Last week, Seleta Reynolds, the chief innovation officer for LA Metro, appeared on the podcast CityAge to discuss how Los Angeles is preparing to host the Olympics in 2028. The most striking remark came towards the end of the segment when Reynolds, in talking up LA Metro’s community engagement efforts, compared building bike and bus lanes to freeway construction that destroys neighborhoods.
“How can we say we’re going to do better than our predecessors who bulldozed black and brown neighborhoods to put in the freeway system, you know, without really allowing those communities to be at the table, how can we say that we’re better than them just because what we’re trying to build is a bus lane or a bike lane?” Reynolds said. “What makes us so confident that we know best? And what makes us so, I would almost say arrogant, to presume that we really understand what’s really at the heart of some of these issues that we’re trying to address?”
As a transportation reporter covering cities, I have heard similar arguments many times, invariably from opponents of bike and bus lanes. Here in New York, the longer a community meeting on a bike lane goes the odds that someone will invoke Robert Moses’ destruction of Bronx neighborhoods to build a highway approaches one. What’s the difference, these opponents argue, between what Moses did and what the city is trying to do now?
It is disturbing, if hardly shocking, that Reynolds would make the same argument. She is a senior executive at a major American transportation authority, one that provided 255 million mostly slow bus trips last year. Reynolds is also a former president of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), an influential professional organization that is pro-bike-and-bus lanes. When Motherboard asked if she’d like to clarify her statement or provide additional context, Reynolds said she has “worked on bike, pedestrian, traffic calming, school safety, and bus lane projects throughout the U.S. for the last 25 years” and was “specifically thinking about calls to shortcut community engagement altogether, particularly during the pandemic…Some of the most humbling experiences I’ve had have been going into neighborhoods where I felt that the facts clearly supported one type of project only to hear that my assumptions fell far too short of the needs of those communities. In so doing, the projects and outcomes were much better than the ones I had first imagined.”
Last year, I spent several months reporting a story about how the community feedback process has gotten out of control and hobbles our cities from building necessary infrastructure like bus and bike lanes. The injustices of the feedback process—that it primarily caters to older, higher-income drivers obsessed with parking because research consistently shows bus riders, who are statistically lower income, are either too busy to attend such meetings or unaware they’re even taking place—have been well-documented in the urban planning field. Still, while reporting that story, I did not talk to any public officials who, no matter how critical of aspects of the engagement process, expressed a desire to get rid of the feedback process entirely. Instead, they saw no end in sight to the dynamic of “engagement inflation,” which I described as “where more engagement is done with no idea of how much is enough, when the community’s voice is sufficiently heard, or any other metric of success other than more engagement. In practice, it ends up being a form of delay until a local politician or official weighs in.”
While humility is a fine trait for a public official to have, it too often crosses over into policy nihilism, which is precisely the wrong lesson to take from the mistakes from the past. The result of this is well-intentioned, dedicated public officials comparing building bike lanes to urban highways. Not all bike or bus lane projects are perfect at their initial conception, but it is, in fact, possible to know if something is good or bad without hearing everyone’s opinion on it.
The most obvious issue with comparing highway construction to bike and bus lanes involves little more than looking out the window. One is a massive industrial construction project of wanton destruction and steel and concrete that will obviously and irrevocably alter urban landscapes for generations. The other is, at its most elaborate, a series of flexible barriers and paint on existing roads repurposing up to two lanes of traffic for different kinds of vehicles. Bike and bus lanes involve very little new construction at all.
This difference of intent and scale is worth dwelling on because it is why the comparison is so misguided. The U.S. Department of Transportation has estimated 475,000 households containing one million people were displaced due to highway construction from 1957 to 1977. That is the equivalent of displacing the entire population of modern-day Austin, Texas. Likewise, a Los Angeles Times analysis found that an additional 200,000 people have lost their homes due to highway construction since 1990. To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a single housing unit destroyed or person displaced to build a bike or bus lane anywhere in the U.S. On these grounds alone, it is simply absurd to compare urban highway construction to bike and bus lanes. Projects of such vastly different scopes and scale deserve different approaches and mindsets.
