The Intersection of Bicycling and Social Justice

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Photo by Getty Images/JANIFEST.

Bobby Gaddawas 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.

Through a series of encounters like these, I started to see the outlines of a social scene that overlapped with a politically-oriented bike activist culture and social movement in Los Angeles. I later learned that Midnight Ridazz had grown through a network of friends who hung around the Bicycle Kitchen bike repair cooperative, which had grown out of the social circle of bike activists living in central L.A. neighborhoods. Immersing myself in bike-related media, I found that this bike activist culture I had stumbled upon through group rides was tied into broader social networks across the county, and its participants were largely in agreement that bicycle infrastructure was the way to improve conditions for bicycling and get more people riding for transportation. Blogs with names like Copenhagenize idolized the bike-friendly streets of European cities.

The bike movement existed because in the U.S. there was not a public consensus that riding a bike or investing public resources in bike infrastructure were good ideas. But over the course of my research I learned that the bike movement had less interest in organizing the public to support bicycling and more interest in convincing elected officials and public employees that bike infrastructure was a good investment. Changing the public’s mind would follow from changing road design, the bike movement asserted through its advocacy strategy. 

I think this strategy had developed in part as a response to how hard it could be to get the public on board. The first time I witnessed outrage over bicycle infrastructure was in early 2008, when I heard neighborhood residents protesting a proposed bike facility at a city meeting near my apartment in Long Beach. The city’s engineering consultant framed the project as responding to this neighborhood’s homeowners’ previous request that the city reduce traffic on First Street. This plan, he said, would achieve that goal by using county funds to convert their street into a “bicycle boulevard.” Bike boulevards create routes for bicycling by making it inconvenient for motorists to use neighborhood streets parallel to busy arterials, making these side streets into a haven for pedestrians and bicycle users. I had often ridden on bike boulevards in Portland, and I was pleased to hear about a proposed one in Long Beach.

However, the homeowners present that night saw things very differently. First Street runs through several Long Beach neighborhoods that transition from dense tracts of apartment buildings to a more exclusive beachfront enclave. Though it’s part of Long Beach’s regular street grid, it has a suburban feel and many large, well-maintained homes from the early twentieth century. Some people said their historic neighborhood would be harmed by unsightly route signage, and that they had invested “hundreds of thousands or millions” in their homes. Bike infrastructure would lower their property values, they claimed. I’d never heard this before but I later learned it was a common view.

The relationship between home values and bike infrastructure is something I’ll save for later; at the time of that meeting, I was more concerned about the coded racism in the homeowners’ words. Having grown up in a neighborhood that outsiders called a ghetto, I tend to notice when white people express fear of exposure to black and brown people. In their remarks, the homeowners made it clear that they did not object to bicycling; they objected to who would be riding and where. Like many people with the economic security to take car ownership for granted, these homeowners viewed bicycling as a recreational pastime best enjoyed away from city streets. It’s common in Southern California to see people idling along sidewalks and oceanfront boardwalks on bulky beach cruisers. It’s also common for recreational cyclists to drive their bikes to mountain trails or other off-street destinations. Though none of the First Street homeowners said it explicitly, bicycling for transportation was a suspicious activity and not something the city should support in their neighborhood.

I’m guessing they’d seen the same bike users I had on busier streets, and those African-American and Latino men riding rusty bikes to get around on the cheap did not fit their vision for First Street. One elderly white woman said she biked with friends regularly, and that bicyclists would crowd the new route and make too much noise. An elderly white man argued that floods of bicyclists would pose a threat to mothers with strollers and “people who like to run in the street.” Others claimed the bike boulevard would cause a parking problem due to people driving cars loaded with bicycles to the street. One man more blatantly opined that an increase in bicyclists would attract thieves who would decide to “vacation” on the street. This project threatened theresidents’ sense of sovereignty, reminding them that they were geographically proximate to less desirable parts of the city. It was up to them to hold back the flood of outsiders so that their quiet street would remain private property.

