Bicycle and car photo from Shutterstock.com.
Like many parts of our nation where many different people coexist, there are divides in the Washington region. Like many places that are changing, groups of people can direct resentment or intolerance at each other.
In many neighborhoods, new, more affluent residents are moving in, disrupting an existing social fabric that endured when many turned their backs on such communities. Likewise, the social order of our streets, where cars had almost exclusive use of the street save for delineated side sections for pedestrians, is giving way to a new one where multiple kinds of vehicles share space.
In both cases, new social norms are still catching up to our changing city. But it’s easy for all of us to see another group, all visibly different in some way from ourselves, and lump them together. That goes for cyclists looking at drivers, drivers looking at cyclists, longtime older residents versus newer younger residents, or many others.
In a new column, Courtland Milloy says that “the bicyclists” in the area have “nerve” for, among other things, “fight[ing] to have bike lanes routed throughout the city, some in front of churches where elderly parishioners used to park their cars.” And he specifically mentions me for pointing out a “Trampe” bicycle escalator as one tool which might be useful on 15th Street.
The Trampe is so far from an actual, serious, actionable proposal that it’s not worth debating, but Milloy is also alluding to the fight over the M Street cycletrack and Metropolitan AME church. That was a prime example of groups of people not speaking to one another or building bridges.
Some church members felt that cyclists were interlopers trying to remake the fabric of a city that is only desirable because of the churches’ hard toil when others were abandoning central DC. At the same time, some newer residents too readily dismiss churches’ needs and concerns by pointing to laws concerning parking which don’t match a more unwritten social understanding that had been established for many years.
Church leaders told city officials that a bike lane was a nonstarter and rebuffed bicycle advocates’ requests to meet and talk. Some bicycle riders belittled churchgoers for living outside the city. And so on.
It’s easy to denigrate others, but harder to understand why they feel aggrieved.
There’s plenty of injustice, and it’s right to be outraged
Milloy points out:
I recall in the not-so-distant past when the city’s bikers weren’t newly arrived, mostly white millennials but black juveniles whom D.C. police frequently stopped — at least in neighborhoods that were being gentrified. Stopped for riding on sidewalks. Stopped for riding in parking lots. Now that kids like them are being moved to the outskirts of the city, if not out altogether, the District government is bending over backward to make Washington a more “biker-friendly” city.
Milloy highlights two failures of society here. First, police disproportionately stop young black males on the street. That means that that black youth who, for example, smoke marijuana are far more likely to be arrested than white youth. Black youth who break rules in school are far more likely to end up having the criminal justice system deal with the issue and possible punishment, while white youth far more often get a stern talking-to and a promise from parents to make sure it never happens again.
This sort of disparity is absolutely unconscionable. Mounds of books, articles, blog posts, and more have and will be written about this issue. We must not tolerate it.
This has little to do with bicycling. Bicyclists in DC are in fact probably very likely to support reforms to these injustices.
Second, it is entirely true that affluent groups of people tend to get more of what they want. They push for city services with more success. They lobby for zoning and historic preservation restrictions to protect elements of their neighborhoods and push change to other communities without this power.
Bicycling has long been an activity for two groups: those who can’t afford cars and those who can, but choose to ride anyway. Now that the latter is growing quickly, there is new political support for bicycle infrastructure.
But you’d scarcely find a single member of that second group who feels that the lanes should just go in expensive neighborhoods. Bike lanes do not discriminate among who can ride a bicycle in them.
Cyclists, like many others, want to be safe first
Cyclists are precisely the group who want to see more bike lanes in Ward 8. Cyclists aren’t looking to win some sort of battle about the soul of the city. They’re looking to get where they want to go more easily and safely.
Yesterday was also the sixth anniversary of Alice Swanson’s death. She was crushed under a garbage truck at Connecticut and R. Let’s not forget the real human toll that traffic crashes can cause. And let’s also not forget that people in poorer neighborhoods die or suffer in many ways as well, and often their families lack a voice to speak about their injustice.
Bicycling generates an odd juxtaposition where the typically most privileged members of our society — mostly young, often white, primarily male, highly-educated — get to know what it is like to be a minority and feel threatened. Nikki Lee wrote that “cycling is awfully similar to being a woman,” because random interactions are usually safe but every so often could be dangerous or fatal; small obstacles can be far larger just for you; and if something happens to you, society will probably blame you, the victim.
It also gives these privileged people (myself included) a chance to be reduced to a single adjective. To have people — even respected ones like NPR’s Scott Simon — assume something about you because of a superficial characteristic they can see.
There are jerks among every group. Some are riding bicycles. Some are driving. Some are white, black, old, young, gay, straight, trans, tall, short, athletic, bookish, long-haired, or like Milloy, sporting mustaches.
It’s difficult to see past surface categories and understand people as people rather than as symbols of some group.
How about some bike lanes in Ward 8?
Milloy also says that “So far, more than 72 miles of bike lanes have been carved out of city streets. There are virtually none in Ward 8, by the way, which has the lowest income and highest number of children of any ward in the city.”
There should be bike lanes in Ward 8. Unfortunately, DDOT planners have often tried to suggest bike lanes in projects, like the Great Streets program a few years ago, and hear angry residents say things like, “You just come in here with ideas and don’t listen to us,” and, “We don’t want any bike lanes in our neighborhood.”
The Washington Area Bicyclist Association has been working to address this with its outreach east of the Anacostia River. Black Women Bike has been trying to dispel racial and gender stereotypes. But a few programs won’t dispel misconceptions overnight. We need far more dialogue and interaction, on bicycling, on gentrification, and on much more.
I would like to work toward building these bridges across the divides in our city and region. I would love to work with Courtland Milloy to achieve that, and emailed him to reach out last night. Former DC council candidate John Settles has been talking about convening conversations among disparate people in DC.
I hope that if we can find the right venue for conversations, the readers of Greater Greater Washington, and of Milloy’s column, will participate, not to point fingers at another side or deride their misconceptions, but actually to learn from each other and let understanding win over hatred.