But the idea that bike lanes are the exclusive domain of the city’s younger, whiter class is too simple a story. Like any stereotype, it has holes when you examine it closely; head out onto Beach Drive when it’s closed to cars on the weekends, for instance, and you won’t come back thinking the only people who are serious about bikes in the District are white. David Alpert, editor of the blog Greater Greater Washington, suggests the brouhaha was propped up by media outlets looking for a quick way to frame last year’s mayor’s race. “I think to some extent it became an easy shorthand for people writing about race relations and about divisions in D.C.,” he says.
“There’s a tendency of people writing or commenting on politics to make it about one thing versus another,” Alpert continues. “It’s easier to talk about politics if half the people are one side and half are on the other. Bike lanes got stuck in this place that got fit into that mold, got portrayed into fitting into that mold. People said, ‘Oh, I understand politics now—it’s about young yuppie bikers and longtime black residents.’ I haven’t ever seen that anyone give any evidence that that was the dichotomy so much as that it sounded good.”
Of course, this is D.C., where the fact that local demographics settle along color lines—many of the city’s poor residents are black, and many of its rich residents are white—only adds to the underlying tension. But even here, not every hot-button issue needs to be so starkly divisive. Not even bike lanes.
Any city moving forward with bicycle infrastructure faces a battle, according to Andy Clarke, the president of the League of American Bicyclists. Look at New York, where transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has been vilified in Park Slope (where brownstones sell for nearly $2 million) and Staten Island (a stronghold of the white ethnic middle class) alike for installing lanes. There will always be opposition to bike lanes, and Clark says it’s nearly impossible to characterize or typify those who don’t want them—save for one kind of mind-set.
“I think it’s probably fairly predictable in being that whoever feels threatened, you’re taking stuff away from. If you’re taking away parking, or a travel lane, or a street corner, or an old rail corridor, whoever feels they’re losing something is going to get bent out of shape,” he says. “You’ve got high-class opponents and areas where people have complained about bike lanes going through poor neighborhoods. I don’t think race or class or income is the issue. I think it’s fear of the unknown and fearing losing something that you’ve had is the most common denominator.”
Greg Billing, of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, suggests there might be a strong generational divide. “There are a lot of Latino and a lot of black riders out there, and to make it sound that it’s just a white interest isn’t true. I think it’s definitely more of a generational thing—though you do see a lot of old black guys riding bikes. I think it’s more cultural,” he says. There’s a certain rational logic to this: The average 25-year-old will have an easier time than the average 65-year-old when it comes to riding from the Mall to Columbia Heights—no matter what their age, income, or taste in microbrews.
But the nature of urban politics means bikes can’t just be written off as a matter of different strokes for different folks. For neighborhoods that have gone years without much disruption, bike lanes are an affront—and an emphatically visible one, at that. They might cost very little to put down—the approximately 1.5-mile 15th Street NW cycle track, currently the District’s fanciest, cost around $300,000—but bike lanes starkly delineate that a different way of life is creeping in.
Consider Tom Smith, a commissioner in ANC 3D, in Upper Northwest. “This is the city, but it’s not the inner city. We’re more of a suburban environment. The irony is, you’ve seen bike use expand pretty dramatically in the community. I can’t speak for the entire ward, but, yes, bike use has expanded rapidly,” he says. “I think one of the problems is that there hasn’t been a whole lot of outreach by [the District Department of Transportation] on bike issues. Mostly you find out things after the fact, and people start scratching their heads and asking, ‘Why is this being done here?’”
Smith’s ANC covers neighborhoods like Spring Valley, Tenleytown, and Wesley Heights; he and Christopher Jerry live on diametrically opposite sides of the city. But their skepticism of bike lanes is almost identical. Both say DDOT laid down lanes without giving the usual chance for locals to weigh in, which typically manifests itself in community meeting upon community meeting. Both believe that bike lanes will encroach on parking, a near-existential threat in their neighborhoods’ suburblike settings. Both ask why anyone needs the lanes, because they rarely see people riding in them, anyway. If anti-bike-lane sentiment were really about race or class, it’s unlikely that a white guy from Ward 3 and a black guy from Ward 7 would sound nearly exactly the same when they talk about the topic.