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New Opportunities and Bike Justice

In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama emphasized American energy independence. He foretold a future with fair wages, where students can find opportunity, and more families can afford to buy their homes. Does this relate to bicycling? Yes, because we ride in shared public spaces that are part of larger built environments tied together through economic, social, and ecological systems.

However, the bicycle may not come to the President’s mind as an innovative solution. We bike folk have not always known how to reach beyond our own cultural frames of reference to question who can hear our message.

I have heard bike experts make a lot of claims about what bike infrastructure can do: produce new users, boost local economies, improve family health, and change people’s minds about whether biking is safe. But I’ve also heard them claim that it can’t do other things, like contribute to displacement or address our enduring inequality problem.

In other rooms, I’ve heard environmental justice advocates cite studies showing that people of color use transit and non-motorized transport modes more than white people do, and then leave biking and walking out of their analyses. I get email blasts from equity-focused organizations whose mastheads show images of walking, industry, and transit, but no bicycles.

It’s time for the bike movement to find common ground with transit and environmental justice advocates. If we want to realize the economic potential for bicycling to save transportation dollars and access jobs, we need to be part of the transportation equity picture. This goal is reflected in the League’s new mission and vision, which calls for “a nation where everyone recognizes and enjoys the many benefits and opportunities of bicycling” and acknowledges that to achieve this, we must “engage diverse communities and build a powerful, unified voice for change.”

If you’re not familiar with the environmental justice movement, a good starting point is the landmark “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States” report that the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice released in 1987. This report highlighted the lack of connection between the environmental movement and community-based efforts by people of color to clean up their neighborhoods, even as those neighborhoods attracted more than their fair share of toxic waste facilities. The authors recommended intervention at federal, state, and local levels. In February 1994, environmental justice achieved a new level of recognition when President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 12898 “directs federal agencies to make environmental justice part of their missions by identifying and addressing disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their programs, policies, and activities on minority, low-income populations.”

Environmental justice moved into transportation in the 1990s through transit advocacy coalitions such as Los Angeles’ Bus Riders Union, who made the case that L.A.’s transit funding policies harmed communities of color. In 1997, environmental justice scholars Robert Bullard and Glenn Johnson released a book called Just Transportation, focusing specifically on the transportation side of environmental justice. In their introduction, Bullard and Johnson state that, “historically, transportation development policies did not emerge in a race- and class-neutral society. Institutional racism influences local land use, allocation of funds, enforcement of environmental regulations, facility siting, and where people of color live, work, and play.” Bicycling and bike infrastructure are part of this story, and if we ignore that we will be confirming the dismissive assumption that we’re just a special interest group, after all.

This month marks the twentieth anniversary of 12898, and I wonder if others see its influence in the New Opportunities for Bicycle and Pedestrian Infrastructure Financing Act of 2014 (NOBPIFA) that Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) introduced in Congress last week. The New Opportunities Act would steer existing transportation funding resources toward loans for bike/ped projects, and 25% of those loans must serve low-income communities. Because there’s still a disturbing amount of overlap between race/ethnicity and low-income status, according to the National Poverty Center, this targeted funding could bring more safe biking and walking opportunities to communities of color rather than passing them over.

But, as I heard Dr. Alex Karner point out during the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Civil Rights Virtual Symposium this week, just because a transit stop or street improvement has been installed in a neighborhood does not mean that the people who live in that neighborhood will decide to use it. To ensure that these infrastructure loans go toward facilities that will be used, the New Opportunities Act also proposes a public participation component. This makes an important link between people and place.

The importance of place comes up often in active transportation and smart growth conversations, but not as much attention goes to who has the power to define those places. There is an assumption that designers know best, and this means users sometimes get reduced to photoshopped outlines. If we want to get more people using the beautiful, high quality infrastructure designs being developed, we need to adapt those designs to serve specific communities’ needs. That means getting them involved before all the big decisions have been made.

President Obama, you may not expect much of our sometimes eccentric bicycle movement, but we know that the bicycle is a tool for social change. If we build on our strengths, confront our weaknesses, and create new allies, we can move America forward, one two-wheeled opportunity at a time.

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