Cycling and gentrification: a different perspective

To continue to explore the potential links (or perceived links) between cycling and gentrification, I thought it would be important to solicit unbiased opinions from outside of the cycling community. For this, I reached out to Rashawn, long-time resident of the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco (and the neighborhood inhabited by yours truly.) Below is a series of questions and answers via an email conversation. Rashawn’s perspective provides an extremely valuable outside perspective that all of us interested in bicycle advocacy and advancement need to consider. It can become quite common for advocates of any cause to find themselves constantly “preaching to the chior.” Only by actively soliciting, and taking the time to understand, the opinions of those that are outside our group can we truly find ways to expand the cause we are advocating for.

Note: Any links included in the below transcript were added by me (after the fact) to help provide context for those unfamiliar with the Bayview community, or items referencing what can reasonable be considered “local knowledge.”

JustAnotherCyclist: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. Can you tell us who you are, and a bit about yourself?

Rashawn: I am a Black woman who has deep roots in Arkansas and Louisiana. My family began migrating to the Bay Area during WWII, drawn by the promise of opportunities in the shipyards and looking for a better life. My grandmother came here in 1945, and sent for her children (including my 10 year old mother) a few years later. My parents settled here following my father’s stint in the Army. I was born and raised in San Francisco, and have never lived anywhere else.

I have a college degree and I have worked in insurance claims for the government for almost 30 years. I am married, and my husband and I own a car (which stays in the garage all week) and a truck. I take public transportation throughout the week; my husband drives as he has a commute that won’t work on public transportation.

I’m an avid genealogist and quilter, and I’m interested in the future of my community


JAC: How long have you lived in the Bayview area of San Francisco?

R: I have lived in the Bayview, within a 3 mile or less radius, all my life –  approaching 50 years.


JAC: Local residents may be aware that there is some disagreement about the “proper” name for the neighborhood. What, in your opinion, is the right way to name and describe the area?

R: Longtime residents called the neighborhood east of Third Street Bayview. The area west of Third is considered Silver Terrace. The area at the top of the hill to the north of LaSalle Avenue and eastward to the waterfront is called Hunter’s Point. The area to the south of Gilman Avenue (directly across from where Candlestick was) would be considered Double Rock.

In the media, the whole thing gets lumped together as Bayview/Hunter’s Point. To residents, we were always clear about the boundaries. To some degree the distinctions probably reflected a certain amount of snobbery on the part of those in the valley, because Hunter’s Point and Double Rock were where the projects were, while Bayview was single family homes and the residents were perhaps a little bit better off. On the flip side, residents of Hunter’s Point and Double Rock were generally proud of being from their areas too, so it all worked out.


JAC: Do you feel like the number of people on bicycles in the neighborhood has changed significantly in the past couple of years?

R: Yes, the number has most definitely increased dramatically in a fairly short amount of time. It’s very noticeable to me, as it was not a very common sight five years ago.


JAC: Do you yourself ever ride a bicycle in the neighborhood? If not, have you ever in the past?

R: No, I never ride a bicycle anymore. I did ride around the neighborhood as a kid growing up, as did most kids. I still rode occasionally for recreation as a young adult in college. I was in a relatively minor accident with a car in the late 1980’s which resulted in a hairline fracture and a destroyed bike. I haven’t ridden a bicycle since then. There’s no particular reason other than a lack of time and interest.


JAC: Do you feel that the things people do on bikes has changed significantly? For example, do you think there are more commuters, or more kids just playing on their bikes, or more people just cruising for fun?

R: I think there are more people commuting by bicycle and cruising for fun, as bike lanes and changes to laws and traffic patterns make it more accessible. I feel there are fewer kids playing on their bikes than in the mid-70s. That is partly because they are less interested in playing outdoors, and also because they seem to have less freedom for unstructured activities. There are also more safety concerns than there used to be.


JAC: There have been several recent events in the neighborhood – such as Sunday Streets – that bring more people on bikes into the area from both outside and within the neighborhood. Do you feel these events are beneficial or harmful to the neighborhood?

R: I think the impact of the events is probably fairly neutral. Possibly it exposes people to a side of the city they would never otherwise venture into because [of] the negative perceptions of the Bayview. It may support local businesses (which are relatively limited) on the day of the event.  But I doubt those visits and events translate into any significant lasting benefit to the neighborhood.


JAC: Why?

R: Personally the whole concept of Sunday Streets simply doesn’t resonate with me. I don’t get the point of it. Just shutting down motorized traffic to allow people to ride and walk in the streets and maybe visit some assorted relatively small planned activities doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I could understand if there were a significant planned event, like a street fair or block party to attract the community to come out and have fun together. ( Which possibly wouldn’t work well, as there would then be crowds of people in the street, and bikes wouldn’t be as able to navigate.)

