Incomplete streets?

9780415725873From a just sustainabilities perspective, my interest in streets is in spatial justice (Spatial Justice on Södra Vägen) and how it can help in the democratization of streets (Democratizing streetscapes: Rethinking streets as public spaces). This democratization is demonstrated in the growing number of cities with successful road space reclamation and re-allocation schemes which favor pedestrians, cyclists and public transit. Such schemes are described by the increasingly prominent and related U.S. discourses of Complete Streets, Transit Oriented Development and Livable Streets. Combined, this narrative frames the message that streets are, ultimately public spaces, and that everyone in local communities should have equal rights to space within them, irrespective of who they are and whether or not they own a car.

However, as I show in this blog posting, caution is needed because some low income and neighborhoods of color worry that singular, and seemingly broader public interest changes such as bicycle lane additions, street accessibility improvements, transit upgrades and pedestrian zone placements may foster gentrification, further diminishing their voice, rights and roles in the community. Low income and minority communities in the U.S. and around the world have been disproportionally utilized as the loci of industrial or other unwanted land uses and development and as transportation corridors that often pass through, but do not stop in their neighborhoods. Interestingly however, other just sustainabilities issues have arisen recently that ask some fundamental questions about the growing Complete Streets movement’s ideas, actions and their practical effects.

But let’s first look at the related concept of ‘Place Making‘ which has become the new paradigm in urban planning. Kent (2008 p60) describes Place Making as “a set of ideas about creating cities in ways that result in high-quality spaces where people naturally want to live, work, and play.” At this physical, practical level, Place Making seeks to shift the focus of development away from auto-centric planning (wide, high-speed streets, expansive surface parking lots between buildings, signs and lighting that are scaled for moving cars, etc) towards community-based places that inspire civic engagement.

Massey (1995 p188) however takes a more nuanced view than Kent (2008). She sees places not as rigid, physical realities, but as socially constructed, fluid, having no fixed meaning: they are “constantly shifting articulations of social relations through time.” Blokland (2009) through her study of communities in New Haven, Connecticut, builds on Massey’s (1995) ‘shifting articulations’ point, and Sandercock’s (1998) point that there is not one, but multiple publics, by showing how Place Making can be seen as a struggle over different historical narratives of residents who compete to define ‘the community,’ and that ‘absences’ from the dominant narrative can lead to a distorted picture of who the community is and equally important, what it can become. This is as pertinent to the Complete Streets vision as it is to Place Making. And its implications are profound. ‘Decisions’ to implement Complete Streets schemes, to construct or locate what might be considered beneficial amenities like bike lanes in traditionally disadvantaged neighborhoods, can be seen as part of a privileged, dominant narrative which drowns out other voices.

In Portland, OR there are two strands to a growing (in)complete streets related controversy.

One relates to cycle lanes as gentrification highways the other to cycling as an elite activity. In terms of cycle lanes and gentrification, proposed traffic changes to increase bicycle safety along N. Williams Ave have met with resistance from locals. There is a fight against what is seen as the imposition by the City of bike lanes as an instrument of gentrification, as Debora Leopold Hutchins who chairs an advisory committee argues:

“the issues of gentrification and race and bicycles have kind of met right here at this location, at this intersection, but one is not cause of the other. (Preston 2011).

More searing however in her critique is resident Donna Maxey who explained the frustration of people of color with Portland’s bicycle support efforts:

“What is causing the anger and resentment is that it’s only an issue of safety now that whites are the ones who are riding bicycles and walking on the streets. Because we have been in this community for years and it has not been an issue and now it’s an issue. So that’s the resentment you’re hearing…years of people being told, you don’t count, you don’t matter…but now that there’s a group of people who’s coming in that look like the people who are the power brokers — now it’s important. That’s the anger. That’s the hurt. (Shareable 2011)

Maxey’s comment needs to be seen in the wider context of the gentrification of North East Portland neighborhoods, which followed “the historical process of segregation and neighborhood disinvestment that preceded gentrification in Portland’s Black community, Albina.” (Gibson 2007 p3). Indeed, in a Portland Mercury article called “It’s not about the bikes,” Mirk (2012) argues “pinning the North Williams uproar over bikes misses the point—and the history.” The real point, according to Midge Purcell, policy director of the Urban League of Portland, is that “The City of Portland’s policies want to encourage increased cycling and environmental friendliness.” She continues:

“That’s all very well and good. But when people feel that those values are imposed upon them, especially when there’s been all the other historic impositions on the community, then it really does become about a lot more than just putting in a bicycle lane. In a lot of ways, this is a real test. To see whether some of the lessons have been learned from previous projects where the outcomes have been really, really poor.” (Mirk 2012).

