Bike Lanes Are For Everyone: Fact-Checking Claims that Only “The Privileged” Want Safe Cycling Infrastructure

Transportation Twitter is buzzing today about an anti-bike lane op/ed in Crosscut that argues, among other things, that new bike lanes in the overwhelmingly white neighborhood of Wedgwood will hurt minority-owned businesses; that the only people who ride bikes are a vaguely defined group known as “the privileged”; and that bike improvements that have dramatically reduced traffic violence in the Rainier Valley represent an imposition on a neighborhood that did not ask for and does not need those improvements.

(The piece, by Latino Civic Alliance board chair Nina Martinez, might as well have been ghostwritten by local attorney Gabe Galanda, who has been making almost word-for-word identical arguments against bike lanes in the Rainier Valley and Wedgwood on his Twitter page.)

Instead of arguing the issue on Twitter, I decided to fact-check the piece line by line to show why bike advocates are so worked up about its central claim, that “Seattle’s bike lobby needs to check its privilege,” and by the suggestion that low-income people and people of color don’t want or need safe places to ride. The text of Crosscut’s article, in its entirety, is in italics.

A downtown bike lane once estimated to cost $860,000 is now $12 million per mile.

The biggest inaccuracy in Crosscut’s editorial, and the easiest to fact-check, appears right in the very first line of the piece, which claims two things: A bike lane downtown was going to cost a total of $860,000, and now costs $12 million a mile.

Let’s take those two things in turn. Was a downtown bike lane supposed to cost just $860,000 total?

No. In fact, it doesn’t take much digging to realize that this is false on several levels. Go just one layer past the frothing, error-riddled Danny Westneat column linked in Crosscut’s editorial and you learn, via Times reporter Mike Lindblom, that “Actually, the city didn’t promise downtown bike lanes for only $860,000 a mile. Nor did it overrun budgets by a factor of 14. That figure is an average that includes much cheaper locations.” Whoops. So not only was there never any specific bike lane that was supposed to cost a total of $860,000, the $860,000 per mile figure that Westneat cites is actually a citywide average for all bike infrastructure.

As for $12 million a mile : The Times also reported that a huge percentage of that $12 million figure are costs that have nothing to do with bike lanes. In fact, Lindblom makes that abundantly clear early in his story, noting in the first few paragraphs that “There’s more to a project than paving a bike lane.” The $12 million per mile cost includes things that have absolutely nothing to do with bikes and that are in fact largely for the benefit of other roadway users, such as new sidewalks, repaving the entire roadway (not just the bike lane), adding new streetlights on both sides of the road, and replacing the subsurface sewer infrastructure. The actual cost for a representative $3.8 million, 4.5-block bike lane project on Seventh Avenue, once all the non-bike-lane portions of the project are factored out? $136,020.

The cost of the Burke-Gilman “missing link” in Ballard is now pegged at $23.5 million.

This, like the “$12 million for a bike lane?!?” figure, is misleading because it includes many expenditures that have nothing to do with bike lanes per se. The total cost of the “Missing Link” now includes many extra goodies demanded by industrial businesses in the vicinity of the trail, who have dragged the project out for years (and years) (and years), so that now, the bike path itself only makes up 30 percent of the cost of the trail extension, according to SDOT.

In fact, the Burke-Gilman “trail” extension has become more of a full-corridor project, thanks to those concessions to businesses, and now includes repaving part of NW Market Street, adding an brand-new intersection for freight access at 54th Avenue NW and Market, funding transit improvements on Market, adding signals that will make it easier for freight traffic to cross the trail, and rebuilding freight businesses’ driveways up and down the trail. These are not bike projects; they are car and freight mobility projects, and including them in the cost of the “trail” is highly misleading.

The city is removing small and minority-owned business parking in Northeast neighborhoods like Wedgwood and Roosevelt. The average Seattle taxpayer should be infuriated.

