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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Bike Infrastructure Is Political Too

Deep in the bowels of the Senate on lobbying day at the National Bike Summit in March.
Opposition to bicycling makes for some strange bedfellows, bringing together community advocates and conservative commentators. There was a recent video where Wall Street Journal editorial board member (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Dorothy Rabinowitz made some claims about New York City's new bike share program being part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's larger political platform. Some of Rabinowitz's claims were clearly outlandish, such as the notion that she represents the views of a majority of New Yorkers, but the rumbling agreement among bike people that she is a nutso got me to thinking: what makes it so hard for bike people to believe that bike infrastructure could be political? I have heard many bike advocates talk about the need for political will to expand bicycling as a viable mode of transport. And yet, in this case of clear mayoral support for bicycling, we deny that putting political will behind bikes is a political choice? Dorothy Rabinowitz was correct; the bike share program does fit into a larger mayoral agenda for New York. She is right that cyclists are being "empowered by the city administration with the idea that they are privileged, because they are helping, they are part of all the good, forward-looking things." We just disagree with her that bicycling is a bad thing to promote.

It's key to note that Rabinowitz's view of bicycling as a menace used to be very conventional, but now it goes against the new consensus of advocates, politicians, and increasingly the business community, that supporting bikes is a good economic development strategy. This is how politics works: when the machine is being used to promote something you don't like, you call it bad. When it's used to promote something you like, all's well with democracy.

I'm often surprised by the lack of critical urbanism in bicycle circles, as though the bicycle's inherent goodness dazzles the eyes so severely that boosters are blinded to the very clear legacy of urban redevelopment erasing the working poor. What gave bike people the idea that changes to the built environment would benefit anybody but those already adept at manipulating public services for their own good? I think it's that they are often people who were raised to see government intervention as a boon, something that you should go out and lobby for as a good citizen. Here's the thing: not everyone benefits from state-sponsored infrastructure projects, which tend to serve the interests of powerful people. Infrastructure projects that underpin development create winners and losers, and deciding who wins and who loses is a political process. Just because bike interests are starting to win doesn't mean that the process has changed.

Many bike advocates appeal to a rationalistic notion that urban planning can fix our social ills, that we can design built environments that repair the longstanding cracks in our segregated communities. But going back to the era of Baron von Haussmann's plan for Paris, cities have used urban plans to rid city centers of undesirables. An appreciation for urban life grew alongside this desire to control it, from Thomas De Quincey and Charles Baudelaire slumming around with prostitutes, to the impassioned observations of Walter Benjamin, to the Marxists of the Situationist International mapping quartiers scheduled for demolition (on a sidenote, have you noticed how often people who deal in urban design, not political protest, appropriate "Sous les pav├ęs, la plage"?). More recent environmental justice struggles have made the same point, with a resounding

We've known for a long time that the benefits of urban redevelopment projects tend to land in certain laps while the burdens are borne on the backs of others. 

We know, too, that the people who make urban neighborhoods interesting might not be the ones who own property and hence control the destinies of those spaces.

Thinking that the only way we can promote bicycling to a wider population is by allying ourselves with those who run an economic machine that relies on and ignores the exploitation of less empowered people is a pretty poor use of imagination. We can laugh and point when something as wacky as Rabinowitz's video circulates. But while we can agree that she missed the point, her rant shows how bikes and bike infrastructure projects fit into other kinds of agendas. We may see ourselves as the underdog, but sometimes bike advocates come across like a kid who has all the toys in the world except for the one he wants the most.

Power flows through a grid. As bike advocates, we may benefit from having power on our side, but organizations that use a "bikes mean business" strategy should be prepared to hear bike projects get blamed for gentrification. This is explicitly what you are calling for: a city where only those who can afford to, as participants in a creative economy, enjoy the idea of complete streets. (Whether those people buying and selling the idea of the bicycle actually plan to change their transportation habits is another question entirely.) With such a history of urban infrastructures benefiting those already in power, what makes us think that bike-specific projects would somehow be exempt from this fact?

If we reduce the fun, exciting, and creative practice of bicycling to infrastructure projects that give an excuse to charge higher rents from desirable urban creatives, who benefits? If bicycling is going to be for everyone, it's because we're going to intervene in urban business as usual, not hand over our bodily knowledge to people who are going to sell it back to us through bike-themed condos.

5 comments:

  1. In Chicago, Rahm Emanuel likes to claim that investing in bike infrastructure will make all the bright young programmers come here and start startups. Which infuriates me because it's both patronizing towards both the entrepreneurs he wants to attract and makes it explicit that he doesn't give a shit about the plebs. To be fair, the people at CDOT have done an OK job with equity and outreach for bike projects (though they could be doing better on some fronts) and have generally translated Rahm's pronouncements into reasonable policy. But it always pains me a little to support the asshole mayor's agenda.

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    1. Yeah, I've never met a bike advocate I thought was a horrible person. It just sucks to see these privileged bikey people overlook their own "creative class" desirability as a factor in why bike stuff is taking off at an official scale. It's like they're hearing "We Shall Overcome" play while they bike on cycle tracks past holes where houses used to be.

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    2. Many years ago I took a history class from Dr. Catren at Los Angeles State College (now Cal State U at LA). He promulgated "Catren's Law": "In any given historical event, somebody gets their toes stepped on." "Slum clearance" used to be a common term in urban redevelopment, which in some cases led to the high rise "projects" like Pruett-Igoe in St. Louis. Although the structures were designed by an internationally known architect, it turned out to be such a disaster that the buildings were demolished only about 20 years after they were built. I remember visiting the local house-salvage company in Pasadena shortly after the first demolition was shown on TV, and discussing to event with the owner. Looking at it from his specialized point of view, he said it was "beautiful", admiring how neatly the dilapidated buildings were "crunched".

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  2. Thanks for the great post. How about the flipside: do you have any examples of urban infrastructure projects that actually distributed most benefits and few burdens to the working poor? What comes to mind?

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    1. Thanks Dale! As an anthropologist, I'm most hopeful about projects that focus on the cultural life of transportation. Open street events, for example, give people a chance to experience their streets differently without needing large-scale infrastructural changes (of course I'm biased as a co-founder of CicLAvia). Across the country people are working on fostering a range of bike cultures, such as Biking Public Project in NYC and Red, Bike and Green in Oakland, Chicago, and Atlanta. The U.S.' more diverse cities have cross-cultural knowledge to share with the cities that have remained more homogeneous.

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