Monday, March 12, 2012

Bicycling and Privilege

I recently started a research project where I'll be interviewing leaders in Seattle's communities of color about bicycling. My hunch is that I am going to hear a lot about recreational cycling because there are popular paths and routes that carry roadies through South Seattle, and with public safety concerns in the area there aren't a lot of people choosing to bike commute there. I think I am going to hear people talk about transit and pedestrian justice while condemning bicyclists as elitist outsiders.

Bicycling can feel scary and dangerous. Some motorists treat us like we shouldn't be using public streets, honking, menacing, throwing objects. Bike advocates promote bike infrastructure from this experience. They want to live in cities and neighborhoods where children can ride bikes without being subject to the selective attention of motorists more concerned about their own trajectories than the streets they are sharing with others.

However, to people not riding bikes, bicyclists can seem like privileged, entitled, arrogant individuals who use their expensive toys to get in the way of legitimate road users. Usually I dismiss this viewpoint as irrelevant prejudice, but I feel concerned when the criticism comes from historically marginalized communities. In a segregated culture, bicycling can seem like yet another way in which people demonstrate their superior social position, calling upon the forces of public funding to build projects that serve only them. From the perspective of communities that historically have been subject to the negative side effects of infrastructure projects, things like bike lanes might fit into larger frameworks of injustice.

What do people hear when I say I advocate for bike justice? Bike advocacy's catch 22 is that it involves otherwise socially privileged people who get marginalized as road users. If bike advocates are people who do not have experience with crossing community boundaries and living among people unlike themselves, they may not have the self awareness to recognize who their visions of bike friendly neighborhoods leave out.

In The Failures of Integration, legal scholar Sheryll Cashin's 2004 book on the enduring rifts of racial and class segregation in the U.S., she talks about people experiencing integration burn out. From her perspective, "if the group that has most made integration possible--the willing black integration pioneers who boldly pushed their way into white neighborhoods, white schools, and white workplaces--is now less enthused about integration, this has ominous implications for a society on the precipice of majority-minority nationhood." Whose job is integration? As more and more Americans reconsider living in suburban neighborhoods, are they going to make meaningful relationships with new kinds of neighbors? Or are we going to see the same segregated neighborhoods reproduced, but this time with marginalized groups living outside of cities? 

While I firmly believe that we need to continue to promote a widespread cultural shift that recognizes the social and environmental harms of constant, endless driving, I also think that bike advocates need to recognize our own position within a divided society. I have heard well-meaning bike advocates talk about race and class divides with such clumsiness that it overpowers their bicycling transportation message. If we want to build true coalitions across longstanding cultural divides, it's our job to reach out and learn something about other visions of transportation and public space.