No citation is given for this claim that business owners in the Wedgwood and Roosevelt neighborhoods are largely “small and minority-owned,” but here are some demographics that help paint a picture of the part of town Martinez is talking about. The ZIP code that includes both Roosevelt and Wedgwood, according to the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey,  is 81 percent white, 4 percent Hispanic or Latino, and just 2 percent African American. That’s much, much whiter than Seattle as a whole, which is 69 percent white and 7 percent Latino/Hispanic and African American, respectively. In comparison, the ZIP code that includes much of Southeast Seattle, 98118, is 35 percent white, 10 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 27 percent African American. I believe we can safely assert, based on those figures, that neighborhood businesses owned by local residents in Wedgwood are less likely to be owned by minorities than neighborhood businesses in other parts of the city.

Moreover, businesses on 35th Ave have been complaining about street parking being removed for bike lanes for much of the past five years, since the 2014 adoption of the latest version of the city’s Bike Master Plan. (The claim that the Businesses complain about parking every time bike lanes are proposed in a way that will remove free on-street public parking for cars. They complained about bike lanes on 65th Ave. NE, on 75th Ave NE, on Nickerson Street, on Stone Way… and they will complain about the next bike lane just as loudly.

(Incidentally, SDOT’s survey of parking utilization in the area around the planned bike lane found that on-street parking was never more than 50 percent full within a block of the project, demonstrating that removing a small number of on-street parking spaces on one side of 35th Ave NE will not significantly impact drivers’ ability to find parking near neighborhood businesses.)

 

Support

 

Bottom line: This isn’t about minority-owned businesses—it’s about business owners who feel, contrary to what the law actually says, that they own the public streets in front of their establishments. Business owners are free to provide parking for their patrons; what they are not free to do is claim that the public street right-of-way, which we all pay for, belongs exclusively to them and their car-driving customers.

I am concerned about the proliferation of bike lanes for another reason: because they displace the underprivileged and reapportion to the privileged, public monies that should be dedicated to mitigating our city’s homelessness crisis, income inequality and neighborhood gentrification.

There is no evidence whatsoever that bike lanes themselves are somehow “displac[ing] the underprivileged.”  As for the rest of the claim, it’s a standard canard used for any number of issues: Why are we spending any money on X, when we should be spending all our money on Y?  The fact is that the city has had a bike master plan since the Nickels Administration, and that bike safety has been a longtime priority for Seattle (at least in theory) for many reasons, among them: Making it possible for people who don’t own or can’t afford cars to get around the city safely; decreasing carbon emissions that disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color; improving safety for all roadway users, not just cyclists; reducing the number of people who are killed and injured by drivers on our streets; improving public health and reducing obesity in the city; and reducing car dependence so that people of all ages, incomes, and abilities can get around the city comfortably and safely. In any case, the ten-year Bike Master Plan adopted in 2014 clocked in under $100 million; even if all of that money had been allocated to “mitigating our city’s homelessness crisis” alone (leaving aside the other goals of fixing “income inequality and neighborhood gentrification”) it would scarcely make a dent in the need. (In contrast, the recently overturned head tax was projected to raise about $75 million a year). And more people, including people of color in neighborhoods where cyclists are forced to share street space with zooming automobiles, would die as a direct result.

For all of our progressive political ideology, Seattle is one of the most racially hegemonic cities in America.

Fifty years after city law was changed to declare housing discrimination illegal, historical neighborhoods of color like the Central District, International District and Beacon Hill are now some of the most desired areas to live in our city. Those neighborhoods have been gentrifying over the last 30 years. But the people of color business owners who were once segregated into these neighborhoods — by further adverse housing practices like “redlining” in the 1970’s — are being priced out of those same neighborhoods today. 

This is accurate. And has nothing whatsoever to do with whether business owners in Wedgwood get free parking, or whether bike lanes benefit communities of color.

And the challenges of small businesses in our city are not limited to those historically disenfranchised neighborhoods. Seattle ranks first in the country for small business growth. Yet Black and Latino residents who together comprise 15 percent of our city’s population, for example, own less than 5 percent of businesses citywide. It remains a real struggle for people of color and immigrant members of our community to realize the American Dream of small business ownership.

Again, this is true enough, but what does it have to do with businesses in wealthy, white neighborhoods who think city taxpayers should subsidize free parking for their patrons? It’s like writing an op/ed trashing Mayor Jenny Durkan for her policy on homeless sweeps but making every other paragraph about the problems facing women in STEM fields.

