Some prominent D.C. African-American churches showed their muscles Thursday evening, bringing out hundreds of congregants to a city meeting to discuss proposals to build a protected bike lane that could cut into street parking spaces near the churches.
And the packed meeting — which was eventually broken up by city officials who said the crowd in the Shaw library’s meeting room was a fire hazard — highlighted a tension in the rapidly changing District between longtime, black residents and new, largely white residents.
“We just think we have to protect what’s ours,” said Robert Price III, a pastor at the United House of Prayer church in Shaw on the 600 block of M Street NW, referencing black churches that have left the District in recent years.
The District Department of Transportation is exploring the possibility of installing a protected bike lane going northbound and southbound somewhere between Fifth and Ninth streets NW that would connect to popular east and west protected bike lanes, such as M and L streets NW, or Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The city is down to four options, three of which would run down Sixth Street NW.
Church congregants are allowed to park diagonally on the street on Sundays, and there is currently space in the area for about 75 vehicles do so. DDOT has not yet determined exactly how many spaces would be lost under each proposal, but presumably at least some of them would be lost.
When the city released the four bike-lane options, United House of Prayer responded with a letter from its lawyer to DDOT saying a bike lane near its property would infringe upon “its constitutionally protected rights of religious freedom and equal protection of the laws.” The letter also argued that city policies were driving African-American churches to the suburbs.
The fourth option would put a bike lane along Ninth Street NW, which could take away parking from New Bethel Baptist Church—a congregation with about 900 members around 9th and S streets NW.
“This ain’t London, this ain’t Europe. The United States is built on the automobile and we need to respect that,” said Michael Green, a deacon at New Bethel Baptist Church.
DDOT representatives insisted throughout the heated meeting that it was still in the nascent planning stages and nothing was finalized. And the churchgoers — in front of the outnumbered pro-bike-lane faction present at the meeting — repeatedly stated they wanted no bike lanes in front of the churches.
“The status quo is always an option,” said Sam Zimbabwe, an associate director at DDOT who led the meeting. “We’re not asking everyone to make a decision tonight.” (To this statement, the churchgoers again responded that they had already decided and do not want bike lanes.)
The conflict between churches and bike lanes isn’t new in D.C. When the westbound M Street NW protected cycle track was being planned, the Metropolitan AME church complained that it would result in a loss of parking for the church. Ultimately, the city agreed to make the bike lane unprotected in front of the church.
These conflicts stem from the change in D.C.’s neighborhoods. Many of D.C.’s churches were built at a time when their neighborhoods, such as Shaw, weren’t as teeming with condos and restaurants, and parking wasn’t as big of an issue. Additionally, many longtime churchgoers have left the city for the suburbs and now commute to their old churches by car.
“No one is going to get everything they want; we have to find a reasonable solution,” said Alex Padro, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative whose district includes the United House of Prayer Church.
Washington Area Bicycle Association, a group that advocates for cycling in the city, argues that bike lanes wouldn’t prevent anyone from going to church. There are other modes of transportation available to churchgoers, and bike lanes are necessary for the safety of the city’s increasing number of cyclists. At the meeting, WABA cited data, which it obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, that showed 12 cyclists were hit in 2014 on the stretch of 6th Street where the bike lane is proposed.
“People are getting hurt, and we all care about that,” said Greg Billing, the executive director of WABA, who said a bike lane and these churches could coexist.
For its part, DDOT said its role is to serve the transportation needs of all members of the community. While it needs to be sensitive to political issues, its role is not to necessarily wade through them.
“Our role is solely focused on trying to make transportation as safe and accessible as possible for our residents and commuters,” said Terry Owens, a spokesman for the agency. “As it relates to larger issues, that is not our purview.”