Wednesday, June 27, 2012

We are Human Infrastructure for Bicycling

Not everyone who promotes bicycling has the same goals in mind. Some people see bicycling as a healthy activity for bodies, and promote it this way. Some people see bicycling as good for the planet, and promote it this way. More and more people see bicycling as good for real estate values, and they promote it this way. I see bicycling as a community-building phenomenon.

People helping people at Dubsea Bikes in White Center
On a bike, you're in much closer contact with a neighborhood than when you are in a car, or even a bus. You are the Jane Jacobsian eyes on the street. You tend to share your knowledge about routes, clothing and other gear, media, and other bikey stuff with your bikey friends. Our social networks enable us to do something that many people consider beyond Thunderdome. 

And yet, the very social life that enables bicycling has made it seem exclusive; it takes place in subcultural worlds. As subcultures, we can be milked as markets who will reliably buy things labeled according to our apparent specifications. For urban dwellers like myself, this means we're contributing to displacement through gentrification because we are seen as members of the "creative class," desirable inhabitants that city governments and business interests agree will produce economic growth and higher property values. The "green" neighborhoods they're building in our names often bulldoze existing enclaves, either literally or with rising rents and colonized public spaces.

Bicycling in and of itself does not exclude people of color or low income people. However, the harsh reality of race and class in this country is that a lot of us grew up in segregated neighborhoods and towns. The "Mexican schools" of the early twentieth century had long been illegal by the time I was in school, but that's what a white 12 year old called my elementary school when I entered junior high in 1995. Where we come from doesn't determine who we make friends with as adults, but it does shape our expectations and cultural frames of reference. Making friends of completely different backgrounds from our own can be awkward; I know, cause I'm a Chicana who went to a liberal arts college on scholarship. (Over time, it started to seem normal that the kids smoking a bong in front of me went to exclusive boarding schools.) Getting to know people different from ourselves takes effort. We end up reproducing the segregated spaces we grew up in not because of an active desire to do so, but because we spend time with people that reflect our worldviews.

Are we going to let redevelopment *accidentally* clear our cities of the people we don't know how to spend time with? Many people I know bristle at the use of the term "accident" to describe what happens when cars collide with people, places, and things. Accident implies that nobody is to blame, while "crash" expresses that the driver did something destructive. The displacement and dispossession that are happening under the guise of urban sustainability are very clearly a crash, not an accident.

Usually people talk about bike promotion through infrastructure, like bike lanes and off street paths, the very things that are now being associated with gentrification. But aren't we out there riding on the roads as they exist today? Aren't we the ones our friends ask for help when they've had a bike stolen or want to start using panniers? Aren't we the ones who explain, more or less patiently, that yes, we do have the legal right to ride in the street, and no, we aren't going to get the f**k out of the way? Aren't we the ones who know that biking is possible even in cities where cars are thought to reign supreme? We are human infrastructure for bicycling, my two-wheeled friends. Can we imagine ways to make bicycling more possible for more people that draw on our existing skills and social lives?

I found a beautiful quote yesterday by the urban theorist Margaret Crawford, writing in 1992 about LA's ecology of fantasy. Commenting on the proliferation of hyperreal theme environments, she wrote that, "one can still imagine, however, a future in which environments that do not orchestrate escape from daily life might include an awareness of multiple realities. We cannot expect the individual automobile to disappear or for Los Angeles' dispersed fragments to come together, but we can still hope that the theme circuits we endlessly create might become inclusive rather than exclusive, expansive rather than reductive, and that the principle of mobility might be used to cross boundaries rather than to construct them." This is precisely the value I see in bicycling: it is a mobility that can cross boundaries.

