Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
The biking community is overwhelmingly concerned with infrastructure. For urban anthropologist Adonia Lugo, that’s an equity problem.
Adonia Lugo grew up in a Latino barrio of Orange County, California, as a biracial child of a Mexican father and a white American mother. Growing up, she felt a constant sense of being at a border—code switching between two identities. She felt privileged in some ways, and marginalized in others, and developed a keen sense of where she fit within America’s racial hierarchy.
That experience informs her work as a bike advocate. “Being on a bicycle, that experience of marginality you get of, one, not being treated so great by your fellow road users, and two, seeing those cracks in the city—these opportunities that other people aren’t necessarily seeing—that just really mirrored the marginality I’ve had in terms of my racial background,” she says. “For me, the bicycle became a part of this overall injustice I carry around.”
Her research as an urban anthropologist and her 10 years as a bike advocate in L.A., Portland, and Washington, D.C., have prompted Lugo to needle the bike advocacy community with tough prods: its lack of diversity, its one-size-fits-all strategy, and the side effects of the some of the infrastructure measures it pushes for. Because of these blind spots, people—particularly those for whom biking may be the only affordable way to get around—are routinely overlooked, she argues in her new book Bicycle/Race: Transportation, Culture, & Resistance.
Lugo’s book comes at a time when cities are grappling with stubborn racial gaps in their bikeshare initiatives, and biking communities are recognizing that Vision Zero and other laws seeking to curb crashes can have an adverse effect on communities of color. Meanwhile, voices pushing for a more inclusive bike agenda are getting louder.
CityLab caught up with Lugo for a conversation, the highlights of which are below:
How did you end up becoming a bike advocate?
In 2007, I came back to Southern California from Portland, which is considered a very bike-friendly city; I’d become a bike commuter up there. In Portland, riding a bike was treated like no big deal—a no-brainer. Like, “This is better for the environment, you’re not relying on putting gas in your car, so, OK, cool—if you can make it work, great!” Whereas in Southern California, a place where we have excellent weather and relatively few hilly neighborhoods, people reacted to me and others on a bicycle in just a really hostile way.
At the same time, in Southern California and Portland, the people who were on bikes looked different. In Portland, which is majority white, most of the people on bikes were white. Whereas here in Southern California, with the exception of hipster young people—and that’s how I would have identified myself at the time—most of the people I saw riding were black and Latino men. You could tell that biking, for them, was an attractive transportation option because it was cheap.
It made me think: How does the way we react to transportation fit in with these other hierarchies around race and class? When I started mapping how we have tied race to space here in the U.S. with segregation, and how that fed into car culture—people wanted to be able to drive to their neighborhood, where they wouldn’t have to be around diversity—I started to wonder: What is going on here? Is there some way that we can make more people feel like sustainable transportation is for them, if we’re also addressing some of these legacies of racial inequality?
Talk about how bike advocacy started.
Back in the 1880s, when bicycles first started to become available, they were expensive. It was probably akin to what electric vehicles are today—how Tesla is a status symbol. The people who first created clubs for bicycling and the national bicycling advocacy organization, which was called the League of American Wheelmen—these weren’t working-class urban dwellers. These were people who had the means to take excursions into the countryside on their new bicycles. Popular opinions at the time reflected that: They were seen as these entitled people who had the gall to force pedestrians to get out of the way. What they did when they formed advocacy groups was that they lobbied to expand roads because paved roads made it easier for them to do their excursions. Within bicycling culture, there’s a certain amount of nostalgia for that era—the imagery of people on those Penny Farthing bicycles—and there are “tweed rides,” in which people dress up in old-fashioned clothes and go riding. But when I started doing research on that era, I very quickly found really racist images [ridiculing] African Americans [on bikes].
That aspect of privilege in bicycling history tends to get erased. People tend to forget that when bicycle advocacy was getting off the ground, it was really elites, advocating on their own behalf—they were not trying to bring bicycling to the masses or start some sort of transportation revolution.
How did today’s version of bike advocacy develop?
Even though we can point to the formation of groups back in the 1880s and ‘90s, the current wave really got started in probably the late 1970s. As cars gained popularity, bicycles became more for children, students, and working people. It wasn’t till the 1970s, until the first dawning of awareness about the need for environmental protections and issues surrounding the scarcity of oil in the U.S., that bicycling was seen as a very good idea—particularly to people who were in a class in which they previously had access to cars. They started choosing to ride bikes instead. They were borrowing anti-Vietnam War protest language, and using bikes as this like public demonstration tool.
But I don’t think people at that time were thinking, ”Well, who’s in our movement? Hm, there’s only white people here. Something is missing here.” I don’t think people had that kind of self-awareness. So, as our current bicycle advocacy network developed over the 1980s, 1990s, and into the 2000s, that lack of racial diversity continued and wasn’t really questioned.
