When Gentrification Poses as ‘Traffic Safety’

“The bike movement is a convenient distraction from issues such as race. Make no mistake; this is partly about race. It is about white privilege and entitlement.”

Joe Wos, a lifelong Pittsburgher, vents his frustration. New bike lanes narrow the usable space for motor vehicles and strip away parking spaces or lanes for traffic. Yet only 1.4 percent of the city bikes to work. Pittsburgh is 26 percent black. Though only one percent of bike.pgh, a local activist group, self-identify as black.

“Throughout Lawrenceville, hipsters rejoiced when Pittsburgh added bike lanes heading into Downtown, enabling white men with bushy beards and black-rim plastic glasses a quicker way to get Downtown to play their banjos on street corners.”

It’s a story repeated in cities across the U.S.

(A short, humorous take on the hipster and bicycle connection.)

Bike Lanes: A Gentrification Agenda

Washington D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood had been majority African American since the 19th century. Duke Ellington lived there

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington

as a child. U Street was once known as the Black Broadway – a nine block historic district of row houses and theaters. In recent years, it has seen the development of over 2,000 luxury condominiums. Seeking walkable urban spaces, and attracted by the neighborhood’s Victorian architecture, a flood of affluent, mostly white millennials has transformed the neighborhood. Upscale chains and boutiques have moved in. Skyrocketing costs of living are squeezing working class residents out.

Tensions boiled over when city officials proposed bike lanes that would replace street parking near six historically black churches. They share a combined history of nearly 500 years. Church leaders and members packed a District Department of Transportation meeting in late 2015 to oppose the lanes. They squared off against a small group of mostly white urbanists and bicycling aficionados.

“We consider it a threat to our existence,” United House of Prayer (UHOP) pastor A.D. Cunningham said. Like other churches in the densely populated area, UHOP depends entirely on street parking. Increased traffic congestion is another major concern. Many churchgoers, forced out of the District by rising costs, depend on easy access by car. A. Michael Charles Durant, pastor of Tenth Street Baptist Church, explained his opposition to the lanes, even though his church stands five blocks away. “If you see a cancer, you don’t wait until it gets to your address.”

Riots devastated Shaw after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968. Churches picked up the slack as wealthier residents fled, and the government cut social services to youth, seniors and the disadvantaged. “I suspect that many within the bicyling community don’t understand or know the history of the faith community in Washington D.C.,” lamented Pastor Dextor Nutall of the New Bethel Baptist Church.

(The bicycle movement points to the dense, flat, bicycle-dominated European cities of Amsterdam and Copenhagen as a universal model. And a moral imperative, socially, for public health and for the environment. Cars, and their drivers, are the enemy. Their concerns, practical or not, are often dismissed as right-wing, self-serving and “anti-progress.” Bicycle activists in the U.S. and Canada tend to be affluent, white, liberal, highly educated and well-organized.)

The Bicycle: “A Potent Symbol of Identity and Status”

“Urbanism has established itself as an independent ideology of planners, architects, social justice organizations, transit advocates, and others who cherish the benefits of urban living. It has become the anti-thesis to suburbanism.” – Scott Bonjukian @NWUrbanist

Dedicated bike lanes commandeer public space once freely used by neighborhood residents. At stake is which users are privileged over others. And that is determined by who has political clout in city hall.

“Bike lanes are often introduced in areas that are gentrifying,” according to Samuel Stein, a graduate student at City University of New York who has researched how the issue affects his city. “The people who produce gentrification – landlords and developers – want this because it makes a neighborhood more desirable and increases their property prices.” That, it turn, fuels even more gentrification.

Urbanist Richard Florida observes that the bicycle is a potent symbol of identity and status amongst what he calls the “creative class.” He wrote in 2011 that “cycling to work is positively associated with the share of creative-class jobs and negatively associated with working class jobs.”

Across the nation, those being gentrified out of their homes and communities see the bicycle connection. Sometimes it even precipitates violence. After officials proposed a bike lane in 1997, riots broke out in San Francisco’s then mostly-Latino Mission District. Twenty years later, it’s a lily-white center of bike culture, high rents, bistros and blandness.

Vision Zero: A Viable Traffic Safety Program? Or Moral Justification for Urban Elite Privilege?

Sweden approved Vision Zero in 1997. The traffic safety program was a radical departure from established traffic planning. It set a national goal of zero fatalities or serious injuries. It lowered speed limits and granted pedestrians and bicyclists equal consideration to motor vehicles on roadways. It all began with the best of intentions, and did succeed in significantly reducing traffic fatalities.

Vision Zero soon spread throughout Europe. It reached the shores of the U.S. in the 2010s, first in Chicago, then in about a dozen other major cities. The momentum shows no sign of slowing.

Yet there are many problems with this extreme new vision of traffic safety.


