The Intersection of Bicycling and Social Justice

Issues of race and environmental justice are deeply entwined with bicycle culture.

Photo by Getty Images/JANIFEST.

Bobby Gadda was the reason I started riding a bike in Portland, and when he moved with me to Long Beach in 2007, we spent our weekends exploring L.A. County's built and natural landscapes using transit and bikes. We rode through the Port of Los Angeles to a secluded beach in Palos Verdes teeming with stray cats. We took a shuttle to the Queen Mary and took selfies in front of nautical equipment. That fall, we took our bikes on the Blue Line train that runs from downtown Long Beach to downtown L.A. and attended a concert at Barnsdall Park in Los Feliz, where we ran into a high school friend of mine. She told us about a group called the Midnight Ridazz, who organized nighttime bicycle rides exploring the city. Then a grad school friend discovered that this group was holding a mobile holiday toy drive, the All-City Toy Ride. With rides starting from all over L.A. County, the groups would merge in downtown L.A. and ride to a party where they would drop off toys to be donated to needy kids.

In mid-December, we met the Long Beach ride at the appointed time and place. It was a small group, mostly men. They were white. The other riders seemed to know each other, not talking much. As I later learned was the custom for these rides, we stopped at a liquor store so that people could pick up booze for the road. Then we set off to ride the 18 miles of bike path that connects Long Beach and Los Angeles.

There are multi-use paths along many of Southern California’s concretized waterways. Growing up, I spent a lot of time walking on one of these paths that connected the subdivision where I was born with Doheny Beach about four miles away. My fellow trail users were mostly Latinas and Latinos on foot, moms walking with kids, and men wearing backpacks. Occasionally spandex-clad and helmeted white men rode by on bicycles, traveling in groups I later learned were called pelotons. I had never ridden on the L.A. River bike path, but I'd read about would-be thieves taking advantage of the fact that limited access points created long stretches of lonely trail. That December night we passed some Latino teenagers on our ride, but encountered no threat under the occasional orange glow of scattered streetlights.

The trail ended south of downtown in the industrial city of Vernon, unfamiliar territory to me. But I started to orient myself as we approached Placita Olvera, which was the meeting point that night. At the plaza we fell in with a swirling crowd, much larger than I'd expected. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people on bicycles hooted amid flashing lights. In central L.A. there were apparently a lot of these bike people. It was a racially mixed crowd. Some people had large stereo systems attached to their bikes, filling the street with music. The ride organizers distributed spoke cards, the collectible mementos of these group rides that people jam between the spokes of their bike wheels. The cards had graphics on one side and details about the ride on the reverse.

After some time circling the gazebo where I had watched mariachi bands perform on childhood trips to L.A., the large ride continued eastward. I worried that I would lose control of my bike and wobble into someone else's handlebars in the huge crowd, but in other ways riding in a group felt much safer than riding alone. I wasn't tensed against motorists' contempt, what with the human buffer around me. Many other people seemed nonchalant about the crowd, in the know, part of this exciting scene. That group ride showed me that people on bikes could use their bodies to create temporary zones where they transformed the street. After the All-City Toy Ride, Bobby and I attended a few other group rides. We started to see some of the same people and got to know their nicknames. Some folks were using bikes to explore L.A.’s history and built environment like Bobby and I had been doing. These rides had themes and might involve visiting a number of landmarks and talking about them. Other rides were more about drinking, smoking weed, and performing daredevil tricks in traffic. It seemed like there was room for all kinds of ideas, since the Midnight Ridazz website had a community forum anyone could join to discuss rides.

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