Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Sustainable Transportation is a Civil Right

Whose streets? Our streets.
I biked down to Columbia City on a cold night a few weeks ago to attend a Rainier Valley Greenways meeting. The greenways vision, as I understand it, builds on the older bike boulevard model to make transportation corridors that work well for pedestrians, too. It looks for ways to make small changes that mean biking and walking can be more comfortable for people of all abilities. One of the cool things about the Seattle Neighborhood Greenways movement is that it's been community-based, with local residents collaborating to propose street re-design to the city.

 I've been particularly interested in the effort in Rainier Valley because, as I've heard many times from Seattleites, one of the Rainier Valley zip codes, 98118, is the most diverse in the country. I did some interviews in Rainier Valley earlier this year, finding out what area leaders in communities of color thought about bicycling. From what I heard in those interviews and what I saw in my bike rides, bus rides, and walks around the area, bicycling isn't necessarily seen as an easy way to get around Rainier Valley neighborhoods. In Rainier Beach, for example, I saw less of the commuters that are common on my familiar streets in Capitol Hill, and more of the extremes of poverty and elite leisure cycling. I wondered how this difference would affect a project like greenways, whose success in other neighborhoods seemed to stem from the wisdom of existing cyclists very familiar with the local terrain. At the meeting in November I could see that the greenways folks were making a big effort to do effective community outreach.

I was chatting with an organizer from a different greenways group after the meeting, which made me notice that I kept reducing the effort to bikes. A few times the advocate I was speaking with clarified that he doesn't ride a bike. Maybe he was thinking something like, these bike people, always forgetting the pedestrians. Why do I so often forget that bike issues need to stay grounded in a larger framework of sustainable transportation?

I used to be part of a carfree social world through my everyday life at the LA Eco-Village. Since I moved to Seattle, I've found my most kindred spirits among fellow cyclists, even though I walk and ride the bus as often as I bike up here. I've had occasional twinges over this, because it's made me realize that people have very different ideas about what they're promoting (and to whom) when they advocate for cycling. The other day I had a bigger twinge, more like a full on kneejerk, when I read about an "apartment building designed for bicyclists" being constructed in a redeveloped area in downtown Seattle. I'm pretty sure the people that the developer, and the city government that co-signs money-making projects like this under the aegis of the Urban Infill Moral Imperative, have in mind as future inhabitants of that building are not working families that need affordable housing and transportation.

Because of its growing chic, bicycling is becoming more a symbol of some lifestyle (green, new urban, artisanal) than a mode of transport for the masses. That's why I'm thinking that getting caught up in the bike side of sustainable transportation leaves out some important concerns and undermines our claims that bicycling is for "everyone." If we keep moving in this direction, where developers can use bicycling as a way to sell more condos, it's going to get a lot harder to claim ignorance regarding the disparate effects bike projects have on different communities.

In the mid 1990s, a coalition of groups supporting equity in public transit won a historic case against the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority based on the violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Their claim was that Metro was funneling monies toward rail development and cutting service to bus lines, which had a disparate negative effect on communities of color, who used buses. Personally I don't want to see bike projects come under the same righteous attack. Maybe instead of working to frame our efforts as good for business, we should be supporting bicycling because access to healthy, safe transportation is a civil right.