A church on 6th Street NW opposes plans to build a bike lane there. As a bike advocate, it’s easy to be frustrated with that. But really, this is a chance to make region better by putting ourselves in each other’s shoes.
There are a lot of people who want new bike lanes along 6th Street NW, but also a lot who don’t. Members of the United House of Prayer, a church with a rich history in DC, are among the most vocal opponents.
If your urbanist-nerd social media stream is anything like mine, you woke up this morning to a flurry of news and commentary about last night’s DDOT public hearing on the matter. And reading through some of the arguments against the bike lanes, I got mad and exasperated. Did you?
But wait. Urbanism and smart growth should be about building stronger communities, yes usually through the built environment. But building better communities for everyone. Our movement, our community, whatever you want to call it, doesn’t always do a very good job at this. We can do better. We talk a lot about wanting to do better.
So let’s stop for a minute.
Those of us who consider ourselves urbanists should look past how and what the churches are saying for a few minutes and think about why the churches saying it the way they are. I am trying, as much as I can, to put myself in those church members’ shoes, and to give their motives the benefit of the doubt. And you know what happens when I do that?
I can start to see a very different perspective from my own. I can see how a decades-long history of those in power ignoring my race and culture’s needs and voices starts to wear thin, and I can see how this would just seem like the latest in a never-ending stream of decisions that don’t take what I want and need into consideration. That don’t address what I see as priorities.
If seeing it through that lens seems unfathomable for you, I encourage you to keep privilege in mind. Ask yourself if you might be having a hard time sympathizing because, to you, this is just an instance of one particular group wanting special privileges. But what if it is YOUR OWN group NEVER EVER feeling respected for your wants and needs.
When I try to put myself in UHOP’s shoes, I can begin to see some of the fear, and frustration with a changing city and changing times that’s causing them to act that way. If they know they won’t be listed to because of their skin color, maybe something else we value in this country — freedom of religion — WILL be listened to.
So as we try to build bridges with communities that don’t look and sound like us, my plea today to those of you who look like me is to imagine yourself in church members’ shoes (and try not to doubt the genuineness of their motives) today.
Have a little compassion for neighbors with a long history of being downtrodden, hurt, and afraid. And then ask yourself, how can we talk about this, and find a solution, that isn’t us-vs-them. Even if down the road, others say it is. We can do better.
It sounds from WABA’s Freedom of Information Act request that the need for bike lanes here really is a safety issue. I hope we build the lanes. But even more, I hope the urbanist community stops thinking of the people at last night’s meeting as “them”. “They” are our neighbors. Part of our community.
We should really make an effort (and not just a show of one without any real personal effort and soul-searching) to at least understand where these members of our greater community are coming from. And that’s not to shortchange any of the public outreach DDOT has worked to do so far.
If urbanists and smart growth advocates want traction, we should welcome as many people as possible; not shut people out before they’ve ever had a chance to interact. Let’s try to act and speak from a place of compassion, not one of frustration and anger. Let’s be open to others’ perspectives, motivations, and histories.
For just a moment today, let’s set aside the arguments against the bike lanes, and talk of religion and taxes and everything else. Let’s try to understand the underlying why of our neighbors (whether they live in the District, or in Maryland, or wherever) making these arguments. Whether or not arguments against the bike lanes are factually correct, or whether we agree with those arguments, let’s understand the emotional and historical reasons people opposing the bike lanes feel compelled to speak up.
This isn’t our first and won’t be our last opportunity, but it is hard. We need to start a real conversation that results in compromises that actually make sense. It’s tough to have a fight when there’s so much tension on both sides. But I think it’s on us to figure out how to make it happen.
I hope we’ll give it a try. It’s being a good neighbor to our fellow human beings, and it’s a good thing to do. Race, and inequality, and history, and understanding are all vital to the future we all want.