Are Bike Lanes For White People?

The Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis. Photo via  Flickr  by Michael Hicks.

The Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis. Photo via Flickr by Michael Hicks.

words by Senah Yeboah-Sampong


The ongoing transformation of any major city –– the demolition, reconstruction and recontextualization of spaces where we live, work and play –– expresses that city’s aspirations and character. The stories put forth by the people who shape a place often determine the nature and trajectory of that transformation. And while the ongoing transformation of Minneapolis, Minnesota contains a multitude of stories, one version is often told the loudest while the others are obscured, or worse, erased. 

One particularly lauded Minneapolis story is the city’s commitment to bicycle culture and infrastructure. Local government and community members continue to invest across a network of off-street and protected bike lanes that cover over 200 miles, and the “Nice Ride” public bike share program is in it’s eighth year of operation. These city-led initiatives, along with strong ties to cycling as a culture and industry, have made Minneapolis noteworthy on a national and international stage. The city routinely finishes in Bicycle Magazine’s top five biking cities in the nation, and in 2015 was the only American city ranked in the annual  worldwide index of bike-friendly cities collected by a Copenhagen-based design firm. 

In her new book Bike Lanes Are White Lanes, the scholar and avid cyclist Dr. Melody Hoffman aims to complicate this story by examining the overlapping issues of urban planning, gentrification, transportation advocacy and racial inequity within the realm of bicycling. Through ethnographic research in bicycle advocacy circles in Minneapolis (alongside Milwaukee and Portland) Hoffman posits that bicycles act as a “rolling signifier.” In other words, a bicycle outwardly communicates different messages as it moves through different socioeconomic and cultural spaces. While some communities may view biking as an altruistic transportation choice, others see an everyday material necessity. Furthermore, the emergence of freshly painted bike lanes in gentrifying neighborhoods whose political requests and grievances were historically ignored or suppressed, sends a clear message.

The national biking boom –– spurred by an increasingly health and environmentally conscious public –– usually first brings to mind “roadies:” white men in snug lycra folded over sleek carbon fiber frames, clipped into their pedals and clutching their drop handlebars. Yet, there is a far more nuanced bike culture, or cultures at play –– commuters, couriers, mountain bikers, BMXers and everything in between. Data collected by the Sierra Club and the League of American Cyclists in a study called The New Majority shows that most everyday cyclists are working people, immigrants and people of color. But these groups are not on the minds of urban planners when they draw up expanding bike infrastructure. 

This tension is front and center on the Minneapolis Midtown Greenway. Once a five and a half mile abandoned railroad trench that bisects South Minneapolis from east to west, that trench was redeveloped and repurposed to become a major artery for bike and pedestrian traffic. As time passed, a more diverse population utilized the Greenway and began to chip away at that vague roadie stereotype by simply riding the path. But not before condos and apartments were raised along its margins, touting the Greenway as an incentive for the incoming, upwardly-mobile, mostly-white creative class to buy in.

As a bike commuter for the past ten years, bike courier for the last two, and a Black American, the layers of conflict within bike culture evokes mixed emotions. My perspective has shifted and been demolished like many homes, pulled apart like so many railroad ties, fenced off like one particularly memorable bridge and buffed like so much enlightening graffiti. The process of gentrification comes from a pairing of the means of a city government with the visions of neighborhood organizations. In the spirit of missionary work, these public-private partnerships seek to meet a common goal, presumed to be in the best interest of all residents, whether those residents know it or not.

With the influx of new residents, spiking rents, and dwindling traditional housing stock, a new Greenway planned for the city’s geographically isolated and predominantly black Northside has sparked more frank and open discussions around transportation equity, advocacy and implementation. What is the true scope of the proposed Greenway’s impact given Minneapolis’ reputation as a biking haven? What would what mean for a section of the city where the first seeds of gentrification have already been planted? If the idea of a cyclist differs so drastically from what most of us might imagine, will these questions be taken for granted, if considered at all?

