Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Unsolicited Advice for Vision Zero

Last week I spent time in Los Angeles City Hall for the first time in almost five years. I moved back to LA at the beginning of September, returning after living in Seattle, Portland, and Washington, DC. To be perfectly honest, I'm a little shell-shocked and unsure of how to answer friends who ask me what I'm doing next.

I've been studying the bike movement and professional bike advocacy since 2008, and I spent the last two years working to operationalize that research to further equity, diversity, and inclusion in the field. It wasn't until about eight months ago, though, that I recognized my peculiar position: I wasn't just raising awareness about exclusion in bicycle advocacy, I was experiencing it. As a woman of color, I didn't have the power to solve the problem I'd been hired to fix. In fact, taking on that task had made me the target of more resentment than I'd ever experienced. I found that in bike advocacy people like me were being tokenized. We were expected to use our non-threatening otherness to promote a vision of the world that was determined before we came in the door. Accepting that I couldn't accomplish what I'd set out to do was a big step forward for me personally, because it helped me to see that I shouldn't be living a life where colleagues treated me like something to be feared. That treatment takes an emotional and even physical toll, and the only thing I could do to make it stop was leave.

Now, as new ideas march forward in bike networks, I've been wondering if I should even keep trying to share my thoughts about how to embrace diversity in the bike movement because all I see is the dominance of white norms and my inability to change that dynamic. I don't see the point of offering advice to people who see me as an interloper, an attacker, rather than as an ally. At the same time, I think it's baffling that a closed group could claim to speak for everyone. A seasoned social change strategist recently told me that lessons learned in a particular movement usually can't be applied in that same movement by that same person. It was a relief to hear that I am not going through something unique. But the question remains, what do I do with my bike activist self now? Can she exist in this world?

One place I've been seeing white norms dominate is in the policy trend Vision Zero, which is what the event at LA City Hall was themed around. I happened to have a peculiar bird's eye view of the spread of Vision Zero around the United States last year, while I was managing an equity initiative at a national bike advocacy organization. I remember the meeting in summer 2014 where my boss told us that Vision Zero would be the policy framework the organization furthered from then on. With my inclusion filter on, it sounded like another example of white bike advocates looking to Northern Europe for solutions instead of turning to urban communities in the U.S. to find out how they've managed to get by walking, biking, and using transit all these years. The urgency of adopting the language at the national level illustrated another familiar phenomenon: advocates looking to impress their like-minded peers rather than vetting strategies with a diverse range of thought partners (there's some foundation-speak for you). While I was working in DC, the groups that the nationals wanted to impress were Transportation Alternatives in New York City and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the origin point for Vision Zero in the United States. And then, over fall 2014, I saw the third sign of a bonafide bike advocacy trend: a developing intercity competition where bike advocates try to get politicians on board with their projects by naming the other cities that are supporting it. These three tendencies within bike advocacy draw attention away from local community realities and have helped turn bike projects into symbols of gentrification and change imposed without local input. (Bike share is another example of these tendencies in action.)

Beyond questioning the inequitable tendencies of these familiar bike movement traits, I was alarmed that a pillar of Vision Zero was increased police enforcement of traffic violations, in the same year that multiracial groups were filling streets across the United States to call attention to the deadly effects of racial profiling in policing. When I raised these concerns at work, nobody connected me with the national Vision Zero organizing committee. Due to a fearful organizational culture, I was ostracized for bringing up these blind spots. It added to my growing awareness that I was allowed to write inspirational blog posts and host webinars about “bike equity,” but I wasn't supposed to have an opinion about the organization's strategy work such as forwarding the Vision Zero trend. I decided to leave my job in early 2015.

