It’s time for cycling advocates to stop ignoring people of color
Last year saw the occasion of an uncomfortable shakeup at the League of American Bicyclists, one of the most influential bike-focused lobbying groups in Washington, D.C. Anthropologist Adonia Lugo, who had been hired to run the League’s Equity Initiative — that is, to support conversations about race and class within the organization and in the bike movement at large — abruptly left her job.
“I thought I was coming in to provide this expert guidance,” Lugo says, having dedicated her academic work to cycling and the power dynamics of race and class. “What it ended up feeling like was that I was a diversity hire, and that I wasn’t actually supposed to be there to run with things in my program area.” Because she felt like her suggestions and concerns weren’t taken seriously, she quit.
Alex Doty, the League’s new executive director and the former head of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, declines to comment on Lugo’s specific concerns because he took on the role after her departure. But he says, “Adonia has many valid criticisms of the League’s work on equity, diversity and inclusion.”
Her departure, however, suggests a bigger conflict between the diversity of the bicycling community and the decidedly less-diverse world of cycling advocacy.
Environmentalism has an offshoot in the environmental justice movement, which represents low-income victims of industrial pollution. Urbanists, too, are increasingly being called on to consider race, class and gender in their work making cities denser and transit-rich. But cycling advocacy remains mostly white, male and comparatively wealthy, which feeds the incorrect perception that all bicyclists fit this description. Still, the public-facing monoculture at the top of the movement often fails to have meaningful discussions about equity, if the discussions happen at all.
Tamika Butler, executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC), says it’s not surprising to her that leaders of color feel alienated in the bicycling movement. “It’s draining to be there as an other,” she says. As a black LGBTQ woman, Butler describes the frustration of always being the one person in the room looking at cycling through an equity lens, and of not always being heard.
These are messy, uncomfortable conversations to have, but Lugo, Butler and other advocates are pushing cyclists to have them. The statistics demand it: About a third of all cyclists in the U.S. come from the poorest quartile of the population, compared to 23 percent from the richest. Cycling growth rates among black, Latino and Asian Americans over the last decade are double, if not quadruple, growth rates among white Americans.
Similar disparities exist for pedestrians. Only 49 percent of low-income neighborhoods have sidewalks, while 89 percent of high-income communities have them. Respectively, black and Latino Americans are 60 and 43 percent more likely than white Americans to be killed while walking. Meanwhile, the same groups of Americans face worse health outcomes, unequal incomes, lower rates of educational attainment, and higher rates of incarceration.
“The bike is going to be a tool that intersects with gentrification, that intersects with racism, that intersects with over-policing.”
Social justice advocates are increasingly drawing links between these broader issues and the push for better bike and pedestrian infrastructure. In Lugo’s experience, however, bicycling advocates don’t always view their role in this way. In part, she says, that’s because of who’s in charge. While the environmental justice movement is generally spearheaded by people who have personally experienced damage to their communities, leading cycling advocates have traditionally come from positions of relative privilege.
“If you’re going to take the time to be an activist and you’re impassioned about something going wrong in your community, it actually has taken quite a lot of privilege for that issue to be bicycling,” Lugo says. “As opposed to water quality or air quality or incarceration or food access.”
At the same time, all cyclists, regardless of privilege, do face the danger of injury or death when traveling on city streets. This leads many to feel like an embattled minority within a car-centric culture, where every bike lane or passing law is hard won. The idea that cyclists could simultaneously use their fight to advocate for minorities or the poor tends to get buried beneath a broader push for any recognition whatsoever.
“The bike is going to be a tool for social justice that intersects with gentrification, that intersects with racism, that intersects with over-policing,” Butler says. “If we want to be compelling and effective advocates, we have to learn to talk about those other things.”
Vision Zero might force that conversation. Adopted by more than a dozen U.S. cities, Vision Zero is the idea that government can eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries. The concept, which originated in Sweden, is built on the premise that car crashes are not inevitable “accidents” but rather preventable tragedies that can be avoided through improved engineering, education and enforcement.