I got involved in bike advocacy because I was like, “Why can’t more people access this great sustainable thing?” But what I realized over the years as I was writing my dissertation was that the field of bicycle advocacy was homogenous. That in and of itself is something that needs changing. By 2012, I was starting to talk to other people who also had this sense that we weren’t going to be able to make bicycling into something that more people could see themselves trying out, or see as a normal part of transportation, if we didn’t consider: Who are we as a movement? And how do we reflect this country’s diversity?
By 2013, we had a name for that whole project: bike equity. [We were] saying there needs to be equity in terms of who is planning as well as who has access to bicycling. It was a big shift to have more people recognize that it doesn’t really make sense to have a movement that says it wants to make changes for everyone, but that doesn’t really have everyone at the table.
Apart from the lack of diversity, you’ve also criticized the biking community’s overwhelming focus on getting cities to put in place bike infrastructure. Can you explain why?
In fields like urban planning and engineering that help plan and design our cities, and determine what kind of maintenance we do, there’s a really strong focus on built environment and built interventions. What I have been able to study through the lens of bicycling is that this approach really tends to reinforce and overlook the social problems that we have as a result of race and class segregation. Time and again, I have encountered this mentality from people, saying, “I’m from an economically secure white family, I went to college, I wanted to make cities better, I’m concerned about the environment—and this is the way to do it.” It’s to look around the world for models for where they have made things more energy efficient or where they’ve decreased the cases of people being killed on bikes, and then bring those models to whatever city you’re talking about. That mentality unfortunately treats cities as though they are homogenous, as if the populations in them are going to relate to street design changes in the same predictable way.
These people tend to really idolize modern European cities for their street design, like Copenhagen, for example. What I think is fascinating in that case is the tendency to overlook the socialism in that city—why Copenhagen might feel more equitable. They think that the way people are interacting with each other emerges from that street design. But when you’re talking about things like social safety net, access to employment, education, all these different things, you can’t really compare Copenhagen to Los Angeles or Pittsburgh. That’s a whole line of inquiry in and of itself.
So what is your approach?
If we want to make our streets better, we need to consider who is using those streets—who has been using the streets for a long time. You come into a neighborhood that has been thriving in the sense that lots of people live there, [even if they don’t have] big incomes and get much attention from the city, and all of a sudden, all these design changes start going in because some starry-eyed urban planner is like, “Yes, we’re finally going to get those nice things that they have in other cities.” There’s just a real clash that happens [between longtime residents and those people advocating for bike tracks]. We have not created alignment between the everyday lives of the people who have been locked out of suburban success and the advocacy visions of people who’ve benefited from suburban segregation and success.
Just to be clear: You’re not saying that street redesign shouldn’t be considered at all. You’re saying it’s not the only thing that advocates should focus on, correct?
What I can see from studying bicycle advocacy is that the dominant focus that has developed in the last 15 years is on infrastructure. I think this is a pretty common trajectory: Person meets bicycle, person falls in love with bicycle, person is like, “Other people should have this cool thing that I like.” But the strategies for creating that change in bicycle advocacy really took the shape of infrastructure—that we need to change the way streets are designed so bicycles are also included in that. By the time I got involved in 2008, if you went to a bicycle advocacy meeting, you were told what’s most important was to go to City Hall and tell them to spend money on bike infrastructure. Or, the most important was that we go lobby our members of Congress so that they support adding this little entitlement for non-highway projects in the national highway spending bill.
When I moved to Washington, D.C., to work on bike equity issues on the national level, I started to realize that this focus on infrastructure had become so dominant that there wasn’t really a lot of room for other strategies. We weren’t asking for funding for the community-run bike shop at the local high school where young people could be learning to repair bikes. In adding a cycle track to some neighborhood, the idea is that the people who live in that neighborhood will benefit because they’ll have that cycle track. But if you look at the economics of it: Who is getting paid to design that project? Who is getting paid to build that project? It’s not the people who live in that neighborhood most likely, and even then, because of the gentrification era that we’re in, who knows who’s actually going to be able to stick around and enjoy it at the end.
There’s just a need to consider more than bike infrastructure as a strategy for giving people access to bicycles. Look at: Well, OK, maybe these strategies are good for these things—maybe they’re good for employing more people in the field of bike planning, but maybe they’re not good for ensuring that this little kid who’s growing up in this neighborhood is going to have a way to bike to high school when he’s older. If that’s really the goal, then we need to be looking more comprehensively at the other things that allow people to remain in place, or that allow people to benefit from public investment around transportation.