To try to build bridges, the City’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement has since 2008 been running a program called the ‘Restorative Listening Project’ (RLP). Based on the principles of restorative justice the RLP (now named Restorative Action Project) uses:

“dialogue as a strategy for community formation and ‘antiracist place-making’ ”…. by (1) positioning people of color as knowledge producers about the institutional and interpersonal effects of racism in the neighborhood; (2) confronting the tactics of white denial; and (3) promoting consciousness about systemic racism.” (Drew 2011 p1).

‘Race Talks’ is Multnomah County’s version of the RLP, and an event was held on November 8 2011 on N. Williams Avenue under the title “Coming Together on North Williams Avenue: Reconciling Neighborhood’s Past with Proposed Bike Lane.”

The event featured speakers as well as facilitated dialogue moderated by trained volunteers from the non-profit group Uniting to Understand Racism and Portland’s Intergroup Dialogue program.  A friend of mine who was there noted however that the majority of attendees were from outside the local area so she was unsure of the value of the dialogue in relation to North Williams Avenue. In June 2012, after 17 months of deliberation, the ethnically diverse Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC) for the N Williams Traffic Operations Safety Project concluded its work and approved Option 4B, which in technical terms is “Left-Side Buffered Bike Lane with One Motor Vehicle Travel Lane and Turn Lanes (Segments 2 to 5) and Shared Left-Turn Lane/Bikeway in Segment 4.”

The mixed lane environment on N. Williams (from

The mixed lane environment on N. Williams (from

In terms of cycling as an elite activity, Portland’s Community Cycling Center (2010) admits:

“We could do better to understand the needs of our program participants, which are predominantly low-income and communities of color. We could do better to increase and improve programs serving a culturally diverse community.  We could do better at creating employment pathways into our organization. So we developed the ‘Understanding Barriers to Bicycling Project’, a community needs assessment, to better understand what were people interested in and concerned about as it related to bicycling. Since we completed the needs assessment, we have been collaborating with our community partners in north and northeast Portland to develop programs and support community leaders to broaden access to bicycling and its benefits — and to ensure that those benefits are accessible to all.”

The Community Cycling Center received an Oregon Metro grant in 2010 to reach out to Portland’s diverse constituencies to better understand how they could support cycling in different communities. To do this they partnered with Hacienda Community Development Corporation (CDC) and New Columbia, a HOPE VI revitalized community in North Portland. In their report, the Understanding Barriers to Bicycling Project’ they concluded that the organization needs to:

  • “Increase the cultural competency of the Community Cycling Center staff;
  • Pilot tailored programs for specific cultural groups and neighborhoods;
  • Continue investing in community partnerships; include leadership development in our bicycle programs and shop operations to build capacity within community partner organizations;
  • Develop strategies to influence policies that address the environmental changes and other social determinants of health that ensure equitable access to bicycling for recreation and transportation.” (Community Cycling Center 2010).

Around the US, similar challenges, both to bicycle lanes and cycling itself, are being made in other cities. Chicago resident and founder of the African American Pioneers Bicycle Club, Oboi Reed, criticized Chicago’s priorities in a New York Times article (NYT 10/16/2011), “City Bike Plan is Accused of a Neighborhood Bias.” According to Reed:

“The lion’s share of the resources” of the city’s $150 million bike plan “are going to go [to the wealthier neighborhoods] downtown and to the North Side–the South and West will only see a sprinkling.”

In New York City, a report by graduate students from the Urban Affairs and Planning Program at Hunter College, Beyond the Backlash: Equity and Participation in Bicycle Planning,” concluded:

“traditionally underserved areas outside of the core of Manhattan and northwest Brooklyn have inadequate bicycle infrastructure. These areas have many cyclists and residents who are largely new immigrants and people of color.” (Hunter College 2011).

