Bicycle Gentrification

By: JustAnotherCyclist, writing for

DSC02034Gentrification is one of those loaded, sometimes misused or overused words. But it is also a word that has come to pack a hell of a wallop in certain social settings. For those that are being displaced, the word can represent a very legitimate feeling of frustration, helplessness and fear. For those actively engaged in encouraging and planning for it, the word is synonymous with profits. And for those perceived to be part of the problem – intentionally or not – the word is an accusation of perceived evils for which one may or may not be directly responsible.

Unfortunately it has taken on a bit of a “shortcut to thinking” role in a lot of social discourse. It has become so wrapped in political correctness that it is risky at best to argue in favor of anything that is represented as “causing gentrification.” It is a flag that can be raised by any opposition force that is, at best, politically tricky to argue against.

On the other hand, the impact of gentrification on those not benefiting from it is not to be dismissed. It is understandable why they would raise that flag of gentrification when they feel threatened. Gentrification is, by definition, a somewhat amorphous opponent. It is more of a process than a specific enemy. When we can clearly identify a person, group, or activity that seems connected to this unseen force, it provide a convenient way to talk about a very real, yet vague, problem.

Does the new wave of bike lanes in the city feed the pressures displacing working-class communities of color, as many bike lane opponents charge, or is this a diversion from the more serious problems of transportation injustice? What should bicycle advocates and the city’s transportation agency do in this highly charged situation?

— ‘Bike Lanes and Gentrification: New York City’s Shades of Green‘ by Samuel Stein

It is from this later vantage point that cycling has unfortunately been drawn into the struggle over gentrification.

I’ve previously looked at the connection between gentrification and cycling over on, and I don’t want to simply reiterate those thoughts here. Rather, I want to try and force myself to step back and look at this from the bigger picture. I’m constantly trying to push myself to see things from other people’s perspectives. And by doing that I have to acknowledge how people may judge me.

I live in a section of San Francisco that finds itself right smack dab in the middle of a struggle of gentrification. Now in my particular case, I moved in with a long-time resident and share her house with her. From this perspective I can reasonably and truthfully argue that I haven’t displaced anyone. I can absolve myself of any moral guilt I may feel about living in a neighborhood that is right in the middle of a wave of gentrification. Sure… that might make me feel better in the moment. But there is another side to that.

I am also the guy that you can see riding through the neighborhood more days then not decked out in full lycra race kits on my bike. I’m the guy that rides a bike that cost more than some people paid for their cars. And if I saw me, after waking up to face yet another morning where the landlord is trying to raise the rent on the place I and my family live in… well… it is all too easy to use me as the personification of the unnamed fear faced every day.

It is from this perspective – with this understanding – that we must look at the perceived connection between cycling and gentrification. I choose the phrase “perceived connection” rather carefully. It actually reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite movies. To paraphrase: “The world operates not on reality, but on the perception of reality.” And in the world of bicycle advocacy, it is what people think that we need to be concerned about. We can throw tons of research at them. Cite well written papers on the subject. But ultimately we need to be aware of the emotional reaction.

This came to a head for me very poignantly when there was a somewhat unfriendly exchange between myself and another member of a local online community board. It is a place where folks share ideas, happenings, concerns and such, localized to neighborhoods. As you can expect from a neighborhood facing gentrification, some of the conversations can become contentious.

This particular conversation surrounded a yearly cyclocross event. The person that brought it up was concerned about the ecological damage to the park that hosted it, but also made the claim that the event was an act of gentrification.

As a cycling advocate, I was anxious to address her concerns here. As a member of this neighborhood, I also wanted to understand the why. I want to fully comprehend why it was she thought this event was so detrimental – and more specifically why she thought it was causing, contributing to, or representative of gentrification. Unfortunately our conversation was not very productive, but there was another member of the community that had some interesting thoughts on the idea.

I think the event should be presented in a way that reaches out to the whole community to let people know what the event involves, how they can be a part of it, and how the organizers are respecting the park and the community. I could see that approach might help people feel included and relieve some legitimate concerns.

On the other hand if it’s not handled that way, a big part of the community will feel like “outsiders” showed up, did their thing, used local resources and left – again. That’s been a recurring theme in this area – from sporting events to toxic dumping. So people understandably have concerns about events like this. And event organizers have a responsibility to address that in any community.

To me that is a part of the community impact you were asking about. On some levels it may not be just about concrete things like environmental harm or traffic. It can also be about the way people in the community feel about how things are done. Everyone wants to feel respected and included.

Activities and events like this have the potential to start breaking down barriers and strengthening the community if they are done thoughtfully, with consideration for those issues. Or they can add fuel to already simmering fires. Yes, even a fun one day niche event can unintentionally send up sparks!

  — Rashawn Miller, Bayview resident (quoted with permission)

Those comments struck a nerve. For me this hits the central, core problem in regards to cycling.

I’ve mentioned it before, but cycling is an odd sort of activity that seems to find itself on the two extremes of society. There are those that ride because the have no other choice due to financial or legal restrictions, and those that ride because they have the socioeconomic status to be able to make that choice. Unfortunately, generally speaking these two groups don’t look the same. They tend to dress differently, and ride different bikes. Now it is very true that these distinctions are being blurred. The current generations – especially in our urban centers – are increasingly eschewing cars in favor of bicycles. But for many people, these two “polar opposites” are the stereotypes that are hardened into their minds.

This distinction seems even more sharp in the context of “competitive” or “professional” cyclists. Cycling is arguably one of the most international sports (next to football aka soccer) which makes it somewhat puzzling that it is also one of the most racially homogenous of all. Add to that the fact that a competitive cycling event, by definition, will bring in people from out of the neighborhood instead of from within the neighborhood and the idea of “invasion by the outsiders” is just more accentuated.

For me, I think this event is very much an example of a lost opportunity. If we as cycling advocates are to shed the stigma of gentrification from cycling as a whole (which I do honestly believe is a purely emotional reaction that doesn’t represent the facts) we need to embrace every opportunity to show how that joy of cycling so many of us experience as kids can translate into a “real sport” the way that baseball, basketball and soccer do for so many of your young kids today.