I don’t mean to imply that the infrastructure strategy is easy. It’s really really challenging trying to convince elected officials when you have all these constituents in your district who are drivers, who are like: “No, if you add 30 seconds to my commute my head will explode.” But the strategy bike advocates often choose to say, “Hey Mr. Mayor, if you get bike lanes to this area, it’s going to help in attracting those talented young Millennials you want to be attracting to your city.” That’s pretty much the opposite of increasing access to bike infrastructure—that’s not such a good solution. Public spending on bike infrastructure is not just the means to the end, but it has become the end—and bike advocates have gotten kind of myopic. I think the bike movement has not figured out how to be a part of the broader landscape of social change.
In your book, you say that bike advocacy has to expand to account for housing, economic, and policing justice. You also emphasize the need to pay attention to “human infrastructure.” What does this look like?
It’s a concept that I found when I was doing research as a grad student and really matched what I was seeing. In a city like L.A., there was not a lot of bike infrastructure. However, there were a lot of people who ride bicycles, and who want to get other people to ride bicycles. So, I kind of wanted to understand how social networks of people who are interested in bicycling works as a form of infrastructure itself because it is something that made it possible for us to be using that mode of transportation. We tend to put a lot of emphasis on built systems and circulation systems, but the attitudes we have and the meanings we associate with different types of transportation are a huge part of why we travel the way we do. It should just be one of the elements that we consider when we ask, “How should transportation and mobility happen? How do we make it more sustainable? How do we change the current state of things?”
In terms of specific projects [supporting human infrastructure]? They can come about any time we’re putting more resources towards spaces and programs where people can spend time together and develop their own narratives about what bicycling means. I think linking bicycling with existing projects out there to empower people—through job education, workforce development—also works. We can also have community and neighborhood spaces that wouldn’t typically have bike mechanics on hand, and allow teens from local high schools to get their community service hours by fixing flats and things like that. There are all of these little things that if we considered them part of our landscape of public resources, we might see a different impact.
One of the networks that I think is a really good example of what we should be investing in is the Youth Bike Summit, which is an annual conference put on by a network of community bike shops around the country that do programming with youth. They have an Earn-a-Bike program, through which they learn bike repair throughout the summer, and at the end, they build their own bike, and they get to take that bike home. The bike shops tend to be located in more diverse areas, so a lot of the youth that they serve, if you go to one of their conferences, you see, “Oh my God, this is America.”
How are you thinking about this in your current position?
A lot of the work that I’m involved in now in Los Angeles, with a group called People for Mobility Justice, is focused on: How do we find more opportunities within the transportation development process to recognize the knowledge of communities? So, in the example I was giving of a cycle track being put in the neighborhood, we’d like to see a shift in who benefits. A good portion of the dollars that get allocated in that project [should be going to] community residents who can advise on what that should be.
That sounds kind of like a community benefits agreement, which activists often ask for when a new development comes to a gentrifying area, but for biking infrastructure. Is that right?
That’s the example I've heard some of my collaborators talk about. I don’t know from personal experience, because I’ve never worked on creating a community benefits agreement, but I’m pretty sure that is the model that we’re pointing to. From an anthropological standpoint, the way that we live these daily routines that we have, who we are, what our practices are, what culture we belong to—that has so much to do with what our neighborhood looks like and feels like. We’re the ones inhabiting the space; the buildings are just the backdrop. What I’m hoping we will see more of in the future is that when we’re planning transportation and mobility projects, we need to talk to the experts, and that means the people who live there—the people who travel through that space every day.
What about priorities? In the bike advocacy communities—like other advocacy communities—there are scarce resources to draw on. What are your thoughts about where human infrastructure should figure in priorities, which also have Vision Zero and infrastructure goals?
I’m not an expert, but I'm aware that it is a process to get something from “this is a problem” to “here is a solution” to “let’s get it ensconced in public funding.” What I have been advocating for is that we should open things up a bit more. I think one of the things that has been unappealing about my work to the people in the active transportation mainstream is that I’m saying, “Slow it down! Do you have the right answers? Maybe we should be asking these 50,000 other people what they think.” I think that just sounds horrible and exhausting.
Any last thoughts?
One of the big turning points for me to start moving away from national bicycle advocacy happened in the fall of 2014, when Vision Zero was starting to get organized at a national level. I went to a conference in New York. Everything in the news was about the amazing work that the women from Black Lives Matter were doing to call out problems with policing, and yet, here I was, being told that the way I was going to advance bike equity was to support a platform that has enforcement as one of its major pillars. It just felt so wrong to me. If we want to be in solidarity with the change that’s happening around the country, why are we promoting something that’s counterproductive, in some ways, to the movement we’re working towards?
We are in a moment of tremendous change. The bike movement, which was accustomed to being a little movement, hasn’t necessarily figured out how to be a part of the broader landscape of social change. So, I say anyone who wants to promote bicycling needs to be looking for those opportunities. Ensure that the policies that we endorse aren’t going to make life harder for people who are undocumented. Come up with solutions that find community safety in a way that doesn’t push black and brown people into mass incarceration. This is what we should be asking if we want to be part of this moment that we’re in.