When Resistance To Urban Innovation Is Ideological

Do activists really want to help the poor – or just attack the rich?

Ethan Finlan | July 30, 2018 | |

In perhaps the ultimate anti-innovation protest in San Francisco, electric scooters are used to block a tech bus. / Press Democrat

Remember the Google Bus protests? Well, recently, another mode of transportation associated with “yuppies” and gentrification has come under fire: the bikes that have been popping over cities large and small, often through public-private partnerships. Dockless bikeshare appears to have an issue with vulnerability to vandalism. These are all part of a few isolated cases in which the opposition to private transit – and urban innovation in general – takes on an ideological character.

I stress the word isolated, because it’s not something to be overly concerned about at this time, but indicates a mentality towards demonizing so-called “outsiders” more than helping those imperiled by gentrification. Despite the fact that having more bikes on the road than cars would result in lower vehicle miles traveled, and lower pollution, certain belligerent actors see it as productive to inhibit access to said modes.

For instance, one anarchist faction in Portland which destroyed dockless bikes alleged that the bikes were a threat to the community because they were financed by large corporations. Would it not be more productive for such organizations to, say, raise funds for discounted bike trips in low-income communities, or establish a competing or co-existing local bike share service? While it has been true in bikeshare’s recent history that users skew towards a homogenous user base, there is evidence from Washington, D.C. neighborhoods that dockless bikeshare could bridge the gap and make the mode of travel more widely accessible. Nonetheless, bikeshare seems to have replaced the Silicon Valley shuttles as the target of two-minutes hate – rather than viewing these options as solutions to a problem, and identifying ways in which these solutions could be improved, a certain type of activist feels content to engage in protests over symbolism.

Unfortunately, such attitudes are common within the increasingly polarized politics of urbanism. Particularly in West Coast cities, justified concerns over gentrification and higher living costs have been used by misguided political forces to block proven solution to these problems – like building more housing.

Further down the coast, San Francisco lawmakers this week advanced legislation that would prohibit companies from opening their own on-campus dining services. Their logic is based on a kernel of truth: those corporate campuses tend to be isolated from the broader community, with employees patronizing in-house services rather than local businesses. Yet it fails on two fairly obvious counts: the first, that such services nonetheless create jobs for residents, and second, that the Bay Area’s restrictive land-use policies have thwarted housing options for individuals who would likely patronize existing local businesses.

Such actions on the policy end and activist end (granted, destroying bikes does not represent most activism,) results from hating capitalism more than wanting to maximize mobility and affordability for all. To combat cost-of-living increases, either a positive or a negative agenda can be advanced. Which will cities and activists choose?

Did you enjoy this article? Read others by signing up now for The Market Urbanism Report's weekly email newsletter.