But there is another good reason to reject this comparison, one that is equally revealing about the biases of modern transportation officials. Reynolds asked, “What makes us so confident we know best?” Another way of asking this is, what makes us so confident we know bike and bus lanes are better than masses of parking and multiple travel lanes for private cars for everyone?
The answer is: we’ve got the receipts. In this case, decades of scientific study and experiments carefully tracked and evaluated by local departments of transportation.
Think of all the familiar arguments against bike and bus lanes repeated in local community meetings all over the country in recent decades, the kinds of meetings Reynolds and her colleagues have to attend for every project. They’ve heard them all before: that they hurt local businesses by removing customer parking, don’t improve safety or increase bike usage, they slow down cars, and cater to the whims of white, urban elites and speed gentrification. All of these arguments have been debunked. Protected bike lanes make everyone safer. New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia, Portland, and San Francisco have all seen double-digit percent reduction in crashes between drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists all while seeing double-digit increases in bicycle usage after installing protected bike lanes. In other words, more people ride bikes and fewer crashes happen between everyone on roads with protected bike lanes. These safety improvements are particularly important in black and brown neighborhoods where, due to the historical legacy of redlining, freeway construction, and industrial development, often have the most dangerous roads of all. And studies that look at both entire cycle networks and individual streets find businesses not only survive these changes but often thrive after bus or bike lanes are installed.
Similarly, busways—or roads only for buses and limited local access for commercial vehicles and residents—like the one on 14th Street in Manhattan have profound safety benefits while also speeding up buses for tens of thousands of people. In fact, the 14th Street case is an illustrative one for why planners and transit experts like Reynolds do know best in such cases, or at least ought to.
Prior to the busway’s implementation, the city and transit authority held countless meetings where their staff got yelled at by locals about how stupid they are, how they know nothing, how they’re just like Robert Moses destroying neighborhoods. A particular point of contention was the placement of bike lanes on adjacent streets and the concern this, along with a surge in traffic of cars redirected by the busway, would “threaten the wellbeing of residents,” according to an ultimately-dismissed lawsuit filed by Arthur Schwartz, a local resident who repeatedly invoked his past civil rights and union activism to play to concerns over the “equity” of the transit project. What actually happened was exactly what transportation experts said would happen: 14th Street got a lot safer, buses that primarily transport lower-income New Yorkers got a lot faster, and there was virtually no increase in travel time on adjacent streets. The project was, and remains, an unabashed, complete success for exactly the reasons transit experts said it would be.
While modern urban planners have decades of scientific literature on which to base their modest claims that protected bike and bus lanes are good, mid-century highway boosters had no evidence on which to base their astounding claims that ramming overpasses through center cities while destroying hundreds or thousands of homes would revitalize downtowns. It was all based on conjecture that suburbanites like to drive places and so the easier it is to drive to the center city the more likely suburbanites would be to go there, logic which failed to account for lost business from the people the highway projects displaced and the broader hollowing out of the downtown core that resulted from it.
In other words, the urban freeway fad was the exact opposite of the bike and bus lane advocacy boom: a novel, brash idea, fashionable at the time but with no evidence to back it up beyond fancy dioramas and civic boosterism. The lack of intellectual seriousness behind the projects is ever clearer when looking at how the planners actually planned the projects. As the environmental historian Christopher Wells documented in his book Car Country, highway planners held workshops where they made “desire paths,” or asked people to draw lines between where they worked and lived. They then combined all those lines, found the middle one, and tore down everything in its way. Or, in extreme examples, a racist state official saved everyone the trouble of pretending there was any logic behind it and just tore down the black neighborhood. This is a far cry from how modern planners determine locations for bus and bike projects. They use actual data on how streets are used and by whom as a starting point before designing a project, which automatically puts them ahead of highway planners in terms of sophistication and real-world application.
So it is disturbing, but not surprising, to hear a transit official in a major American city tasked with building more bike and bus lanes arguing that the process for doing so is actually indistinguishable from midcentury highway construction, because the unfortunate truth is Reynolds is hardly alone. For this reason, Reynolds’ remark is worth paying attention to. It is a pure expression of how a generation of American urban planners and transportation officials internalized the criticisms against their profession so thoroughly that they no longer believe it is their place to know anything.