Tom MacWright

I read Bike Lanes Are White Lanes by Melody L Hoffmann on


The world needs a book on this subject. A book that looks closely at the association between cycling, race, wealth, and politics.

This isn’t it. For many reasons, I don’t recommend it. The author’s personal grievances and prejudices – against cities, cyclists, men, capital, urbanism neoliberalism, liberalism, conservatism – the list goes on – are blended with research. She cynically dismisses the intentions of everyone and doesn’t talk to the people she claims to represent. The rhetoric is muddled and the prose is irritating, peppered with sociology jargon that adds no meaning – the constant choice of utilize instead of use, for example. The ideas of gentrification and race are simplistic, as are the histories of advocacy.

She generates distinctions that help preserve the simplistic ideas of culture and policy that guide this book. She critiques the ‘creative class’, whose appearance heralds the beginning of gentrification, and praises the ‘bohemian punks’, whose disappearance marks the end of authenticity. She hates developers and new housing, which are equivalent to gentrification, but describes cities that don’t build and instead see rising rent and housing values as ‘incumbent renovation,’ a pattern she praises and wants to explore more, as a ‘grey area’ that isn’t gentrification. She hates cities and believes that people move to them in order to seem hip to their suburban friends, and never once mentions quality of life. In one breath, she says how transportation amenities are forced on communities, and in the next she says how communities are ‘cut out’ and don’t ‘receive’ the same amenities as richer neighborhoods.

The research ironically fails to reach the people she advocates for, because she fails to integrate into communities – but this doesn’t keep her from dismissing activists, planners, and people who fail at the same challenge.

There’s very little that redeems Bike Lanes Are White Lanes. Its freeform research style, which is explained in depth as ‘nonpositivist’, means that there’s not much primary research generated, whether it’s quotations, data, or even long-term impressions. People’s rough impressions are taken as fact, never to be tested by evidence or even corroboration.

Besides the grudges this book contains, I still think it’s a useful topic and Hoffmann wants what’s best for advocates, (bi)cyclists, and people. Bike lanes are associated with gentrification, though it seems unlikely they produce gentrification. Bikes are conceptualized differently by different groups of people. Transportation infrastructure is political and has been used for ill.

But if you’re aware of all those things, this book won’t get you any further. It doesn’t analyze or synthesize anything and it makes a lot of mistakes. And let me be clear – I didn’t expect or demand this book to provide solutions. I’ve read a lot in similar subjects, and great books don’t need to propose a way forward. Books like Settlers shouldn’t propose a ‘way out’ of racism. Books like Human Transit don’t share one easy trick to fix transit. But what it needs to do is show us narratives, anecdotes, summaries, and analyses that elucidate the question. Having read it carefully, cover-to-cover, I can only say that it doesn’t.

There’s nothing to learn from the discussion of community meetings. The book conflates opposition at community meetings with opposition from the community. It praises the ability of community meetings to delay plans through endless discussion. It questions the whole concept of meetings – that, cynically, all proposals are just developers and governments trying to ‘sell’ already-formed ideas.

I should discuss identity. I’m a white man who doesn’t currently own a racing bicycle or any spandex, but I have in the past and I hope to in the future. I’m one of what she calls the white bike guys, who she ‘can’t stand‘ and wants to ‘shut down’.

Because my understanding has something to do with my identity, here’s how Dr. Hoffmann conceptualizes her own:

Unintentionally, I “passed” as a mainstream bicycle advocate, and so people told me things as if I were celebrating the infrastructure and systemic arrangements that made this infrastructure possible.

See, she’s one of the good ones. She can “pass” - a term usually used for race or gender identity, but here used to indicate that she’s one of the good ones, but she’s passing as a “mainstream bicycle advocate.” Little do they know. Everyone else in the meetings, in the organizations - they’re mainstream bicycle advocates, or obnoxious men in spandex. They are who they appear to be.

I’m not passing, and neither is Dr. Hoffmann. Knowledge, nuance, guilt, activism - they don’t transform me or anyone else from bad to good and let us shrug off our past selves. Nor should they give us the feeling that we’re complex and righteous, and everyone else is easy to summarize. That’s not sociology, that’s solipsism.

Which is sad, because Bike Lanes Are White Lanes discounts all other means of investigation, leaving only personal experience as a way to understand society. Its central hatred for so many people and its total lack of self-reflection kicks away the ability to empathize with people, leaving only judgment.