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Three African-American Churches Open To Compromise On Shaw Bike Lane

Pastor Robert Price of United House of Prayer, an opponent of the bike lane project, speaks Saturday at the meeting inside the KIPP charter school in Shaw.
WAMU/Martin Di Caro
Pastor Robert Price of United House of Prayer, an opponent of the bike lane project, speaks Saturday at the meeting inside the KIPP charter school in Shaw.

The intense controversy surrounding the District’s proposals to build a major north-south bike lane through the Shaw neighborhood took a civil turn on Saturday, as transportation officials held a public meeting to calm residents’ concerns that the city was moving ahead without their input.

And although some large African-American churches remain adamantly opposed to constructing a traffic-protected bike lane through the historically black neighborhood, others are signaling willingness to compromise. At issue: whether engineers can design a bike lane that minimally reduces the number of parking spaces churchgoers depend on.

The four-hour meeting inside a charter school’s auditorium was attended by several hundred Shaw residents. It unfolded without the outrage and anger that marred the initial public meeting in October, when many African-American churchgoers accused the District Department of Transportation of trying to ram through the project against the community’s wishes.

On Saturday, the gathering quietly listened to a DDOT presentation on four bike lane alternatives that remove varying numbers of parking spaces and provide from two to three-and-a-half miles of protection from vehicular traffic.

The October meeting also appeared to pit long-time black residents who commute by car against white newcomers who prefer bikes, but the reality is more complicated.

“I think there is more nuance in it than simply racial lines,” said Carl Hickerson, the pastor of Springfield Baptist Church, which has been in Shaw 77 years.

“I think there is a healthy compromise we can come to,” said Hickerson, who said he would support the project provided his church does not lose the on-street parking that has become scarcer as Shaw has gentrified. Some Shaw residents partly fault the loss of parking for the displacement of as many as 10 historic black churches.

The leaders of Hemingway Temple A.M.E. Church also have notified District officials of their possible support for a protected bike lane.

“For everyone’s benefit, the 2014 total of more than 50 people struck by motor vehicles in Shaw must be reduced to zero as we move forward. Separate protected facilities for cyclists keep them out of the way of motor vehicles. Reducing the width of the road makes them safer for pedestrians to walk across,” said the Reverend Thann Young in a letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and DDOT director Leif Dormsjo.

“Our congregation stands ready to support the needs of our community and neighbors now and in the future,” said Rev. Young. Shiloh Baptist Church in Shaw is also open to supporting the District’s plans to expand its network of protected bike lanes as part of the city’s newly adopted goal of eliminating all traffic fatalities in the next decade.

’Our view has not changed’

But United House of Prayer, one of the largest congregations and property owners in Shaw, remains against any bike lane proposal.

“We’re not going to let someone’s pastime destroy our lifeline,” said UHOP’s Pastor Robert Price as he stood before the hundreds attending Sunday’s meeting. “Our view has not changed, but we come in peace.”

“We recommend no-build! Is that alright?” Price asked the room. About half of those in attendance verbalized their approval.

The region’s largest bike advocacy group, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, also mobilized its supporters to attend the meeting. One of its board members, Martin Moulton, who is African American, sought to undermine the prevailing narrative of black churches vs. white newcomers.

“Studies show that many more people would ride bicycles if they felt safer doing so on roadways. Projects like this one we heard about today would create new recreation and transportation opportunities for people in this community,” Moulton said.

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