As many of you are aware, bike advocacy is thankless work and seems sisyphean in nature as every spring folks march out the same tired arguments and shout them at community meetings led by volunteers who perform their courage through exceptional patience. The 38th Street bike lane project in Longfellow is shaping up to be no exception: neighborhood businesses are digging in their heels and bike advocates are frustrated.
That said, I have a lot of faith in this project and I think it’s headed in a good direction. Since the tone of this debate has already reached a fever pitch and it’s only May, I’m just gonna call this one as I see it and write from my gut. If that necessitates online death threats like happens almost every time I write something about bikes, (what gives, internet?) then please contact me so I can give you my fake Des Moines P.O. Box.
Here’s how I see this project playing out in the realm of small businesses, civic government, and bike advocates.
On Small Businesses
I am deeply and passionately disappointed in how small businesses in Longfellow are reacting to this project. I moved to Seward Longfellow from Saint Paul and was under the impression that Minneapolis is progressive. That theory seems to be proven wrong in regards to Longfellow.
Longfellow currently has changing demographics. A friend recently said that it feels like the neighborhood is “settling out,” and young families are moving in and building lives for themselves. The overwhelming majority of residents are not retirement age. It is a neighborhood full of families just trying to get by in a city with increasing costs due to bad zoning practices.
So when businesses like Fireroast and Mother Earth Gardens write passionate essays saying that the neighborhood will be destroyed if we don’t actively cater to retirees which measurably amounts to only 20% of the neighborhood, it frustrates me deeply. I, like many young people in the area, am barely squeaking by as a renter and many of the old people got into home ownership before the housing market slammed the door on me.
I love retired people. I really do. And I love that Mother Earth Garden likes selling plants to retired people. And I buy a TON of plants from Mother Earth Garden! But businesses do not succeed when they only cater to 20% of available customers. Even if they have all the parking in the universe.
Furthermore, making generous parking concessions for a coffee bar that just converted their parking lot into a patio or a theatre that only takes cash just seems like it’s empowering bad business practices.
I work long hours to be able to afford to live in Longfellow. Yet it really feels like local businesses are actively catering to people that don’t work at all anymore, and frankly, I worry about their sustainability if they are acting as if retired people are the core of their business when 60+% of the neighborhood is of working age.
On Civic Government
I was pleasantly surprised with the actions of Council Member Johnson. I think it is important as a politician to set expectations for citizens as many times citizens don’t really know how politicians interact with civic improvement projects. I was encouraged to hear Johnson remind the audience that a) the vast majority of studies show that bike lanes *improve* business and b) the final say on this project goes to Public Works. It’s his job to be an open ear to the community no matter how irrational some members of the community are.
I know Public Works has caught some flak for the “compromise” design and as such did not garnish official support from the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition. I agree with MBC’s official non endorsement as it is important that there is a voice reminding the community that automotive private vehicle parking on 38th is absolutely and without question not a scarcity and is in fact in quite high supply at significant public expense.
That said, I do affirm Public Works for listening to the viewpoints of local businesses. While I think the “parking in the bike lanes” compromise in front of Fireroast cafe is still ridiculous and unwarranted, I think a positive (albeit totally unnecessary) compromise was made with Mother Earth Gardens. It is disappointing that said compromise strays so far from the Complete Streets policy, but educating local businesses on street design is a larger cultural discussion that continues to evolve and I feel Public Works has a good understanding of what they can and can’t achieve in that discussion.
In regards to the Longfellow Community Council (LCC): You are as the kids say, “Dope.” The survey you created had an impressive number of respondents and you did a very good job reminding the Longfellow locals that you are here to serve them and their voices are who you are representing. A 240 respondent survey is statistically worthwhile, especially considering how small the area is that was surveyed. You even got mentioned in the Star Tribune for it.
