Bike Lanes and Racial Equity

The transportation systems of the Twin Cities were designed by and for white people, as were virtually all transportation systems in the USA. Adding bike lanes and improving pedestrian safety can be a real step towards building social equity and justice for people of color into our transportation system.

José Hernández was riding his bike in St Paul in late November 2017 when he was run over by a car.

It was a nasty situation, and his death made a wave through many communities of Minnesota and led to a touching memorial ride. To me, though, Hernández was yet another man of color killed in the streets of America for a preventable reason, like this one, and this one, and this one, and this one, and these ones.

As the story of José Hernández and at least 2,937 others in last decade show, mixing bicycles and cars on the street is dangerous. Which brings us to the protected bike lanes along 26th and 28th Streets in the Wedge, Whittier, and Phillips neighborhoods, perhaps Minneapolis’ most noticeable project in reducing fatalities among bicyclists since it published its report on how to improve bicycle safety in 2013. I had the opportunity to throw my hat into the discourse on 26th and 28th streets when the anger over the new bike lanes was at a particularly heated moment. I opine now as I opined then: the best reason for the bike lanes’ existence is to keep people from being killed.

The research of Dr. Robert Bullard, a professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at historically-black Texas Southern University’s Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs and granddaddy of the Environmental Justice Movement, connects the danger of cars with which people tend to be hit by them.

“Transportation systems don’t just spring out of thin air. They are planned–and in many cases, planned poorly for people of color,” writes Bullard. Indeed, he cites research conducted by James Corless that shows that “Latinos and African Americans are at the highest risk from pedestrian-vehicle collisions, and that children are particularly vulnerable.”

26th and 28th Streets are poignant examples of that vulnerability in action. The case-in-point is that of Jose Manuel Parra Rodriguez, a Latino boy that died on 26th Street in Phillips after being hit by a car that was going fast. The numbers back up 26th and 28th Streets’ bad reputation for pedestrian and bike safety: the majority of Minneapolis bicycle-motorist crashes occurred along 26th and 28th Streets, followed by Lowry Ave North and Northeast, Marquette Ave South, and Broadway Ave North. What do most of those streets have in common? Poor people of color live along them.

It’s not just bicyclists and pedestrians that have been killed along 26th and 28th Streets. For example, Raheem Meekins killed someone that was buckled-in in another car while driving too fast through the intersection of 26th Street and Blaisdell Ave S. Minneapolis Police Officer Joshua Young killed a motorcyclist at the same intersection while speeding to the scene of the police officer shooting of Terrence Franklin, a young black man.

Benign photo and no charges after a months-long investigation for a police officer that ran a red light and killed someone in early May 2013 at 26th and Blaisdell in Whittier.

Dehumanizing mugshot and immediate charges for a black man that ran a red light and killed someone in early May 2017 at 26th and Blaisdell in Whittier.

The bike lanes slow those cars down, which keeps fatal crashes from occurring.

Could you picture yourself driving your car and hitting a person? One time, my wife and I crossed Franklin Ave East to get to Seward Coop; an SUV turning left out of the coop’s parking lot accelerated towards us without looking. We got out of the way in time, and I caught the eye of the driver as she finally saw us barely miss the blow from her bumper. She was terrified.

It reminded me of the time I saw a bicyclist get hit and splayed out on a sedan’s windshield at Washington Ave and 2nd Street South in Downtown. I caught that driver’s look as his windshield collapsed onto him, then talked to him afterwards while waiting for the ambulance; he was terrified too. I’d care to guess that all of us would be terrified to find our car running into somebody on the street, and that we’d accept mechanisms that protect drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists from that fate.

So why do people feel so mad about these bike lanes? According to transportation expert David Levinson, who studied Twin Cities transportation for two decades at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies, the reason is likely because motorists feel that they’ve lost something of value.

“There is always contention for road space, which is a scarce resource allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis with arbitrary rules,” writes Levinson, which would may explain a recent contention that 26th and 28th Streets’ bike lanes are “NAZI lanes”. Moreover, “losses are more deeply felt than gains,” Levinson continues, citing a behavioral-economic principle known as Prospect Theory, “and taking away a lane for cars or their storage is felt as a loss.”

I’d care to argue that there’s a trade-off in value in the case of 26th and 28th Streets’ bike lanes, even as I accept that motorists genuinely feel the pain of losing a lane: motorists lose a few miles per hour, which is gained in the form of safety for people that, especially in Phillips, have dark skin and insufficient means to live away from busy streets.

Cars are dangerous. Separating bikes from cars and limiting the space in which cars can operate makes the cars slow down.