As detailed in The New Majority, the challenge to bicycle equity lies in leveling “the playing field when it comes to access to safe, efficient and well connected bike travel for all communities.” The Northside greenway project, seen from the viewpoint of The New Majority, may present a new chance for civic decision makers, bike advocates and the industry writ large to connect with a “new wave of grassroots leaders in a manner that advances the movement for transportation equity nationwide.” For a city that has set precedents in their commitment to bicycle infrastructure, Minneapolis could be fertile ground for a more inclusive bicycle advocacy movement. 

I spoke with Hoffman earlier this month to shed more light on how Bike Lanes addresses the intersection of bicycle advocacy, infrastructure, institutional racism and gentrification, and the importance of understanding a neighborhood’s history. 


Greenroom: In Bike Lanes Are White Lanes, what were some of the major conclusions you drew, and how long did it take you to gather all that information? 

Melody Hoffman: “My main conclusions were focused on urban planners and bike advocates who are planning this infrastructure and these bike events, to not just bring projects into neighborhoods. For example, the Northside [Minneapolis] Greenway project is now technically community-driven. But the people who pitched it were not from the community. These projects need to be community-driven.

Something controversial that I said [at a talk at Boneshaker Books in Minneapolis] was the idea of ‘well, we know what’s best for them. So they need a bike path, and we’re going to bring it to them.’ I’m only questioning, well what if these people don’t want a bike path? Maybe they have other infrastructure issues that come first, and how can [institutions and organizations] help them achieve that? As a sidenote, the Minneapolis Bike Coalition has already somewhat filled that request; for instance, when they recently did Open Streets on Lake Street, they got permits to close down the street. But there were some Latinx community groups that were kind of angry that the coalition got their streets closed because the other groups had been trying to get their festivals on Lake Street but they could never get it closed. And so it looks like, ‘the powerful white people on bikes get whatever they want and the Latinxs don’t.’ So the Coalition’s director worked with those community groups and gave them some tips and tricks to get the street closed, which I think have been successful. So, using your power and privilege to help communities because it builds trust and relationships for future projects [is important]. 

The other thing I talked about was understanding neighborhood history before you plan things. On the Northside those issues similarly came out at community meetings and it’s still coming out now, where people are saying, ‘We’ve been ignored for so many decades, why now? What’s the catch?’ Or, ‘What’s in it for us?’ Also, having to understand other cultures and how those cultures understand transportation and biking. Like, the Hmong community getting really amped up about this greenway and not wanting to have their parking spaces taken away. People were quick to dismiss them, but I think if people had done research into all of these neighborhoods to see what their responses would be, they might’ve been able to preempt some of those complaints. 

But when it comes down to it, if you’re going to present to a diverse community and all the people on your team are white, it’s instantly going to create some tension, even if you are a racial justice advocate. It doesn’t matter. They see what they see and there’s decades –– centuries –– of mistrust of the white man. And so people have to really understand that, especially bike advocates and especially white mainstream bike advocates, because they show up with so much privilege to begin with.”


GR: You’ve talked about cities using the lure of cycling infrastructure to attract members of what you called the creative class. Relative to the working class or middle class or middle class, where does this creative class fall into or blend across these classifications?

MH: “So Richard Florida coined the term ‘creative class.’ I’m not a supporter of his theories, he’s just the guy who came up with the term, and it makes sense to me. The creative class covers around upper to middle class. They are highly-educated, but they differ from the people who live in Edina or the other rich suburbs around here in that they want the grit of the city, but only to a certain extent. Like, they want to be here, in this, like what we’re seeing right now –– we’re on Nicollet and 26th Street. They want to be a part of this because it’s not cool to live in Edina anymore, right? It’s cool to be here but they don’t want to actually engage with the community. They want to see the grit from a distance, not right in front of them. So that’s why you don’t have a bunch of creative class people living in North Minneapolis. They’ll come here and pay an arm and a leg for a loft apartment. I think it’s the same thing with Philips [neighborhood]. I really think it’s good that the gentrification hasn’t hit Philips or North Minneapolis, but the reason for it is just straight-up racism.” 


GR: You showed in your Portland study how these bicycle amenities led to a drastic shift in demographics, or at least came as one part of that. Do you think there is anything the Twin Cities are doing to prevent something that drastic from occurring? 