It’s the enforcement part that has some advocates worried. After leaving the League, Lugo published a blog post, titled “Unsolicited Advice for Vision Zero,” in which she wrote about the gulf between advocacy organizations and the cyclists most in need.
“I see Vision Zero as very much shaped by the concerns of an economically secure group of advocates,” she tells SPOKE. Of course, everyone wants to feel safe on the streets, but Lugo worries that ramped-up enforcement will disproportionately target the same communities most vulnerable to traffic violence.
“Traffic violence is a huge problem, but not everyone is ready to see policing as a solution,” she wrote in her post, putting Vision Zero in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. On the phone, Lugo tells SPOKE, “This just isn’t the right time to be calling for more police enforcement without coordinating with the ongoing efforts to reform policing and to reform how police interact with the public.”
A 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Justice found that black drivers are about 31 percent more likely than white drivers to be stopped and searched, and about twice as likely to receive a ticket. A more recent DOJ report, responding to racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., found that police in that city routinely used traffic stops to harass black citizens. Meanwhile, 12 of the 15 New York City neighborhoods with the highest number of citations written for biking on the sidewalk are majority black or Latino, while 14 of the 15 neighborhoods with the fewest summonses are predominately white.
Can Vision Zero, then, make vulnerable populations safer without punishing them?
One way to do that, some advocates say, is to increase policing by technology. “Automated enforcement cameras — speed cameras — target behavior, not people,” says Caroline Samponaro, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, a New York City non-profit. Since adopting Vision Zero, New York has stepped up enforcement around the deadliest traffic behaviors — speeding and failure to yield — in part by installing speed cameras near at least 100 schools. In the first year, according to the New York City Department of Transportation, those locations saw a 60 percent average decrease in speeding.
But automated enforcement remains politically challenging, with 13 states, including Pennsylvania, outright banning speed cameras. The Bicycle Coalition is campaigning for the state to allow them in Philly, an option Michael Zaccagni, chief of staff at the Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems, says the City will explore. (It wouldn’t be an unprecedented move: State lawmakers authorized Philadelphia alone to install red light cameras in 2012, although that program is set to expire next summer.) Critics elsewhere have charged that speed cameras aren’t accurate and that their implementation is motivated by revenue concerns, rather than safety.
Can Vision Zero make vulnerable populations safer without punishing them?
Technology might not racially profile, but a person’s race or income level may have an effect on their ability to pay a ticket — and on the repercussions if they don’t. A recent report by Back on the Road California, a coalition of legal groups focused on racial disparities in traffic enforcement, found that black drivers are more likely than whites to be arrested for failing to pay a traffic violation fine. That can result in license suspension, which can have devastating consequences for low-income workers.
The issue has come to a head in Los Angeles, which adopted Vision Zero last year. After issuing a flurry of jaywalking tickets downtown, the LAPD was criticized for punishing pedestrians in a part of the city finally getting over its car-centric culture. Now the City Council has directed the police and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation to consider alternatives to ticketing.
Nat Gale, L.A.’s principal project coordinator for Vision Zero, says he recognizes the importance of leading with education and engineering, especially in neighborhoods that lack infrastructure, and following up with enforcement only when the first two steps yield progress. In fact, when Gale took on his role in January, one of the first people he contacted was Lugo. “[From her] I learned that it’s really about a conversation, and transparency, and access,” he says.
To that end, a coalition of community-based organizations, including LACBC, has organized as the Vision Zero Alliance to help L.A. develop and carry out its approach equitably. Members include the AARP and Multicultural Communities for Mobility, a transportation advocacy group with Lugo on its board. Butler says she sees promise in being brought to the table this way, but adds that the alliance has also leveled with the City: It won’t blindly endorse Vision Zero if the policies therein will do its communities a disservice.
“I think we really have to own our power and own the fact that we’re needed,” Butler says. “And it’s OK to say no.”
Illustration by Mariya Pilipenko