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Built for what?

Fixing Tulsa’s infrastructure inequity

Kolby Webster is one of Tulsa’s most vocal and visible advocates for cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

Gary Mason


Kolby Webster was a sophomore at Union High School the first time he got hit by a driver. He was on his bike, commuting to work at a restaurant near 71st Street and Memorial Drive, riding on the sidewalk to avoid the heavy flow of traffic. A car swiped him as the driver turned onto the street, sending Webster’s bike sputtering across two lanes of traffic as his body hurled forward through the air.

An older couple pulled over to call 911. They checked on the teenager, dazed in the grass but without serious injuries, and waited with him for the police to arrive.

“I’ll be at the QuikTrip if you need me,” the driver said. Webster never saw him again.

When the cops showed up, they chastised Webster for riding on the sidewalk. “Because it’s against city ordinance—it’s for pedestrians only,” he remembers an officer explaining. “And I’m like, ‘Well, it’s 71st Street.’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, we wouldn’t ride there either. It’s just what the law says.’”

Webster, and the couple who stopped to help, were perplexed by the seemingly impossible scenario laid out before them. “We’re all just kind of silently nodding,” he says with a puzzled laugh. “I mean, what do you say to that? I’m sitting there with these random people and we’re are all in agreement that this is kind of—dumb. And you just have to shrug and limp home.”

This lit a spark for Webster, who’s been biking as his primary mode of transport since he was eight years old. The incident drew a fundamental question into sharp relief: How can people live their lives safely on bikes and on their feet, in a city built for cars?

“That really pushed me into advocating for the built environment,” Webster says. In the years since, he has become one of the most visible and vocal champions of bike and pedestrian infrastructure in Tulsa.

That wasn’t Webster’s last contact with a driver, nor his last with law enforcement. As a young black man, the latter causes a unique anxiety. “There’s just not any extra interaction I wanna have with the police,” he says. But in a city lacking robust cycling infrastructure, coupled with the implicit bias of police departments across the country, that unwanted interaction is all but guaranteed.

“I’ve had cops tell me to get over to the right. I’m like, ‘Yeah, but the street is shit on the right!’ It’s the gutter. There’s rocks. There’s sand. There’s gravel,” Webster says. “So I chill over on the right ‘til they’re gone, then get back in the street. Because I need to take this lane. Cause all I’m gonna end up doing is swerving in and out of the trash on the side of the road.”

Other interactions have been more fraught. “Do you really want to argue with me?” one officer challenged, after Webster questioned his order to ride on the sidewalk instead of the street—the opposite instruction from what he was given by officers at 71st Street and Memorial Drive.

The challenges faced by communities of color are unique, but the infrastructure of our city is something we all share. Here Webster and other bike and pedestrian advocates see a profound inequality. “Every aspect of it doesn’t make sense,” the now-25-year-old activist says. “It seems antagonistic to me—the built environment, and the authorities that uphold the laws of the built environment.”

Whose streets?

Webster recently made waves when he interrupted a speech by Mayor G.T. Bynum to advocate for equitable infrastructure spending during a town hall forum concerning the second phase of the Improve Our Tulsa (IOT) plan. His grievance? The proposed $597 million project would include $417 million for transportation and streets, but only $5 million for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

This portion of the funding continues an initial investment of $7 million established as part of the city’s GO Plan to increase active transportation. According to Nick Doctor, chief of community development and policy for the City of Tulsa, the goal is to make our built environment a more hospitable place for people to get from point A to point B on bikes and on their feet.

“The way we’ve been thinking about our bike lane infrastructure, particularly on the streets, is: ‘How are we connecting the key destination places in the city?’ From an employment perspective, or from a recreation and entertainment perspective,” Doctor says. “And thinking about how our on-street infrastructure for bike lanes connects to our trail system to really create a stronger and fuller network for cyclists and pedestrians.”

Webster agrees on the need for this connective infrastructure, but says the preliminary breakdown of IOT’s funding doesn’t establish active transportation as a priority. “I would really like to see 10 percent of the whole damn thing go to bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure,” he says. “But it’s 0.8 percent for [that] infrastructure, even though it has the best return for everybody in the city.”

Another area of concern is the planned $64 million allocation for street widening projects. Critics like Webster point to studies that argue wider streets mean faster traffic and environments that are less safe for people walking or riding bikes.  

“It seems antagonistic to me—the built environment, and the authorities that uphold the laws of the built environment.”

City Councilor Phil Lakin points to his own District 8 as an example of an area where he says auto traffic congestion has created a need for wider roads. He stresses that none of these projects are set in stone, especially the areas that will receive attention as part of the spending package, but says many of his constituents would benefit from more and wider lanes.

