Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Bicycling, Above or Beyond Traffic Laws?

I ride in a cycle track on my morning commute. This narrow strip of pavement, separated by parked cars from a one way street with three lanes of traffic, gets very busy in the direction of downtown DC. Some people ride a little wobbly, on bikes that don't fit so great. Others ride really fast, zipping between the slower movers. Sometimes it's both at once, a wobbler who thinks traveling asfastaspossible is the right way to go, and they swing around me with their gym bags flailing.

I wonder if these riders know much about the politics of bike infrastructure, and that it took a considerable amount of effort and years of pushing to get this little bollarded avenue in place. I prefer not to pass people in the cycle track, because I view it as a space that's been created precisely to subvert the expectation that everyone on a bike will ride fast. At least, that's the message assigned to cycle tracks in bike advocacy circles. But it's pretty difficult to affix one group's definition onto shared public spaces that thousands of individuals define for themselves in how they use them over and over.

Much bike advocacy today aims to convince the public to act in certain ways in public streets through changing infrastructure and enforcing laws. I've got a different approach as a bike anthropologist, acknowledging that the bicycle has a particular capacity for disrupting time and space and thinking about how to take this into account.

Riding a bicycle encourages a remarkable trick: a person on a bike finds fissures in time and space, gaps between red lights and green, moments when drivers haven't noticed they can proceed. It's pretty ingenious, you can squeeze through small gaps in space better than a larger car can, and you can squeeze through small gaps in time better than a slower pedestrian can.

In the U.S. today, squeezing through these gaps often involves breaking the law. And from the standpoint of Follow The Rules So We Are Taken Seriously, it means biking "wrong" because lawful behavior is supposed to legitimize us as road users. But as an observer of streets, I can see that many people out and about are less interested in following traffic laws than they are in squeezing through time and space gaps. They legitimize themselves as road users by just going. If getting to work quickly will be aided by riding a bike through an intersection against a light, they go ahead and do it.

Based on the fact that I'm often the lone cyclist waiting at a red light while others stream past me, I'm not even sure that the other pedalers are actively scoffing traffic laws. If they are, the hesitation while they deliberate whether to scoff known laws must be measured in microseconds. It's a pretty clear challenge to the goal I know many bike advocates share of making streets safer through following standardized rules. A lot of bike professional work is devoted to adapting European bike-specific rules and designs, so that the way we move around can fit into existing traffic engineering standards. The cycle track is the fullest realization of this vision, an increasingly standardized traffic control device specifically designed to regulate the flow of bicycle circulation.

Beyond controlling behavior through street design, us bike people also try to convince folks that being lawful is a good idea. In some places I've lived, especially Portland, Oregon, bike users take it upon themselves to police the behavior of others on bikes. I remember when I was finding my groove as a bike commuter there in 2005, I would yell at bikers who blew through stop signs. The feeling of self righteousness was like a drug, pumping some more adrenalin into my veins. When I moved to Los Angeles, I developed a more flexible approach: I would stop if drivers were around, but I wasn't going to put my foot down at a stop sign if there was nobody there. I no longer found it appropriate to tell other people how to use the streets, considering the pressure we all faced from hostile drivers. But riding against red lights remained anathema. Here in DC, I'm starting to crack, feeling like a fool as I watch others exploit the time gaps I'm letting slip by.

And then, this summer, a man driving a car with a suspended license struck my mother and her partner as they crossed a street lawfully, in a crosswalk, with a walk signal. They were in Newport Beach, California, along a stretch of the beautiful Orange County coastline where people driving cars hurt people walking and biking with a frequency that speaks volumes about how little consideration is normally offered to bodies outside of cars in my home region.

So now when I stand at red lights astride my road bike and feel the breeze of other bike users passing through the empty intersections, I think bitterly about how the law did not protect my mother. She was behaving in accordance with street infrastructure and legal regulations when another person chose to ignore multiple laws and break her bones in four places. What does the law protect? What does using the infrastructure properly ensure? I don't have that feeling of self righteousness anymore to keep me smug while other people get home faster.