But I couldn't get away from Vision Zero. There was the Twitter pile on where NYC Vision Zero activists called me a supporter of street violence. There were the job announcements that showed that resources were already flowing in this concept's direction. Vision Zero became a symbol of my powerlessness to address the exclusion I was disappointed to find when I reached the national level in the advocacy movement I thought I'd been part of for years. It became a symbol of my own dilemma. This is what it is to be a woman of color in this world: you're in demand based on what boxes you can check, but when your expert recommendations go against the grain, you can be dismissed as a nuisance. They want my exotic face but not the brain shaped by living in this skin. The ups and downs are enough to make you seasick. You find yourself hoping that they just dislike you personally because that cuts less deeply than knowing that others' racism/sexism keep you invisible as an individual.

As for Vision Zero, I have a lot of friends in the bike movement who are supporting it, which made me think I needed to ignore my personal experience of hurt and exclusion. As an activist, it's become important to me to remain open to ideas that I react to on a personal level because this can have effects on a movement level. The bike movement is a subcultural network trying to redesign streets for everyone. Some participants want it to be more open to diverse perspectives; others are comfortable claiming that broader social issues are irrelevant to their own bikey desires. I want to be as open as possible to a range of ideas. So, my experience aside, and regardless of the coincidence that Vision Zero emerged just as I was becoming aware of how far from diverse national bike advocacy was ready to be, I know that Vision Zero will mean different things in different places and will surely make good strides in addressing traffic violence. That's why I decided to attend the Vision Zero meeting at City Hall, eager to see old friends and learn how the concept might be more tied to local realities in Los Angeles.

The main speakers were Leah Shahum, who is the national Vision Zero strategist, and Seleta Reynolds, the general manager of LADOT. Malcolm Harris of T.R.U.S.T. South LA joined them on a panel at the end. What I heard was promising, but also isolating. I heard a lot about Europe and San Francisco. I sat there among an audience that was soaking up every word, the same things they'd been telling each other for years. These events feel like church to me at this point, with the opulence of council chambers heightening the effect, and I felt once again in the throes of my crisis of faith. There were a number of people of color in the room, involved at many levels, which made me think I shouldn't trust my instincts in hearing a white-centered strategy for Vision Zero. Afterward, walking to the metro with a friend, I was surprised to learn that I wasn't the only person with misgivings. She encouraged me to share my thoughts.

For what it's worth, here are four themes that I know from investigating exclusion in bike advocacy that sound out loudly to me in Vision Zero. There's more to Vision Zero than bike advocacy, but I saw it develop through that particular network, so the analysis I'm offering here situates it in that movement.

1. Dismissal of concerns about influence of eurocentric thinking.
A woman in the audience asked whether a model from Sweden made sense in Los Angeles, and the response from Shahum was that she tries not to overemphasize the European origins because that bothers some people. It's important to recognize that what ruffles feathers isn't a “perception” of eurocentric thinking; it's a real domination of eurocentric thinking in bicycle policy, planning, and advocacy. Eurocentric thinking is the norm in those circles, with PeopleForBikes taking politicians on study tours to Copenhagen and a number of planning schools doing the same with their students. Over and over, in many ways, advocates tell themselves and the public that European cycling is best, and we'd better follow suit. This reinforces the invisibility of people making bicycling work around the United States today, people who don't have the privilege or resources to offer competing visions centered in their own realities. We are all affected by eurocentric thinking, just as we are all affected by racism. It'd be great to see more bike advocates display some self-awareness around this.

2. Racial profiling as a street safety afterthought.
My biggest concern with Vision Zero stems from its overlap with but disconnect from the moment of Black Lives Matter. A remarkable amount of mainstream media and policymaking attention has gone to the issue of police violence against criminalized black and brown bodies. Here in LA, Sahra Sulaiman at Streetsblog has covered a number of recent instances of violence. People of color bike groups have organized memorial rides and other direct actions to recognize the effects on communities. And yet one of the pillars of Vision Zero is increasing opportunities for police to apply their biases to street users, aka increased enforcement of traffic laws. White people may look to police as allies in making streets safer; people of color may not. When a man in the audience brought up this issue, Shahum said Vision Zero strategists would need community help in addressing it. Asking affected communities to take on the burden of figuring out how to make Vision Zero work in a landscape of police violence is dismissive at best and insulting at worst. It really doesn't seem like Vision Zero was designed to admit the problems that are an unfortunate reality for many in this country, a reality that other groups are working very hard to bring to light. It'd be great to see the development of a street safety strategy that starts with a dialogue on what “safety” means and whose safety we have in mind, taking it for granted that we don't all face the same safety problems. The panel's moderator brought up this point as well. Vision Zero should put support for police violence reform front and center, pointing out that we need police officers to be sources of community help rather than harm. Traffic violence is a huge problem, but not everyone is ready to see policing as a solution. Why hasn't this element of Vision Zero been drastically changed by now?