Let's be the human infrastructure and grow bicycling through creative community building. That's what I had in mind for CicLAvia, and recently the New York Times credited the event with improving bicycling conditions in LA. Human infrastructure works.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Sharing the Road and Social Power

At 5th and Pine, an intersection of two one way streets in downtown Seattle, westbound traffic on Pine travels in three lanes. The leftmost lane is left turn on 5th, the middle lane is for turning left on 5th or continuing on Pine, and the rightmost lane is for continuing on Pine. When I am turning left at this crowded intersection on my bike, I use the center lane and signal my left turn. Today a large SUV was turning left in the lane next to me. After we both negotiated the turn, the driver swerved into my lane. How am I supposed to make eye contact with a person who has deliberately chosen a car that makes this difficult, and when the size of his car blocks me from his view? Did this guy fail to see me, or did I just not warrant a blinker? I was thinking about these things as we continued on, as he stopped at a red light and a woman got out of the passenger side and then jaywalked behind the car without looking at me. I was thinking about these things as he signaled and merged into the left lane, only to change his mind and swerve, again, into my lane. 

5th and Pine at a quieter moment
Recently a good friend showed me a video he had to watch during his training to become a League of American Bicyclists "league certified instructor" (LCI). Onscreen, a person takes a novice cyclist on a ride, pointing out hazards and sharing tips for a better trip. The film presented this core formula for safe cycling: if you act predictably, others will too. In the vehicular cycling paradigm, where you drive your bicycle and are entitled to the social respect and benefits we accord to motorists, each bicyclist has the agency to ensure his safe ride by making eye contact with other road users and acting predictably. I ride my bike in the street, and I've picked up a lot of vehicular cycling skills over the years, but I don't operate in a universe where I expect that other road users are paying attention to the road like I am.

The only thing I've found predictable about my automobilized fellow road users' behavior is that they are not going to want to stop. For a long time I was in the habit of watching grilles and bumpers rather than trying to make eye contact, because so many times I have looked into a vehicle and seen a person's eyes trained on a cell phone or just staring dead ahead as the car enters an intersection. At least if I watch the front of the steel cage coming at me, I know that I need to stop because the driver doesn't feel like it.

The very thing that I love about carfree transportation, my connection with the urban life around me, is the opposite of what a lot of drivers expect to encounter. The act of driving seems to promise some kind of detachment from the spaces that they travel through; this is why having to slow down and stop for other road users seems so high stakes to these people strapped inside their massive toys that they can stop and start with a light tap of the foot. Maybe to them making eye contact is a sign of weakness. Tinted windows and car size certainly make statements about social power, specifically the driver's power to refuse contact with other road users. When drivers fail to meet my eyes, I see the same dynamic at play. But maybe they just plain don't see me because they aren't expecting to see anything. Which is the less frustrating explanation?

I have heard motorists and pedestrians complain about this same behavior in bicyclists: traveling without regard for other road users. I wonder if the people on bikes who choose to whiz past kids on sidewalks or shoot into intersections against traffic signals think they're entitled to behave this way because of the same belief that a powerful person in transit stops for no one. Or, again, maybe they just aren't paying attention. Even if the people who advocate for separated facilities for bicyclists succeed in convincing municipalities that concrete barriers are the only solution to the dangers of aggressive traffic, they aren't facing the fact that bicyclists can make those same aggressive moves on off-street paths. One time when I was riding on the Burke-Gilman Trail a pedestrian yelled at me for failing to stop for her to cross the path. She was right, I should have stopped, and I bet she dealt with this sort of behavior on a regular basis.

With our current norms for traffic behavior, bicyclists and motorists are not on equal footing. This is not to say that we can't share roads, just that pretending that bicyclists have the power to assert ourselves in all cases makes no sense to me. Plenty of people are out there actively endangering us through crappy behavior because car ownership is an important marker of social power, and once they get into their gas guzzling status symbol, they're not giving an inch to the worms on the outside. Plenty of people are just plain not paying attention cause they're cosseted in the increasingly stimulating environment inside their cars. Without confronting the power dynamic at play on the road, we seem to reproduce the same unequal relations between bicyclists and pedestrians, or even between faster and slower bicyclists, in spaces reserved for non-motorized travel. Eye contact is a nice ideal, and I make an effort to communicate with other road users when I'm walking, biking, and driving. But I can't force people to return my gaze, so I ride as carefully as I can.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Contradictions of Urban Property: Places for Living, Places for Sale

Old building destroyed, new one to rise
Urban real estate is making a lot of money for property owners. There are more and more market-based incentives for developing in cities. As the sale of lifestyles with their various green veneers overtake the historical character of existing neighborhoods, what becomes of their visual landscapes? Creativity in Seattle seems very numbers-driven. The reality of what places look and feel like seem less important to its boosters than the statistics they can derive from aggregates of buildings and bodies. In architecture and planning, this too often translates into monotony and the erasure of history. How long can a place stay trendy after its landmarks have all been destroyed?