When people on bikes take advantage of time gaps and cut off pedestrians, I'm troubled. To me, this is what it means to bike "wrong": to make oneself into a threat to other road users. If there's a person approaching me on foot, I don't think of the space that person is about to occupy as up for grabs. I'd like to see more bike people espouse an inclusive message about "right" ways to ride that acknowledge others' rights to occupy space, even if it's going to mean letting go of one moment's forward motion.

I'd like to see bike people get past acting above the law, and focus on moving beyond it. I don't see a lot of value in fighting so hard to create special laws and infrastructure for people on bicycles to ignore, just like so many people do when driving cars. I want to legitimize the existing and future social reality of shared streets, both in our own habits while riding and in our advocacy work.

But who knows, maybe I'll just start yelling at the bicyclists who cut pedestrians off. Old habits die hard.

Monday, October 13, 2014


The other day I rode my bicycle
To the National Museum of the American Indian

I wanted to see with my own eyes
What I've started to feel
That other ways of living
Pre-conquest, those were real

Before the moment of contact
And long after it too
People made cosmologies
And they looked like me and you

Before the world turned to
Where it's still stuck in time
Where Cortés and Columbus are heroes
And the ones already here, slime

So I rode my bicycle down
To the NMAI
Because I needed to know
There's more than just lies

And there they were
Facts out on display
They wanted us dead
And yet we're here today

My sister ran our DNA
To learn our antecedents
Africa, las Américas, Europa
Slave, indígena, peasant

Norway, England, Germany
Ireland, Spain, Mexico
Other words are lost
Those are the names we know

Whose bodies absorbed contact
Through everyday brutality?
Annihilation visible in retrospect
Eased through consanguinity

Well if it were up to me it would crumble
The view that puts white in the clouds
That puts black in the ground
Endless evidence in shrouds

But there is no choice for me
Of a self/other divide
My cells are a remix
I see through enemy eyes

I confirmed the hunch
That's pounding in my skull
The clearer I can see
The more my knife seems dull

There is no other place
In which to be this self
Whipping my flesh
Leaves you with welts
I see myself at NMAI
But I can't keep conquest at bay
Mestizo irises light my eyes
Always, forever, Columbus Day

Friday, August 29, 2014

What Bike Equity Isn't

Equity isn't
The width of a lane
A couple extra inches
That make us all the same

Equity isn't
A smiling brown face
And hot pants on a bike
Sex in an exotic place

Equity isn't
A list of easy steps
That make our biggest problem
Into boxes you can check

Equity isn't
Policing a divide
Where some can travel freely
Others, stand aside

Equity isn't
Settled by a report
Every time I write
I wait for the retort

What equity is:
A landscape we don't know
It means a future world
Where every child can grow

If you deny how far we are
From reaching that plateau
Equity isn't
Because you won't make it so

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Don't Make a Chipwich Out of Me

I'm a chipster, a Chicana hipster.

I grew up wearing vintage clothes and lying on brown shag carpet behind the ripped up screens of our 1970s stucco apartment in a Mexican ethnoburb, whose suburban lawns and pools didn't keep white outsiders from calling it a ghetto. I wore Converse two sizes too big for me for several years because they were the only kind on sale at Costco. I use my long brown legs to ride a 1980s Panasonic road bike.

And, make no mistake, I fucking love the Smiths.

In some ways, my existence has been charmed. I get to think across many worlds: bicycle advocacy, cultural anthropology, bicycle research, Latino urbanism, and I've been trying to find a place in environmental justice. My career has given me a ridiculously specific and exciting opportunity: I get to help show that while bicycling lives at the poles of "Entitled White Man's Toy for Running Red Lights" and "Invisible Person of Color's Mode of Last Resort," it also exists in the vast continents in between. Chipsters like me also use bicycles. Us in-betweeners know that the world is a complicated place, and we've got some pretty good ideas about how to make things better.

