in this community for years and it has not been an issue and now it’s an issue. So that’s the resentment you’re hearing … years of people being told, you don’t count, you don’t matter … but now that there’s a group of people who’s coming in that look like the people who are the power brokers — now it’s important. That’s the anger. That’s the hurt.”
Gentrification has its benefits, Hoffman told me. It can often lead to a reduction in crime and an increase in property values. On the other hand, values can go up so much that it displaces the people that make up the community, thereby leading to a loss of a cultural identity in that neighborhood. (Longtime residents of Saint Paul may recall how the construction of Interstate 94 decimated the vibrancy of the Rondo neighborhood.)
The book isn’t meant to condemn urban planners and bicycle advocates. Rather, its intent is to shine a light on some of the inadvertent consequences of bicycle infrastructure planning by the few, in order to ensure that more equitable solutions can be identified in the future. After all, cycling is an activity that many different groups of people do for many different reasons. It’s important that all of their voices be heard.
You can order the book through the publisher, the University of Nebraska Press, by clicking here. Enter code S16AS for a 30-percent discount.