Michelle Robinson with her bike. Photo: Tracy Luc-German

Who are bike lanes really for?

It’s time to talk about bike gentrification in Calgary.

This is the third and final story in the 5th edition of the Sprawl: The Summer Bike Edition. If you value our work, please support the Sprawl so we can keep doing local journalism like this!

When Michelle Robinson first came to Calgary, she used her bike to get everywhere, even in the days before the downtown cycle-track network. “I had to do it,” she said about her life in the inner city. “I couldn’t afford to wait for buses and the transfers. I couldn’t afford a car. I had to ride a bike.”

Years later, after moving to Abbeydale in the eastern part of the city, her family found getting around by bike impossible.

Her husband gave up trying to commute by bike or transit, even though he owned a business in the same neighbourhood. Bike infrastructure was minimal, disconnected and dangerous. Transit was spotty and impractical. “There has been such neglect in the transportation system in the east side of Calgary and the greater Forest Lawn area,” said Robinson. “There is literally no bike system at all. We found that incredible.”

“No other part of the city has been neglected like this.”

So Robinson is heartened to see improvements coming, at least to some parts of the east side. A major project is bringing improved transit, pedestrian and cycling access to nearby Forest Lawn, which Robinson says is long overdue.

A recent study at McGill found that bike lanes tend to favour white people of higher incomes.

But the upgrades are also bringing some anxiety.

In other cities, improved transportation access can foreshadow other changes, not all of them positive. Bike lanes tend to bring value to neighbourhoods in ways that increase housing prices. New people move into the neighbourhood to take advantage of it, sometimes forcing out long-term residents who can no longer afford to stay their own community.

A cycle track is planned for 19 Ave SE, running parallel with the new BRT route being installed on International Avenue (17 Ave SE). Photo: Jeremy Klaszus

It raises a big question: is Calgary about to see a case of bicycle gentrification?

And if so, what can we do about it?

The 606 in Chicago

Earlier this year, two members of Chicago’s city council proposed an unusual ordinance: an increase on fees to demolish residential housing near an abandoned rail line. Usually, the demolition of buildings around decaying rail facilities is seen as positive sign of renewal. But this was different.

The old rail line wasn’t just a rusting path of metal. It had been transformed into The 606, a parkspace in which the disused elevated line was converted into a recreational and transportation route for pedestrians and cyclists. The park was, in almost every way, a success: embraced by the city and crawling with users.

But properties near The 606 were suddenly in demand, and their value spiked nearly 50 per cent in the three years after construction began on the park. The ordinance was an attempt to discourage developers from buying up and tearing down existing housing units. It was an attempt to keep the neighbourhood affordable for the people who have lived there for years, most of them people of colour.

It was an attempt to control gentrification.

This is the concern as construction crews build a massive expansion of transit, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure in Forest Lawn. While many are welcoming the long-promised changes, they worry that easy access to downtown will not only provide opportunity to residents in what has long been a working-class and immigrant neighbourhood, but also make the community more attractive to those with enough money to alter it.

Who do bike lanes really benefit?

In Toronto, Portland, New York and Chicago, residents have opposed bike-lane construction not for the usual reasons of automobile-driver entitlement, but because they worry bikes will bring gentrification.

And often they are correct.

A recent study at McGill found that bike lanes tend to favour white people of higher incomes.

It’s a conundrum for bike advocates who see bicycles as an efficient means of transportation for those who can’t afford a car.

The ordinance in Chicago came after years of conflict between not just the city and poor residents, but between cycling advocates and people of colour in lower-income neighbourhoods.

These battles hold warnings for Calgary. Yes, bike lanes can improve neighbourhoods, but they can also become yet another tool of oppression. Bicycle equity has become an important part of the conversation.

In Toronto, measures to improve bicycle infrastructure without corresponding plans to maintain affordability have caused problems. Darnel Harris, an Ontario community and sustainability advocate, says everyone needs to be aware of the dangers of gentrification.

“I have seen this situation before, but I would not say that bike lanes lead to gentrification, as much as they form part of a package and long-term plan of improvements that leads to gentrification,” he said.

“You have to intentionally design policies and programs to support equity.”

The bike lane balancing act

That isn’t falling on deaf ears in Calgary. “You want to reinvest in your neighbourhood to make it nicer and nicer, and then in the blink of an eye you’re on the other side of the teeter-totter,” Councillor Gian-Carlo Carra told The Sprawl earlier this year. “And you’re wondering: how the hell do we keep this affordable?”

“That’s one of the balancing acts in great neighbourhoods.”

Other cities have shown the way. The first step is to ensure government policy, such as tax incentives, don’t favour new residents over existing ones.

Further plans are essential to maintain affordability, such as the ordinance in Chicago, robust public housing and the incentivization of community housing groups. It’s not an easy task, but it begins with a recognition that private investment is a double-edged sword.

Perhaps what’s most important is to ensure that such projects are borne out of the community, rather than imposed on it.

In Forest Lawn, this discussion is already underway. “I think we’re going to shift very quickly in our work from reinvestment (in Forest Lawn) to enjoying the private investment that accompanies that — but also then focusing very seriously on how the heck do we keep this affordable,” said Carra.

Bottom up revitalization, not top down

Perhaps what’s most important is to ensure that such projects are borne out of the community, rather than imposed on it.

The McGill study found that cycling infrastructure tends to reinforce already privileged areas and residents, rather than bringing about opportunity for others. But the authors also say there is huge opportunity to use transportation to improve the lives of marginalized people, if done correctly.

“Concerted efforts must be made so that investment follows needs and is equitably distributed, while not being imposed,” the authors write. “Planners should seek to support ‘revitalization’ efforts — bottom-up economic reinvestment — instead of the top-down impositions of economic development through gentrification.”

Well-planned infrastructure investments made with community involvement are key, but easier said than done.

Robinson, who has lived in east Calgary for years and ran for councillor in the 2017 civic election, notes the city doesn’t have a great history of ensuring marginalized people are included in planning decisions.

She hopes this will change as the transportation options that people in other parts of the city take for granted are finally brought to the east side.

“There needs to be some understanding of why people of colour (need to be) on these boards and need to be part of the decisions,” she said. “We have a lot of segregation in this city, we have a lot of poverty in this city, but we don’t want to talk about it.”

“There’s a lot of denialism.”

Robinson also addressed one of those lingering ideas about cycling — that it’s something that only middle-class white people do — with a laugh, and pointed at her own life as an Indigenous woman.

“I used to do it,” she said. “This can be so good and positive for the community. There is so much potential here.”

Tom Babin is a Calgary writer. He blogs about bikes at Shifter.info, and is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling.

Support in-depth Calgary journalism.

Sign Me Up!

We connect Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but can't do this alone! We rely on our readers and listeners to fund our work. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!