What is missing from Seattle’s governance and infrastructure planning is honest discourse about these difficult issues — about our checkered racial and socioeconomic history, and about how past and recent development decisions in City Hall have displaced and still displace historically marginalized communities and small businesses. Instead, city planning officials too frequently pay homage to the special interests of the privileged, like the small but loud bicycle lobby. 

You’ll get no argument from me that we need to talk more about our checkered racial and socioeconomic history—particularly Seattle’s history of redlining people of color out of “desirable” single-family neighborhoods and then perpetuating that formal segregation in the post-Jim Crow era with zoning rules that effectively bar low-income people and people of color from buying or renting homes in the vast majority of the city even today. The idea that the “bicycle lobby” is “privileged,” however, is straight out of the business lobby’s playbook. Remember when “Save 35th Ave. NE,” the group that is pushing to preserve parking for cars at any cost, put out a dog-whistle tweet suggesting that low-income “single moms” don’t ride bikes? Not only did single moms quickly disabuse the group, en masse, of that sexist, classist notion, they staged a protest ride to make the point that single moms, moms with partners, and women in general can and do ride bikes all over the city. The notion that “techbros” are the only people out on bikes is quickly dispelled by walking or riding on the Burke-Gilman Trail, much less in any neighborhood where biking is actually relatively safe—which makes the case for more bike infrastructure, not against it.

A 2017 SDOT survey found that only 3 percent of trips to local businesses are made by bicycle, as compared to by foot (40 percent), car (35 percent), or transit (18 percent). For small business owners, brick and mortar and customer access are vital, as is their workforce. Yet Seattle continues to spend tens of millions of dollars to replace parking spots with bike lanes, for the benefit of the privileged few.

Well, yes. People tend to walk to neighborhood businesses, because, well, they’re located within walking distance. People tend to bike for slightly longer distances. And they tend to drive when they have to carry things home with them, or run errands with kids. But wouldn’t it be great if neighborhoods were safe enough that some of those people who are running local errands by car felt comfortable cycling to local businesses instead? The fact that a lot of people currently drive isn’t actually an argument that our transportation system should or will always be this way, it’s evidence of the fact that we have spent the past 100 years designing a transportation system for the past 100 years for cars, and we’ll have to work just as hard, on a much faster timeline, to make our streets welcoming places for cyclists and other road users as well.

As for “the privileged few”: It’s a common canard that only rich, white men need, want, or benefit safe bike infrastructure. It’s also patently false and, in light of the actual demographics of bike riders, paternalistic and insulting to the many low-income people, women, and people of color who ride bikes. As a former Southeast Seattle resident who gave up riding to work because Rainier Ave., the most direct and least hilly route to downtown or Capitol Hill, is so demonstrably dangerous, I am an avid advocate for safe bike infrastructure. But let’s not rely on anecdotes from one person who commuted from Southeast Seattle daily for years, taking her life into her own hands. Let’s look at the numbers.

• Biking is rising fastest among people of color, particularly African Americans and Asian Americans. Meanwhile, Latinx people ride bikes more than any other ethnic or racial group.

• People of color are also more likely than other groups to say they ride bikes for transportation, rather than recreation, belying the claim that bike commuting is for rich white people only.

• Although most Americans say they would like to bike more often than they do, people of color are most likely to say this, and to say that protected bike lanes, in particular, would make them more likely to make them get on a bike.

• Latinx cyclists are the group proportionately most likely to die from traffic violence, followed by African Americans, giving them a direct stake in improving bike safety in their neighborhoods.

• Finally, the lowest-income Americans bike far more for recreation and transportation than people in the highest income brackets, largely because many low-income people cannot afford to own a car.

Access to safe bicycle facilities is thus a racial and social-justice issue. To pretend otherwise by relying on lazy stereotypes about Spandex-clad bros on racing bikes is to willfully ignore the facts about who’s riding bikes, and why.

“Bike Lanes Are White Lanes” author Melody Hoffman explains that the emergence of bike lanes in once segregated and now gentrified neighborhoods sends a clear message to those who live and own businesses there — that their voices don’t matter. She urges “urban planners and bike advocates who are planning this infrastructure to not just bring projects into neighborhoods.” Instead, bike lane projects should be “community-driven.” Hoffman calls out the privilege we are seeing here: “For the white middle class person, they feel that their one barrier is they need a protected bike lane to feel safe, but that is not the lived experience of all people.”