(Vision Zero activists in New York City demand a 20 mph speed limit citywide. They demand an end to “traffic violence” and tell heartrending stories of loved ones lost to traffic accidents. Mayor DeBlasio adopted Vision Zero in 2014 and lowered the city’s speed limit to 25 mph. Accidents and fatalities are down since. Other Vision Zero cities, such as Oakland, have seen few or no safety benefits.)

1.) Vision Zero is a moral crusade. It rejects long-established, science-based, traffic planning principles.

Traffic engineers have long used the 85th percentile as a standard for setting speed limits. Studies, and data extending over many decades, show that most drivers travel at the speed they consider safe, regardless of posted limits. Engineers traditionally set speed limits at the 85th percentile. That is the speed only 15 percent of drivers exceed. Setting the speed limit higher or lower results in more accidents. If a driver obeys a posted limit set far below the natural speed of the roadway, it encourages tailgating and dangerous attempts at passing.

It’s irrational to make zero traffic fatalities or serious injuries the goal. A driver suffers a stroke or heart attack and plows into another vehicle. Can any safety engineering, traffic law or enforcement effort prevent that? How about a drunk or reckless driver? Tax dollars are finite. That is why traffic engineers traditionally weigh benefits versus costs.

Part of that cost lies in lost productivity – longer commuting times for workers and higher costs for businesses dependent on deliveries. There are opportunity costs as well. Tax dollars spent on Vision Zero safety projects can’t be used for mass transit or highway construction. Bicycle and pedestrian traffic is a tiny percentage of motor vehicle traffic, at least in American cities. Is it reasonable or fair to burden the overwhelming majority for the sake of a tiny few?

Yet Vision Zero places equal importance on the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists. In the real world that means sacrifices for motorists. And no sacrifice is too great until the impossible “vision” of zero traffic deaths is met.


(A discussion of Portland’s ambitious Vision Zero plan. Mayor Charlie Hales hopes to force travelers to “slow down, get out of their car and notice” their neighborhoods. The city plans to redevelop Foster Road, a major arterial extending through southeast Portland. The road sees 20,000 to 30,000 vehicular trips per day. It has also been the site of eight traffic deaths over the past 10 years. That is unacceptable under Portland’s goal of zero traffic fatalities by 2025.

The city will lower the speed limit, add two bicycle lanes, a median, expanded sidewalks, and reduce the traffic lanes from four to two. Local business owners are furious. As is John Anderson, a 51 year-old warehouse manager who works across town. “Once I got across the river, it used to take about 20 minutes to get from the bridge back to here. Now, during rush hour it’s about 45 minutes to an hour if I’m lucky. And they want to slow things down even more? That’s nuts. It’s nuts.”)

2.) Vision Zero is unsuited for the typical American city.

Vision Zero bicycle infrastructure in Chicago.

Vision Zero bicycle infrastructure in Chicago.

Cities are far more sprawling in the U.S. than in Europe. European cities typically date from medieval or even ancient times – well before the internal combustion engine or even train travel. That makes walking or bicycling relatively practical. Sprawling, car-dependent Los Angeles is a recent Vision Zero city. And perhaps the least suitable, though not atypical. Its low density makes mass transit and, especially, walking or cycling impractical for the vast majority.

None of that matters to Vision Zero zealots.

3.) Vision Zero further privileges rich urbanites at the expense of minorities, the poor and middle class.

It’s unthinkable for most commuters living 10 or 20 miles from work to take the extra time to walk or cycle. Especially over hilly terrain or in bad weather. Vision Zero advocates seem little concerned over hard-working people barely scraping by, with bills to pay and families to support.

And what about those who absolutely must rely on their vehicle to do their job? That includes the often struggling self-employed, such as landscapers, janitors and maids who need a car or truck to carry essential equipment or get to multiple job sites.

More silence from the Vision Zero crowd.

(Traffic stands bumper-to-bumper in Brooklyn’s newly gentrified Williamsburg neighborhood. In disgust, a trucker commandeers an empty bike lane to make his delivery.)

A Rancid, Self-Serving Agenda with a Shiny New Veneer of “Morality”

U.S. cities have been pursuing the Vision Zero agenda for the past decade or two. Long before they officially adopted the plan. It has always been about promoting a utopian urbanist vision of “revhitalizing” cities. And big money interests. A vision that most don’t share or benefit from. Yet the Vision Zero goal of “saving lives” offers a convenient facade of moral authority.

In America, Vision Zero is an elitist vision. It justifies kowtowing to wealthy developers and real estate moguls. That means big campaign contributions for politicians. It means a windfall in property and sales tax revenue. And, as minorities and the working class flee the cities, it pushes social costs onto the suburbs. Meaning cities can reinvest that tax windfall on even more projects benefiting the already privileged.

Related stories:

Cities Displace Poor and Minorities for Luxury Development

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