The Invisible Cyclist: Transportation Justice

From Equity-Based Transportation Systems: Paradigm Shift.
The transportation justice movement calls into question government subsidies of transportation forms that tend to benefit largely white and affluent urban and suburban commuters and advocates for better transit options and safer streets for poor people and people of color. This population of cyclists is largely uncounted, unrecognized, and unrepresented. Put simply, these are the invisible cyclists. In many cases, invisible cyclists are the constituents of transportation justice organizations, but only insofar as they are poor people of color. As cyclists, they remain invisible.

Origins of “The Invisible Cyclist” Blog

- Julian Agyeman  and Steve Zavestoski

All cyclists are invisible, some more than others

Recently Steve was preparing to teach a course in which students would develop a bicycle transportation plan for the University of San Francisco, so he began to look into the range of issues the class would need to understand in order to situate the plan in the broader context of the bicycle advocacy and bicycle culture bursting from what seemed like every corner of San Francisco.

Trained as en environmental sociologist, and working at a university that takes its social justice mission seriously, transportation justice was one issue Steve knew the class would have to examine. So he delved into the literature on the transportation justice movement and looked at the websites of major environmental justice organizations doing transportation justice work. He found little to no mention of the role of the bicycle in transportation justice.

Julian came at this from a slightly different perspective. Trained in geography and environmental policy and planning, he was getting interested in streets as the public space that most people interact with daily. He began to see streets as contested spaces, as sites where rights were afforded, often and certainly in the US, based on the size of your vehicle. His growing interest in ‘spatial justice and streets’ made him realize that the democratization of streets must become a priority if we are to move toward more just and sustainable cities. Julian and Steve met through their common interests and this Blog is the result.

We noted that mainstream bicycle advocacy organizations, like the bicycle coalitions found in most major cities, seemed to pay little attention to the work of transportation justice advocates (with a few notable exceptions that we’ll profile in future posts). Perhaps more significantly, we began to see signs that some mainstream bicycle advocacy organizations were even being criticized for what appeared to be their bias towards bicycle infrastructure projects that primarily serve middle-class and largely white urban cyclists.

For example, Chicago resident and founder of the African American Pioneers Bicycle Club, Oboi Reed, criticized Chicago’s priorites in a New York Times article, “City Bike Plan is Accused of a Neighborhood Bias.” According to Reed, “The lion’s share of the resources” of the city’s $150 million bike plan “are going to go [to the wealthier neighborhoods] downtown and to the North Side–the South and West will only see a sprinkling.” In New York City, a report by graduate students from the Urban Affairs and Planning Program at Hunter College, “Beyond the Backlash: Equity and Participation in Bicycle Planning,” concluded that “traditionally underserved areas outside of the core of Manhattan and northwest Brooklyn have inadequate bicycle infrastructure. These areas have many cyclists and residents who are largely new immigrants and people of color.”

Next we turned to the bicycle blogosphere to see who was discussing the intersections of bicycle advocacy, race, and class, and what they were saying. Are Bike Lanes Expressways to Gentrification? over at shareable.net described a contentious neighborhood meeting to discuss proposed traffic changes to increase bicycle safety along N. Williams Ave. in Portland, OR. Portland resident Donna Maxey tried to explain the frustration of people of color with Portland’s bicycle support efforts:

“What is causing the anger and resentment is that it’s only an issue of safety now that whites are the ones who are riding bicycles and walking on the streets. Because we have been in this community for years and it has not been an issue and now it’s an issue. So that’s the resentment you’re hearing…years of people being told, you don’t count, you don’t matter…but now that there’s a group of people who’s coming in that look like the people who are the power brokers — now it’s important. That’s the anger. That’s the hurt.”

A recent comment on a Streetsblog article titled “On Gentrification and Cycling,” hammered the point home:

“As a person of color who works to get more bike lanes in low-income areas in Los Angeles, … It’s high time the bike advocacy community, which is heavily dominated by white men unaware of social justice principles, step back and say, ‘how can we include MORE marginalized, low-income people of color in this struggle??’”

In an LA.Streetsblog.org article co-authored with Adrian Leung, “Bicycling is for Everyone: The Connections Between Cycling in Developing Countries and Low-Income Cyclists of Color in the U.S.,” Allison Mannos, Urban Strategy Director for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, raises specific concerns about mainstream bicycle advocacy groups’ failure to reach out to communities of color:

“In terms of advocacy, outreach efforts should expand ideas of target communities … to create a comprehensively transformative movement. Frequently, for example, discussions of the inequity in bicycling between men and women tend to focus on educated, middle-class white women (especially mothers), and usually do not examine the barriers to bicycling for, say, women of color. This narrow approach in advocacy and planning often misses solutions to engage and serve the existing, dedicated population of low-income cyclists of color; in fact, it instead ignores them or takes their lifestyles for granted.”

