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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?

Friday, February 28, 2014

Scenes from a Twitter Chat on Bike Equity
















Friday, February 7, 2014

California, the Dreaming and the Dead

One Saturday last April, my family made a pilgrimage to two places from our past. The first site lay in the San Bernardino foothills, near the old settlement of Verdemont. Here we met some local history buffs at the foundations of what was once the family home, where Otto and Vera Frances Meyer lived with Lawrence and Kathryn, their two children. Kathryn was my grandmother. After Otto died in 1929, Vera sent the children to stay with her mother while she worked as a housekeeper and eventually remarried. The family rented out the house until it burned down decades ago.

Slowly over the next decades, Vera's land would be parceled off and sold to developers. The ranch house foundations today are on a suburban cul-de-sac, but more rugged-style for horse lovers.

We traveled up from the ranch house into the chaparral foothills to look for the grave of Julius Meyer, Otto's grandfather, who died in 1912. We knew it was somewhere within a few acres, but we didn't know the exact location because the current owners of the land did not want the verified existence of human remains on the site to add another barrier to their development plans. The friendly neighbor who had brought us up here in ORVs explained that this developer planned to build over 400 single family homes on these scrub hills. I was shocked to hear that, considering we were in a region known for its wildfires and water shortages and in foothills fissured by the San Andreas fault.

In addition to the seismic and climatological reasons not to develop on this land, we were nowhere near a source of employment. The nearest metropolis was San Bernardino, where we'd walked several miles that morning through the deserted downtown before finding an open restaurant.

In that time we also saw a woman walking down the street clad only in underwear and a top, being led by a fully clothed man. Any development in those hills will be dependent on jobs and water obtained elsewhere.

We fanned out looking for evidence of a grave site, but found nothing conclusive.

Our next stop was a local history museum, where we saw pictures of our family members hanging on the walls. The Meyers had been a prominent family in the area. Then we headed to a site related to the other side of my mother's family, in Riverside. My other great grandfather, Lawrence Holmes Sr, had emigrated from Norway with his family at age 8 in 1881 as Lars Jensen. He became an actor and inventor. He designed and manufactured space-saving wall beds, which I've heard about all my life but did not see until I walked into a friend's studio apartment in Portland last summer and saw my great grandfather's name on an old metal bed frame.

Lawrence appears to have been one of the early twentieth century utopians who saw in California a better future through experimental agriculture. He introduced carob cultivation to Riverside, and his ranch drew the interest of the Metropolitan Water District that wanted to expand water flowing into the region. He fought eminent domain for as long as he could, but he lost the case and his fortune. His land has been sitting underwater since the 1940s, and my great uncle, his last surviving child, who still holds mining rights to the land, in recent years revived that struggle through mineral tests.

That April day we had the opportunity to visit the reservoir and see the water sparkling over the once carob ranch. It was a heavily guarded facility, understandably, as the water laying before us served millions of suburban homes in Orange County. We were joined by some women who had co-authored a local history book that mentioned my great grandfather's struggle with the MWD.

The heat of the day was starting to get to me, exacerbated by the usual stress of traveling with a caravan of people. I'd been concerned that I would feel trapped on this automotive excursion, and the news of the development plans for the Meyer Ranch didn't help. Then the very friendly employee, who had connected with my sister and given up his day off to picnic with my family on the bluff overlooking the reservoir, gave the company line that justified the flooding of this land, and the senseless development that has driven California to today's water crisis. I felt like I was entering the twilight zone. It was development opportunity, not populist survival, that led to these mega water projects, but he said that our great grandfather had sacrificed his land so that millions of people could live on the water funneled from the Colorado River to this reservoir.

The acre feet filling the depths of the valley below us were framed not as a great human folly that turned this land into an exurban machine generating profits for a few at the cost of millions of others, but as a laudable symbol in our right to survive wherever we choose.

I started hyperventilating and crying, and my mother rescued me and drove me to a train station. There I could head back into my sustainability bubble, return to the rail corridor that reassured me that not all is lost, that there are some shreds of reality in Southern California.

I have not lived in California since 2011, and the major reason I have not returned is the water crisis. I miss the state. It is a place that I feel viscerally connected to, by living family and by my time in Los Angeles, but also because there are buried in the ground once beautiful women I loved, my grandmother facing the sea and my great grandmother facing the foothills.

Will California wake up? Our land of dreams has been renewed over and over with new fantasies, in the American era starting with the health dream that brought people on the first rail lines, and the oil geysers, and the government subsidies that built the postwar nuclear dream homes, and the surf style that went far beyond those who actually learned to ride the waves, and the hippies, and the cultists, and the people who hate the immigrants who care for their children, prepare their food, and clean their homes. All of this makes it seem like it is not Californian to confront delusion; it is Californian to produce it.

Two days before that Saturday expedition into my family's past, I gave a talk at UC Riverside, followed by a dinner with some faculty and the man who ran the college's sustainability demonstration garden. He gave me two ripe grapefruits.

I hope this can be the end of a blind era and the beginning of adaptation to the region's underlying ecosystems. Is it really so terrible to envision cacti landscape instead of lawns, greywater systems instead of water loss, built environments that allow rainwater to seep back into the ground instead of flushing it off the concrete into the waterways?

