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Why are bike lanes such heated symbols of gentrification?

A Capital Bikeshare user rides in a bike lane in Washington. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
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At a tense D.C. meeting over a proposed bike lane last month, one cycling advocate seemingly tried to add legitimacy to her argument by declaring that she had lived in the city for eight years.

Bike lane opponents — mainly congregants of a prominent D.C. African American church that fears that a bike lane would remove parking spaces — scoffed at the suggestion that eight years qualified as a long time.

What was billed as a District Department of Transportation meeting to discuss different bike lane proposals quickly turned into a meeting that unearthed tensions in the rapidly changing city between longtime black residents and new, largely white residents.

“We just think we have to protect what’s ours,” Robert Price III, a pastor at the United House of Prayer church in the 600 block of M Street NW, said after the October city meeting. Several prominent black churches have left the District in recent years, some, in part, following members who decamped  for the suburbs.

Can some big D.C. churches fight off a bike lane? They are bringing large crowds to try.

This isn’t the first time that a bike lane debate has turned into a lightning rod for urban communities’ cultural and economic issues.

In 2013, a similar debate unfolded over a downtown D.C. bike lane after another prominent church said a proposed protected bike lane would cut into its Sunday parking. In 2011, Portland had a bike lane controversy of its own, when a bike lane proposed through a historic African American neighborhood prompted residents to argue that it would bring cyclists to an area more accustomed to cars.

In New York, there are plenty of politics surrounding bike lanes. In 2013, the city’s liberal mayoral candidates tried to distinguish themselves from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his very bike-friendly tenure.

Expensive restaurants, dog parks and gyms have long been seen as symbols of gentrification — a loaded term generally understood to mean new wealth and people that flood into an area, displacing longtime residents or making new amenities unaffordable to them. But what is it about bike lanes, which are city infrastructure that’s free to use, that pack meetings?

There’s the argument that if the city thinks bike lanes are so important and crucial to safety, why didn’t they install them before the new wealthier residents moved in? Cycling is more popular these days but is nothing new.

Adonia Lugo, a Los Angeles-based anthropologist who studies cycling advocacy, says the root of it can be traced to a time before bike lanes entered the common U.S. city planning vernacular. For one, she says, car ownership holds a different value for different people, particularly along generational and socioeconomic lines.

At the D.C. meeting last month, cycling advocates suggested that churchgoers take the Metro if parking is so scarce.

“Access to driving is seen as a very important status symbol. There is a reality that for a lot of people in the U.S. that they had to work really hard to access money to buy cars,” Lugo said. “Sometimes people feel threatened when they feel a project will reduce their access to driving.”

When bikes were invented in the 19th century, they were expensive and a transportation mode that only the rich used. They became widespread in the 20th century, but lost their cachet as cars became more prevalent.

“People either believe cycling is elitist or for [low-income people], and people don’t want to associate themselves with either of those, especially in a country where we all believe we are middle class,” Lugo said.

There are plenty of black cyclists in the country, but it is still perceived as an activity more common among whites. Minority riders are a fast-growing part of the cycling population, but Capital Bikeshare ridership data, for instance, show that its users are generally younger and much whiter than the region’s overall population.

Lugo also said some bike lane opponents are concerned that such lanes translate to economic growth, and thus displacement.

According to Lugo, these concerns aren’t baseless, considering that in order to appeal to politicians, cycling advocates have argued that bike lanes spur economic development — which can mean gentrification. PeopleForBikes, a national cycling advocacy organization, released a study, for instance, titled “Protected bike lanes mean business,” showing that bike lanes bring money to cities by attracting young, creative employees and making retail more accessible to commuters.

Greg Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicycle Association, said the proposed bike lane in the Shaw neighborhood isn’t about attracting new cyclists or developing the area. Much of the Shaw neighborhood — which is rich in African American history and now considered to be one of the city’s trendier and pricier neighborhoods — has been redeveloped and has a large number of cyclists who commute on the street.

Church says a bike lane would infringe upon its constitutional ‘rights of religious freedom’

These proposed bike lanes would provide a safer alternative for these cyclists,  he said.

For his part, Billing said he isn’t surprised that the proposed bike lane is controversial. When WABA promotes cycling in communities that don’t cycle in big numbers, it doesn’t propose slapping a bike lane in the neighborhood. Instead, Billing says, WABA hosts workshops explaining the physical and economic benefits of cycling, leads neighborhood rides and hosts workshops to teach people who don’t know how to ride.

“We have continuing plans and new programs and new outreach to build some of these bridges,” he said. “We do want the change in our streets to be inclusive and for everyone to feel that the new infrastructure is for them, or that they know someone who will benefit from them.”

United House of Prayer would not comment for this article.

Lesley Jones, a grandmother who is a leader of Black Women Bike — a D.C. organization that encourages women of color to bike — said getting people to cycle is about education, not race.

“I think part of the problem is that people in poorer communities, or communities of color, think of a bicycle as something for poor people. That’s what I keep hearing,” Jones said. “I want everyone to ride a bike.”