In my neighborhood, Capitol Hill, there seem to be two options for each lucrative lot. Option one: tear down existing buildings and throw up rectangular boxes whose many units make money for the developer (although money might not be mentioned, they'll be sure to play up the density angle).

Option two: scrub away the character of an existing building, transform it into something that wouldn't be out of place on Main Street, U.S.A. 

I like my cities a little rough around the edges. For a long time I felt weird about that, thinking about the class privilege allowing me to aestheticize slums where people experienced poverty and neglect. But as I've come to understand placemaking more, I've learned that what I like about urban decay is the window into history that it offers. When you can see a building's many lives through worn corners and incongruous facade work, you're seeing more than an aesthetic veneer. You're seeing how people built that place, for better or for worse.

I wonder about the people who think that erasing decay is an urban ideal. I wrote recently about the concept of enchantment engineering, which brings Disneyland to the world through tricking inhabitants into believing that they live in a nice place, rather than expecting them to build places through their daily activities. Seattle seems much further along in the enchantment engineering process than many other cities I've visited.

Enchantment engineering leaves creative action to professionals rather than inhabitants, and we should question this relinquishment of personal agency that comes with a customer service vision for urban life. One thing that irks me, for example, is how many people still drive in Capitol Hill, an urban neighborhood in a city that promotes its "green" image. Based on how often I hear people complaining about parking in my neighborhood, there seem to be many people for whom living in a dense urban neighborhood with easy access to services and transit does not mean giving up their cars.

If you expect to buy all of your experiences, rather than making them yourself, you probably place less value on something like bicycling, which makes you realize how much we take for granted about our lives. I had a great conversation recently with an activist/artist I really admire, Joe Linton, about the way being a bicyclist changes what you see as fixed in your environment. Biking has had huge effects in my life, and every day I think of new ways to challenge what I've been told is true, what I've been told I can't change.

Even if everyone who lives in Capitol Hill stopped driving, this is a neighborhood that attracts many drivers to restaurants, boutiques and, creepily, bars. Businesses that focused more on serving a local population wouldn't need to fight for parking for a customer base that drives in from other places. Why not just move their businesses to the suburbs, where there is ample parking for a population that fears sidewalk life? It is because they are capitalizing on the location in this neighborhood. The Capitol Hill ambiance attracts those customers. If we are truly going to reorganize our cities for sustainability, we need to talk openly about these issues, instead of draining the life out of place after place while the bohemians move on and the trendy bars follow.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Waiter, There are Bicycles in My Celebrity Gossip

I like celebrity gossip. I find it fascinating! Though I keep an intellectual distance because I assume they're mostly made up stories, ever since I first encountered a People magazine at my grandma's house I have never broken the habit of following who is dating who, who is rumored to be cheating, and other scandalous stories. I don't listen to top 40 radio, I don't watch broadcast TV, but through my insatiable thirst for tawdry details I manage to keep my finger on the pulse of pop culture. Today I noticed some bicycles in the gossip news.

The first bicycle was underneath reality TV personality Coco. Coco is married to rapper/actor Ice T and, well, she's famous for having a really large butt. In these pictures, Coco is riding a bike on a beach boardwalk. Boardwalk bicycling is one of the few forms of biking that never became unacceptable for adult Americans. At many beaches, you can rent a cruiser with a really low seat and handlebars angled so that your hands fall asleep and awkwardly make your way down a crowded path. For many people, this might be what comes to mind when they think about bicycling: riding as a diversion in a space set aside for recreation, like a beach or a park. Does the image of a woman with a hypersexualized body on a beach cruiser still promote bicycling as transportation? Should the League of American Bicyclists hire Coco as a spokesmodel?