The pungent scent of the chaparral softened by the dewy air; for all their stucco subdivisions they've yet to overpower it.


Pete Seeger - Little Boxes by jolysable

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Bike Share and Body-City-Machines

Recently I got to use the new Divvy bike share system in Chicago.

When I'm nervous on a bike, as I was in this case because I don't usually bike when I visit Chicago, I tend to ride as fast as I can. I found that I couldn't keep up with traffic on the three-speed Divvy cruiser; even in my silly cowboy boots I had greater pedaling potential than the little chain ring could realize.

But for the short ride, my limited speed didn't seem to matter. No motorists honked at me or swerved dangerously close to me as they passed, even though I saw many examples of the kind of behavior that angry road users point to as evidence of bike users being jerks. I would stop at red lights, only to be overtaken by men who pushed forward, looking to see if the intersection was clear and proceeding through when it was. Traffic signals applied not to them, it seemed, but to the taxi drivers who similarly pushed forward and stopped only reluctantly when bodies passed in front of them. I had noticed before how people, whether on foot, on bikes, or in cars, push forward into intersections with more gusto east of the Rockies than they do in the west that I know.

What I'm getting at is that bike share systems go into place in spaces where there are existing standards of road behavior, and having access to the bike itself doesn't necessarily give you access to those standards. Not only do built environments suggest to us how to use a given road space, we carry with us ideas about what should happen there. I'm not pointing this out as some grand flaw in the bike share model, but rather to illustrate an academic concept. In processing my experiences as a bike advocate in Los Angeles, I started thinking in terms of the "body-city-machine" because I found that riding a bicycle involved at least three components: a human body with a particular worldview, specific kinds of technologies for riding, and a shared street. I came to the body-city-machine from theory about sociotechnical "assemblages," which describe how action happens in the world through more than individual bodies: we form "alliances" with objects. This is how many bike researchers, such as Zack Furness and Luis Vivanco, talk about the social life of bicycling. What I've tried to understand through the body-city-machine assemblage is what kinds of mobile places people create as they travel, building on the ideas of researchers like Justin Spinney that the street is not a space devoid of meaning.

I developed the body-city-machine concept to suggest a more holistic perspective for mobility in general. But because I do most of my thinking through bicycling, I'm also interested in how the idea can help create more inclusive advocacy and programming. As activists, we usually focus on one aspect of this equation. In vehicular cycling, for example, the emphasis is on the body: making the body fit to use existing roads. Lots of bike advocates feel that this model excludes people who don't fit a certain type because they recognize that there are many kinds of bodies using bicycles.

What I have seen in my years as a bike advocate is that most of my collaborators focus on changing how people use streets through changing the design of the street itself. In this paradigm, the emphasis is on the city: designing environments that are expected to stimulate behavior changes. I have concerns about this model because it has become part of a "creative economy" strategy that actually fails to provide economic opportunity for most people. As much as a Jane-Jacobsian vision of quality public spaces is a nice ideal, the reality is that our public spaces are surrounded by privately owned parcels and structures whose value fluctuates. What's good for the property owner may not be good for the unemployed or low-income bike user.

In addition to these concerns, though, it could be that I am not as convinced by the need for infrastructure because I'm a very empowered urban cyclist, and while I prefer to ride on quieter streets, I'm comfortable taking the lane in traffic. I've observed quite often that bike experts speak from their own experiences and expect others to share their perspectives, and I'm certainly not immune to that. In my work this tendency is actually an explicit strategy because ethnographers work backwards from experience to try and identify underlying patterns to behavior. I've been an ethnographer among bike advocates for some years, and I can vouch for the fact that bike professionals, too, are body-city-machines.

What I am seeing now, in my conversations with other advocates of color as a member of the League of American Bicyclists' equity advisory council, is what innovation can occur when people bring their varied experiences and cultures to bike advocacy. I realized in conversation with Eboni Hawkins and Anthony Taylor that a shared identity across other lines might help blur the lines between different kinds of bicycling. A recreational cycling club, something I hadn't thought of as an advocacy organization, could be interested in promoting more transportation cycling among people who see having to use bikes as an indicator of low status.


If the ultimate goal is to change human behavior, why should street design be our only option? Unlike environmental projects, such as bike lanes and cycle tracks, bike share programs seem to focus more on the machine part of the equation: making bicycles available for use. Similarly, open street events also change how people share streets through manipulating what technologies one can use to travel in them.

Of course, it's hard to really separate these elements; that's the whole point of the body-city-machine concept. For example, the placement of bike share stations is a spatial issue, and Chicago seems to have a lot of discussion going on around their bike projects seeming more symbolic than useful and a need for equity. But bike share does help illustrate how we can experiment with the constituent elements of the body-city-machine. I'd like to see more advocacy strategy that starts with bodies, not necessarily as effective cyclists, but as social actors in a shared space. I'd like to see more incorporation of diversity at a strategy scale, rather than hearing about campaigns that ask leaders of color to say yes to preconceived projects. I'd like to see what happens when we make room for a diverse range of body-city-machines to participate in redefining what bicycling means.