Trading Your Inheritance for a Mess of Pottage

This is the story to which the title of this blog entry refers.

In whichever order events occur — if the new bars or the bike lanes come first — the two have become awkwardly linked. When a low-income community gets bike lanes, I’ve heard residents worry about what’s coming next. When a redeveloped neighborhood gets them, long-time neighbors pose a different question: Why didn’t anyone paint bike lanes until the new people moved in?

Cycling itself, as my colleague Perry Stein has written, has become a heated symbol of gentrification. Bike lanes are treated as harbingers of demographic change, or evidence of preferential treatment, or synonymous with well-off white men (all this, despite the fact that Census data shows low-income commuters are the most likely to bike).

This fraught bike-lane tension, though, is based more on perception than data. So a group of researchers at McGill University and the University of Quebec in Montreal tried to quantify the connection between gentrification and cycling infrastructure. Elizabeth Flanagan, Ahmed El-Geneidy and Ugo Lachapelle, in work presented this week at the Transportation Research Board annual meeting, mapped cycling infrastructure in Chicago and Portland alongside demographic change in neighborhoods between 1990 and 2010.

In both cities, they found “a bias towards increased cycling infrastructure in areas of privilege.”

Here is Chicago. On this map, the lines represent bike lanes, the green triangles bike parking and the pink dots the 2014 Divvy Stations in the city’s bikeshare system. Darker areas are places that underwent the most change in a gentrification index the researchers created that takes into account changes in the white population, education levels, homeownership, median incomes and home values.

In both cities, denser neighborhoods closer to the center of town were more likely to have bike infrastructure. But in Portland, so were census tracts where the share of homeowners and college-educated residents was rising. In Chicago, race was relevant: Neighborhoods with large white populations, or an influx of whites, were more likely to get these bike investments.

The authors are cautious about the chicken-and-egg question behind these patterns: Do cities build this infrastructure where they believe people live who are likely to use it (or lobby for it)? Or does the creation of bike lanes attract certain people? Are bike lanes really a part of the process of neighborhood change, or a sign when it’s underway? The researchers sidestep the answer by suggesting that gentrification and cycling infrastructure “mirror” each other in these two cities.

That conclusion at least speaks to why bike lanes — basic infrastructure that could benefit anyone — have become culturally divisive. They are associated with so much more (and more than just the loss of street space): with unequal public resources and privilege and change.

Courtesy of Flickr user John St. John under a Creative Commons license.

A better understanding of how ‘elites‘ think is in order:

There is a very strong similarity in the thinking of the Urban Cycling Movement’s membership and that of the authorities in the Dakotas and in Australia when it comes to offering what they see as a better life for aboriginal children.

One UCM member recently mused (paraphrased) as follows:

Being against bike lanes (for whatever reason) is posture taken out of ignorance. Bike lanes (well-maintained) are essential to all neighborhoods. Because ‘elites‘ find cycling an affordable form of transportation it is surely seen by the less fortunate members of society as something that they too would like to participate in.

Going back to the ideas of breaking up aboriginal families we have to understand the viewpoint of those who seek this remedy in today’s world. Here are the basic assumptions:

  1. Elite‘ culture is the preferred mode of civilization for those trapped in poverty and tribal custom that is ‘outside of the norm‘.
  2. Learning to think in the manner of ‘elite‘ society is going to make life a lot easier for those taken from their families and deposited in the homes of people who might not know their culture and will feel free to ignore it altogether.
  3. It is the God-given right of the ‘elites‘ to determine what is important to those whose lives would otherwise be lived on the fringes of the ‘majority rulers‘ of society.

When asked why large corporations were seeking to move their headquarter to Chicago the mayor has answers:

He likes to see bike lanes as a means of attracting younger workers to live in the city. The reality is that virtually all of these workers are highly educated, white and relatively affluent. Like it or not the urban areas of the country are shedding their poor in preparation for an influx of young taxpayers who will help fill the coffers of the city, birth babies who can flush out the children-of-color for whom test scores are lower and essentially create an environment which will encourage others of a similar demographic to flood into the city.

Big cities have given up on finding ways to ‘fix the problems‘ of crime, poverty and alienation that plague their streets. Their police departments have grown increasingly out-of-touch with the residents whose neighborhoods they are sworn to protect and serve.

If you were to look back into history you would have to agree that the Raj in India was not unlike the Chiraq of today. The single difference is that instead of English soldiers trying to control an Indian population through violence and intimidation, it is ‘elites‘ trying to do the same thing in America.

Bike Lanes Are The New Reservations

One of the reasons for warehousing American Aboriginals on reservations was to impose on their nomadic culture a more ‘traditional‘ lifestyle. No longer would these folks be wandering and warring with their competition (both European settlers as well as other tribes) they would be raising crops, having their children educated and learning to adopt the Christian religion.

Men like Jim Thorpe came out of schools created by churches to help with the evangelization of the homegrown primitives. Nothing that was being done in the name of American Aboriginals was intended to harm them. But the sad fact is that as they remained on the reservations they lost their collective identity as a people. They forgot their language, their religion and their culture. They became ‘cigar store Indians‘.

Well meaning missionaries from the Church of Urban Cycling as at it just as their forebears were 100 years or so ago. They have convinced some of the members of the black tribes to exchange their individuality for ‘bike lanes‘. They reason that there is nothing amiss with the concept, and in that reasoning there is some truth.

But what is not being said is that money which should be used in problem-solving to heal the wounds of racism here in Chicago is being diverted into an exercise in futility. In what universe does closing 50 schools to save $50M seem meaningful while opening up a $100M 2.7 mile long park on the North Side known as the Bloomingdale ‘606’ Trail?

Only ‘elites‘ can determine why selling your birthright for a mess of pottage makes any real sense.