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Bicycling Bias?

A recent report on the skewed benefits of bike lanes has Memphis progressives spinning their wheels in protest.

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Those who sit left of center often gloat at the relative ease with which we broach the tender topic of race, at least as compared to the right. But given the oversized defensive reactions to a recent journal article about the primary beneficiaries of Memphis' bike lanes, perhaps we progressives should pump our brakes. Without the thick skin that conservatives earned during decades of regressive racial politics, some Memphis progressives winced like spin-class rookies at the assertion that the movement does more for the creative class than it does for the 30 percent of city residents who live below the poverty line.

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In "Behind a Bicycling Boom: Governance, cultural change, and place character in Memphis, Tennessee," published last month in the journal Urban Studies, the authors quantified in detail the rise of the biking movement in Memphis.

Despite the advent of 60-plus miles of bike lanes, the development of the Shelby Farms Greenline, and plans for the Harahan Bridge project: "...change does not automatically benefit all citizens," the authors wrote. "In fact, changes in place character of cities may play an active part in perpetuating inequalities in who has power and for whom that power is used."

What the article did not do is call the bicycling bunch classist and racist, but that seems to be what some heard.

A commenter on the Memphis Flyer's website wrote: "Because we should obviously tilt our city to the 'uncreative class' and the 'stagnation machine elite' instead, for the sake of 'inclusion'. (sic) ... I'm as liberal as anybody, but cities cannot survive or grow on the backs of the apathetic, the unemployed, the dependent, and the criminal." Another online reaction: "Idiots (both black & white BTW) who choose to try to stand in the way of positive changes with claims of racial inequality are what's wrong with this city."

In a far more sophisticated rebuttal, Kyle Wagenschutz, the city's bicycle/pedestrian program manager, noted that the percentage of black cyclists was 57 percent in 2013, which almost mirrors the city's black population.

Although the number of bicycle commuters has more than doubled between 2005 and 2013, the actual number of two-wheeled commuters is fewer than 650.

Does this mean that bicycling is bad? Of course not. But in backing Madison Avenue bike lanes despite business owners' protests, did bike advocates lead with their commitment to reducing racial/structural inequality? Did they throw their fund-raising prowess behind the failed 2012 gas tax referendum that would have raised up to $6 million for public transportation?

They did not. And that's okay, but it's disingenuous to bristle when the article's authors note the class privilege inherent in the $2 million raised for the Shelby Farms Greenline, used primarily for recreation.

Take the $4.1 million in tax breaks won by a developer to build an apartment complex along a planned pedestrian-bicycle route connecting Main Street in Memphis to Main Street in West Memphis. How will the profits from these and related projects build wealth for black families, where the median household wealth is $6,446 compared to $91,405 for white families?

How do we secure bikes for those who have lost their driver's licenses because of unpaid traffic tickets — while advocating for changes in criminal justice policies?

How can a single mother of two kids (the typical makeup of a low-income Memphis family) get to her job by bike? Where would she shower when she arrives? Where would she store her bike?

There are bike advocates considering these tough questions, but if it's true that only a hit dog hollers, why did this article strike such a nerve?

"Studies show that inequalities are reproduced by social processes, sometimes despite the best efforts and best intentions of good citizens," said Wanda Rushing, a sociology professor at the U of M and one of the article's three authors. "Sometimes good intentions lead to unexpected, and sometimes undesirable consequences."

(Disclosure: Rushing and I will co-teach an economic inequality class this spring. The journal article was written months before we met.)

The awful efficiency of racism is that it persists even when there are no cross-toting, white-hooded Klansmen to be found. You can be a spandex-wearing, black-friend-having, progressive white bicyclist and still unwittingly replicate racist systems that advantage some and neglect others.

The question isn't whether bike lanes run through black neighborhoods (they do) or whether bicycling advocates are bigots (most probably aren't).

The question is: How will biking be different from the other well-intentioned movements that still leave brown and black people and poor people behind?

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