Are bike lanes are as sustainable as they seem?
By Ula Renetskis, Xwhy / Agency of Understanding
In the Strong Towns podcast, “Are Bike Lanes White Lanes,” speaker and author of the book “Bike Lanes are White Lanes,” Melody Hoffmann identifies a critical urban design problem in bike lane infrastructure—addressing in-depth how bike lanes are not as “sustainable” as they seem, and can often deepen issues of classism, racism, and displacement.
One big design flaw of such issues comes from the urban planning method of “build it and they will come.” In this case, building bike lanes in typically disinvested communities does not mean that they will be used—residents in these communities already have problems with commuting to work and school, are in need of more family-friendly transportation infrastructure, need more places for storing and locking their bikes, are concerned about potentially getting stranded while on their bikes as well as their proximity to bike stores, and are in need of the safety of knowing they will not be harassed by police officers while on their bikes. These barriers usually are not addressed when cities add bike lanes to their streets, and typically are not the concerns of the middle-class (predominantly white) cyclists.
This made me think about how, although they are seemingly useful and can promote healthy communities and lifestyles, bike lane infrastructure can be taken merely as city-beautifying projects. Yes, they can be seen as new, exciting, and can be successful in some communities. But adding bike lanes to poorer areas without consent can also potentially leave them unused or typically unwanted by community members, furthering the separation of classes and races. This is definitely not sustainable, and is a waste.
However, Hoffmann pointed out that when actively participating in community outreach, she has found that people of poorer communities do bike, and safer biking infrastructure is wanted—their needs are just not the same as middle-class communities’ needs, which can put a connotation to bike lane development in these communities. It is the planning that is at fault.
After hearing this, it raised the question: If bike lanes are typically catered to the middle-class population and are seen as a threat to increase class segregation, but poorer communities have also raised interest in actually wanting bike lanes, how can we change these planning issues to fit the needs of every community, but also ensure that it doesn’t further issues of classism, racism, and displacement?
Hoffmann later addresses this issue with a more positive lens and adds a solution to the problem—she mentions how urban planning can absolutely cater every community, without the threat of gentrification or segregation. She suggests that the dynamics of the organizers is important. Diverse organizing groups that include members of the community that the plan is being implemented into is a way to personally connect with and plan for the community. Opportunities like actively canvassing in the community while also having more diverse organizers is a way to see what the residents actually want in their neighborhoods, may also reduce the formality of meetings, making the meetings more personal and accessible.
Keeping in touch with the neighborhoods during and after the plan has been made is also important, to check to see if the plan has been working properly and that the residents have been using said plan, and to check to see if any improvements need to be made to the plan. Changing the way to start the conversation in these communities, or changing the motive for development, identifying why they do like to bike, framing things differently as well as implementing the neighborhood’s diverse culture in the plan is a key aspect to this kind of planning. The peoples’ needs should first be identified, and then the planner can get around to why and how a plan such as a bike lane can be beneficial in a neighborhood.
I think that Hoffmann does make a good point as to how the planning conversation can be framed differently, as well as the importance of creating more diverse planning groups that can cater to and connect with communities in every area. Actively addressing a community’s concerns while framing the plan in a way that balances with a community’s needs is, hopefully, the future of urban planning. Like Hoffmann explained before, urban planners need to represent the community in which the plan is being developed. Otherwise, development projects may come with the exploitation and displacement of a city’s residents, and may deepen a city’s segregation. This podcast addresses the critical future of urban planning, in a way that can aid in reducing inequality among cities and communities with the improvement of infrastructure created for the people; catering to all communities and ensuring that all voices are heard.