3. Combative issue framing.
Bike advocates tend to see themselves as an embattled minority, to the point of leaving little room for diversity of experience and opinions within their own ranks. It's led to a lot of acrimonious infighting in the bike movement, such as the longstanding debate about vehicular cycling. I heard this defensiveness in the Vision Zero presentation as Shahum called VZ “the only ethical choice.” I'm guessing that this suggestion that disagreement with Vision Zero makes one unethical was designed to shame politicians, but I'd urge Vision Zero strategists to consider what silencing effects a combative tone might have on participation by oppressed groups. I've seen a worrying tendency among bike advocates to dismiss those who disagree with them as NIMBYs, flattening opposition regardless of whether it comes from community members who lived through the ravages of urban renewal or privileged homeowners concerned abut an influx of colored bodies into their suburban sanctum. Vision Zero strategists should show their respect for meaningful inclusion through welcoming intersectional perspectives.

4. Emphasis on top-down strategy for culture change.
Since at least the early 1990s, the bike movement has shifted toward building political will for funding bike projects as a strategy for building public support for bicycling. Professional advocates now work to become political insiders more than they take the direct action approach of street demonstrations and organizing. Vision Zero reproduces this tendency toward “if you build it, they will come,” putting the agency for changing individual behavior in the hands of policymakers and planners. There's value in this approach, but it also creates well-known barriers to participation in agenda setting by the very users the projects being lobbied are intended to serve. It's strange to me that a movement so focused on rejecting car-dominated engineering would think that the solution is more large-scale, top-down planning. Again and again I heard the panelists reference the need for culture change, so I hope that means Vision Zero will fund culture change projects such as community events and bike co-ops where people can develop economic and personal relationships with bicycling. Or will Vision Zero dollars go to sending more politicians to Northern Europe?

Street safety is a subject that should be shaped by many people's realities. I hope it's clear that with this analysis I'm not saying that Vision Zero can't lead to good things; in fact, I hope it's great. Since it looks like that train has left the station and street safety in Los Angeles will have Vision Zero branding for the next few years, I'd love to see a strategy develop that is rooted in addressing inequality. It's more clear to me than ever, coming back to LA and seeing how many people are sleeping rough right now, that inequality is a huge problem in this region. Maybe if people weren't trapped in a cycle of competing for dwindling opportunities they wouldn't treat roads like a scarce resource they must compete for by being the fastest and strongest. It's hard for me to see how we'll fix our street culture without deciding as a society that we should care about each other at all.

There were a lot of enthusiastic people listening in council chambers on Thursday, some of them from Orange County and Long Beach. Most of us were professionals or longtime participants in this kind of advocacy. I hope the active transportation advocacy community can support intersectional perspectives being a part of setting the agenda earlier and earlier in the process. It's not good enough to use the people who aren't in the room as evidence for why a particular policy should move forward; we can all do a better job of including more realities from day one. This is what full and fair participation should mean, and as long as we're being asked to help accommodate serious flaws in a strategy that emerged from exclusive networks, we're not there yet. One day, instead of cramming our collective foot into a boot ordered for somebody else, it'd be great if a bigger group could lead the design process and end up with something we can really wiggle our toes in. Maybe it's early enough in Vision Zero's lifespan that it can be a vehicle for this change. I still want to believe it's possible for the bike movement to let people like me inside, with our hearts and minds.