Friday, August 29, 2014

What Bike Equity Isn't

Equity isn't
The width of a lane
A couple extra inches
That make us all the same

Equity isn't
A smiling brown face
And hot pants on a bike
Sex in an exotic place

Equity isn't
A list of easy steps
That make our biggest problem
Into boxes you can check

Equity isn't
Policing a divide
Where some can travel freely
Others, stand aside

Equity isn't
Settled by a report
Every time I write
I wait for the retort

What equity is:
A landscape we don't know
It means a future world
Where every child can grow

If you deny how far we are
From reaching that plateau
Equity isn't
Because you won't make it so

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Don't Make a Chipwich Out of Me

I'm a chipster, a Chicana hipster.

I grew up wearing vintage clothes and lying on brown shag carpet behind the ripped up screens of our 1970s stucco apartment in a Mexican ethnoburb, whose suburban lawns and pools didn't keep white outsiders from calling it a ghetto. I wore Converse two sizes too big for me for several years because they were the only kind on sale at Costco. I use my long brown legs to ride a 1980s Panasonic road bike.

And, make no mistake, I fucking love the Smiths.

In some ways, my existence has been charmed. I get to think across many worlds: bicycle advocacy, cultural anthropology, bicycle research, Latino urbanism, and I've been trying to find a place in environmental justice. My career has given me a ridiculously specific and exciting opportunity: I get to help show that while bicycling lives at the poles of "Entitled White Man's Toy for Running Red Lights" and "Invisible Person of Color's Mode of Last Resort," it also exists in the vast continents in between. Chipsters like me also use bicycles. Us in-betweeners know that the world is a complicated place, and we've got some pretty good ideas about how to make things better.

For example, I understand why it is frustrating to see a lot of white men running red lights on their bikes. But you know what? My frustration doesn't stop there. As a woman of color, historically and structurally relegated to the role of observer, I know that power and privilege fill our roadways. I know that you can be a jerk with a car, a bike, or just on your own two feet. I know how cutting someone off on the street connects intimately to larger structures of domination and power. I know that the ability to influence infrastructure investment has a lot to do with power. That's why I've focused my energies on working with bike advocates to envision what equitable bike policy and planning should mean.

In short, I don't need anyone to explain to me that white male privilege is at work in the street. I got this.

What motivates me a lot of days is the knowledge that a lot of people in this world have no voice, and the more conversations I join, the closer (incrementally, infinitesimally, achingly tinily) we are to justice. But lately I've been feeling kind of compressed, like my existence isn't appropriate for mainstream consumption.

The reality is, a lot of activism is still about white men fighting each other for dominance. This week I had the bizarre experience of a white man telling me that biking can't possibly be a space for social justice because (wait for it) all bicyclists are privileged white men.

Where do people like me fit into that framework? If we've got white saviors running around yelling about white privilege, what are we for? Are we just puffy oppressed puppets you can put on your hand before you sock that jerk who dared to think differently from you? Are we just sand to fling in the eyes of your white rival on the playground?

I may be a chipster, but I am not a chipwich. I'm not the filling in a sandwich where white men squeeze me into oblivion so that they can get at each other's throats.

My troubled brown father didn't have much to give, but I will always be grateful for the freedom that comes from knowing that I don't need a white man to tell me right from wrong.

Thursday, July 31, 2014


I live underground.
I seem to be whole.
I have two arms, two legs,
A head.
I can move freely,
If I stay down.

Surfacing is tricky.
Some people don't want to see all of me.
They can accept
My fingers, maybe some knuckle.
Sometimes I can reach out as far as my elbows.
Sometimes I go feet first, and make it to my knees.
 But emerging whole
Is offensive
It's dangerous.

It makes the people
Whose feelings matter more than mine

They squirm, unaccustomed to seeing bodies like mine.
My existence is an abstract to them
Something to argue about, and dismiss when they're bored.

The arguments happen because they feel they are to blame somehow.
They do not seem to grasp
That keeping me down,
That is their culpability
That is their contribution
To the centuries of oppression
To the history they find too ugly to reveal.