I first learned about Coco because I read a gossip website called Dlisted, written by a blogger named Michael K. He's a mixed race gay man who writes tawdry commentary about celebrities, and he has a penchant for featuring people whose cultivated personas could be called tactless at best. The site has a daily "caption this" contest where Michael K posts some weird picture and his readers submit jokes, usually based on nicknames and other phenomena from Dlisted canon. Today the picture was of someone riding a tall bike.

If you're unfamiliar with the concept, tall bikes are welded together from multiple other bikes. I've also heard them called "freak bikes," and their enthusiasts often form social clubs around building and riding them. Here's a tall biker jousting at Portland's Multnomah County Bicycle Fair in June 2009:

Seeing a tall bike as the subject of Dlisted's caption contest makes me wonder what bike subcultures mean to outsiders. I just read a 2006 article by social scientist Kimberly Christen about a CD of aboriginal women's music, and how people not familiar with the culture that produced the music wouldn't listen to it in the same way as the community that had created it. What are Michael K's readers going to think of this tall bike? Are they going to think Bike Fun FTW! or are they going to think Loser on a Pile of Trash?

Bikes pop up in all kinds of places, and the same image might not even mean the same thing to two people who participate in very different subcultures. To me, making bicycling unexceptional in the U.S. will mean making it ok for all kinds of people to use bicycles in all kinds of places. Coco and the freak biker are both on two wheels. I'm curious to see what caption Michael K will post as the winner tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Thank You, Ray Bradbury: Science Fiction and Sustainability

Ray Bradbury has been on my mind a lot lately. I've written here before about how I like to read his work, especially the memoir Dandelion Wine, as a summer invocation. This week I re-read "Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed," which imagines Mars making Earth life its own. The soil changes the plants, and the air changes the people. It's no wonder theory about cyborgs makes sense to me; I've been thinking about the way people, things, and places blend for a long time because of Ray Bradbury.

Over and over I've thought about writing him a letter, but felt shy and convinced myself he's received so many letters that mine would be pointless. This thought came into my mind again last night. Today I learned that he died, so I'm going to write my fan letter here.

Dear Mr. Bradbury,

I want to thank you for shaping my outlook on the world. I've found a lot of inspiration in your work for my vision of urban sustainability. You wrote many stories challenging the doldrums of conformity, you invented many lone figures walking in worlds hostile to such wandering.

I like to think of myself as a Martian when the sun has turned me a deep golden brown, and I yearn to walk in the cooling canals of the villas you described.

Living in the sometimes sopping Pacific Northwest, I've thought of your space travelers trudging, trudging, trudging through Venus' endless downpour. I've longed for a sun dome like the ones you described to welcome me in from the wet, green rain.

I can see so clearly the billowing waves of oxygen pouring forth from the trees that grew up overnight on Mars, when a new age Johnny Appleseed planted seeds across the planet.

Your nostalgic vision of summertime in Illinois drew me to the midwest. From the windows of trains, I have seen many landscapes where I've imagined Uncle Einar soaring over the power lines. Biking through the heat of Michigan and Ohio, I looked for your family's Victorian boarding house.

This week I watched the 1980 made-for-TV version of The Martian Chronicles, and found it very faithful to the book in spirit. The adaptation makes Rock Hudson, as Colonel John Wilder, the protagonist of the book's final story, "The Million Year Picnic." Unlike the character in your book, the TV Wilder gets to converse with a Martian, who explains that the key to life on Mars is relaxing into nature. So, in the end, when he shows his children their reflections in a canal and tells them that they are seeing Martians, we know that they will find a way to harmoniously thrive rather than hardscrabble survive.

