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.)
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.