MH: “No, I don’t think they’re doing anything to counter it. I think the Minneapolis Bike Coalition at least is very aware of the conflation of seeing bike lanes as being for white people. One of the critiques of my own research is that I didn’t speak to enough people of color about their experiences biking. I tried multiple times. It’s not an excuse, it’s just that people will read me as a normative bike advocate, so they won’t want to talk to me because they don’t trust me. And it takes a long time to build trust, and when you have a deadline for a project [it’s difficult]. But I don’t think it’s necessarily Minneapolis’ fault. This concept of bicycle amenities being for white people is so ingrained that it is going to take a lot of undoing to change that understanding, as it would with any stereotype. I’ve noticed this; that the spandex dudes are always in the bike lane and the working class people are often on the sidewalks.”

The Midtown Greenway. Photo via  Flickr  by Payton Chung

The Midtown Greenway. Photo via Flickr by Payton Chung

GR: I’ll put it like this. I rarely see the people you’re referring to, who rip up the Greenway, doing the same at street level. 

MH: “Those guys, I can’t stand those guys. They are the number one reason why the Greenway is the way it is. Because they take up so much space, and it makes people feel very uncomfortable. I’ve heard lots of anecdotes about that. And the Greenway Coalition doesn’t do enough to counter that. Me and my friend Laura have spoken at length about wanting to do campaigns down there basically shutting the spandex guys down, because these families go down there and they want their leisurely walk with their kids, the kids on their bikes and then zoom, zoom, zoom.” 


GR: I can speak to my experience. I’m scared shitless every time I leave the house. Everyday. I have pretty bad anxiety around all the messed-up things I see in the news.

MH: “You’re not the only one. And riding your bike can be a very vulnerable activity. You live on your bike and you have that down, but imagine getting new people on to bikes, and they’re experiencing that anxiety every day because of the police. It’s very easy to pull someone over when they’re on their bike. Officers do it all the time. We have to be aware of and understand that anxiety and drill into people the need to get on bikes all the time. Mainstream advocates for a long time made getting black people onto bikes a big goal. How tokenizing is that? They’d wonder where all the people of color were, without looking at the issues as to why they maybe aren’t getting into it.” 


GR: You also spoke to a population which had at least formerly been described as ‘invisible cyclists,’ people uncommonly seen in this stereotypical vision of bike culture that even me as a fairly avid cyclist might have. Do you feel like there are people who are trying to make that population more visible and out in the open? 

MH: “Yeah, totally. Tamales y Bicicletas, Cycles for Change and other community organizations that are small. In some ways, the Nice Ride neighborhood program. But what those organizations are doing is more so giving undocumented people, working-class people access to bicycle amenities. They are creating a space that’s comfortable to walk into versus somewhere like the Hub, which they might find to be an intimidating space. Cycles for Change has a much different vibe. It’s a very DIY, low-key space where community-driven work gets done. It’s the same with Tamales y Bicicletas, where the demographics that they want to draw in, those are the people working there.” 


GR: In the last chapter of the book, you wrote on what you marked as the beginning of the equity era, and finding ways to bring more people into cycling advocacy as part of a larger goal of creating greater transportation equity. Regarding Minneapolis, you said that it had become a process of working towards more community involvement recently. But you also said that as you began bringing some of these ideas to people in advocacy circles, you fell out with them. Why do you think you were getting that pushback? What about your ideas did they disagree with or found discomforting? 

MH: “It’s double-layered. I tend to pass as a normative bike advocate and so when I was doing my research, I got a lot of information that they probably wouldn’t have said to another person. Not inside secrets, but they talked to me as if I were an ally in support of their project. I wasn’t an ally or an enemy, I was just listening. But they would talk to me just like I was one of them, like [former Minneapolis Mayor] R.T. Rybak. It was the best ten-minute interview I’ve ever had in my life. I couldn’t believe it. It changed my project. He read me as a member of the creative class and said, ‘Oh, we want to keep you around.’

So I think some people felt like I deceived them in that they trusted me. I see myself more as an academic journalist because I just like to hear what other people say. I don’t like to create my own theories as much as I want to share people’s voices that don’t have an amplified voice. So, I think I lost their trust, but I also pushed them to think about their programs in a hard way.” 


