Review of Bike Lanes are White Lanes

Hoffmann, Melody L. Bike Lanes Are White Lanes: Bicycle Advocacy and Urban Planning. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Pp. 210. Notes, bibliography, and index. $40.00 hardcover.

Reviewed by Cat Ariail

Although a slim book, Melody Hoffmann’s Bike Lanes are White Lanes is powerfully relevant. Hoffmann, a communication studies scholar (and avid bicyclist), critiques the whiteness of urban bicycle culture. Recalling a question she once asked herself at 24-hour bicycling event – “Why did a bicycle event committed to community building in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Milwaukee have to be so white-washed?” – Hoffmann seeks to answer it. She enthnographically explores bicycle events and issues in three ostensibly progressive urban enclaves – the Riverwest 24 in the Riverwest neighborhood of Milwaukee, a bicycle lane dispute in the Albina neighborhood of Portland, and bike share project in Minneapolis.

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University of Nebraska Press, 2016.

Hoffmann states, “There is nothing about bicycle technology that lends itself to race and class divisions,” (p. 4). Yet, she these are what she discovers. By contextualizing her observations with the racial and class histories of these communities, she illuminates “how bicycle infrastructure can reaffirm existing societal inequalities because of the subtle, problematical impacts the bicycle has had on various communities,” (p. 4). Her book thus serves as a critical entry in bicycle studies, which has privileged (white) leftist analyses of bike culture that often uncritically advocates for the expansion of bicycles and bicycle amenities. In contrast, Hoffmann positions communities of color as important actors in debates about bicycle culture.

Her theorization of the bicycle as a “rolling signifier” allows her to illuminate the differentially racialized experiences of bicycles and their attendant culture. The idea captures the importance of space to a bicycle’s meanings. She recognizes that “there is nothing static about what the bicycle represents” because “its signification changes as it rolls through different socioeconomic and cultural spaces and time,” (p. 7). Bicycles thus communicate different meanings to different persons depending on their racial and socioeconomic positioning.

Because of historical and lived experiences, communities of color read bicycles as negative signifiers. Hoffmann shares data that reveals lower-income men of color represent the largest and fastest growing bicycling demographic in the nation. However, these men and their communities primarily consider the bicycle a marker of poverty; they experience bicycling as an undesired necessity. This reality contrasts with that of white progressives who experience urban bicycling as a choice that confers social capital.

Hoffmann’s study of the racially divergent experiences of bicycle culture is made more powerful by the neighborhoods in which she conducts her three case-studies. Riverwest, Albina, and Minneapolis all are considered progressive communities assumed not to have the fractured racial histories of the south or inner-cities. Yet, her studies reveal how race, particularly the racial privileges of whiteness, operates as a determinative force in these places.

Hoffmann employs theories of “community as/and communication” to highlight how a neighborhood communicates, or does not communicate, its identity. She realizes that “we cannot assume that a neighborhood that appears to have social capital, pride, or friendliness is necessarily in solidarity” because only some groups have “the means to decide what [a neighborhood’s] vision looks like,” (p. 37). White progressives and their politicians often consider bicycle infrastructure an apolitical and universal community good (a manifestation of Richard Florida’s “creative class” theory), while black citizens experience bicycle-centric improvements as invasive political projects. Applying black feminist geographic theories, Hoffmann recognizes that the expansion of bicycling culture often reproduces space in ways that erases alternative black geographies that are invisible to white decision makers.

To demonstrate how black communities respond to the imposition of bicycle culture and its infrastructure, Hoffmann adopts Deborah Martin’s concept of “place-based collective action frames,” which foregrounds “the relationship between activism that is based on an idea of neighborhood and that is based on the material experience of a place,” (p. 40). This theoretical positioning permits Hoffman to “focus on community members’ ideas of what their neighborhood should be and how they experience their neighborhoods” in Milwaukee, Portland, and Minneapolis (p. 40).

In each of these places, she transparently operates from a different positioning, as a participant-observer at Milwaukee’s Riverwest 24 (chapter two), an outside ethnographer in Portland (chapter three), and a scholar-resident in Minneapolis (chapter four). Her different relationships to the communities’ bicycle debates enhance her interpretations. They require to remain vigilantly self-reflexive, which results in a nuanced and critical analysis of each situation. Together her case studies highlight “how the burgeoning popularity of urban bicycling is trailed by systemic issues of racism, classism, and displacement,” (p. 50).

Her case study of Portland’s Albina neighborhood best illustrates this phenomenon, highlighting how and why “bike lanes are white lanes.” In 2011, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) and Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) provided funding for the North Williams Traffic Safety Operations Project to undertake a “bikeway development project.” The project involved constructing bike lines in the black community of Albina for reasons of safety. Aiming to pre-empt accusations of gentrification, the PBOT established the North Williams Stakeholder Advisor Committee (SAC) to “bridge cultural gaps and educate community members about the history of the North Williams Avenue area,” (p. 82).

