21 Feb 2021
I picked up Bicycle/Race after reading an interview with the author where she talked about the unintended consequences of bicycle infrastructure, namely gentrification. I expected something akin to Bikenomics (they are from the same publisher and the editor for Bicycle/Race, Elly Blue, was the author of Bikenomics), with facts and recommendations about how bicycles fit into social justice movements. What I got was a narrative, with Lugo leading the reader through her youth (and a history of Southern California), to helping to create CicLAvia, to joining then leaving the League of American Bicyclists. There was definitely stuff in the book that I found valuable, but I found the experience jarring, too. Maybe, as a straight white guy, that could be viewed as a win for the book. In any case, here’s some of the stuff I got out of it:
It’s not immediately obvious that bicycles have anything to do with race. You can buy one for pretty cheap and ride it wherever the heck you want. In fact, they seem like a great tool for empowerment. Then why is it that most cyclists you see are middle aged white men? One possible answer is our society tends to only build cycling infrastructure where they live. While this is definitely part of the reason, I think that it probably has more to do with bicycle culture just not being very friendly to people who aren’t white men. If you want more people to ride bikes, then you need to deal with some of the racist and classist ideas built into the bicycling community.
In the book, Dr. Lugo talks about how there are two mostly non-overlapping groups of people who ride bicycles: affluent (usually white) people who ride for recreation and poor people (often of color) who ride out of necessity. (I’m paraphrasing here, she talks about it with much more nuance.) The first group maps pretty clearly onto who you think of when you think of ‘cyclists’. The second group doesn’t really map onto any defined group for me (which is a problem) but Dr. Lugo refers to them as ‘core cyclists’.
This realization made me feel shame and disappointment in myself, since I work with core cyclists at work. Even though I’ve been thinking and saying for years that people would be better off economically if they rode bikes, I had somehow managed to miss a whole group of people who were right in front of me just because I didn’t think of them as ‘cyclists’.
Bicycle advocates fall broadly into one of two camps: vehicular cyclists who believe that bicycles should share the road with cars as equals and Infrastructure Advocates who believe that creating bicycle infrastructure is the way to improve and expand bicycling. For a while now I have found myself believing that infrastructure is the future of cycling. Reading Bicycle/Race, I realized that my day-to-day life is that of a vehicular cyclist, which is to say that I do most of my riding on streets without any sort of cycling infrastructure. So how do I square that with my belief that building better infrastructure is the best way to get people on bikes?
The book points out that bicycle infrastructure can have a gentrifying effect that activists need to reckon with (but haven’t). I certainly hadn’t considered it, but find the argument compelling given how many people I know who are struggling with rising rents and would find any sort of gentrification-induced rent increase to be a serious threat. So where does that leave me? I don’t think that vehicular cycling is going to get more people riding (and sharing the road with cars is generally not safe), but it doesn’t look like just building more infrastructure is going to fix everything, either (lack of infrastructure is a barrier to cycling, it is not the barrier).
Maybe bicycle infrastructure is like light rail. I love trains, I think they are cool and I would choose a train over a bus any day of the week. But the fact is that you can buy a lot of buses for the cost of a single light rail line, so if you’re serious about public transit, you’re going to do more good for your community with buses. However, light rail does make sense once you hit a certain threshold of passenger volume or distance (although I’m hoping that very light rail improves the situation). If I look at cycling the same way, I realize that I don’t actually want more cycling infrastructure most places. Even if they put more bike lanes in on my commute to work, I would continue to cut through quiet neighborhoods and side streets where a bike lane makes no sense. Part of this feels similar to how pedestrian infrastructure is actually car infrastructure, it’s needed because pedestrians aren’t the priority in most places. However there are places where infrastructure is needed, primarily in commercial areas and places where few alternate routes exist.
I still have more processing to do after reading this book. Are there areas in my community that have high diversity but low bicycle connectivity? Are there ways that I could use my privilege as a white bicycle rider to support communities of color? Does non-bicycle specific design such as traffic calming have the same gentrifying effect? How can I be more welcoming to people of color who might want to ride? On the other hand, it has given me some ideas of things to work on: