May 17, 2013

Jay Walljasper

Jordan Exantus of Memphis enjoys the bke tour of Austin
The newfound popularity of bicycling and the rapid expansion of bicycle lanes doesn’t excite everyone–at least not right away. 

?Bike lanes are coming to my neighborhood, and now I will no longer be able to afford living there,? is a common reaction in low-income Portland neighborhoods, says Olivia Quiroz, Educator for the Multnomah County Health Department.  Some minority and low-income people view bike lanes as signs of imminent gentrification.

That was a central topic debate on the second and final day of our Summit on Bike Lanes & Equity, an ethnically diverse gathering of more than 30 transportation leaders and public officials from around the country held Wednesday and Thursday in Austin, Texas.

Indeed, there was skepticism among poor and minority communities in Portland (declared America’s #1 bike city by Bicycling magazine) about protected bike lanes on North Williams Avenue planned for their neighborhood. The project went forward only after transportation officials and bike advocates slowed down in order to listen carefully to the concerns of community members, some of whom had been displaced by other projects in recent Portland history. A genuine process of engagement emerged over a series of meetings and forged the consensus to go ahead with the project, says Gerik Kransky of the Portland’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance.  

Attendees of the summit spent Thursday morning pedaling along a series of new bike lane projects in East Austin, a lower-income area with many Latinos and African-Americans. Some of these projects drew initial opposition, most of which faded as city officials worked to reshape projects based on neighborhood concerns. 

?Our bread and butter has been an extremely thorough public process,? says Nathan Wilkes of the city of Austin, noting that residents receive letters from the city about coming projects and are invited to speak at public meetings. City staff also reaches out to churches, merchants and other community leaders. ?It saves us money and time to not to have to re-do projects.?

?It’s important to just let people talk about their experience at length,? says Austin City Council member Mike Martinez. ?But I have found that every time we open a new bike lane I get a lot of emails saying ?When do we get ours???

Pat Dowell, an alderwoman in Chicago who expressed excitement that the city’s new bikeshare program will extend into to her predominantly African-American ward on the south side, emphasized the importance of ?tying bike lanes to more economic opportunity in communities? like creating better access to jobs for people without cars and establishing bicycle shops. ?That’s powerful,? she said.

Green Lane Project Director Martha Roskowski notes that ?a huge restructuring of our cities is underway,”  including a steady migration of college educated young professionals to inner city neighborhoods. 

?Bike lanes are not driving this,? she points out. But bike lanes sometimes become a hot topic because most of these other changes are business and personal trends that are never discussed at public meetings. So when bike lanes are publicly discussed, it’s a chance for low-income and minority people to speak about what’s happening to their neighborhoods in broader terms.

Participants of the Bikes Lanes and Equity Summit tour east Austin
Bicycling is not just good news for wealthy white people. The consensus among everyone–including the African-American, Latino and Asian-American leaders who made up more than half the of the attendees– was that all communities could benefit from the health, social and economic benefits of biking.

Adrian Lipscombe, an African-American planner working for the city of Austin who is doing academic research on social equity and biking, notes there is a great need for more data on this subject to help guide planning decisions.

Veronica Davis, co-founder of Black Women Bike in Washington, D.C., said the next step for encouraging more minorities to bike are, ?Understanding what the barriers are, what the fears are and how to overcome them.?

Hearing about Davis’s work, Olivia Quiroz declares, ?I?m going back to Portland and start a Latina Women Bike group.?

View the comments from the summit with the Twitter hashtag #Bikesandequity.


Jay Walljasper writes, speaks and consults frequently about biking and other ways to improve our communities. His website:

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