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.

David Muench Huebert

About David Muench Huebert

David's a Twin Cities-based writer, businessperson, and food-blogger at He founded the consulting firm Honest Elements Enterprises, which specializes in the development of the vegan movement in Minnesota. Don't worry: he's over-educated.