For example, I understand why it is frustrating to see a lot of white men running red lights on their bikes. But you know what? My frustration doesn't stop there. As a woman of color, historically and structurally relegated to the role of observer, I know that power and privilege fill our roadways. I know that you can be a jerk with a car, a bike, or just on your own two feet. I know how cutting someone off on the street connects intimately to larger structures of domination and power. I know that the ability to influence infrastructure investment has a lot to do with power. That's why I've focused my energies on working with bike advocates to envision what equitable bike policy and planning should mean.

In short, I don't need anyone to explain to me that white male privilege is at work in the street. I got this.

What motivates me a lot of days is the knowledge that a lot of people in this world have no voice, and the more conversations I join, the closer (incrementally, infinitesimally, achingly tinily) we are to justice. But lately I've been feeling kind of compressed, like my existence isn't appropriate for mainstream consumption.

The reality is, a lot of activism is still about white men fighting each other for dominance. This week I had the bizarre experience of a white man telling me that biking can't possibly be a space for social justice because (wait for it) all bicyclists are privileged white men.

Where do people like me fit into that framework? If we've got white saviors running around yelling about white privilege, what are we for? Are we just puffy oppressed puppets you can put on your hand before you sock that jerk who dared to think differently from you? Are we just sand to fling in the eyes of your white rival on the playground?

I may be a chipster, but I am not a chipwich. I'm not the filling in a sandwich where white men squeeze me into oblivion so that they can get at each other's throats.

My troubled brown father didn't have much to give, but I will always be grateful for the freedom that comes from knowing that I don't need a white man to tell me right from wrong.

Thursday, July 31, 2014


I live underground.
I seem to be whole.
I have two arms, two legs,
A head.
I can move freely,
If I stay down.

Surfacing is tricky.
Some people don't want to see all of me.
They can accept
My fingers, maybe some knuckle.
Sometimes I can reach out as far as my elbows.
Sometimes I go feet first, and make it to my knees.
 But emerging whole
Is offensive
It's dangerous.

It makes the people
Whose feelings matter more than mine

They squirm, unaccustomed to seeing bodies like mine.
My existence is an abstract to them
Something to argue about, and dismiss when they're bored.

The arguments happen because they feel they are to blame somehow.
They do not seem to grasp
That keeping me down,
That is their culpability
That is their contribution
To the centuries of oppression
To the history they find too ugly to reveal.

That is when the fresh new hands
Get dirty
By shoving us down
And telling us it's not time
To exist.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Mobile Microaggression Machine

[Let's say I managed to record the last time a man driving an SUV said "get off the road" to me as I rode by on my bike, and then I super slowed it down and this is what I heard]

Hey you on the bike
What are you doing here?
Can't you see you don't look like us?
Can't you see we don't want you?

But sir
I'm not one of them
I know what you're talking about
I'm mad, too, that they don't seem to care
I'm not here to challenge you
But the system you bought into is really unfair

I work hard to buy myself
The nice things everyone wants
A car that I wash every week
That's why I get to own the road
And here you are
No car
Thinking you own the street
I have to wait?
Get out of my way

Why does your car give you the right
To treat me and others like dirt?

Because you've been winning and screwing us all
For centuries and I'm done
You think you can come out and just have a ball
In the street you just met yesterday

But can't you see, it's not me
I'm brown and I'm an activist
I don't want things to go on this way
But the car that you're driving
Is a trap you bought into
It's costing you more than it's worth

You don't know how it feels
To be king of the road
When you get treated like dirt
Everywhere else

I get to be king?
A Chicana like me?
What the fuck happened
To solidarity?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Marching to the Middle, Biking to the Top

Marching to the middle
Biking to the top
How're we gonna get
Obesity to drop?