These conversations point to an important constituency seemingly overlooked by both the bicycle advocacy and transportation justice movements. This population of cyclists is largely uncounted, unrecognized, and unrepresented. Put simply, these are the invisible cyclists.

Through a series of conversations, we delved deeper into this apparent conundrum. On one hand, a new bicycle culture is finally flourishing in North America. Major cities are competing with one another to see which can add more bike lanes the fastest. But the bicycle boom is driven by relatively narrow segments of the population where individuals with disposable income, and the option to choose a bicycle over an automobile or other forms of transit, are turning what was previously a utilitarian device into a celebration of design, style and simplicity. But this movement overlooks the invisible cyclists, those for whom cycling is not a choice but a necessity.

[Note: We did not coin the concept of "invisible cyclists." A future post will explore the lineage of the term, which begins with Dan Koeppel's 2006 "Invisible Riders" article in Bicycling Magazine, available here.]

On the other hand, the transportation justice movement calls into question government subsidies of transportation forms that tend to benefit largely white and affluent urban and suburban commuters and advocates for better transit options and safer streets for poor people and people of color. In many cases, invisible cyclists are the constituents of transportation justice organizations, but only insofar as they are poor people of color. As cyclists, they remain invisible.

“Why is there not more dialogue between these two movements?” we wondered. Surely a more inclusive movement would be more robust, richer in resources, more powerful, and therefore more effective at enhancing bicycle infrastructure for all bicyclists. The mainstream environmental movement missed the boat entirely so that by the time the environmental justice movement matured, the relationship between the two movements was contentious.

We hope that by creating space for dialogue between and among activists, advocates, and constituents from a wide range of bicycle advocacy, transportation justice, and other organizations and interests, we can head off a similar divide.

So we bring you Invisible Cyclist, which will explore potential linkages between the bicycle culture/advocacy movement and the environmental/transportation justice movements. Through our own posts and those of volunteer and invited guests, we hope to help identify common ground and shared goals around which the two movements can build healthy and mutually beneficial relationships.

Though both academics, Invisible Cyclist will by no means be an academic exercise nor exercise an academic voice. Steve Zavestoski is a lifelong bicyclist, bicycle commuter, and bicycle advocate, while Julian is a car-free citizen and lifelong advocate for just sustainabilities. We are both passionate about and committed to fashioning a more just and sustainable society that “ensures a better quality of life for all, now and into the future, in a just and equitable manner, while living within the limits of supporting ecosystems.” We believe that we can make a contribution towards such a world through Invisible Cyclist by working to establish dialogue between two movements each working towards just sustainabilities in their own way.

But there are caveats. Issues of race and class can easily ignite strong emotions, including defensiveness, anger, and resentment. We will write with honesty and openness–tackling sticky issues of racial and class stereotypes head on–as well as a dash of humor, in order to deftly navigate this minefield. By focusing on promising signs of bridge-building across the two movements, we will aim to generate constructive dialogue while steering clear, where possible, of unproductive debates (e.g., who to assign blame to for past injustices). We hope that you will join us in this dialogue.

* To check out The Invisible Cyclist Blog, click here.

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About the authors:

Julian Agyeman:

Julian is a car-free pedestrian, Professor and Chair of the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning(UEP) at Tufts University, Medford-Boston, MA, and co-founder and co-editor of Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability. My expertise and current research interests critically explore aspects of the complex and embedded relations between humans and the environment, whether mediated by institutions or social movement organizations, and the effects of this on public policy and planning processes and outcomes, particularly in relation to notions of justice and equity.

Steve Zavestoski
Associate Professor and Chair Sociology and Environmental Studies University of San Francisco Department of Sociology, Stephen received his B.A. from the University of Notre Dame, and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Washington State University. He teaches courses in the area of Environmental Sociology. Dr. Zavestoski’s research areas include environmental sociology, social movements, and sociology of health and illness. His current research focuses on the strategies that disease sufferers take to demonstrate that their conditions are caused by environmental contamination. This work also looks at how citizens engage in the scientific process and policymaking in order to shape research and policy agendas.

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