Monday, July 15, 2013

The Distance Between Bike Economics And Social Justice

It's about four and a half miles from downtown Portland to Peninsula Park up north. I made the trip on Sunday after attending a "bikes and economics" panel at the Portland Art Museum, riding to North Portland for a justice rally and march in response to Saturday's acquittal of the vigilante who left his car to stalk an African-American teenager walking alone in Florida last February. He was found not guilty even though he shot and killed the unarmed kid. With this news on my mind I felt strange about going to the panel at all, but I'd spent thirteen bucks on my ticket and I wasn't getting them back. So I put on a dress and crossed the river.

In the museum auditorium, a white crowd of about forty fanned across the many rows of seats. Onstage were an elected official, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, beloved by the bike movement for his openly bikey stance on Capitol Hill; a city planner, Roger Geller, the bicycle coordinator for the Portland Bureau of Transportation; Elly Blue, a writer and publisher about to release her second book, Bikenomics; and the panel's moderator, Professor Jennifer Dill, a prominent bike researcher at Portland State University and the director of the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium.

When I started reading about Richard Florida's creative class theory in 2008, I thought maybe it was a coincidence that the bike movement's emphasis on infrastructure matched Florida's core idea: if you build it, they will come. That is, if politicians want to attract desirable, talented residents/consumers to their regions in the post-industrial, idea/upscale consumption economy, they must invest in the urban design elements that are as honey to these worker bees. Naw, I thought, the bike has way too much democratic potential to be reduced to a marketing tool. But I keep hearing powerful people like Congressman Blumenauer characterizing bike projects as a strategy to "attract talent," bringing "the best and the brightest" to places like Portland. In March, I heard the mayor of Indianapolis make similar remarks at the League of American Bicyclists' National Bike Summit that was this year themed "bikes mean business." I'm hearing a lot of consensus that a good way to convert people to bikes is to convince them that bike projects will raise their property values.

It seems like the bike movement, or at least its policy arm, has decided that their goal of getting more people on bikes is not in conflict with the goal of making urban neighborhoods more expensive, and I am baffled by how openly they make this claim. Aren't policymakers and lobbyists supposed to at least pretend that their pet projects have benefits for more than one group? And shouldn't livable neighborhoods be affordable? Because we're not all homeowners, and I don't see a lot of value in rents that skyrocket because more people are choosing to ride bikes. Maybe the city should be compensating us urban cyclists for our contribution to the marketable landscapes they crave.

If influential people have decided who, exactly, they want to attract to cycling, maybe the question we should be asking is if you build it, who will be replaced? The drive to bring in desirables leaves aside the question of who gets categorized as undesirable. I wonder if an unspoken goal of bike advocates uncomfortable with race, class, and cultural difference is to create urban zones free of these problems by simply vanishing, through the unquestionably objective means of the market, people unlike themselves. After all, using urban planning to rid cities of undesirables is nothing new. I hope, though, that folks will reconsider whether is is too hard to convince existing city residents that riding a bike is a good thing. Is it better that they be replaced by outsiders who already have that extra spending power to buy more bakfiets for the bicycle boulevard?

I had a lot to think about as I rode up to North Portland, passing through the neighborhood around Emanuel Hospital that had been razed as an urban renewal zone in the 1970s, biking up the controversial lane on N Williams Avenue. I thought about Geller's comment that what we need here in Portland to really get more investment in bike infrastructure is an urban renewal zone. I believe he was referring to some local funding terminology, but why is such a loaded phrase still in official use? One community's Voldemort is another's Harry Potter, and it matters who gets to decide what is failed urban policy and what needs another try.

At Peninsula Park, a group of several hundred people stood around a gazebo while speakers lined up to share their anger and concerns through a megaphone. One woman said that she saw a ride of 11,000 cyclists passing a few blocks away, but there were only a few hundred people here at the rally. I had seen the ride, too, and didn't put two and two together until later that it was Cascade Bicycle Club's Seattle to Portland ride arriving in the city. I thought it was a little unfair for her to single out cyclists as a group absent from the rally, considering how many people had biked there like myself.

When we went out to march, we walked along Albina, then Killingsworth, then turned onto Vancouver. The stream of cyclists I'd seen earlier, and that the speaker had mentioned at the rally, was still trickling down Vancouver, against the flow of the demonstration. I was talking to friends when we heard shouting and saw a marcher using his body to block the path of a cyclist traveling in the bike lane. "Peace!" someone called out, as others intervened to end the altercation. "Peace!" In that moment, the distance between bike economics and social justice shrank to the distance between one frustrated man and the mobile symbol of a system stacked against him.

Even if the city, the bike movement, the people in power who make funding decisions about street infrastructure, don't want to talk about the uneven politics of who gets to decide what transportation counts and who should benefit from improvements to public streets, the demonstrator blocking the path of the cyclist with his body made clear how this symbol of outside wealth stimulating the local economy, this "attractor of talent," the envy of Rahm Emanuel and other mayors who "want what Portland has," was too much to handle on a day when the country was mourning yet again the unequal treatment African-Americans can expect from our public institutions.

It all comes together in the street, whether you're guiding the political machine and reaping the benefits or struggling as some undesirable who will soon be replaced by someone worth more. Because we all know that some bodies matter more than others.