The health people say policy
The bike folks say it too
No one wants to spend their dough
On street people like you

Marching to the middle
Biking to the top
Top-down change will save us all
Infrastructure's hott

And you? You must be molded
To fit their jargon scene
A planning fad or Dutch idea
Is better than your scheme

Marching to the middle
Biking to the top
It's all about the image
They make it, you just shop

You, be a good consumer
Of healthy food and place
Don't ask us how we got it,
But we'll sell you back your face

Marching to the middle
Biking to the top
We're all living breathing farms
But we don't reap the crop

The passions that inflame men
They call expert facts
Cycle tracks will solve it all
Even colored heart attacks

Marching to the middle
Biking to the top
Their vision serves a precious few
You be glad to gobble slop

Something that is simple
Like a bicycle
Becomes a mark of good or bad
An amenity that's tolled

Marching to the middle
Biking to the top
It's cheap until it's trendy
Then, duh, let's mark it up

We pretend that health's for all
Has it ever been this way?
To live well is a privilege
Not for you, José

Marching to the middle
Biking to the top
When justice is just status
You deserve the finest chop

We can't all be middle class
I'm sorry, labor folks
Those who could, did, too much
Our world has broken spokes

Marching to the middle
Biking to the top
A car is worth more than the world
Like they're ever going to stop

Monday, May 26, 2014

Street Ethnography: How Elastic Are Your Intersections?

Here's what I've learned about streets: people disagree about how to use them. There are laws, there are stripes, there are bollards, and then there are all these randos doing what they think is best. As a street ethnographer, I have observed that some intersections are more "elastic" than others, and this flexibility comes from people's attitudes rather than road design.

When I first started bike commuting in Portland, the heart of Law Abiding Cyclist Country, I got really jazzed about always stopping at stop signs and red lights. It made sense to me that I could make drivers take me seriously by behaving predictably. I'd grown up in a place where jaywalking meant running across the street, because pedestrians having priority was more theoretical than real. So it followed that, using this new mode of transport, I should do what the signs told me to do.

An inelastic or rigid intersection. The black line is the measure of elasticity.
Then I moved to Los Angeles, where my illusion of drivers taking cyclists seriously as road users dissolved in a hail of honks. I started thinking of riding as a fight, and playing dirty was the norm. I gave up stopping at stop signs, just making sure things were clear before I continued on. I still stopped at red lights, though. Signalized intersections seem a lot more rigid to me. Sometimes drivers would wave me on while I waited for them to pass, like they had in Portland, but here I took the offered right of way instead of using it as a "teaching moment."

A more elastic intersection. Note that the pedestrian has more freedom of mobility.
Now I'm in Washington, D.C, and wow, I look like a country mouse when I hesitate at intersections. Every time I pull up on a bike or on foot at a corner, others stream past me. The signals here seem to be more suggestions than anything else. Drivers, too, inch forward as much as they can, sometimes being halfway through the intersection before the light turns green.

A very elastic intersection, as is common in D.C.
Since I've observed so many other bike users and pedestrians, and as I noted, even motorists, making the point, it's hard for me to ignore the logic of pressing forward into empty space. Traffic signals should guarantee right of way, from a predictability standpoint, but should they impede the flow of people when there's no right of way to protect?

Pragmatic rigidity: honoring cross traffic's right of way.
I know that a lot of our road design standards have been developed through years of liability lawsuits and efforts to control safety. It's just weird to me that the reality, as seen from the everyday scale of ethnography, is a lot more pragmatic. If we really want to promote active transportation, shouldn't we legitimize the greater elasticity walking and biking afford? Does it really make sense to limit these modes according to the car-based paradigm of traffic engineering?

