Bike lanes and the threat of gentrification
Beneath the parking gripes and political favoritism that countenance bike-lane opposition in NYC lurks a fundamental anxiety about gentrification. From afar, it’s easy to see why. Bike lanes are physical changes to the streets, and they promise to bring new faces to the neighborhood: tattooed 20-somethings cruising Williamsburg on single speeds, finance bros cutting up the East Village on Citi Bikes, aggro dads riding their pricey racers to Prospect Park… Et cetera.
New Yorkers have always been hard on transplants, scapegoating them for high rents while mocking their provincial sensibilities. Cycling is often cast as one of those sensibilities. One speaker at the CB2 meeting, a middle-aged man who said he’s lived in Clinton Hill for 15 years, expressed this anxiety directly. “This bike lane isn’t for us! We’ve never asked for one! It’s for people who just got here!” His comments were met with cheers from the crowd, many of whom were holding flyers with block letters that read “THE COMMUNITY VOTES NO.”
(A note about those “votes”: According to the city’s charter, community board votes are purely advisory, which means these groups don’t have any direct policy-making power. If the city wanted to, it could listen to residents’ objections, then go ahead with the street redesign projects anyway. Unilateral action like that isn’t unheard of; de Blasio took it to push through a street redesign on Queens’ “Boulevard of Death.” It’s uncommon, though, given the indirect pressure that community boards exert over local officials during elections.)
To view cycling in NYC as a conspicuous affectation of young, educated, upper-middle-class New Yorkers is to sell it short, though. Nationally, census data suggests that commuter cycling decreases as household income increases, and Ben Fried of StreetsBlog pointed out that “support for bike lanes in general cuts across racial and income demographics in the city.”
But to longtime residents with a lot to lose -- parking, affordable rent or property taxes, access to places of commerce and worship -- street redesign often looks like the thin end of gentrification’s pitiless wedge. What if the rents go up, driving out low-income residents? What if the rents go down, hurting property values? What if no one can park near their shops, and all the shops close?
In reality, the opposite is often true. But in 2016, the fear of the unknown is occasionally still enough to motivate a broad coalition against a new bike lane. It has a real and chilling effect on bike lanes and the safety of the city’s riders. With blessings from neither the community board, nor politicians, the DOT was forced to table its Clinton Ave plan just a month after the meeting I attended.
Where we are now
In the meantime, New York’s streets remain bloody. Five days after Leah Sylvain’s death, another cyclist was killed by a hit-and-run driver in the Bronx. Less than four weeks after that, a biker was dragged to his death by an aggressive hit-and-run driver in Williamsburg.
Despite the setbacks, safe-streets advocates are cautiously optimistic about the NYC DOT’s other plans for 2016. “If [the department] can keep up the pace of what they’re doing this year, we’re going to be in pretty good shape,” mused Fried. The protected bike lane on Chrystie St, which will provide a safe approach to the 4,500 cyclists that use the Manhattan Bridge every day, passed with flying colors at a meeting of Community Board 3. Amsterdam Ave’s protected lane is finally taking shape, despite the opposition the DOT faced in Community Board 7 in early 2016.
“It used to be that we’d make one step forward and two steps back,” Doug Gordon said hopefully. “I think it’s the other way around now -- two steps forward, and every once in awhile, one step back.” Each setback to the city’s redesign efforts, though, bears potentially fatal consequences for New Yorkers. Leah Sylvain is just one of 15 cyclists slain on the pavement this year so far. The death toll will climb, and nothing -- not helmet laws, repainted sharrows, or NYPD cyclist crackdowns -- will reduce it to zero as quickly as protected bike lanes. So let’s build them.