Clearly, there is growing alarm that bike lanes, über-narrative and key to the physical infrastructure of Complete Streets, themselves a part of the bigger goal of Place Making, may be the ‘new gentrification.’ But I think it goes deeper, along the lines suggested by Donna Maxey in Portland, OR (above): “it’s only an issue of safety now that whites are the ones who are riding bicycles.” Consider that in the US:

“bicycling is the highest among whites and Hispanics (0.9% of all trips). For whites, cycling is mostly for recreation, while for Hispanics, it is to reach the workplace. “ (Pulcher and Renne 2003 p67 my italicization).

This is a significant point: whites are choosing to cycle, are adopting an identity as cyclists, whereas Hispanic (and black) people have no other option, they simply cycle to get to work because it is cheap. They are however, as Donna Maxey intimated, invisible cyclists whose presence on bikes did not seem to elicit the municipal push for bike lanes that the more vociferous newcomers have elicited. Kidder’s (2005) study of cycle messengers in New York City showed that despite the fact that the majority were male, black and Hispanic, those who built a ‘lifestyle’ and identity around it were often female, and largely White. Steinbach et al (2011 p1130) albeit in a study of London, England make an argument that works more generally:

“In cities where cycling uptake is low, the challenge…is perhaps to de-couple cycling from the rather narrow range of healthy associations it currently has, and provide an infrastructure in which anyone can cycle, rather than just those whose social identities are commensurate with being ‘a cyclist’.

I’m not disagreeing with the principle and vision of Complete Streets, but as the examples above show, at present, and in many cases, we clearly have Incomplete Streets. We are missing some key ingredients. As in all my work, I look at phenomena through different lenses and if the answer is Complete Streets, lets go back and look at what questions we asked ourselves in order to achieve that answer? One big and crucial question we haven’t yet asked is how do we reconcile the fixed, physical infrastructure needed to make Complete Streets with Massey and Blokland’s points that Complete Streets, as places, are socially constructed, fluid and therefore have no fixed meaning; they can be seen as contestations over different narratives and that (white) privileged narratives usually dominate leading to an incomplete narrative and, well, incomplete streets.

See Zavestoski, S and Agyeman J (eds) (2014) Incomplete Streets: Processes, Practices and Possibilities (Routledge)


Blokland, T (2009) Celebrating Local Histories and Defining Neighbourhood Communities: Place-making in a Gentrified Neighbourhood Urban Studies vol. 46 no. 8 1593-1610.

Drew, E (2011). “Listening Through White Ears: Cross-racial ‘Dialogues’ About the Harmful Effects of Gentrification” Journal of Urban Affairs DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9906.2011.00572.x

Gibson, K (2007) Bleeding Albina: A History of Community Disinvestment 1940-2000. Transforming Anthropology, Vol. 15, Number 1, pp 3–25

Kent, F. (2008) Place Making Around the World. Urban Land, August 2008 (58-65)

Kidder, J. (2005). Style and action: a decoding of bike messenger symbols. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 34(3), 344-367.

Massey, D. (1995) Places and their pasts History Workshop Journal, 39, pp. 182-192.

Mirk, S (2012) “It’s Not About the Bikes.”   February 16 2012

NYT (10/16/2011) City Bike Plan Is Accused of a Neighborhood Bias By David Lepeska. Published: October 15, 2011  Accessed 3/22/2012

Preston, P (2011). Blacks want in on discussion over city’s bike proposal. Northeast Portland Katu Accessed 3/22/2012

Pulcher, J and Renne, J (2003) Socioeconomics of Urban Travel: Evidence from the 2001 NHTS Transportation Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 3, Summer 2003 (49–77).

Sandercock, L (1998). Towards Cosmopolis: Planning for Multi-cultural Cities. Chichester, England: Wiley.

Shareable (2011) Are Bike Lanes Expressways to Gentrification? Accessed 3/22/2012)

Steinbach, R, Green, J, Datta, J and Edwards, P (2011) . Cycling and the city: A case study of how gendered, ethnic and class identities can shape healthy transport choices Social Science & Medicine 72 p1123-1130.

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