LCC surveyed 240 out of the 4704 residents of Longfellow. In Saint Paul’s Open Saint Paul forums right across the river, it’s pretty usual to have about 500 respondents tops. Given that the population of Saint Paul is 297,640, this means by my math that the Longfellow Community Council *as volunteers* were roughly 3,037% MORE EFFECTIVE than people being paid to do the same task.
I believe this means you are civic rock stars and in the next life you get to wear Abraham Lincoln’s hat. Extra points to Anna Sheppard for holding it together as a facilitator when that man nearly hit you in the face with his wagging finger. Your patience game is strong. Respect, fam.
On Bike Advocates
Oh hello my friends. How are you? From my social media echo box, it seems that you are very very angry. Honestly, that makes sense. This project in the greater context of the streets discussions is a heart breaker. It’s the first project after the complete streets policy was crafted and it strays far from that policy. The cognitive dissonance between neighbors definitely reminds me of last year’s Cleveland fracas. Having people calling advocates mean names like “Bike Nazi” and “The Bike Lobby” when you are volunteering to improve your neighborhood is emotionally taxing.
But friends: we need to calm down about this. There are a few things to remember here as we look at a project being built that is far from ideal for cyclists.
38th St is a Sleepy Street
MnDOT rates its automotive traffic at an average of 1,200-3,400 automotive vehicles per day. Nathan Koster from the City of Minneapolis conservatively estimated it at 3000ish which by all counts means there just aren’t a lot of cars on it per day. Cleveland Avenue is 7.6 times more well traveled by automobiles daily, so although the conversations remind me of the Cleveland Avenue conversations, the streets are very different.
The natural argument is that low hanging fruit like a very quiet street should be easy to install bike infrastructure on, and that is generally good rhetoric. But the flip side is that since this street is so sleepy, it may not be worth fighting the rest of the summer to get everything cyclists want. Perhaps we should just take the compromise, install uninspiring lanes next to pretty awesome sidewalks, and move on.
We honestly have bigger fish to fry and considering that most of us advocates are volunteers and many of us have kids and other jobs, we might be better served organizing on a bigger project and begrudgingly letting this one go. We only have so much time.
This Conversation Has Happened Mainly Between White People
This is kind of a side point and I am hesitant to bring it up as people get very defensive *fast* on this topic. But please try to take a step back, read the following link, and hear me out. I think this point necessitates careful discussion as bike advocates have a stated history of struggling with intersectionality in regards to people of color.
Longfellow is 71% white. Most of the people at the meeting by my rough estimate were white. If we’re being honest, most of the writers at streets.mn are white.
Considering that many advocates have struggled to interact with neighborhoods of color, (thinking back to the North side Greenway here) I think we should take pause before we jump head first into making a bike lane in a predominantly white neighborhood our signature issue of the summer.
Personally, I think we need to look at what happened between Larry Itlion, Cesar Chavez, and Dolores Huerta when they combined the AWOC and NFWA to create a larger more powerful caucus in the United Farm Workers. I think it is better strategy if we grow a larger caucus through diversification instead of spinning our wheels fighting for a perfect bike lane on a sleepy street in a white neighborhood.
Neighborhoods Have the Right to Govern Themselves as they see Fit
This point is tough. On one hand, I really support the Complete Streets Policy. It’s good policy and I personally want to see it followed down to the very letter.
But it is important that we don’t look at the Complete Streets Policy as an inflexible mandate. People’s voices must be heard in the process of building a city, even if these voices are an angry minority who has disregarded good data.
Although I know a lot of urbanists to be especially intelligent, we have to shy away from our tendency to be hard determinists in regards to long term civic planning. The Complete Streets Policy is not fate. Although my guts falls out when I type that as it means I’m going to be going to horrible shouty meetings for the rest of my friggin’ life, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I believe people have a right to govern themselves, to make their own mistakes, and to build their own neighborhoods. That’s kind of a beautiful chaotic thing when you think about it, like watching a murder of crows fly or seeing millions of snowflakes fall seemingly in lock step.
I think we should revel in that beauty in pursuit of making more beautiful neighborhoods for our already madly beautiful populace.
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