Bike lanes are being created all over the city Atlanta, whether residents want them or not.
The lanes are supposed to help unclog traffic by facilitating a commuting mode that doesn’t belch carbon. It’s Smart Growth. Or New Urbanism. And when talking to the bike crowd, the cause carries a sense of moral superiority.
But on the west side of Atlanta, not far from Morehouse College, a 1,000-foot section of bike lanes on Westview Drive was torn up and replaced with parking spaces after local dissent. The move came after the congregation of the 131-year-old Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church complained to the city that the protected bike lanes (the kind with barriers) were messing up their traffic flow.
Last month, the bike lanes disappeared, just as suddenly as they had appeared months earlier.
One of the ministers at the church, Jonathan Whitfield, told radio station WABE that the lanes were a symbol of gentrification for many of the residents of the longtime African-American neighborhood.
“Most people feel like these bike lanes are not for the people here,” he said. “It’s for the people to come.”
The area will soon see the newest section of the Atlanta Beltline open, an event that will undoubtedly kick off development of tapas bars and brewpubs. Many residents see the influx as a plus, but it also brings up worry and talk about the G-word.
“We saw it as a sign of gentrification, of being pushed out,” Whitfield told me. “A lot of people don’t want to hear it but it’s the truth.”
The fact that Whitfield is one of like 10 candidates running against longtime City Councilwoman Cleta Winslow has brought up accusations from biking activists that he’s conjuring up an us-versus-them scheme to gin up votes.
Whitfield said it was all about disrespect. There was no community engagement, he said — something that several neighbors along the road also told me.
“If you’re going to come in and plant roses in my front yard, ask me about it first,” he said. “This is a largely poor community. We ask for things all the time, like better sidewalks, but don’t get them. But then we get this?! In an area where hardly anyone rides bikes?”
(I spent two hours Thursday on Westview Drive during the afternoon rush hour. The street was busy with cars and pedestrians, but I saw just one person using the bike lanes.)
After the radio interview, Whitfield got into it with biking advocates on the Bike Commuters of Atlanta Facebook site.
Advocates argued that in a year of existence, the bike lanes reduced crashes on that stretch by a third.
One cyclist wrote, “Thus cycling advocates are actually concerned about multi-modal access opportunities, which inevitably lead to upward mobility. I understand the issues of displacement and outsiders, but I don’t think bike lanes should be used as a scapegoat.
“Kids ride bikes, too,” he added, “and more would if they had more safe spaces. The westside communities don’t need more status-quo, suburban-minded politicians.”
After getting e-battered, Whitfield finally responded on the Facebook site, “Honestly, I am disgusted with the lack of empathy in this group for the lives of the people in this area. All you guys care about are bike lanes.”
Interestingly, almost all those who debated Whitfield on the biking site were white.
Bike lanes have been a harbinger of gentrification for years. The English paper, The Guardian, last year wrote about it in London. The story noted that black residents in Portland, Ore., and members of a black church in Washington, D.C., opposed similar efforts.
That article went on, “Samuel Stein, a graduate student at the City University of New York, has researched the city’s cycling infrastructure. Rather than building bike lanes to connect marginalized communities with public transport, cycle paths are often used to encourage investment in gentrifying neighborhoods.”
Atlanta Councilman Ivory Young, whose district is just to the north of the current discussion point, said “this is an issue all across the city.”
People are voicing opposition near Piedmont Park and bike lanes got shot down on Peachtree Road in Buckhead. But the mixture of class, race and gentrification here give this skirmish an uncomfortable undercoating.
Young said residents fear getting priced out of the homes and apartments they rent, or squeezed out of the modest homes they own as property taxes jump.
As he spoke, Young asked, “Don’t paint a picture of me as a bike hater.” Being seen as anti-bike in Atlanta politics is almost as bad as being spotted wearing one of those red Trump ball caps.
“We can label it fear of gentrification, but we are here to serve the constituencies,” Young said. “You have to ask yourself, ‘How many people actually ride bikes?’ When you take away traffic lanes to serve bikes, and a large part of the population doesn’t ride bikes, then that constituency doesn’t need to acquiesce to the will of people who don’t live in that community.”
I spoke with a dozen residents on the west side of Atlanta about the lanes and what they think about how it went down.
The reaction was varied. One, a motorist, shook his head in disgust as a school bus forced him and a line of cars to back up as it made a turn onto the now-tight lanes on Westview Drive.
William Harden, an older man who rides his bike to sit with friends at the corner of Westview and Lawton, said, “I use them. They keep a car from hitting you. It helps the kids, too.”
James Keitt, a landscaper who lives nearby, doesn’t know many people who use them.
“I’m down with the church,” he said. “Maybe if the bikers showed up at church, they’d put (the lanes) back.”
Andre Harris, a longtime resident, said the lanes promote safety, “but not many people around here bike.”
He said he feels the push of gentrification — again, he sees the good and the bad — but he laughed when asked if he thought the lanes were being built for residents yet to come.
“You think they’re gonna ride bikes?” he said with exaggerated surprise. “They’re going to get in their BMWs or their Lexuses.”