Take a Hike, Homeless: The Dark Side of ‘Car Free’

Recently, someone on Twitter pointed out that efforts to create ‘car-free’ streets ultimately wind up hurting homeless people.

This makes a lot of sense. Turning an ordinary street into a pedestrian boulevard can have certain benefits: it brings in more retail, more foot traffic and more tourists. Add in the elimination of dangerous vehicle traffic and it’s a win-win-win. Right?

Not for everyone. Any place that is designed to attract retail, foot traffic and tourists is the kind of place that might be hostile to homeless people. Last year, Iowa City came under fire for installing benches that some said were designed to deter homeless people from sleeping on them. In August of this year, the New York Post wrote a characteristically offensive piece about “junkies flocking” to a pedestrian mall in New York City. (“If you build it, they will slum,” the NY Post wrote.)

Here in Minneapolis, we only need to look back to the beginning of the Mid-Century Urban Renewal efforts. Gateway Park, which was a gathering place for many of the elderly men who lived in the boarding houses that once made up a sizeable part of our downtown, was bulldozed in an effort to clear “blight” from our city.

Our society generally has a very dim view of homeless people. We are willing to express empathy for them so long as they are hidden away. If they are on our streets, serving as visual reminders of poverty while we’re shopping and sipping mimosas, they become a problem. That’s when we complain to police and policymakers and demand to have them removed, with force if necessary. For homeless people, pedestrian malls are a trap. Lured by the perceived safety of a pedestrian mall, homeless people seek shelter there, only to encounter backlash, violence, and eviction.

Homelessness has increased by 9% in Minneapolis. With rents increasing, this number is only going to go up. Before we start banning cars from our streets and fantasizing about recreating Barcelona’s La Rambla on Nicollet Mall, we need to take real action to help homeless and low-income people. To build car-free streets before helping those who are struggling the most is to attend to the needs of the privileged. The bike coalition might be okay with that, but anyone who truly cares about equity in our city should not be.

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