The bike enthusiasts at that Long Beach meeting were clearly frustrated with what they saw as NIMBY (not in my backyard) opposition to making commuting by bike safer and more respectable, the end goal of the infrastructure strategy. The sense of injustice here had to do with bicyclists being left out of street design and outrage that such a small use of public resources would be blocked. Nobody said anything about the racist and classist messages encoded in the homeowners’ concerns. Was I the only one who noticed them? Riding a bike could make you feel very vulnerable, I knew, but that state of being ended when your ride did. There were other kinds of marginality that did not have those situational limits, and the homeowners wanted to bar people experiencing them from First Street. The bike advocates demonstrated a confident expectation that government power should back up their preferences, including the right to travel in roadways. They probably had more in common with the homeowners who expected the city to protect their enclave than they did with bike users who relied on two wheels due to poverty.

Most of the people already choosing to bike in Southern California were the kind of undesirable people that the Long Beach homeowners wanted to keep out of their neighborhood. Did these people participate in the bike movement? Was the bike infrastructure strategy designed to address their concerns? Before I started asking these questions of bike advocates, I found a different movement that was making an explicit connection between racism and sustainable transportation, so I knew I wasn’t way off base.

Around the same time that I attended the hearing about the bike boulevard, I found a flyer at the Long Beach Public Library. The flyer was made by a group called the Bus Riders Union/Síndicato de Pasajeros (BRU) and it warned bus riders about the impending cancellations of certain Metro bus routes. I was excited to learn more about who was advocating for the users of stigmatized public transportation.

I attended a regular monthly meeting of the BRU in Koreatown, where I learned the campaign’s origins and mission. I also met an older African-American gentleman who turned out to be the person who left the flyer in the Long Beach Public Library. He was very pleased that it had brought someone to the meeting, because he had been placing them in the library for some time without getting a response. This was the first time I encountered simultaneous interpretation, where headsets are available to keep communication inclusive between people speaking multiple languages.

The Labor/Community Strategy Center launched the BRU campaign in response to an L.A. Metro funding crisis in 1994. Faced with a mounting deficit, Metro announced that it was canceling the monthly bus pass service that many low-income riders relied on to meet their transportation needs. Metro was also raising fares overall. At the same time, the transit authority began construction on the Gold Line light rail corridor connecting downtown L.A. to wealthy Pasadena. This revealed a glaring injustice in the allocation of funding: while 94% of users rode the bus, 70% of Metro’s funding was being funneled into light rail. According to the BRU, this amounted to transit racism and violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Title VI that prohibited discrimination in federally funded projects. To block the fare increase, the BRU successfully sued Metro over the funneling of transportation monies to rail projects rather than bus service. The monthly bus pass program continued, and Metro did not raise fares until 2010.

In the orientation at my first meeting, the organizers explained that the BRU opposed any investment in rail transit because subways and light rail systems were too expensive to distribute equitably across a vast, decentralized county. For the price of every mile of light rail built, 600 buses could be added, they said. For the price of every mile of subway built, that number jumped to 900. Perhaps most significantly, train systems in L.A. have led to gentrification and rising rents in surrounding neighborhoods, driving the poor out of the city as professionals decide they are tired of commuting in from the San Fernando Valley, as a young black woman at my first meeting put it. The message was that drawing in new users should not come at the cost of those already using sustainable transportation systems.

I would later learn that the BRU has been an influential organizing model for transportation justice groups all over the country. Transportation justice is closely tied to the environmental justice movement, which works to address the fact that more neighborhoods where people of color live have been seen as appropriate sites for waste plants, highways, and other sources of pollution. Beyond the organizing task of enrolling affected individuals in a shared understanding of a local problem they face, a key element of environmental justice is self-determination and meaningful participation in decision-making. There is a recognized need to actively create room for people of color and low-income communities to have different ideas for improving their environments than what might be preferred by an environmentalist mainstream dominated by white participants.

Excerpted with permission from Bicycle/Race: Transportation, Culture, & Resistance by Adonia E. Lugo, PhD, Microcosm Publishing, 2018.

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