Do you want justice? Equity? Fewer people of color dead in the street?

Making cars slow down in neighborhoods where they live is institutional justice and equity for black and brown people.

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10 Responses to Bike Lanes and Racial Equity

  1. Melissa Wenzel February 2, 2018 at 6:49 am #

    Commenting to follow future comments. This article deeply moved me. Thank you for this.

  2. Monte Castleman February 2, 2018 at 9:38 am #

    Anyone can see the difference between the two incidents. Officer Joshua Young was on the job, responding to an urgent call to help secure a crime scene. Police officers are legally allowed to run red lights, speed, etc if the situation is urgent enough. We could maybe change the law so the police always have to obey traffic laws, but then how many people will die due to slower response times.

    The other incident there was no legal justification for the other person to run a red light, and in fact he shouldn’t have even been driving in the first place without a valid license.

    In light of this article, what do people think of the north side’s rejection of the greenway?

    • Tom Holub February 2, 2018 at 10:19 am #

      Certainly, part of the reason bike facilities are contentious is their place in the struggle for urban space. The reason, though, that bike lanes have become associated with gentrification and whiteness is that the meaning of the bicycle for the traditional bike advocate (affluent, white) is different than the meaning of the bicycle for a disadvantaged person of color. The traditional bike advocate invests personal identity in the virtues of the bicycle. The disadvantaged person of color, even if he or she rides a bicycle, may not self-identify as a cyclist, and may view cycling as stigmatized rather than virtuous.

      The subtext of the conflict over the Northside Greenway boils down to: “We” don’t want “their” project in “our” neighborhood. For some definition of “we”, “their”, and “our”. Spatial hierarchies reflect values, and typically, they reflect the values of those at the top of the social hierarchy. Affluent whites in the U.S. generally did not self-identify as cyclists 20 years ago; now, in a few enclaves like Minneapolis, Portland, and San Francisco, many do. It is therefore not accidental that investment in cycling facilities in those cities has increased substantially in the past 20 years, nor is it accidental that communities of color think that “bike lanes are white lanes,” as Melody Hoffman puts it. Cycling advocates who care about social justice need to understand this dynamic.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke February 2, 2018 at 11:37 am #

      Moderator’s note: I think the Northside Greenway is a separate issue, involving a lot of complex things specific to that neighborhood.

      Let’s focus this comment discussion on the key point that the author is trying to make, which is the connection between bike lanes, street safety, and racial inequality. If you want to use examples, maybe think about these two South Minneapolis streets that are mentioned.

      • Tom Holub February 2, 2018 at 12:50 pm #

        With due respect, the two census tracts which encompass the Northside Greenway demo segment are 67% and 79% non-white. The two tracts on the 26th Street bike lanes are 64% and 88% white, which makes that location a poor place to situate a discussion about racial justice.

        I do agree that the Northside Greenway has specific challenges, but I would not say those challenges are unique to that neighborhood, or to Minneapolis. The same dynamic can be found in disadvantaged communities throughout the U.S.

        This article begins with the assertion that “The transportation systems of the Twin Cities were designed by and for white people,” which is generally a true statement. What it misses is that the same may be true of today’s cycling infrastructure. Certainly that is how it is often perceived by disadvantaged communities.

        • Bill Lindeke
          Bill Lindeke February 2, 2018 at 1:03 pm #

          My point is that the Northside Greenway conversation has a lot of differences from this one, and IMO it’s pretty unique. Generally speaking, I think that good comment threads should stay a bit more focused. No need to pick a fight over one specific and very ambitious project when there are plenty of bike lanes all over the city that serve as better examples.

  3. Brad February 2, 2018 at 3:54 pm #

    Not sure I understand the caption for the mugshot picture. Is the implication that we should be upset that someone was charged quickly for running a red light and killing someone? Isn’t that what this website is all about–looking for justice for drivers who drive recklessly. I witnessed the aftermath of that accident and could hardly comprehend how it had happened. One car was resting on the steps of the church past the sidewalk. If I had been walking to the bus a few minutes earlier I would have been seriously injured or killed. You could have picked a better example to prove your point.

  4. Bill Hanssen February 2, 2018 at 5:19 pm #

    The anti bike lane protestors didn’t seem to care, or even notice when Phase 1 of the 26th/28th st bike lanes initially went in on the Phillips side of 35W… in 2015.

  5. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller February 5, 2018 at 10:31 am #

    Shortly after we moved to south Minneapolis (from downtown), I was biking home down Portland and young man on a bike asked me the best route to get to Minnehaha Falls. I told him the simplest, not shortest, route and he observed “we don’t have nice bike lanes like this on the north side.”

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