As the cross traffic clears the intersection, the elasticity returns.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Cycling in the City Symphony

A composition in music puts in mind two important lines: the thread of melody, and the spaces in between. The rests as much as the proper notes define to our ears the familiar. I studied the violin as a child, grappling like so many other eight year olds with a beautiful instrument I could not master. But even I knew about those spaces in between, and how long they could be. One second stretches itself to a roomy length when you know exactly where you've been and where you're going. You start to be able to toy with where you'll end the bow's upward or downward push and move the music forward. I remembered this when I tried again in college to find myself in fiddle music, that the spaces in between leave more room for interpretation than you might think. Then, even later, in another attempt to put into my hands the power to create music, I took guitar lessons with a blue eyed, white haired man who patiently dealt with my lack of practice and rewarded me by saying that I knew more about those fluid spaces in between than other students. It's the thing missing from some digital music based around a perfect repetition: swing, a groove, soul.

A place puts in mind two important lines: the physical objects of a built environment and the way people treat each other there. They are both historical, in a way, because the first shows changing styles in façades and uses and the second shows changing norms in communication. On the same street, people enact different ideas of what makes home. To one, it is walking to the bus stop undisturbed; to another, it is a mumbled greeting whose presence matters less than its absence. They read in each other a welcome or a dismissal, and do not signal the same. We often strive for ideal places that foster ideal communication, where no gesture can render the built environment unfamiliar. But in places all the living happens, and living means stretching into those pauses between the recognizable markers of time and change. Humans have the ability to make the sometimes awful music laid out by the buildings and highways soaring overhead into something swinging and alive. Places are not just buildings and street, they're people gesturing and spitting and even littering and most often helping. They are not abstract zones of growth and development; they are durable creations that show our amazing ability to adapt.

A bicycle puts in mind two important lines: the flow of traffic and your body-machine's trajectory within it. As much as I follow the advice of the infrastructure I ride through, I also find myself responding to the pulsing of other vehicles, which in some places do stay where the street lines and signs tell them they belong. We can see it when we ride together, that each of us approaches the intersection slightly differently. To one, there is plenty of time to cross before the light changes. To another, it's best to cross as a pedestrian using ADA curb cuts. To a third, it's best to follow what one of the others has started to do. I rode through Washington, D.C. yesterday with two friends, both experienced cyclists, and observed how we combined our different minds. It was hard to decide how we fit into the flow of traffic as a group, how our trajectory would intersect with others, because we had different styles of moving forward. There is a city symphony the bicycle allows us to join, even those of us without the stamina to master more conventional noisemaking devices. We know how many of those in between spaces we can occupy, swinging up onto sidewalks and down alleyways. Some of us choose to exercise this flexibility to a greater extent than others, but it's hard for me to think bicycle without thinking about the way it encourages me to adapt my movements in response to those around me. Is this flexibility something we want to extend to new bicycle users, or is it something we think must be designed out of our streets before people will use them properly?

Friday, February 28, 2014

Scenes from a Twitter Chat on Bike Equity

Friday, February 7, 2014

California, the Dreaming and the Dead

One Saturday last April, my family made a pilgrimage to two places from our past. The first site lay in the San Bernardino foothills, near the old settlement of Verdemont. Here we met some local history buffs at the foundations of what was once the family home, where Otto and Vera Frances Meyer lived with Lawrence and Kathryn, their two children. Kathryn was my grandmother. After Otto died in 1929, Vera sent the children to stay with her mother while she worked as a housekeeper and eventually remarried. The family rented out the house until it burned down decades ago.

Slowly over the next decades, Vera's land would be parceled off and sold to developers. The ranch house foundations today are on a suburban cul-de-sac, but more rugged-style for horse lovers.

We traveled up from the ranch house into the chaparral foothills to look for the grave of Julius Meyer, Otto's grandfather, who died in 1912. We knew it was somewhere within a few acres, but we didn't know the exact location because the current owners of the land did not want the verified existence of human remains on the site to add another barrier to their development plans. The friendly neighbor who had brought us up here in ORVs explained that this developer planned to build over 400 single family homes on these scrub hills. I was shocked to hear that, considering we were in a region known for its wildfires and water shortages and in foothills fissured by the San Andreas fault.

In addition to the seismic and climatological reasons not to develop on this land, we were nowhere near a source of employment. The nearest metropolis was San Bernardino, where we'd walked several miles that morning through the deserted downtown before finding an open restaurant.