In fact, the very lengthy process for bringing protected bike lanes into the Rainier Valley was spearheaded and championed by a community-based organization called Rainier Valley Greenways, which led the charge for a series of “road diets” on Rainier Ave. S that have reduced crashes in the corridor, which has long been known as “the most dangerous street in Seattle” for the literally hundreds of injuries and fatalities caused by car crashes every year. After years of work that included a protest march in Columbia City and countless meetings with community members and city officials, the group finally won changes that have resulted in dramatic (95%) reductions in aggressive speeding, a 41% reduction in the number of people injured while walking and biking, and no significant delays to bus or car traffic driving through the corridor. According to the owner of one Columbia City small business, quoted by KING 5 in 2016, “The benefits far outweigh the downside.”

Seattle is at a crossroads. We are the fastest growing U.S. city. But we also have major societal problems caused by the unprecedented insurgence of wealth. As a city we must decide how to spend taxpayer dollars responsibly and equitably, ensuring that we are also serving and protecting small businesses. It is unacceptable for city officials to impose a bike lane agenda on neighborhoods like those proposed throughout the Rainier Valley without bothering to stop, look around and listen to peoples’ life experiences.

Again, the changes that have been made in the Rainier Valley, specifically, came from the community and would not have happened without strong advocacy from within the community—a community that was tired of seeing its residents maimed and killed by cars and trucks speeding down a street that was originally designed as a highway for cars traveling between Seattle and Renton.

Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Seattle City Council must now hit the pause button to allow transparent community development conversation to occur. Until then, there will only be more discord — with underrepresented communities still feeling that nobody in City Hall cares what they think.

I understand that this is an editorial, and that sometimes editorials aren’t fact-checked as assiduously as reported stories. However, even editorial opinions are stronger when they’re based on facts and data rather than opinions and innuendo. In this case, those opinions lead to some startling and problematic conclusions of their own. Asserting, contrary to evidence, that only privileged white people ride bikes, for example, is a way of erasing the people of color who are endangered every day by terrible or nonexistent bike facilities in their neighborhoods. Suggesting that Rainier Valley residents had bike lanes and road diets shoved down their throats erases the Rainier Valley residents who volunteered their time for years in the fight to get safe bike facilities on at least a small stretch of the most dangerous street in Seattle.

Ultimately, I think people who pit bike lanes against other priorities (bike lanes or solving homelessness; bike lanes or fixing income inequality) know that defunding safe infrastructure for cyclists won’t mean more money for homelessness or stopping gentrification or anything else. They just see “bike lanes” as a froufrou, unnecessary expenditure that benefits rich white guys in Spandex. It’s up to news outlets, including Crosscut, to examine the facts and determine whether that claim holds water. I hope they will follow up and do so.

* This story initially misidentified local attorney Gabe Galanda as Galanda Broadman, which is the name of Galanda’s law firm.

Pedestrian Safety and Equity in the Rainier Valley

This post, a more detailed account of the pedestrian-safety announcement I reported on in yesterday’s Morning Crank, originally ran in the South Seattle Emerald.

Less than an hour after Mayor Ed Murray wrapped up a press conference to announce new pedestrian-safety improvements along Rainier Avenue South, a collision between a car and a semi shut down the intersection of Rainier and South Alaska St. — an in-your-face reminder that whatever the city has done to calm what is frequently referred to as “the most dangerous street in Seattle”, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. 

Last year, council transportation committee chair Mike O’Brien noted, there were about 10,000 crashes in the city. Of those, fewer than 7 percent involved cyclists or pedestrians, but that 7 percent accounted for about 62 percent of the fatalities from crashes in the city. Although Seattle remains one of the safest cities in the country for pedestrians, progress toward actually achieving “Vision Zero” — the city’s goal of zero serious injuries or deaths from crashes by 2030 — has stagnated.

