Why the fight over a bike lane in shaw isn't about biking _ wamu 88.5 – american university radio


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When asked why his church is objecting to the District’s proposal to build a bike lane through the neighborhood, Pastor Dexter Nutall gave an unexpected answer.

“I’m indifferent to bike lanes.”

The indignation with which hundreds of members of Nutall’s New Bethel Baptist Church and other historic black churches in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood are reacting to the city’s plans is an indication that more is at stake than potentially losing some Sunday parking spaces to a two-way, protected bike lane.

“This is not about bike lanes,” said Nutall during an interview inside the 115-year-old church on 9th Street Northwest. “This is about a phenomenon and a mode of operating within the city that is considerate of a new dynamic in terms of demographics. There is… an appeal that the city has to those who are younger, those who are white, often, and those who are of certain income and education… and that changes the economics of the city.”

As a practical matter, some Shaw residents view the District Department of Transportation’s bike lane proposals as a major disruption to traffic flow as well as parking. Conceptual design drawings show a lane currently used by cars erased by bike lanes on either 6th Street or 9th Street.

But at DDOT’s first public meeting on the project, the issues of race, economics, and displacement overwhelmed any concerns about sharing the roads with bike riders. DDOT taken aback

Anger and resentment at the notion black residents are being excluded from DDOT’s planning process bubbled over inside a packed room at the Shaw library.

“We know that when you see bike lanes, when you see Whole Foods, when you see Harris Teeter, when you see Chipotles, and all of these different places, that’s nice establishments, but I know that’s not for me,” said Robert Price, a pastor at the United House of Prayer.

“And I know that’s not for a whole lot of us. You know what I am saying, don’t you? The reality is we have to stand, because if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything,” he said. A few shouted back, “Amen!”

The implication of Price’s remarks were clear: bike lanes are an outgrowth of larger forces changing Shaw and displacing long-time black residents; bike lanes are for white newcomers indifferent to the neighborhood’s history.

When a white resident who commutes by bicycle attempted to speak up, saying 6th Street Northwest makes sense for a bike lane because of its relatively low traffic volume, he was shouted down and booed.

DDOT’s top planners were accused of conducting “backroom deals.” The officials were implored to declare in front of everyone that they had in fact not made up their minds.

The meeting ended when two D. C. police officers observed that the room was well over capacity. The next public meeting will be held in January at a larger venue.

The fate of the back-in spaces used by the church are just one thing at stake in this disagreement. (Martin Di Caro/WAMU) A question of process

After the 1968 riots, Shaw’s black churches filled the vacuum left by government. They rebuilt the neighborhood and provided social services, including affordable housing.

New Bethel’s long-time leader, Pastor Walter Fauntroy, and other ministers founded the Model Inner City Community Organization (MICCO), a neighborhood planning corporation. Fauntroy also directed the Shaw Urban Renewal Project.

Pastor Nutall contends this history of contributions is ignored today.

“I suspect that many within the bicycling community don’t understand or know the history of the faith community in the District of Columbia,” he said. “So let’s come to the table and let’s talk. Quite frankly, I don’t think that is the responsibility of the bicycle lobby. They do what they do. That’s the responsibility of the city to make sure that happens.”

For its part, DDOT said it has met multiple times with community stakeholders, including ANC commissioners, the Convention Center, and the churches, to discuss proposals for a 2-mile, north-south bike lane from Florida Ave. to Constitution Ave. Northwest on the eastern side of downtown.

“The meeting [at Shaw library] was intended to be the first broad, general public meeting to share some of the same information about where we are and what options we have started to think about. We will continue to work at engaging people,” said Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT’s associate director of planning, policy, and sustainability.

“We haven’t made up our mind. And I think this process is intended to be an open and broad public process,” he added.

Zimbabwe has not ruled out a design that would spare all the diagonal, back-in parking spaces churches rely upon on Sunday mornings. But when it comes to parking, Pastor Nutall argues the District has a history of harming Shaw’s faith community. Without ‘church engagement’

“I would remind you of the limitations in parking that have already been imposed on churches in the form of the enhanced residential [permit parking] plan,” Nutall said.

Three years ago, the District approved changes to parking rules in Shaw that reserved spaces on one side of each street to residents only.

“It’s a plan that literally limited parking in and around churches — in many cases to half of what it was — without the opportunity for church engagement and involvement and input,” Nutall said.

Many of New Bethel’s roughly 850 members live outside D. C. and thus rely upon the Sunday-only back-in parking that effectively doubles the number of available spaces on some blocks.

Moreover, Nutall contends the rapid redevelopment of Shaw, where single-family homes have become multi-unit condos without abundant on-site parking, has increased the demand for scarce spaces. What about safety?

Supporters of DDOT’s long-term plans to expand the city’s network of protected bike lanes are worried legitimate concerns about safety are getting lost in arguments about race and gentrification.

Megan Peterman, 34, who has lived in Shaw less than a year, spoke up at the public meeting against the idea that newcomers are not entitled to weigh in on the future of the neighborhood.

“I am also a resident here. I also pay taxes. I also vote. I also ride my bike,” she said.

After the meeting broke up, Peterman, a management consultant, said she was not blind to the concerns of older residents.

“I think there is a serious problem in the city with displacement. I think there is a serious problem in the city with affordability,” she said. “At the same time, I live here. This is my home. And the thing that is constant about cities is they are always changing. And assuming anything else, I think, is naïve.”

The Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), the largest bike advocacy group in the region, rejects the notion black residents would not benefit from a bike lane.

“We’ve had many members of the black cycling community that are young — and old — reach out to us and say this is important to me, too. It’s not a white-black issue. It’s a change in our city,” said WABA’s executive director Greg Billing, who refers to the bike lane proposals as “traffic calming projects” because they would slow down cars by narrowing the road.

“In 2014 — just 2014 — 12 bicyclists and 16 pedestrians were struck on 6th Street Northwest in which either property damage or bodily injury was caused. And then on 9th Street, seven pedestrians and 14 bicyclists were hit,” Billing said.

“I am flattered to think that bike lanes cause gentrification, but there is no evidence that shows that,” Billing added. “We have bike lanes throughout the city and not every neighborhood is gentrifying. What we do have on these streets is safety issues.”

[Music: “Sunday Morning” by The Velvet Underground from The Velvet Underground & Nico]

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