Study Says Bicycling Boom Could Bring Gentrification 

Study looks at the socio-economic effect of improving bicycle infrastructure.

Bicycling has changed Memphis but only for "some populations" while excluding others, and it has contributed to "racialized gentrification."    

That's the "sobering conclusion" of an academic article published last week in the journal Urban Studies. The report, called "Behind a bicycling boom: Governance, cultural change, and place character in Memphis, Tennessee" was authored by three academics: Kevin T. Smiley from Rice University; Wanda Rushing of the University of Memphis; and Michele Scott of North Carolina State University. 

The three reviewed 475 articles from The Commercial Appeal, the Memphis Daily News, and the Memphis Flyer using the search words "bicycling," "greenline," "greenway," and "Harahan." They also reviewed websites of bicycling projects, parks, blogs, and bicycling groups such as the Memphis Hightailers Bicycle Club. And they visited bike paths, restaurants, sidewalks, and streets.

The report said bicycling's success here has come on the heels of massive investments made in bicycling infrastructure — the Shelby Farms Greenline, the miles of new bike lanes all over the city, and the in-progress Main Street to Main Street project that will link Memphis and West Memphis via bike and pedestrian lanes.

click to enlarge Madison bike lane - BIANCA PHILLIPS
  • Bianca Phillips
  • Madison bike lane

But the study said those amenities are part of a new economic development push from a political culture that favors "citizen consumers" or members of the "creative class" without giving further definition. The new political culture also favors private developers or "growth machine elites" that have seen their bottom lines grow thanks to more bicycles on the roads. Politicians pushing bicycle amenities get political capital from the creative class and campaign contributions from developers, the study said. 

Still, Smiley, a co-author on the report, said bicycling amenities are not bad for Memphis. Instead, he said, the installations have "given people a lot of hope."

"You can take that kind of spirit and make sure that kind of spirit is being applied across all kinds of different divisions of your city," Smiley said. 

Smiley added that he knows bicycle lanes run through "black neighborhoods, white neighborhoods, all parts of the city." But he said his research team is concerned that as more money is invested in bicycle infrastructure, "it's not going to be as equal."

"The crux of the misinformation in the article itself is that it makes an assumption about who is actually benefiting by increasing bicycle infrastructure," said Kyle Wagenshutz, bicycle/pedestrian coordinator for the City of Memphis Division of Engineering. "It makes the case that only well-to-do, wealthy, white people are the ones benefiting from this infrastructure."

Wagenshutz said bike lanes exist in all Memphis neighborhoods. He pointed to the South Memphis Greenline and to the planned $3 million Chelsea Avenue Greenline, which will link the New Chicago neighborhood to Second street.

Looking forward, the study said the Main Street to Main Street bicycle path project will deepen the "racialized gentrification" already present in the South Main neighborhood. The authors point to U.S. Census data that show a "sharp decrease in black population and a rise in socioeconomic status" in the neighborhood over the past decade. 

"It's not just about the bridge itself. It's about the pathways to that bridge and facilitating the kinds of protections that can be in place to benefit all of the populations around there," Smiley said. "Because you don't want this kind of racialized gentrification to come from the type of infrastructure, you also want to benefit all these different populations."

 Wagenshutz said the article only refers to a small subset of U.S. Census data to justify their claims and that the data does "not accurately reflect the point they are trying to make." He said much was left out of the article including the changes at the Memphis Area Transportation Authority, which will likely improve transportation across the city.  

"By dismissing all of that and dismissing the work that is happening in communities across the city, the study falls short, in my estimation, of painting an accurate picture of who is actually benefitting by the bicycling boom," Wagenshutz said.

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