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Reflections on Equitable Transportation

This post comes from Adonia E. Lugo, a member of the League’s Equity Advisory Council and a Doctoral Candidate in Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. Yesterday, on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, wrote a blog post on transportation and opportunity, in light of this special commemoration. In the post below, Lugo builds off of this discussion, looking at how “streets are social spaces where we challenge or reinforce race and class divides.”

Usually when people talk about bikes, they focus on bike lanes, cycle tracks, and other kinds of infrastructure projects. What about the culture that underpins our uses of shared roads?

I study transportation cultures as an anthropologist, and I’m a voice in bike advocacy arguing that we need to include social justice concerns in the bike movement. As we’ve known for many years, and as the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington reminds us, our streets are social spaces where we challenge or reinforce race and class divides. Streets are where we come together, or fall apart. Transportation happens in public, and what goes on in our streets connects with larger questions of race, class, gender, and privilege. There are social cues telling us what ways of getting around are higher and lower status.

As an anthropologist, I’ve focused on the variety of people who use bicycles, starting with Los Angeles, where I saw a lot of Latino and African-American men riding bikes on sidewalks. They seemed a million miles away, socially, from the people like me on road bikes. That insight about social distance and how transportation reinforces it led me to develop two projects in L.A. that experimented with bringing these different kinds of bicyclists into the same social spaces, City of Lights (now called Multicultural Communities for Mobility) and CicLAvia.

I started bike commuting in Portland, Oregon after college, and when I returned home to Southern California for graduate school in 2007, motorists there treated me like dirt for commuting by bike. I started to notice how I’d grown up in a system that punished people for being too poor to drive. The bus service where I grew up in suburban Orange County is atrocious, running once an hour and ending early in the evening. People there may hire immigrant workers to cook, clean, and raise their children, but they certainly don’t want them getting around too easily. A few months after I’d moved back, a Latino man was killed by a drunk driver while riding home from his job at a restaurant near where I grew up.

That clinched it for me: if you couldn’t afford to drive, you didn’t deserve to live. This was the message we were sending on our streets. I became a bike activist because that didn’t make a lot of sense to me in light of the need to shift to sustainable transportation. 

Bicycling and other modes of transport aren’t just personal choices. In my research, I’ve found that a lot of people resent bicycling because of the people they associate with bikes. I interviewed leaders in Seattle’s communities of color about bicycling last year, and what they told me over and over was that bicyclists are white men in spandex. They didn’t see a lot of value in the city installing more bike lanes and other projects to accommodate that group. This is a pretty widespread belief, that bike projects serve a particular population, so you should be in favor of them or against them based on your idea of who rides.

It is true that more cities are using strategies like bike share programs to compete with each other to attract “talent,” these mobile creative types who will choose where to live based on lifestyle rather than job opportunities. However, associating negative behavior with how a person is getting around, or what she looks like, is a dangerous form of stereotyping. There are some very real, very important critiques to make of the bike movement; I should know, because I’m one of the people making them. Attacking bicycling, though, which some people do just because they can’t afford to get around in other ways, contributes to the idea that bicycling necessarily carries a whole set of social values with it, and the people who do it are either entitled or lowlifes. 

The growth of driving cars in the U.S. is very tied to suburbanization, which allowed people to isolate themselves from undesirables (like people of color). There’s no denying that we’ve made our roads into hierarchical spaces, where driving is No. 1 and all the rest can get in line.

What we’re seeing now is a growing number of people questioning that mentality. And that’s making an even greater number of people uncomfortable. When critics describe bike users as entitled, they turn a blind eye to nearly a century of public investment in roads designed for driving.

A lot of bike users are defensive because of repeated incidents where they’ve been treated like scum for simply having a physical presence. Nobody deserves to be treated like a nonhuman for using a public resource like a street, whether they decide to become an activist about it or not. When there’s such a dominant form of mobility, like driving has been, it’s easy to marginalize the small group of people who by choice or by fortune have to get around in other ways. It’s easier to see them as the problem than to confront the underlying culture with its messages about who counts and who does not. 

(Photo courtesy of University of California, Irvine.)

If you’re interested in learning more about the League’s Equity Initiative, you can learn more here. 

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