A Bike Lane in Portland, Oregon via  Flickr  

A Bike Lane in Portland, Oregon via Flickr 

GR: You also wrote on two distinct agendas with regard to creating the North Williams bike lane in the Portland case study. One was to educate the people about the structural plans and the other was to educate people about the neighborhood’s history. Can you speak a little bit to the role history could or should play in biking infrastructure development and planning? 

MH: “That was one of my recommendations, was that people understand the history fully. Understanding the neighborhood history is paramount because it’s impossible that in all these neighborhoods there’s urban planners living there. There’s always going to be an outside factor coming in. But then a part of the process has to be a planning tool, where the planners understand the history of the neighborhood, read about it, talk to residents, understand what’s going on because then you can preempt concerns people have. In some ways it’s like learning the playbook before you have to play the game. But if you hear a lot of people say, ‘I don’t know about a bike lane, but we need our alleys plowed more regularly, or we need composting bins,’ if you can address that, even if it’s not in your jurisdiction to make those changes, address it in some way. What ends up happening is that people think you’re just ignoring their history. If you actually educate yourself on it, it goes a long way to building trust with communities. 

I think community organizing is another good tool. Community organizing takes a long time, and you can’t have some white lady show up to the park with a clipboard. People are going to scatter. But if somebody from the neighborhood that people recognize struck up a conversation about, ‘Hey, I hear the city could put in a bike lane. What do you think about that?’ You’re going to get such genuine responses that way. I say these things, and they seem so simple to me, but no one does it because it takes time. It takes work. It’s just easier to do it the status quo way.”


GR: You’ve also said there is a need to make biking a viable transportation option, but also a need to make that option equitable. What could be done to make cycling more equitable? 

MH: "There’s a lot of layers to making bicycling equitable. I think that first off there’s ensuring access to actual bikes that are cheap. Many aren’t looking to spend more than $150, which is fine, but there are other options available, like Sunrise Cyclery, right down the street, they’ve got $50 bikes. They got kicked out of Uptown, but that’s okay because a large part of their clientele got pushed out as well. So, changing the imagery of who a bicyclist is and being very strategic if you’re a bike organization about the faces you put out with your marketing and doing outreach.

I helped with the Nice Ride Neighborhood Program for its first two years and I listened to people about what they needed to be  a successful bicyclist. A lot of them didn’t say bike lanes. They said, ‘a trailer for my kid; a way to get groceries home.’ They wanted to know good routes to take. They weren’t like, ‘oh, if I only had a bike lane, I’d bike more.’ It’s a totally different form of outreach and education. People just wanted to know how to ride safely because many just don’t know.I think Minneapolis is really focused on infrastructure because it gets us awards. We don’t get an award for getting fifty more Latinx people on bikes, you know? It’s hard to get funding that way, too.”


GR: What motivated you to write this? Do you feel your understanding of yourself, within bike culture, has changed or evolved? 

MH: “I started researching women in bikes, but I noticed that there were more important issues. When Trayvon Martin was killed, I decided that, basically, I was doing okay, like, I’m not going to die. I do have to worry about being sexually assaulted; that’s my fear, but I can go around the city with relative ease and not feel like I’m going to die everyday. So I was like, “alright, my project needs to shift. I can’t drop the project. I’m still invested in biking, but how can I bring in this racial equity part. 

Another thing that made me think about it was, I was living on the Greenway right by the Bryant entrance. I would bike to the University of Minnesota all the time. When I got here from Milwaukee, I connected with a lot of the “cool” bike crew, like, the cool bike messengers group. They would often talk a lot, drinking beer on the Greenway, sitting on the bridge. Sometimes, I’d be biking home and I’d notice the police always harassing Native Americans and I’d ask myself, ‘What the eff is this?’ Then I learned about the history of the Greenway and I thought, well, this is messed up. So as my racial justice lens was sharpening, I was applying it directly to biking and thought, “Oh my god, the same thing is happening here and nobody is talking about it.” Once I heard about Portland I was like, ‘okay, it’s on.’” 

Bike Lanes Are White Lanes is available for purchase here