Earthmen fight nature; this is a theme that rings over and over throughout your work. Even in ecological sustainability I have found voices that preach this oppositional stance. They suggest that each man is an island unto himself, and must prepare himself for a coming fight over resources. When oil runs out, people will explode in panic rather than adapt, unless they prepared beforehand. Other people become one aspect of the larger enemy, Earth's changing conditions of life. I certainly agree that we must end the madness of exploiting finite stores such as oil for temporary profit in exchange for lasting destruction, but this will require cooperation. Reproducing the survivalist outlook that privileges one man's sovereign property over the world's health does not make much sense to me. Is the thing they fear adapting to a changed landscape where we must give up things we took for granted? Is Earth becoming Mars? Well, because of your writing, I breathed in the changed air and became a Martian a long time ago.

I don't know if you advocated for sustainability the way you advocated for the magic of libraries and big, dusty bookstores, but your writing encouraged me to think about our planet's future with hope rather than with fear. I love re-making, re-purposing, combining old materials to invent something new. The Swiss Family Robinson treehouse at Disneyland, camping every summer as a kid, shopping in thrift stores for as long as I can remember, and your stories: these are the things that have inspired me to see living sustainably as a fun adventure in cooperation.

I hope you are climbing through the night air with the fire balloons, on your way to the stars whose stories you told.

Adonia Lugo

Friday, June 1, 2012

Bike Co-ops for Some, Bike Shops for Others?

After dinner on a recent night, I stepped out to unlock my bike and found that my front tire was flat. I knew this was coming, I'd had a slow leak for a few weeks and had been pumping the tire every time I rode the bike. (This is like fingernails on a chalkboard for bike mechanics, I'm sure). I have a patch kit, I have tire levers, multiple people have taught me to repair flats, and I have successfully accomplished this with supervision in the past. But I knew that taking on this task was going to mean some frustration and fiddling around, so I just kept putting it off until I found myself without my bike tools and on my way somewhere with friends. I'm in Portland right now, so of course I was standing across the street from one bike shop and around the corner from another. We walked our bikes over to River City and I handed off my bike to a mechanic.

I felt like apologizing for needing someone else to take care of the flat for me. Was the mechanic I paid to fix my flat judging me? I wandered around the store feeling ashamed. There's definitely a lot of wisdom in the idea that if I knew how to fix small problems with my bike, I'd be less reliant on others for help in a pinch. But how silly is it to want to apologize to a bike mechanic for buying a service?

I've heard other people complain about the judgment they feel at bike shops, where you exchange money for specialized knowledge that is associated with specific social worlds. I don't see things as this exclusive, because a lot of people I know participate in bike co-operatives, where they consciously create welcoming spaces to share bike knowledge. I'm pretty into repair and co-ops as part of my DIY approach to sustainability, and yet I haven't mastered bike repair. I think bike co-ops are freaking awesome, and an incredibly important part of the human infrastructure that makes biking possible in seemingly hostile cities like LA. However, I don't think everyone who rides a bike needs to know how to repair one. I wonder, for people who aren't into biking now is there a sense that you can't be a bicyclist without knowing how to build a bike from scratch? Is this another barrier to bicycling?

In March, I heard Alison Graves of the Community Cycling Center comment on the subcultural status of bicycling, and how particular subcultures might not have a general appeal. Even in Portland, the quote unquote best bike city in the U.S., I know plenty of intelligent, conscientious people who don't see bicycling as something for them. The more we stretch the idea of what makes a bicyclist, the more room we make for different kinds of people on bikes. For me, biking is about the social experience of riding in shared urban spaces. It's about getting around, and feeling exhilarated. It's not about talking shop and gear so much.

When I'm riding, my bike feels like a fluid extension of my body. Even after seven years of biking for transportation, this hasn't translated into a rabid curiosity about the mechanical life of my bicycle. Biking is such an embodied practice, and people have such different relationships with their bodies. We have different relationships with our bicycles, too. I'm probably going to keep learning about bike repair because it's a way to spend time with people I admire, but I'm going to stop judging myself about it. My rear tire has had a slow leak for even longer than the front one did. Will I get my hands dirty and get the satisfaction of fixing it myself, or will I contribute to a bike economy and pay someone else to fix it? Frankly neither choice sounds too bad.