Cycling and development

I saw something today which resonated with the topics of last week’s awesome Mobility4All panel. One of my take-aways was that bike infrastructure became associated with gentrification partly because the bike advocacy movement chose to pair infrastructure with economic development in order to gain political influence. This strategy has been effective at increasing infrastructure investment in some cities, but encountered the problem that not all communities view economic development through the same lens. In particular, disadvantaged communities often view economic development as increasing the risks of displacement and gentrification. And that’s especially true when development proposals feel like top-down plans coming from outside the community.

In my field work this manifested as a planning disaster in North Minneapolis, as advocates forced through a neighborhood greenway which later had to be removed due to community opposition.

Today, Andy Singer (who you may recognize from his “No Exit” cartoons) posted on about the possibility of re-purposing part of a railroad bridge across the Mississippi to extend the popular Midtown Greenway.

Person in white shirt holding up bicycle in front of line of tanks (as in Tianamen Square)

One of Singer’s bike cartoons. I find this equivalence jarring.

As part of Singer’s argument for the project, he juxtaposes these two points:

An Extension would also connect East African immigrant communities in the Philips and Cedar-Riverside neighborhoods with a large community in Saint Paul’s Midway.

Real Estate Development

There are areas just east of the Mississippi that have the potential for real estate development, near both St Anthony Avenue and Mississippi River Boulevard on currently unused railroad land that’s either connected or could be connected to adjacent neighborhoods.

Saint Paul’s Midway neighborhood is among the poorest in the Twin Cities. What might the East African community there think about the possibility of real estate development? Is a bike/ped bridge one of their priorities? Do they even feel welcome on the Midtown Greenway, where a number of studies have shown that gentrification has accelerated?

Cycling infrastructure often feels like it’s imposed on neighborhoods by outside forces, because it often is. If we as advocates purport to speak for the interests of disadvantaged groups, we had better spend some time listening to how they articulate their needs and gaining understanding of their communities. We are part of the structural inequalities of our society; let’s not reinforce them.

One Response to “Cycling and development

  • As a former Oakland Resident (34th and Telegraph), who grew up in Berkeley and Oakland and now lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, I think you’re mis-characterizing my comments and don’t understand the issues involved in a Saint Paul Greenway Extension. By “real estate development”, I’m referring to large, unused parcels of formerly industrial land along a railroad line …and trying to increase the city of Saint Paul’s property tax base– taxes that pay for schools, libraries, social services and just about everything in the city. Saint Paul is the capital of Minnesota. As such, it has a lot in common with Sacramento California or Albany, New York. A huge percentage of the city’s real estate belongs to state government agencies, NGOs, non-profits and other non-property-tax-paying institutions. By some estimates, a third of the property in the city is property-tax exempt. So this greatly reduces our city budgets (versus cities like Minneapolis or San Francisco). Add to this numerous freeways that were rammed through the city in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s, obliterating more property-tax-paying real estate on an epic scale (not to mention obliterating people’s lives and ability to build wealth) …as well as abandoned or mostly abandoned railroad lines, rail yards, and industrial property. When I got here in 2001, it was completely dead and functioned much like Oakland in the early 1990s (when I last lived there). Wealthier middle class people (mostly white) commuted into the city’s downtown, often in cars whose freeways had obliterated the communities around downtown, and they worked many of the government and non-government corporate jobs, including police and fire because there were no home-rule laws. At 5pm, they took all the money from those jobs out to their suburban homes and communities and the city stayed in a death spiral of dis-investment. Vast amounts of real estate were devoted to surface parking. Starting in the 2000s, the city has tried to implement new-urbanist strategies to build up its property tax base and improve the city. This included building more low-income and mixed-income housing in what were formerly vacant lots or surface parking in downtown and along neglected major arterial boulevards like University Avenue that once had fixed rail transit but where thrown to the automobile in the 1950s– similar to Broadway and parts of Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. Many of us also tried to de-center the car as the focus of transportation and street design because car-oriented development was partly what got us into the mess we find ourselves in today. This included trying to help people get around by bicycle, walking and public transit and designing streets that were safer to walk and bike on. All of these things have borne some fruit (as they have in Oakland) …though we’d have to completely remove or cover-over some of the major freeway trenches if we ever want to get parts of the city back from automobile destruction. So my comment about “Real Estate Development” was in this context and directed towards city and county officials who want to increase the property tax base but don’t necessarily see the ways that a bike trail might be able to do that.

    As you remarked in an interview with my friend Bill Lindeke, bikeways are viewed as gentrification, as are many other efforts to invest in cities or make them less automobile-oriented hell-holes. This has to do with the racism and class-ism that’s baked into almost all aspects of city planning. We don’t pay people to participate in city government, so the people who show up for public meetings and hearings tend to be wealthier (because they have the extra time, childcare, etc to participate) and they tend to be white. Historically, we’ve often preserved affordability in our cities via dis-investment. If neighborhoods are crappy, concrete, car-oriented hellscapes, cut off from jobs, goods and services, then they stay “affordable”. We need to address these issues– improving access to the political process for lower income people and figuring out how to invest in cities without gentrifying them. There are various ways to do this. In the meantime, I’m a volunteer who spends time promoting putting a bike trail on a virtually unused rail line that will eventually be abandoned and offers increased, safer connectivity to people without cars and the potential to increase the city’s property tax base by converting unused industrial lots into tax-paying housing, offices or retail. I don’t see the problem with that.

    I grew up in Berkeley and Oakland but I haven’t lived there since the mid 1990s. As an outsider coming back periodically in the intervening 25 years, neighborhoods where I lived have improved from the standpoint that there are actually functioning businesses that stay open after dark and people out walking and biking at night (and daytime) …and there are ways to walk and bike to destinations that don’t involve risking being hit by cars that didn’t exist 25 years ago. Those seem like good things to me but I realize that rents have gone way up as well and there are other trade-offs. Despite my knowledge of the place and some of the people with whom I’m still in touch, I’ve been gone for 25 years. So I wouldn’t write about it as if I was an authority and I wouldn’t dis someone I didn’t know who was trying to do stuff there. I hope I’d be accorded the same respect from you in Saint Paul.

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