It’s Not Equitable to Protect Cars on Summit Avenue

Patrick Rhone recently wrote a commentary in MinnPost decrying the selfishness of advocates  for improved bike infrastructure on Summit Avenue. Rhone accuses bike advocates of pushing for lanes that only an elite, privileged few can enjoy. Rhone’s article paints car infrastructure, on the other hand, as a racial-justice priority, as he describes different marginalized people that might not be able to use bikes. It is an attempt to argue that favoring cars over bikes is equitable.

But we need not rely on anecdotal demographic breakdowns from public meetings when making judgements about what is systematically equitable; we can look at data and think more holistically about transportation. Upon doing so, it becomes clear that supporting car-first infrastructure is highly inequitable.

In his article, Rhone said that bike advocates ignore “those who have two (or sometimes three) jobs to make ends meet,” suggesting that a defense of cars is a defense of hardworking, low-income people. When I read this line from Rhone, I thought of the below graph from the parking study done by the City of St. Paul in March 2021. The graph breaks down car ownership rates by income bracket, and it clearly shows that low-income people are far less likely to have cars.

bar chart showing that many low income residents of St. Paul don't have cars
Image from City of St. Paul

To make the above graph, city staff used American Community Survey data from IPUMS, a census database hosted at the University of Minnesota. I used their handy online tool to do some more calculations of who in St. Paul doesn’t have a car. 

We can look more broadly at a comparison of those in poverty compared with the overall population, to see the same trend.

The comparison is similar between homeowners and renters.

There are also large racial disparities with car ownership. Although Rhone, who identifies himself as a Black man who lives on Summit Avenue, talks about the “overwhelmingly white” group of bike advocates, his defense of car-first urban design is clearly no argument for racial equity (let’s ignore his offhand insinuation that people who admire European street design are white supremacists).

Rhone also mentions elderly and disabled people as groups who may be unable to bike as part of his argument that bike advocates are exclusive. Yet both groups are also relatively unlikely to have cars.

To be clear, biking isn’t for everyone; some people will never use bikes as their primary form of transportation. Those who have physical limitations preventing them from biking, or have certain time and distance constraints, cannot rely solely on bikes. People with disabilities, for example, need better options for getting around cities than just good bike paths. Safe bike infrastructure is far from a complete transportation solution for various marginalized communities. 

But we so rarely hold car infrastructure to the same standard, despite the highly inequitable distribution of car ownership. People need better transportation infrastructure than just safe bike paths, but they also need much better than roads and parking lots.

Furthermore, perspectives like Rhone’s are pessimistic, ignoring the fact that people make transportation choices in response to urban design. Rhone fails to imagine a better world. It doesn’t make sense to say that we shouldn’t invest in bike infrastructure because bikers might be more privileged — better bike infrastructure will lower barriers to biking and allow more people to do it. A recent study in Minneapolis measured how improvements in their bike network affected ridership during the evening commute (4-6 p.m. on weekdays) from 2007-2013. Over those six years, ridership in areas with no bike lanes increased by 10 percent, while areas with protected bike paths (such as those proposed on Summit Avenue) increased by 69 percent. When biking is safe, more people do it.

Lastly, shaping our cities around cars can hurt everyone, car owners or not. In The High Cost of Free Parking, UCLA scholar Donald Shoup describes how free parking benefits us when we are actively car users, but hurts us the rest of the time. The same idea can be applied to car-first infrastructure more generally. Cars are heavy, fast, and dangerous — see Andy Singer’s compilation of some recent pedestrian and bike accidents with cars on Summit Avenue. They take up huge amounts of space in our cities — 35.6 percent of St. Paul’s land area. They are huge contributors to carbon emissions, and the small portion of electric vehicles on the road still put other harmful particulate matter into the air. While car infrastructure is convenient to us as car users, it hurts us as pedestrians, bikers, residents, and air-breathers.

Building safe bike paths on Summit Avenue is an incomplete remedy for our city’s transportation ailments. It will not address everyone’s needs. But when we apply that same analysis to our car-centric status quo, the Summit Avenue bike lanes are a huge improvement. We must continue to fight for this step forward in St. Paul.

Photo at top courtesy St. Paul Bicycle Coalition

About Zak Yudhishthu

Zak is a student at Macalester College studying economics and music. He's interested in all kinds of urban politics and policy, and is the student representative for the Macalester-Groveland Neighborhood Council.