“I’ve lived on two-lane streets in South Tulsa since my family moved here when I was nine,” Lakin says. “And since that time the City of Tulsa has progressively developed to the south—and the town to the south, Bixby, has grown demonstrably as well. Its population growth is highest in the region and second-highest in the state. And a lot of those residents want to come to Tulsa, and we want them to come to Tulsa as well, and they’re utilizing these two-lane streets … [where] you may have these huge stacks of cars and you just sit in one of these neighborhoods, and you wait for the opportunity just to get to where you’re going.”

While Lakin says wider streets are needed to ease congestion in areas like District 8, he touts the many sidewalk projects that have been completed—and those that will accompany future widening initiatives—as an example of growth that caters to both cars and those using active transportation. “There has been no stronger advocate for widening,” Lakin says of himself. “But there has been no stronger advocate for sidewalks, either. I’m very intently focused on giving constituents all across the city of Tulsa to walk and to bike from their neighborhoods to businesses, schools, and other neighborhoods.”

Councilor Lakin’s advice for people on bikes in District 8? Take those sidewalks. “If you can find one,” he laughs. “We still have a long way to go.”

To address confusion about the legality of riding on sidewalks, Lakin points to Chapter 10, Section 1009 of the Tulsa Code of Ordinances, which reads: “No person shall operate a bicycle, rickshaw or motorized scooter upon a sidewalk within a business district.” While the language doesn’t explicitly outline where someone on a bike may use the sidewalk, the implication is that areas of town without a high density of businesses and pedestrians are fair game.

“It sounds like a recipe to get people hit,” Webster says. “I mean, the ordinances change in various parts of the city, and we consider 71st and Memorial a ‘business district,’ but we consider 81st, 91st and Yale not, when they’re designed more or less the same way, and present the same sort of possibilities for anyone who’s walking or biking or driving.”

Councilor Lakin says the city’s patchwork of sidewalk ordinances is not a concern he’s heard from the community. “I don’t think [it’s confusing],” he says. “Those to whom I have talked—especially those in the biking community, the BPAC [Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee] world and things like that—they have not brought anything to us saying the ordinances installed are difficult to interpret and understand.”

But Webster remembers the cop who wagged his finger after the driver collided with his bike on a sidewalk, and the other who ordered him to get his bike off the road. “It feels like a weird kind of gaslighting,” he says.

“I don’t want anybody getting hit,” Lakin stresses. “It just gets more complex when you get around business areas. And it doesn’t matter if you’re at 71st and Mingo near the mall, or you’re downtown on Cherry Street—wherever you have sidewalks going across small roads, or entrance ramps to businesses, there’s just an inherent conflict between cars and bikes or cars and pedestrians.”

Building for people

That “inherent conflict” is part of the problem for cycling advocates like Webster who see active transportation as a way to enhance their connection to the city. Ordinances aside, the fundamental question for Webster is how our spending priorities reflect the kind of city we want to be.

“What we’re turning into is not a city. It’s just a place to drive through,” Webster says. “We’re just conforming to the stereotype of a flyover place … even with congestion, at worst you’re looking at 20 to 40 minutes to get from one point of Tulsa to another [by car]—which is fantastic. If these people lived anywhere else, they would know this is ideal: waiting 20 minutes in traffic to get where everybody wants to go.

“I know Phil Lakin thinks he’s doing right by his district,” Webster says of the councilor’s street-widening advocacy. “But at the end of the day, this [will be] a loss for the entire city. It’s a loss for the residents out there, and the whole social fabric of what it is to have neighbors, to communicate with them, to see them, to understand all the different people that live around you—the different incomes and backgrounds and lifestyles. Just for the sake of the idea of convenience.”

Instead of wider streets, advocates like Webster want to see more “road diets” throughout the city. One such project is planned for 11th Street from Peoria to Utica Avenue where protected bike lanes will reduce the width of the road through a key corridor. “with those bike lanes also comes thinking about how that street is made safer for all users,” Nick Doctor says. “So that will include a road diet for 11th Street to make that safer for pedestrians as well.”

Here Webster and teh mayor’s office agree. “If you do a road diet, congestion tends to stay exactly the same, but all those other methods move through quicker,” Webster says. “And people start to move toward those alternative methods, because they have options.”

The Improve Our Tulsa II funding package will be put before voters in a special election on Nov. 12. In the meantime, for those who want to get involved in creating more equitable spaces for people on bikes and on their feet, Webster says to consider your own lifestyle and see what you sacrifice for convenience. “There are three words I use to check my own lifestyle: sustainability, equity, and access. Do I have it? Am I practicing it?”

Groups like BPAC and Tulsa Hub are organizations where citizens can put those questions into action. Networks like these speak to a fundamental piece of advice Webster has for the citizens of Tulsa. “Think about advocating for people,” he says. “What does it mean, and what does it look like in your city?”

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