In that time we also saw a woman walking down the street clad only in underwear and a top, being led by a fully clothed man. Any development in those hills will be dependent on jobs and water obtained elsewhere.

We fanned out looking for evidence of a grave site, but found nothing conclusive.

Our next stop was a local history museum, where we saw pictures of our family members hanging on the walls. The Meyers had been a prominent family in the area. Then we headed to a site related to the other side of my mother's family, in Riverside. My other great grandfather, Lawrence Holmes Sr, had emigrated from Norway with his family at age 8 in 1881 as Lars Jensen. He became an actor and inventor. He designed and manufactured space-saving wall beds, which I've heard about all my life but did not see until I walked into a friend's studio apartment in Portland last summer and saw my great grandfather's name on an old metal bed frame.

Lawrence appears to have been one of the early twentieth century utopians who saw in California a better future through experimental agriculture. He introduced carob cultivation to Riverside, and his ranch drew the interest of the Metropolitan Water District that wanted to expand water flowing into the region. He fought eminent domain for as long as he could, but he lost the case and his fortune. His land has been sitting underwater since the 1940s, and my great uncle, his last surviving child, who still holds mining rights to the land, in recent years revived that struggle through mineral tests.

That April day we had the opportunity to visit the reservoir and see the water sparkling over the once carob ranch. It was a heavily guarded facility, understandably, as the water laying before us served millions of suburban homes in Orange County. We were joined by some women who had co-authored a local history book that mentioned my great grandfather's struggle with the MWD.

The heat of the day was starting to get to me, exacerbated by the usual stress of traveling with a caravan of people. I'd been concerned that I would feel trapped on this automotive excursion, and the news of the development plans for the Meyer Ranch didn't help. Then the very friendly employee, who had connected with my sister and given up his day off to picnic with my family on the bluff overlooking the reservoir, gave the company line that justified the flooding of this land, and the senseless development that has driven California to today's water crisis. I felt like I was entering the twilight zone. It was development opportunity, not populist survival, that led to these mega water projects, but he said that our great grandfather had sacrificed his land so that millions of people could live on the water funneled from the Colorado River to this reservoir.

The acre feet filling the depths of the valley below us were framed not as a great human folly that turned this land into an exurban machine generating profits for a few at the cost of millions of others, but as a laudable symbol in our right to survive wherever we choose.

I started hyperventilating and crying, and my mother rescued me and drove me to a train station. There I could head back into my sustainability bubble, return to the rail corridor that reassured me that not all is lost, that there are some shreds of reality in Southern California.

I have not lived in California since 2011, and the major reason I have not returned is the water crisis. I miss the state. It is a place that I feel viscerally connected to, by living family and by my time in Los Angeles, but also because there are buried in the ground once beautiful women I loved, my grandmother facing the sea and my great grandmother facing the foothills.

Will California wake up? Our land of dreams has been renewed over and over with new fantasies, in the American era starting with the health dream that brought people on the first rail lines, and the oil geysers, and the government subsidies that built the postwar nuclear dream homes, and the surf style that went far beyond those who actually learned to ride the waves, and the hippies, and the cultists, and the people who hate the immigrants who care for their children, prepare their food, and clean their homes. All of this makes it seem like it is not Californian to confront delusion; it is Californian to produce it.

Two days before that Saturday expedition into my family's past, I gave a talk at UC Riverside, followed by a dinner with some faculty and the man who ran the college's sustainability demonstration garden. He gave me two ripe grapefruits.

I hope this can be the end of a blind era and the beginning of adaptation to the region's underlying ecosystems. Is it really so terrible to envision cacti landscape instead of lawns, greywater systems instead of water loss, built environments that allow rainwater to seep back into the ground instead of flushing it off the concrete into the waterways?

The pungent scent of the chaparral softened by the dewy air; for all their stucco subdivisions they've yet to overpower it.

Pete Seeger - Little Boxes by jolysable