Monday, July 11, 2011

Seattle Transportation Homesick Blues

I started this blog because I spent the last few years as an anthropology PhD student and a bike activist in Los Angeles. This involved a lot of carfree travel in a region known for being totally car'd out to the maxxx. My biking, walking, and transit-using explorations of the city were possible not through an amazingly straightforward and accessible transportation infrastructure for bikes, pedestrians, and transit users, but through joining a group of humans who helped each other make carfree living a reality.

Urban Adonia has been my outlet for saying: It can be done, folks! You can live a helluva life in LA outside of a car. Plenty of people do it, too, but it doesn't seem to count somehow if they're not doing it as part of some identity politics: being "transit-dependent" has a very different meaning than being "carfree."

Living that way in LA, as a member of an intentional community and collaborator on exciting projects like CicLAvia and Ciudad de Luces/City of Lights that pushed the bike movement and the city to re-think the boundaries between biking as a survival tool and biking as a cosmopolitan pastime, I gathered many volumes' worth of stories and insights about our country's issues with transportation and class, race, and gender. I realized, though, that writing a well-researched and theoretically sophisticated dissertation about this experience meant that I would have to bow out of the ongoing, hectic world of activism.

So I returned to the Pacific Northwest. I'd lived in Portland as a college student and existential crisis-ridden young adult, and that's where I'd learned to ride a bike in traffic. When I moved up to Seattle from Los Angeles, I expected to find myself in a similarly bike-friendly city. I thought I'd get up here, stow my cats, whip my bike out, and join a parade of fun, happy bike commuters who practiced what they preached. Instead I found myself drenched and daunted by massive hills that make for fabulous vistas but a startlingly car-dependent populace.

It's been rather disappointing. I didn't think I'd be telling new acquaintances here about how much more friendly LA is in comparison with Seattle's social chill, or encounter more casual drunk driving than I did down there. Seattle's got some stuff that far outpaces LA, like more physical infrastructure for biking, and more affluent folks choosing public transit. But when the League of American Bicyclists announced last month that Washington led the country as a "bicycle friendly" state, I once again chafed at the bizarre dissonances that a lack of ethnographic research brings to urban planners' reports. Seriously, guys, does the everyday experience of individuals mean nothing? I can tell you as an experienced transport cyclist who moved here from "nobody walks in LA" that I find Seattle bike unfriendly. And again, it's not cause of a lack of infrastructure (the one area in which Washington got a D grade); there are sharrows out the wazoo on streets around here.

This has caused much reflection on my part. I didn't really know how to write about it on this blog, cause I'm still a newcomer and thus uninformed about local histories of activism and improvements, so I've been keeping quiet. A native Seattleite told me recently that infrastructure for bikes has grown tremendously since she was a kid in the 1990s, so there you go, I lack perspective. At the same time, since I'm a social scientist as well as a cyclist, I've noticed some things in my new city that have helped me articulate some key but overlooked features that make biking for transport easier or harder.

Here's what I've found:
1. Geography and climate matter. What works in one city may not work in another because of torrential rain and steep slopes that got developed into neighborhoods for some reason. In a sunny, relatively flat place like LA, people can make do with broken spokes, flat tires, non-functioning brakes, unsecured seatposts, whatever bike they can get their hands on for $10. In a wet, hilly place like Seattle, we have to transform our bodies with prosthetics like waterproof gear and enhanced bikes. These things can be expensive. I definitely do not see the large numbers of low-income cyclists in Seattle that I did in LA.

2. Human infrastructure matters. Who you spend your time with, who you talk with, who you travel with, have a big impact on what seems possible. In LA, I knew who to text to have a riding buddy home from a party. In Seattle, new acquaintances repeatedly offer rides even if a bus runs right outside. It's a big part of my dissertation project to describe how, practically and theoretically, human infrastructure made living carfree in LA possible for me. I haven't developed a network of bikey friends in Seattle, and I think that has a lot to do with my impressions of the place as bike unfriendly.

3. A liberal conscience does not make a car disappear. Seattle is known as a green city just as LA is known as a car city, but WTF, people drive a lot and sloppily up here. I constantly witness traffic violations like California rolling stops, drivers seeming quite confused about what a crosswalk is for (do I park in it? huh?), drivers pulling into intersections that are not going to clear before the light changes, etc. I could go on, but any sighted person could too. These little gestures that dehumanize other street users add up to a hostile landscape for non-motorized travelers, no matter how much money you give to MercyCorps or how organic those peaches are.

This last issue surprised me the most. For some reason I'd had this idea that LA's size posed such a barrier to bike commuting that there were people who really wanted to try it, but just couldn't. Here in Seattle, though, plenty of people live in neighborhoods very close to the city center, but make them suburban by driving everywhere.

I think Seattle gives a glimpse into LA's future if it continues on its current path of gentrifying central neighborhoods. Will it be more bike friendly if a bunch of people who've worked very hard to seem like rich guys move into the urban grid? Not if cycling is still seen as a last resort or a luxury sport. And is this really something we can fix through investments in bicycle infrastructure? Not if we can only think of infrastructure as concrete and paint. We should be considering the impact that our attitudes and actions have on our cities, and how to shift attitudes that endanger us all.

I'm looking forward to getting to know bicycling Seattle better when I move into a more urban neighborhood next month. Meanwhile, I gotta be a good scholar and learn about the work of other people who have been writing about concepts similar to what I'm calling human infrastructure, like AbdouMaliq Simone and Filip De Boeck.