However, the Sunday Streets events to me just mean a day when I will actively choose to avoid the area. It creates an inconvenience to a group of residents who traditionally would happen to be in their cars trying to get to and from church. For some like me, it may even be the one day of the week they would typically be in a car – specifically to get to church.  So it feels like a disconnect with what some of the longtime residents would traditionally be doing on that day, and in what they may be interested in.  For others, if there are specific activities, vendors and demos to attract them, that should be presented as the focus of the event rather than just  “you get to ride in the street with no cars!”

I tend to feel that the Sunday Streets events seems like someone else’s agenda and priorities being imposed on the community, rather than events deliberately intended to engage the entire community in a beneficial neighborhood oriented activity targeted to their interests. I’m sure there are plenty of people who really love it. But I can’t say that I know anyone who has even attended one.


JAC: If there was a way to increase cycling among current members of the community, do you feel that would be a positive or a negative change?

R: I think it could be positive for some people for health reasons. And it would be great to see more kids riding for fun, which would also improve their health. I can’t think of any specific negatives, as long as new cyclists learn to do so properly. As with driving, I’m sure there is a logic and art to riding correctly on busy, congested city streets.


JAC: The city of San Francisco as a whole is pushing for an increase in bicycling infrastructure everywhere. Things like more bike lanes, designated bike routes, etc. Do you feel these would help or harm the neighborhood?

R: I think it’s problematic if the needs and realities of the existing community as a whole aren’t considered and balanced. When parking is tight, lanes are narrow, and buses are trying to stay on schedule, slapping down bike lanes and acting as if that is 100% good for everyone is going to cause problems and tensions.  There is a place for various modes of transportation, and the needs and realities of everyone should be considered, respected, and accommodated as much as possible in order to make it all work. That’s part of what makes it a challenging issue. It doesn’t have to be a harmful outcome for the neighborhood if done thoughtfully. But the community’s experience with the installation of the T line light rail system certainly shows that the realities and concerns of the community don’t seem to matter to those who make decisions. That in turn makes folks uneasy about other changes being imposed on them.


JAC: Do you feel that cycling is specific or exclusionary to one or a few socio-economic or demographic groups?

R: I think that theoretically cycling can and does cover a range of socio-economic and/or demographic groups. But if we are talking about cycling as transportation (as opposed to recreation), to be honest I perceive cycling as being more concentrated in certain groups. Specifically I see a small group of people at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum who may ride a bike to get where they need to go because they cannot afford a car or the bus, their transportation needs are relatively limited, and they only have to transport themselves. They are probably of various non-white ethnic backgrounds. On the other end of the spectrum I think of mainly white, mostly (but not always) somewhat younger people cycling – probably for a range of reasons including cost vs. car ownership, exercise, convenience, lessened environmental impact, etc. There is probably a good amount [of] variance in socio-economic level within that demographic group.

There are plenty of people in other groups who could also cycle for transportation but choose not to. I personally think that a lot of middle-class, middling aged Black folk like me are not interested in cycling to commute for reasons that relate to our socio-economic history and status in this country. Other people have to shuttle small children or other family members, or transport things that make cycling impractical. Some working class people have work or school schedules that just don’t allow for the logistics of cycling.

Ultimately, I feel the reality is that cycling does reflect some demographic clusters for some valid reasons.  That’s what makes the phenomenon so interesting to observe and study. In part, it’s telling us something about other things.


JAC: Do you believe that cycling has a direct impact on the economic landscape of the neighborhood? What about the social landscape?

R: On a simple level, I don’t think cycling in itself has a direct impact on the economic or social landscape. But because cycling is an indicator of other things, I do think that it is pointing to and mirroring changes that are occurring.  If it’s true that the larger number of cyclist represent certain socio-economic and demographic groups, then when more of the members of those groups begin to move into a neighborhood with a different demographic for reasons of affordability and limited housing stock, their presence does have a direct impact on the community – in ways that may be good and in ways that may be challenging as well.

If that group is coming from a higher economic level than many of the existing residents, that is going to drive up the price of housing, and render it less affordable for existing residents to remain. That absolutely shifts the economic landscape, as it puts housing out of the reach of lower income residents.  Rising costs may push residents to leave the city for more affordable rent or an opportunity to buy a home. That then changes the demographic makeup of the community – one household at a time. That incremental change shifts the social landscape of the neighborhood.

Everyone brings their values, needs and perspectives with them. New voices in an underserved community like the Bayview often begin to demand changes to fit their concept of what a neighborhood – their neighborhood – should be. That can begin to make existing residents feel like outsiders in their own community, which ratchets up the tension and widens the divide between various groups.

All that because of bicycles? No, of course not. But bicycles represent the people riding them. And those people are shifting the landscape around them, just as any group on the move does.