Hostility to cyclists and bike lanes often seems to be a proxy for wider anger at gentrification. But does this urban phenomenon really arrive on two wheels – or is new cycle infrastructure a sign the street has already transformed?
In 1996, San Francisco’s department of parking and traffic published a draft of what was to be the city’s first bicycle-specific transport plan. Almost immediately, cyclists in the city noticed something amiss: there were no bike lanes planned for Valencia Street, a popular route through the largely Latino Mission neighbourhood. Opposition to the plan grew so intense that the following year, a crackdown against pro-cycling protesters ended in a riot.
Two decades on, Valencia Street is one of San Francisco’s more desirable addresses. Luxury apartments and fashionable bare-brick cafes sit cheek by jowl with colourful political murals and tiny bodegas.
And Valencia is now a cycling hub too. Indeed, the street became the first in the city to replace car lanes with bicycle paths.
Rightly or wrongly, gentrification is often seen as a process that arrives on two wheels. From Red Hook in Brooklyn to London Fields, fixed-gear bike-wielding young professionals have flocked to former industrial lots and waterfronts.
But does cycling really contribute to gentrification? John Stehlin, a geographer at the University of California, Berkeley who has studied San Francisco’s cycling politics, says the relationship is complex. “Cycling feeds into wider urban changes, including gentrification, but it does not cause gentrification. A bicycle lane gets put on a street that is already undergoing change.”
When it comes to cycling, our cities are certainly changing. The numbers cycling to work in London more than doubled from 77,000 in 2001 to 155,000 in 2011, according to census data. Brighton, Bristol and Manchester all registered big increases, too. In the US, the number of people cycling in the previous 12 months increased from just over 47 million in 2008 to more than 66 million in 2015.
Gentrifying districts are often those most suited to cycling. Closer to the inner city, they were often built during the age of slow-moving, horse-drawn carts. In the 10th arrondissement of Paris, for example, where on-street parking is scarce, the bike is often a far more rational choice than the car for newcomers.
But the growth of city cycling is not purely utilitarian. Among what urban theorist Richard Florida calls “the creative class”, the bicycle is a potent symbol of identity and status. And more bikes, it seems, means more well-paid knowledge economy jobs. “Cycling to work is positively associated with the share of creative-class jobs and negatively associated with working-class jobs,” Florida wrote in 2011. Consequently, local hostility to cycling infrastructure has often been a proxy for wider anger at gentrification.