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17 thoughts on “It’s Not Equitable to Protect Cars on Summit Avenue

  1. Pingback: It's Not Equitable to Protect Cars on Summit Avenue - News Tinger | Latest News Updates

  2. Dane Van Slooten

    Thank you so much for this well informed and researched rebuttal. I always love seeing actual figures and studies rather than general finger pointing or anecdotes.

    1. Chue Nielson

      I generally agree with this article. The main problem is that generally speaking those with Disabilities have a tough time with transportation only being a Car or having the bandaid called the bus which drives in the same traffic as the car and not really being any different congesting traffic. When the real cure is Tram and Trains that do not need to stop hardly ever for anything. It’s sad but In most places around the world everything is closely built together to be able to walk towards the Train station to go where a person needs to be and usually they are helpful to those with disabilities. Also bicycles have special lanes built for them and even cross walks that top traffic when a bicycle stops to cross to the other side as well in places like Europe and in Asia. I can only hope for a future that understands to put people first than putting band aids on the problem and calling it a day.

  3. Joseph B

    Thank you. It was disappointing to read the first one. I hope this makes it to the MinnPost and the author.

  4. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    Everyone understands that sports like hockey, for example, are exclusionary to a point because the cost of equipment to play can be substantial. Other sports, most notably soccer and basketball, are far more accessible to people and children with lower incomes, because they don’t require much more than a ball and the right location.

    But somehow people struggle to apply the same thinking to transportation. Cars are expensive. Bicycles are not. Even extremely expensive bicycles are much cheaper than very discounted cars. It’s not a big leap of logic to conclude that bicycling must be a more accessible, more equitable form of transportation. At the very least, people who assert otherwise must shoulder a high burden of evidence to make their case.

    1. Zak Yudhishthu Moderator   Post author

      I see a lot of senseless comments about $2000 dollar bikes when accusing bikers of being elitist. But this argument about cost — just like the argument that not everyone can bike — falls apart very quickly when you compare to cars. Once, again, isolated demands for rigor.

      1. Chue Nielson

        Not only that but you do not pay insurance on a bike monthly and you do not need to do much maintenance as you would a car. Same can also be said for Trains and Trams as well. The savings adds up over time.

  5. Joe

    It’s unfortunate that the MinnPost piece focused on who advocates for protected bike lanes, rather than why they advocate for them. The current Summit Avenue bike lanes work okay for me, a white male with 25+ years of road cycling experience, though I prefer if they were safer. They don’t work for my wife of South Asian descent, who refuses to bike on Summit Avenue east of Lexington due to the dangerous proximity to parked and moving cars, nor will they work for our young daughter, who could access any one of the 5+ public schools within half a mile of Summit Avenue by bicycle or foot. That wealthy or privileged people utilize a public good does not make that public good unsuitable for others, especially when the public good – dedicated biking infrastructure – is still relatively new and in the process of being adopted by a broader community. Perhaps if the writer had talked to one of those cycling advocates he disparages, he’d know that we favor bike lanes on arterial streets because of the higher visibility, and corresponding increased safety, for racial minorities and women, or that we generally favor temporary parking for local businesses, rather than long-term car storage for Saint Paul’s wealthiest street, to accommodate the elderly or differently-abled. But his screed prompted another excellent piece by Zac that I can link to when I email my council member, so I guess it turned out fine.

    1. Zak Yudhishthu Moderator   Post author

      Joe, I totally agree with you. I’m glad that you found the article useful.

      This article was really meant to be about transportation policy choices, so I didn’t address the original article’s points about the advocates themselves. But there’s one thing that I do think is important to say about that: In the same way that saying “not everyone can ride bikes” ignores that not everyone can drive, saying “bike advocates are mostly white and well-off” ignores the people fighting to keep Summit Avenue the same! It’s an isolated demand for rigor. Many people that want better bike lanes on Summit are white and well-off, just like those who want to keep Summit untouched. It’s just a product of 1) the people that live in the area around Summit, and 2) the people who have the time, resources, and social capital to easily plug into local micropolitical fights. Those are both certainly problems, but it’s completely unfair to only fire that criticism in one direction.

      In the meanwhile, I care way more about who is actually impacted by real decisions.