Yet, as Hoffmann chronicles, this gesture did not stave off conflict. Black residents strongly resisted the bike lanes, calling out the city’s apparent hypocrisy. Black residents had long sought safer streets but always had been ignored. Hoffman recognizes that, for black residents, “bike lanes symbolize the systemic disinvestment in black culture and a prioritization of hip, youthful white culture,” (p. 84). Furthermore, she demonstrates how “bicycle infrastructure can paint a new image of a street while silently working to erase communities that do not relate to mainstream bicycling culture,” (p. 84).

Hoffmann contextualizes the prevailing dispute over that bike lanes with the racialized history of Albina. This historicized perspective illuminates how the recent gentrification of Albina, symbolized by the bike lanes, “is a very personal and emotional change for black residents of Portland,” (p. 95). According to Hoffmann, the PBOT “sought to avoid the potential political clash by reframing the project as one to enhance safety for all people,” (p. 104). This narrative of safety, bolstered by statistics and road designs, was promoted to obviate, instead of engage with, the concerns of black Portlanders. This response served to justify and reinforce black resistance to the project.

To address persisting race-based grievances, the SAC planned to install historical landmarks on North Williams Avenue. Hoffmann, however, astutely recognizes that, “While they remind us of what once was, historical landmarks do not require visitors to contend with their role in making the space ‘historical,’” (p. 108). Yet, she draws attention the ways Albina’s black culture has not been consigned to the past, but instead continues to haunt the gentrifying neighborhood. She applies Avery Gordon’s theory of haunting, defined as when “things are not in their assigned places, when the cracks and rigging are exposed, when the people who are meant to be invisible show up without any sign of leaving, when disturbed feelings cannot be put away,” (p. 109). Hoffmann suggests abandoned lots along North Williams Avenue, as well as black residents who remain uncowed, serve this function, disrupting the dominant narrative of gentrification.

Hoffmann’s study of Portland is rendered more powerful by the Alana Semuels’s recent profile of the city and it’s racist heritage in The Atlantic. Her studies of Milwaukee and Minneapolis likewise gain heft due to the recent public exposure of unjust and brutal policing practices against people of color in these cities. Hoffmann draws connections between violence against black Americans and their exclusion from bicycling culture in her conclusion. She writes, “The unnecessary killings of people like Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Tony Robinson, and Freddie Gray (to name just a few) make clear that within the postracial American myth, it is a life-threatening move for black people to be outside,” (p. 155). The streets of American cities, even the most progressive ones, are not designed, and thereby not safe, for persons of color. Hoffmann likewise asserts, “When faced with these racialized lived experiences, baseless arrests, and death sentences, all for being a mobile person of color, it is hard to argue that bicycling can be one step toward community safety,” (p. 159).

But she believes bicycling can encourage equity. “Bicycle advocates have successfully normalized cycling in many US cities, and their national platform is a powerful space to problematize the profiling of young people of color on bicycles,” she writes (p. 159). White bicycle leaders must use their privilege to promote justice. This requires not blindly insisting that bicycling events and infrastructure are unimpeachable, universal positives. It instead demands that all of a neighborhood’s residents be included in decision-making processes so that bike culture accommodates the needs and concerns of persons of color. Hoffmann offers advice for the three neighborhoods she studies, identifying approaches through which white bicycling leaders and advocates can foster inclusive bicycling culture and, in turn, more inclusive communities overall.

Hoffmann’s books highlights how recreation represents a provocative lens for exposing and analyzing social injustice. Recreation and fitness are not inherently racist or classist social institutions but they signify and sustain racial and class inequities. The ability to participate in such activities requires the privileges of time, money, and access. These privileges then coalesce into privileged control of the narratives of recreation and fitness, which then can confer additional material privileges. Because lower-income black Americans lack the basic privileges of time, money, and access, their narratives of recreation and fitness, or lack thereof, remain silenced, thus preventing the redress material inequities.

Exposing this dynamic, as Hoffmann successfully does, illuminates the deeply accumulated privileges and exclusions which construct American society and mediate Americans’ experiences. But, more hopefully, she also demonstrates that ensuring bike lanes are not white lanes represents a small way through which we can begin to confront the seemingly mundane but nevertheless symbolic boundaries that still divide our nation.

Cat Ariail is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Miami. She researches women’s sport and race in the late-twentieth century Americas. You can contact her at cat.m.ariail@gmail.com.

One thought on “Review of Bike Lanes are White Lanes

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