Thoughts on Portland, Los Angeles, Race and Bicycling (updated 4:24 P.M.)

12_15_09_sfvcm.jpgOctober 2008 San Fernando Valley Critical Mass.  Photo: Digable Soul/Flickr

At last week’s Big Bike Meeting at City Hall, Senior Bike Coordinator Michelle Mowery took a swing at a question about the city’s outreach on the Draft Bike Plan, and missed.  The questions, which compared the outreach in Los Angeles to that of Portland, home of Alta Planning who consulted on the city’s plan, asked why the outreach for our plan is somewhat lacking.  Mowery’s answer, transcribed at Westside BikeSIDE has been lampooned and pilloried throughout town.  But now the debate has headed north to Portland.

First, let’s check the transcript at Westside BikeSIDE for the actual transcript:

MICHELLE MOWERY: With all due respect the City of
Portland is 450,000 people.  It’s a homogeneous community that is very
white, and very progressive with respect to transportation.  They have
a trolley system that works very well, as well as their transit
overall.  We are a very diverse, disjointed city of 4 million people. 
They are 30 years ahead of us in the development of their, well,
they’re not quite 30, they’re more like 20 years ahead of us in the
development of their bikeway.  So we’re a step behind Portland in what
we’re trying to do. Granted, several of us would like to see a lot of
changes in the city happen very quickly, but again we have a very
diverse city with a lot of needs.

There’s been a lot of head scratching around that answer around the city.  To me it sounds that a large heterogeneous population would need more outreach than a smaller homogeneous one.  Others have theorized that Mowery has been asked so many questions about Portland over the years that she just has a programmed response when she hears the words.  I asked Mowery for a clarification this morning, but haven’t heard back yet.

(Update: I just heard from Mowery.  Her comments:

Things have been pretty busy here and I’ve not had time to revisit the
questions the Council member asked during the Transportation Committee
meeting. We are continuing to work on the Bicycle Plan based on the
public input that has – and continues – to be submitted to Planning.  
 We hope to have a new draft available to the public in February
.)

For the record, Portland IS a lot more homogenous than Los Angeles; just over three quarters of the population is white.  While the city’s population has grown from 450,000 to just under 530,000; Mowery’s point that the city is a lot smaller than L.A. still stands.  For a breakdown of Portland’s racial demographics, click here.

It turns out people in Portland are just as perplexed.  Jonathon Maus, editor of the excellent Bike Portland, summarizes Thompson’s writings.  But the real fun comes in their comments section.  Many of the comenters take on the idea that the city’s "whiteness" is the cause of the city’s thriving bike culture while others begrudgingly embrace it and back Mowery. A read through the comments section at Bike Portland is interesting and educational, since their city and Bike Plan have been drug into the debate on our plan.  For those not ready to read through the fifty plus comments, and counting, I grabbed three that are a sample after the jump.

For example,

I completely understand MICHELLE MOWERY’s argument. Having a more
homogeneous group that is already inclined to one course of action is
much different than how she describes LA and does deserve its own
planning process that is not cook cut from a much different population.
I feel that if someone does not believe that different ethnic (and I
will include social/economic) groups often have varying views on issues
as large is regional planning, I feel they should most likely spend
more time with different ethnic and social/economic groups.

but in response:

Portland is rather white. If LA was as white as Portland it wouldn’t
make it into a bicycle mecca. Whiteness may co-vary with biking, this
doesn’t make it causal.

Homogeneity makes for easier planning and organizing, it makes it
easier to build community support around a certain idea. A bike
community in more diverse place will require that more diverse players
be brought into the process.

my personal favorite:

Race-aware anonymous coward’s translation of Mowery’s answer: Portland
is a mostly white city of 450k. LA is a mostly Latin-Mexican city of
4,000k. Everything we know about sociology is that smaller groups are
more cohesive than larger, homogenous more than hetero, white more than
brown. So, just because Portland had group rides and the community
showed up, doesn’t mean having group rides is going to help make people
care here. Portlanders for the 3 obviously politically incorrect
reasons I just gave do things differently than what can be accomplished
here. They have a working street car for crying out loud!

One thing is for certain, I would bet that Mowery had just given the answer that she wanted to deep down:

The reason we only did four hearings instead of ten is that’s all that was funded.

  • MU

    Sometimes I have to feel a little bad for Mowery. Clearly it was a dumb answer to a fair question. But I think she knew the real answer would have gotten her attacked from every side 10x worse…

    “We all know the bike plan is inadequate to really make any serious change in the transportation realities of the city. Furthermore, I do not have the instiutional power to change the plan in anything other than cosmetic ways. So why would we waste the time and energy to engage the public when it is clear that public feedback will be ignored anyway.”

    It would have been impressive to hear that come out of her mouth. But let’s accept that would have gotten her heat from above and below instead of just from the cycling activists who already dislike her.

    Beyond that, I’m a little confused by the priority put on attacking her comment and the public feedback system in general. Yes, it was/is woefully inadequate. But again, is 90 days of feedback that will be ignored really much better than 30 days of ignored feedback. Maybe I’m off base, but the entire “public feedback” process appears to me to be solely a legally required PR exercise that no one with any real power ever intended to engage with anyway.

  • Erik G.

    So only white (well, pink actually) people use bikes in L.A.? That’s not what I see in my daily Cross-L.A. County commute.
    Ms. Mowery needs to get out of the office more often. And I’d chip in to get her on a junket to Amsterdam. Nah, too “white” (actually, not anymore). OK, Shanghai?

    http://madaboutshanghai.blogs.com/mad_about_shanghai/images/bikes.jpg

  • What I don’t understand is that I swear I heard Rosendahl say the LADOT staff was given the questions in advance, so they knew exactly what was coming. And this was the best she could come up with?