  6. Melissa Wenzel

    I’ve always found the “elderly or disabled” argument for pro-car and anti-bike to be disingenuous. There are a LOT of medical limitations for being able to use a car safely that isn’t as limiting for bike use. A colleague of mine has limitations with one of her legs, making walking extremely difficult. But she can bike anywhere! (yes, she does own and drive a car). Not going into my own medical history with my disability, I can drive, do have a license, and co-own a car. But I prefer biking nearly always because I feel safer. Let me repeat that: I feel safer on a bike than driving a car. I have no blind spots. I have no worries about being too close to parked cars. If I feel unsafe, I can simply stop, pull over, and let someone by. I NEVER have to worry about speeding (biking on residential roads, that is). Simply put, I feel safer and more in control when I’m on my bike than in a car.

    I’m thinking about creating a blog page on SSP’s website for all of these facts, so we can concentrate them in one spot. We did that with SSP and ZWSP when advocating for truth and myth-busting centered around organized trash collection. It helped a LOT!

  7. Daniela G.

    Holy cow—wow—misleading presentation of statistics award to the City. Did anyone notice that their chart ONLY GOES UP TO 50%?? The data actually shows that a majority of all households—even those making less than $10,000 per year— have at least one car:

    Percent of St Paul Households with At Least One Car

    $0-10,000 ….. 55%

    $10k -20,000 ….. 62.1%

    $20k -30,000 ….. 79.2%

    $30k -40,000 ….. 89.7%

    $40k -50,000 ….. 92.4%

    $50k -60,000 ….. 95.9%

    $60k -70,000 ….. 98.4%

    $70k -80,000 ….. 99.0%

    $80k -90,000 ….. 98.2%

    $90k -100,000 ….. 96.3%

    $100,000+ ….. 98.7 %

    St Paul households currently have a lot of cars and a lot of people who rely on them. We’re not going to have transportation system changes that will make public transportation possible for the majority of trips in the next 10 years. Public transportation is the only all ability alternative to cars. So, for the next decade, driving less will mean parking more.

    [Small subset of people] need to actually listen to rest of us instead of spouting rhetoric.

    1. Melissa Wenzel

      Daniela, you didn’t share anything that Zak hadn’t shared. The chart was “% of households with NO car” (emphasis added). So the % of people without a car did not exceed 50%.

      I would argue that public transportation is the only all-ability transit mode. There are clearly a # of people that shouldn’t be driving. Those unlicensed, those untrained, those that are too immature/not ready to drive, those who are failing cognitive abilities (the way I’ll phrase a less correct “too old”). It’s a sad reality regarding our obsession with our car culture that we seem to accept, among many other things….

    2. Holden

      So about 93 percent of households at or below 50 median household income have cars? That’s a lot.

    3. Zak Yudhishthu Moderator   Post author

      Hey Daniela, thanks for the response.

      Respectfully, I don’t think it’s fair to say that any of these statistics are presented misleadingly. All of the graphs had very clearly labeled bars, with clearly labeled axes. It is customary for bar charts of this type to not go up to 100% when the data set has a much smaller range.

      You are, of course, right that the majority of households have at least one car. Thankfully, the Summit Avenue redesign is not about ending car infrastructure. It’s about losing some small amount of parking spots, while maintaining tons of other parking spots, and maintaining all of the roadway.

      Regardless, the fact that most people have cars doesn’t change any of the key arguments in this article. It still remains true that a) car-first infrastructure benefits the privileged more than the marginalized, b) more people will bike if it is convenient and safe, and c) centering our cities around cars has many harmful externalities, which should inspire us to design our cities in more balanced ways.

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  9. Paul Nelson

    I think there is much more to this issue that is overlooked or not realized in culture. Very good infrastructure for non motorized transport can accommodate mobility for a variety of elder and handicapped transport. Over the years I have seen many different people who are elderly or handicapped in the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis. this includes electric motor wheelchairs, hand driven bicycles, etc. I have also seen the same in various videos of the Netherlands and Demark. The MTG is very good space for various handicapped mobility. Currently the “door zone” bike lane space on Summit is not good for someone in a wheelchair, the sidewalk way would be a better option, but the person would still need to cross streets. The MTG and Summit are not the same, but re aligning the bile lane space between the park car and the sidewalk (one option) would exponentially increase the safety of mobility for many more people in this corridor, without the use of a car, including handicapped and the elderly.

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