When the weight of economic inequality crushes basic street safety, we all lose

There’s no question about it — bike lanes are controversial harbingers of white gentrification in many urban neighborhoods across the country (and in the UK). There’s an entire book on the topic, Bike Lanes are White Lanes. To long-time cyclists, they can seem like common-sense, simple, harmless improvements. But to working class people of color they can be easily viewed as an investment of public money in upwardly-mobile white residents moving to historically-black, urban places.

If you live in a bubble of whiteness, this may be news to you. Take a minute for yourself, understand this as truth and accept it. Even a stripe of paint can carry the weight of mixed messaging within cities that were scarred by decades of discriminatory housing and planning practices — cities like Atlanta.

It’s important to be mindful of this with our transportation planning and to leave room for inclusive public conversations about issues of gentrification in the process. When people living on streets filled with boarded-up homes and empty storefronts see their tax dollars going to bike infrastructure, before it goes to any successful programs for neighborhood blight repair, that’s going to hurt. Ignoring that hurt is stupid, to say the least.

Another task to grapple with: safer streets

So, here’s the conundrum: another thing that we should have no question about is safety. Reports on the safety benefits of bike lanes are widely available and span many years. The very thought that we might need to have conversations about it or convince people on the issue is troubling — at this point, the fact that streets with bike lanes are safer ought to be commonly accepted.

Tricky, huh? How do we do the right thing for safety while also doing the right thing for neighborhoods that are prone to feeling the effects of gentrification? We accomplish through the mysterious magic of good leadership.

The “fix this first” canard

At a recent forum on transportation for Atlanta mayoral candidates, the idea of waiting to install bike lanes in some places until inequality is addressed was raised by a leading candidate, Atlanta City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms.

“Bottoms said complicating the issue is the idea that everyone has access to a bike. For many in poor communities, owning a bicycle is a luxury. “While I agree in concept with the expansion of bike lanes, there are so many layers before we can even get to that in many of our communities.”

The idea that we have to fix gigantic issues like poverty and income equality before we can create safer streets is enough to make a bicycle-safety advocate’s head explode, but it should also give pause to anyone with common sense expectations of municipal leadership. Obviously, we can do both things simultaneously.

City leaders should be able to multitask the important stuff. Put the bike lanes in while you lead community conversations about the cultural perception of them. And if you’re not prepared to show what you’re doing to help rectify blight and safety problems right now in your district as part of that multitasking effort, why are we even listening to you? Seriously. Get to work.

When you tell us that we have to put a hold on bike lanes — which make streets safer and promote good health — until after we’ve fixed longstanding economic problems, you sound foolish and you’re risking people’s safety at the same time. See? You’re multitasking already. Just go the other direction with it and make the good things happen.