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.


  1. The social and political and cultural processes that made the private automobile necessary for survival in the US also exaggerated the gap between wealth and poverty. Creating an equitable society requires (I believe - but this of course is a self-serving belief!) that the most efficient, least expensive and healthiest forms of transportation (walking and biking) be made safe, accessible and desirable for everyone. How??

    1. Let's keep asking! There's a lot of good intentions in the bike movement, and I think we need to keep them front and center.

  2. Although I understand your immediate frustration with the offhand remark about the 11,000 cyclists not joining the march, I still do not understand why they *didn't* join. Why was it not part of their journey?

    When I was at the HoodiesUp demonstration yesterday in Minneapolis, a white male government worker insisted on getting to the light rail by pushing through the crowd of 3,000. Everyone else walked around (or quiet likely, joined the crowd).

    It was a very offensive and political move for that bicyclist to insist on their right to move through your march in Portland. Peace is good, but the cyclist should not have tested it.

    1. I'm not sure how I would react if at the end of a 200 mile ride I came upon a peace march. The STP had already started before the news of the verdict came out, and the rally got put together with only about 24 hours notice. Although my impression of the ride, put on by a primarily recreational cycling club, is not that it's something that would attract a lot of transportation cyclists who might be the ones more likely to see intersections between their struggle and other kinds of struggle. I think it's mostly recreational cyclists who don't see themselves as part of the urban space they might pass through. That's just my guess though, maybe there were lots of people on the ride who would have been interested in joining the march if they'd known about it.

    2. I totally hear you. I just still cannot believe that one of those cyclists would try to force their way through the march. They may not be planning on marching, but who are they that they can't just respect the political moment and go around or join up? Personal is the political, yo.

    3. If there were only a hundred people in the rally and they weren't actually filling the street until one of the people in the rally moved over to block the bike lane, then it was that person that forced the concentration. That's sort of what it sounded like from Adonia's post; I wasn't there so I can't say. It's a bit different to push through the middle of a crowd, but I'm not sure that actually happened in Portland.

      1. Just because some group of people called a rally doesn't mean they speak for anyone but themselves, and doesn't require that the whole city stand at attention for them.

      2. A popular rally in response to the verdict of a trial by jury that was, by all accounts, a fair trial (one where the actions of the accused were measured against the laws of the state), is... hardly unequivocally a call for justice. Whatever you think about the laws in effect, it's easy to see why informed, engaged citizens might prefer not to join in such an action. So while there's surely some intersection between people that happen to be on bikes and people in such a march you wouldn't expect everyone to join in just because they're on bikes, even if they think that what happened in Florida overall was the farthest thing from justice.

      3. Sometimes all a person's presence in an urban space means is that they're going from one part of it to another.

  3. Adonia, you raise another interesting question: to what extent are recreational cyclists and people who see bikes as critical everyday transportation the same people, and to what extent do they work together or at cross purposes? On Sunday afternoon I was riding from Fremont to downtown along Dexter and came upon a big van completely blocking the "protected" bike lane. People were unloading bikes from the van. I stopped to check out my impression: yes, they had just returned from Portland after riding the STP. They didn't see themselves as "part of the urban space" I was riding through and I doubt they would join any demonstration. But their ride fees and membership dues support an organization that tries to see bicycles in a much larger context.

  4. Awesome post. I think it’s right to be critical of the messaging from the infrastructure advocates, but the "bikes mean business" catchphrase doesn't necessarily imply attracting the creative class, and doesn't need to mean outsiders coming in at the expense of existing people.

    In my neighborhood the most common bicyclist is usually traveling to the grocery store or other important trip. The trip is short, 10 blocks to couple miles. There are no panniers here, just plastic bags hanging from handlebars. They don't have bright clothing or helmets, maybe no lights, so they're hard to see at night. They often travel at less than 10mph, and they ride along direct but dangerous routes like Foster Road and 82nd Avenue. They travel on the sidewalk (because really, there is no where else to ride), which is a significant safety risk for themselves.

    When I'm advocating with my neighbors for a bike lane here, 6 miles from downtown Portland, our new bike lane is for us. The hope isn't that we're convincing north Portland hipsters to make the trek out here, the hope is that we allow our neighbors to safely and comfortably to come to their neighborhood businesses. The hope is that we allow ourselves the choice of how to get around.

    Because once I'm forced to get into a car, it's over. If I'm in my car, why would I go Lents? Why would I stay on Foster Road when I could just as easily drive to Woodstock, Division or Hawthorne.

  5. Thanks, Adonia, for a great and thought-provoking post. I was at a community meeting in Somerville a month ago where an elderly woman yelled at the mayor for pushing more and more density without end in sight. The mayor smacked her down with a cold remark that "density is good", which many of us would be inclined to agree with. But the silencing of an elderly woman, probably on a fixed and/or low income, took on a broader meaning for me as I read your post. Property-value inflation is great for people who can afford to buy and to flip; for everyone else, it's just a squeeze move to get the "undesirables" - including old folks on meager income - out of town.

  6. The premise of the article apparently is that people wrapping up a double century, who probably have been focusing on the road rather than the news, should be obliged to join in a spontaneous Trayvon march, and cannot, oh, peacefully travel through public space without encountering prejudice. Y'know, I was happy to hop off a bus that night and wade into the crowd here in DC -- but I was also not in dire need of a shower at that very moment. I understand that the optics are less than perfect, but I also do not get upset when crowds leaving a marathon, or disembarking from a long-haul flight, do not express their solidarity with my human-rights rally.

    And yes, in Oregon "urban renewal" refers to local funding, specifically what other states call TIF.

    1. The premise of my article was that bike infrastructure has multiple meanings and purposes. It was a coincidence that the STP was passing down the same street as a justice rally. Other commenters have been discussing whether or not the STP riders should have stopped, but in the article I was focusing on something else.

  7. Hey Adonia, I think we met on a bicycle ride this summer. I love your post. I think that the bicycle community tries to look 'smart' by saying that bicycle infrastructure will raise property values. They don't realize how much it reinforces the class differences that cycling has. It does though, and it makes it harder to get people to ride who could really benefit from the good economics of it.

    But frankly -- I think the spandex bicycle outfit does more to reinforce class than anything :).