That is when the fresh new hands
Get dirty
By shoving us down
And telling us it's not time
To exist.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Mobile Microaggression Machine

[Let's say I managed to record the last time a man driving an SUV said "get off the road" to me as I rode by on my bike, and then I super slowed it down and this is what I heard]

Hey you on the bike
What are you doing here?
Can't you see you don't look like us?
Can't you see we don't want you?

But sir
I'm not one of them
I know what you're talking about
I'm mad, too, that they don't seem to care
I'm not here to challenge you
But the system you bought into is really unfair

I work hard to buy myself
The nice things everyone wants
A car that I wash every week
That's why I get to own the road
And here you are
No car
Thinking you own the street
I have to wait?
Get out of my way

Why does your car give you the right
To treat me and others like dirt?

Because you've been winning and screwing us all
For centuries and I'm done
You think you can come out and just have a ball
In the street you just met yesterday

But can't you see, it's not me
I'm brown and I'm an activist
I don't want things to go on this way
But the car that you're driving
Is a trap you bought into
It's costing you more than it's worth

You don't know how it feels
To be king of the road
When you get treated like dirt
Everywhere else

I get to be king?
A Chicana like me?
What the fuck happened
To solidarity?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Marching to the Middle, Biking to the Top

Marching to the middle
Biking to the top
How're we gonna get
Obesity to drop?

The health people say policy
The bike folks say it too
No one wants to spend their dough
On street people like you

Marching to the middle
Biking to the top
Top-down change will save us all
Infrastructure's hott

And you? You must be molded
To fit their jargon scene
A planning fad or Dutch idea
Is better than your scheme

Marching to the middle
Biking to the top
It's all about the image
They make it, you just shop

You, be a good consumer
Of healthy food and place
Don't ask us how we got it,
But we'll sell you back your face

Marching to the middle
Biking to the top
We're all living breathing farms
But we don't reap the crop

The passions that inflame men
They call expert facts
Cycle tracks will solve it all
Even colored heart attacks

Marching to the middle
Biking to the top
Their vision serves a precious few
You be glad to gobble slop

Something that is simple
Like a bicycle
Becomes a mark of good or bad
An amenity that's tolled

Marching to the middle
Biking to the top
It's cheap until it's trendy
Then, duh, let's mark it up

We pretend that health's for all
Has it ever been this way?
To live well is a privilege
Not for you, José

Marching to the middle
Biking to the top
When justice is just status
You deserve the finest chop

We can't all be middle class
I'm sorry, labor folks
Those who could, did, too much
Our world has broken spokes

Marching to the middle
Biking to the top
A car is worth more than the world
Like they're ever going to stop

Monday, May 26, 2014

Street Ethnography: How Elastic Are Your Intersections?

Here's what I've learned about streets: people disagree about how to use them. There are laws, there are stripes, there are bollards, and then there are all these randos doing what they think is best. As a street ethnographer, I have observed that some intersections are more "elastic" than others, and this flexibility comes from people's attitudes rather than road design.

When I first started bike commuting in Portland, the heart of Law Abiding Cyclist Country, I got really jazzed about always stopping at stop signs and red lights. It made sense to me that I could make drivers take me seriously by behaving predictably. I'd grown up in a place where jaywalking meant running across the street, because pedestrians having priority was more theoretical than real. So it followed that, using this new mode of transport, I should do what the signs told me to do.

An inelastic or rigid intersection. The black line is the measure of elasticity.
Then I moved to Los Angeles, where my illusion of drivers taking cyclists seriously as road users dissolved in a hail of honks. I started thinking of riding as a fight, and playing dirty was the norm. I gave up stopping at stop signs, just making sure things were clear before I continued on. I still stopped at red lights, though. Signalized intersections seem a lot more rigid to me. Sometimes drivers would wave me on while I waited for them to pass, like they had in Portland, but here I took the offered right of way instead of using it as a "teaching moment."

