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.


  1. "Usually I dismiss this viewpoint as irrelevant prejudice, but I feel concerned when the criticism comes from historically marginalized communities."

    So, um, either you're giving more validity to an argument based on who's making it, or you're saying that the validity of the argument matters less based on who's making it? If so, how is that helping anything?

    I'm 100% in favor of rooting out real bias and prejudice wherever it exists, especially in our transportation policy, but pandering to bogus "concerns" from any group is... well, pandering.

    1. Discrimination and segregation in the U.S. happened in the realm of transportation too, so I don't think I'm talking about "bogus" concerns. Car ownership is a powerful symbol of civil rights for a lot of people, and while I disagree that owning a car makes one truly independent, I think it's foolish and exclusionary for the bike movement to pretend that all Americans have had equal access to transportation, and that switching to bikes means the same thing for everyone.

    2. Before I got into the world of biking, I lived in a Silver Lake Filipino-owned apartment complex con mi familia for 7 years till 2008. I remember first seeing the bike lanes and the hipsters around 2005, my 3rd year of u-grad. I remember seeing the first iterations of midnight riders. Mostly, I just remember that ambivalent mix of hating hipsters, but also wanting to participate in that ride. Problem was I didn't have a bike. I'd wanted to get a bike and the culture of it for so long, but I felt like I had no way into it...I'd read online about the bike kitchen about "building my own bike." I even went to it at one point, but I just felt so excluded and intimidated by the aura and the people there, that I just didn't even bother going through with the appointment. Had to date your former commadre before I even got on a bike.

  2. Absolutely. Switching to bikes definitely means something different to different people based on their backgrounds! For one thing, to an impoverished recent immigrant, it is switching to cars! Recent immigrants generally do not use public transportation, walking or biking because they choose to, but because they cannot YET afford cars. "Choosing" to swite to public tansportation, or "choosing" to walk or bicycle connotes that one has a choice. Thinking needs to change all around. Wouldn't it be nice if those immigrants could be enlightened that maybe they don't need to have the car first before choosing to stay with the means they now use? What would that take? A whole lot of conversation between cultural divides, methinks.

  3. I've notice that the concept of "privilege" is used in (at least) two ways in discussions of bicycling. First: In my research and writing on the matter, I tend to use the term "privilege" to describe the (frequently) subtle and invisible ways that society (i.e. culture and structure) privileges transportation by car… that is, "car privilege". For example, assuming that attendees are driving when giving directions to events. Such is not necessarily overtly prejudiced or discriminating, but makes cars normative (and bikes "invisible") a key aspect of privilege. Of course there are many more examples of the lack of privilege bicyclists (and other non-drivers) experience. The second way of using the concept is as you have here... in a way that suggests bicyclists are otherwise privileged members of society; white, upper-middle class men with profession jobs. Though I believe that this is fundamentally an empirical question with lots of local variability, I would not disagree that this is (at least) a common perception of bicyclists. It is also a use of the term that IMO has not helped "the cause" of bicycling advocacy. However, like you, I'm not suggesting that such a perception (and to some extent, empirical reality) be obscured, but rather understood. More so, I think that the two uses of privilege could be fruitfully combined for a more complete understanding.

    My two cents: (still pretty rough at this point)Individuals with plenty of the aforementioned social privileges (race, gender and class) have enough of this valuable resource (a "capital" of sorts) that they are able to "purchase", or "spend" a bit of it, on the ability to bicycle as an alternative to car use. Concrete manifestation of social privileges such as flexible schedules, causal dress at work (or perhaps even showers), able-bodies, access to safe routes, and the ability to conspicuously display symbols of one's privileged status that ameliorates the stigma and disadvantage of bicycling (vis a vis cars) on the road that ensures others of the voluntary nature of the behavior and not the result of poverty, trouble with the law, or disability. I think that the notions of "voluntary simplicity" and/or "conspicuous leisure" are good places to start understanding privilege and bicycling in this sense. In all, broader social privileges permit the loss of automobility privileges, and perhaps even bolsters it.

    1. Pretty sharp analysis there...I do think I lacked a lot of cultural, linguistic capital (i.e. bike knowledge, knowledge of anyone within "the scene") to "participate" in what I perceived to be the "biking movement." Everything I was didn't seem to vibe with what (I perceived to be) everything they were.

      What you concluded with, "that broader social privileges permit the loss of automobility" I agree with...I can't imagine why anyone in LA would sell their car, but a few people I've met said that they would do blew my effin' mind.

      As a student crunched for time (but with time apparently to comment on blogs), I've thought of selling my car, but I don't have the security of having a 9-5 job and I have lots of places I need to be all over LA and LBC. That's what my professors have told me all of last year. I get that I would save a lot more money using just my bike, but I realized last year that I couldn't get a lot of work done either.

      Sometimes the car is what it is --- a piece of technology that makes things convenient --- perhaps if I personally weren't connected to many things and/or if public infrastructure was built to match what drivers need and expect from being in a car, then the bike-only mode of transportation would make a lot more sense, but for the time being, I have to add that slash/dash of biking/driving.

    2. Aaron and Brian, I'm thrilled to hear your insights on this subject. Thanks!