Murray chose Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in Brighton to announce new investments in pedestrian safety not only because the school won a $300,000 grant from the city to improve sidewalks in the area, but to highlight the city’s new emphasis on creating safe routes between schools and transit stops. In the next year, Murray said, the city will build 50 new blocks of sidewalks at a cost of $22 million; by 2024, the city plans to add an additional 200 blocks.

The plan announced yesterday would also accelerate by one year the extension of new pavement markings and crosswalks that have been added along Rainier from Hillman City to Alaska Street — improvements Murray credited with limiting “off-roading” by speeding cars like the one that plowed through the Carol Cobb Salon in 2014 — further south, at a cost of $2.25 million. Over the next two years, seven more streets across the city will get the Rainier Avenue treatment. The funding for all the new projects will come from the $930 million Move Seattle levy voters passed in 2015.

Less flashy and expensive, but potentially more impactful, were some of the small changes Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) Director Scott Kubly said the city was making to improve pedestrian safety at individual intersections — and the process the city will use to determine which intersections get upgrades. Instead of reacting to incidents after they happen — say, by reducing the speed limit and width of a road where cars have a habit of jumping through windows — the city will use modeling to figure out intersections that are likely to be problems before accidents occur.

SDOT-Director-Scott-Kubly-Speaking-About-Planned-Rainier-Ave-S-Improvements-at-March-2017-Conference-at-Brighton-School
SDOT Director Scott Kubly speaks about planned improvements to Rainier Avenue South in front of Brighton Elementary School (Photo: Erica C. Barnett)

For example, Kubly said, “we have seen a fair number of crashes with left turning vehicles where they have permissive left turns” — a regular green light without a left-turn arrow — “particularly in places like Northeast 65th Street,” where several serious crashes have resulted when a driver speeding down the hill has turned left into an oncoming cyclist or pedestrian. At intersections where the city knows accidents are likely, SDOT will preemptively add what Murray called “pedestrian-friendly signals” — walk signs that allow pedestrians into an intersection before drivers’ light turns green, giving walkers greater visibility — and traffic lights with left turn signals, which reduces conflicts between left-turning cars and pedestrians (or trucks) heading straight through an intersection. By adding leading pedestrian signals at 40 intersections citywide, Kubly said, the city expected to reduce crashes by 50 percent at those intersections.

Pedestrian safety, Murray said, “is an equity issue,” and that’s certainly been true in the Valley, where, neighbors have been requesting pedestrian safety improvements along Rainier for the past 40 years. Historically, Rainier has had more crashes per mile than arterial streets that carry more than twice as much traffic. Further east, surface-running light rail trains pose a particular challenge to pedestrians, who must traverse unprotected light rail tracks to cross Martin Luther King, Jr. Way; earlier this year, a pedestrian was struck and killed while crossing the tracks in a crosswalk.

Asked whether SDOT planned to follow danger “indicators” wherever its traffic engineers found them, even at the risk of abandoning its commitment to geographic equity, Kubly responded, “the mayor has made it abundantly clear to me and the department that we need to be equitable in our work… One of the things that is true in Seattle and a lot of other cities is that the incidents of serious and fatal crashes, and just collisions in general, tend to be in areas that also present more need for equitable investment” — that is, poorer and historically neglected areas like Southeast Seattle — “so I would anticipate that by following the data we’ll be investing more in neighborhoods like the Rainier Valley.”

Morning Crank: The Right Side of History

Peter Rogoff

In the spirit of last Friday’s Morning Crank, here are five things I heard at the Transportation Choices Coalition’s New Year’s transportation forum, held last Wednesday at City Hall. I moderated the panel, which included city council member Rob Johnson, TCC advocacy director Abigail Doerr, King County Council member Claudia Balducci, and Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff. In truth, the statements I’m quoting are from Rogoff and Johnson, whose comments dealt specifically with the political situation in Seattle; this is not an attempt to silence Doerr or Balducci, the two other women on the panel, whose thoughts on Metro, transit on the Eastside, and the future of transportation advocacy were cogent and valuable. For my Seattle politics site, though, I’ve focused on the remarks specific to Seattle politics, and encourage you to watch the whole event yourself on the Seattle Channel website; the whole thing runs about an hour.

1. Johnson, on what it will take to ensure that Metro’s expansion of Rapid Ride bus service throughout the city will be true bus rapid transit, not just express buses stuck in traffic: “We need to connect with individuals on the ground about the rationale for why [we’re building Rapid Ride]. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a conversation with somebody who articulates their strong environmental values and in the same breath talks to me about how important it is for people to have more parking spaces in the city. We need to do a much better job connecting the values of our city around sustainability, the environment, and race and social justice with the importance of capital facilities like bus-only lanes.

“The 44 is a critical bus route that runs, basically, from the very tail end of Ballard all the way through Fremont, Wallingford, and the University of Washington, and I believe we should be expanding that as a Rapid Ride corridor and running it all the way to University Village. When we do, we’re going to receive opposition not just from the community but from business owners who will say, ‘Taking away a parking space hurts my business. My argument would be that everyone who gets on and off a bus has a wallet too, and they could be spending money in your business.”

“It’s really disturbing for me when I hear somebody talking about how glad they were to see the neighborhood district councils stand up for single-family zoning and then in the next breath disparage the president for wanting to build a wall between the US and Mexico. I see those two things as actually linked.” – City Council member Rob Johnson

2Rogoff, on the long history of collisions, many of them fatal,  between light rail trains and pedestrians in the Rainier Valley—a lower-income area, populated largely by people of color, that is the only part of the regional system where light rail runs primarily at street level: “This is not just a light or rail grade crossing safety risk. It is also, quite frankly, more prominently a pedestrian safety risk. There’s a tendency for people to be walking on the streets looking at their devices with earbuds in their ears and it’s killed a whole bunch of people. It already did. There’s only so much we can do, frankly, for someone who insists on walking singularly focused on their device, with music playing in their ears, when our warnings, our available warnings, in addition to putting down gates to actually block [the crossing] is lights and alarms.” (Rail crossings in the Rainier Valley, it’s worth noting, do not include physical barriers between pedestrian areas and the tracks.)

3. Johnson, on the possibility that the city and county will lose federal funds in retaliation for remaining “sanctuary” jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration crackdowns: “We will fight back against those cuts. There is a strong argument that we can make that says you can’t cut our transportation dollars because of a decision that we make on immigration, but we also are prepared to lose every single penny of those federal funds to make sure that we are a welcoming city.

“The biggest concern for me is watching the appropriation process on an annual basis, making sure that the federal funds that have been allocated to us as a region actually get appropriated to us.”

4. Rogoff, on the possibility that the Trump Administration could cut federal funding, to Sound Transit (Trump is reportedly taking its cues on transportation from the Heritage Foundation, which advocates eliminating federal funding for public transit, and his transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, is a GOP insider who is closely affiliated with the foundation):  “[Trump] said a lot of things, actually throughout the campaign. … There’s a lot of upticks that come with [transportation budget] proposals in some administrations and downticks that come with proposals [in] other administrations, but often Congress levels out the upticks and downticks quite a bit. Congress is going to have to consent to the budget presented by the White House. … I would just say, watch this space and see if their proposals will be as draconian as expected.”

Rob Johnson

5. Finally, Johnson, bringing down the transit-loving, density-friendly house on the contentious University District upzone, which Johnson’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee will discuss tomorrow morning:  “This is about making sure that the council members that represent those districts where we’re going to see long-term investments are also going to be willing to stand up to single-family homeowners who are saying,  ‘Don’t turn my single-family home into a place where you can build a duplex or a triplex.’

“I feel, as the chair of the committee, that it’s my responsibility to make sure that we’re a welcoming city for everybody, and it’s really disturbing for me when I hear … somebody talking about how glad they were to see the neighborhood district councils stand up for single-family zoning and then in the next breath disparage the president for wanting to build a wall between the US and Mexico. I see those two things as actually linked. I see us, as a city, really needing to build more housing for more people, because we’re adding 40 people per day but we’re only building 12 housing units per day, and that’s creating an economic circumstance where lower-income people and middle-income people are being forced out of the city, and I think we need the political will for folks to step in that space and create change for more density around those stations. I firmly believe that. It may result in me only having this job for four years, but if that’s the case, I feel like I’ll have gone down on the right side of history.”