A more elastic intersection. Note that the pedestrian has more freedom of mobility.
Now I'm in Washington, D.C, and wow, I look like a country mouse when I hesitate at intersections. Every time I pull up on a bike or on foot at a corner, others stream past me. The signals here seem to be more suggestions than anything else. Drivers, too, inch forward as much as they can, sometimes being halfway through the intersection before the light turns green.

A very elastic intersection, as is common in D.C.
Since I've observed so many other bike users and pedestrians, and as I noted, even motorists, making the point, it's hard for me to ignore the logic of pressing forward into empty space. Traffic signals should guarantee right of way, from a predictability standpoint, but should they impede the flow of people when there's no right of way to protect?

Pragmatic rigidity: honoring cross traffic's right of way.
I know that a lot of our road design standards have been developed through years of liability lawsuits and efforts to control safety. It's just weird to me that the reality, as seen from the everyday scale of ethnography, is a lot more pragmatic. If we really want to promote active transportation, shouldn't we legitimize the greater elasticity walking and biking afford? Does it really make sense to limit these modes according to the car-based paradigm of traffic engineering?

As the cross traffic clears the intersection, the elasticity returns.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Cycling in the City Symphony

A composition in music puts in mind two important lines: the thread of melody, and the spaces in between. The rests as much as the proper notes define to our ears the familiar. I studied the violin as a child, grappling like so many other eight year olds with a beautiful instrument I could not master. But even I knew about those spaces in between, and how long they could be. One second stretches itself to a roomy length when you know exactly where you've been and where you're going. You start to be able to toy with where you'll end the bow's upward or downward push and move the music forward. I remembered this when I tried again in college to find myself in fiddle music, that the spaces in between leave more room for interpretation than you might think. Then, even later, in another attempt to put into my hands the power to create music, I took guitar lessons with a blue eyed, white haired man who patiently dealt with my lack of practice and rewarded me by saying that I knew more about those fluid spaces in between than other students. It's the thing missing from some digital music based around a perfect repetition: swing, a groove, soul.

A place puts in mind two important lines: the physical objects of a built environment and the way people treat each other there. They are both historical, in a way, because the first shows changing styles in façades and uses and the second shows changing norms in communication. On the same street, people enact different ideas of what makes home. To one, it is walking to the bus stop undisturbed; to another, it is a mumbled greeting whose presence matters less than its absence. They read in each other a welcome or a dismissal, and do not signal the same. We often strive for ideal places that foster ideal communication, where no gesture can render the built environment unfamiliar. But in places all the living happens, and living means stretching into those pauses between the recognizable markers of time and change. Humans have the ability to make the sometimes awful music laid out by the buildings and highways soaring overhead into something swinging and alive. Places are not just buildings and street, they're people gesturing and spitting and even littering and most often helping. They are not abstract zones of growth and development; they are durable creations that show our amazing ability to adapt.

A bicycle puts in mind two important lines: the flow of traffic and your body-machine's trajectory within it. As much as I follow the advice of the infrastructure I ride through, I also find myself responding to the pulsing of other vehicles, which in some places do stay where the street lines and signs tell them they belong. We can see it when we ride together, that each of us approaches the intersection slightly differently. To one, there is plenty of time to cross before the light changes. To another, it's best to cross as a pedestrian using ADA curb cuts. To a third, it's best to follow what one of the others has started to do. I rode through Washington, D.C. yesterday with two friends, both experienced cyclists, and observed how we combined our different minds. It was hard to decide how we fit into the flow of traffic as a group, how our trajectory would intersect with others, because we had different styles of moving forward. There is a city symphony the bicycle allows us to join, even those of us without the stamina to master more conventional noisemaking devices. We know how many of those in between spaces we can occupy, swinging up onto sidewalks and down alleyways. Some of us choose to exercise this flexibility to a greater extent than others, but it's hard for me to think bicycle without thinking about the way it encourages me to adapt my movements in response to those around me. Is this flexibility something we want to extend to new bicycle users, or is it something we think must be designed out of our streets before people will use them properly?