    She had to know that any question that touched on race — especially as a reason to have less outreach, rather than more — would be almost universally condemned.

  • So, LA is big and diverse … and $450,000 wasn’t enough to hold more than four after-the-fact meetings? It wasn’t until we started raising hell (and Stephen Box & Co. got cranking) that the whole this process got changed and the Planning Dept. got more involved.

    Mowery directed this money towards some high priced map-makers, then discarded most of their advice. She took a plan to a meeting with the public to TELL us what was going to be in the plan (not to solicit our input in a meaningful way).

    I was laughing today with friends talking about what a different city this would be if the “Bike Program Coordinator” made trips out to the different bike coops and collectives, came out on social rides, and really worked with the bike community (and other interest groups in town) to build a political consensus around certain issues having to do with bikes.

    This isn’t that much to ask for, and despite the desk job requirements Mowery and the Bikeways staff face, the fact that they’ve been distant and downright hostile to community input is inexcusable.

  • minibikebar

    Here we are again back in the same old rut of vilifying LADOT as a personal sport.
    F..king unbelievable! Been listening to “Horseshoes and Handgrendes” all morning.

    Come on move on, stop the silence on building and implementing bicycle lanes and facilities in Los Angeles from our elected officials.
    Un-silence Garcetti
    Un-silence Reyes
    Un-silence Zine
    Un-silence LaBonge- No more summer ice cream rides or bike night at the festival of lights..real change!
    Un-silence Koretz
    Un-silence Cardena
    Un-silence Alacon
    Un-silence Parks
    Un-silence Perry
    Un-silence Wesson
    Un-silence Rosendahl
    Un-silence Smith
    Un-silence Huizar
    Un-silence Hahn…I’m working on her
    Un-silence new guy his last name starts with a K

    Un-silence the mayor (whose in Copenhagen…maybe when he is being driven around he’ll note people riding bikes in bike lanes in minus 10 degrees and the light bulb will go on “bikes”….how about bike lanes and facilities in Los Angeles what a concept.
    Let’s push them over the edge…..it could be a fun ride.

  • Outreach to Latino cyclists is a complicated thing. Not that LADOT shouldn’t be attempting it, cause they should be, but there’s a big difference between getting people who already care a lot about bikes in the room and getting people who ride bikes cause they have to into the room. The day laborers that I’ve worked with through City of Lights do not primarily see themselves as bicyclists, cause they’ve got that whole survival thing to deal with. We have to face up to the fact that many of the cyclists who get left out of the conversation are facing bigger issues in their lives than a lack of bike infrastructure: the need for money to pay for food, rent, and the family back home may take precedence over lobbying for better streets. The more effort we make to build a common identity with them the better, but it isn’t going to happen overnight, and it’s probably not going to come from someone who lives in an entirely different city (Long Beach) like Michelle Mowery.

  • LAguy

    Los Angeles IS larger and more diverse than Portland. But that fact should not be used by DOT as yet another one of their seemingly endless list of excuses as to why, after 30 years and ten millions of dollars later, they have really done very little to make L.A. the bike friendly city it can and ought to be.

    But LA’s diversity IS a strong argument to replace the ONE arrogant, vindictive, strident, paranoid DOT bicycle coordinator with MULTIPLE regional bicycle advocates. Even if they were only employed part-time, each would likely individually accomplish more for their local areas than one career bureaucrat spread across the entire city will ever be able to do.

  • Adonia (and others),

    It would be fine to leave this discussion at “It is hard to reach bicyclists that don’t speak Enlgish” if the City of LA didn’t hire Alta Planning to do this bike plan.

    Let me explain.

    Alta Planning opened a new office in LA after winning the contract to do the LA Bike Plan. They hired Matt Benjamin to be the head of their LA office.

    Matt is an expert in soliciting opinions from minority, non-Enlgish-speaking, cyclists. He worked on the MTA’s Enhanced Public Outreach Plan in 2002-2004 while with the LACBC, traveling across the County, attending community fairs, standing at transit hubs, and offering free lights to anyone on a bike (regardless of language spoken) to get their opinion about cycling in LA County, and how they got around on their bike.

    This is the guy the City of LA hired to do our bike plan. The City didn’t tie his hands, but they certainly didn’t ask him to engage his full set of skills. The scope of work for Alta Planning was written by Michelle Mowery, who knows the Matt did the MTA’s Enhanced Public Outreach Plan, and knows the results from it.

    The excuse for the poor public outreach for LA’s bike plan is that people in LA speak too many languages and the city is too big. That is simply not true. We got poor public outreach because we have a bikeways coordinator, and a DOT, that made a bad decisions with respect to the interests of the public and outreach in the scope of work they wrote up for Alta Planning. They preserve their own jobs at all costs, and really couldn’t give a damn to openly soliciting the public for input.

    $450,000 and the world’s leading expert in gathering opinions from minority cyclists is a great start to any bike plan. Leave it to the LADOT to cock it all up.

  • I’m very sorry for the unclear grammar in my comment above!

  • MU

    I’d like to revise my earlier comment. Clearly her answer was a secret plan to get mentioned on BikeSnobNYC. One of the great achievements of anyone in the “cycling community”.

    Seriously? They knew the questions beforehand? I was willing to give her a little benefit of the doubt if it was a off the cuff answer to a question without a good answer. But if she had time to prepare and THAT is what she came up with? On second thought…even if they didn’t know the questions, she had to know they were going to continue to get challenged on this. Again, that is what she prepared to respond to people…”*shrug* yeah, you know it’s tough talking to brown people.”

    @Adonia – your point is well taken, but I’m not sure it is a valid defense. I don’t think most poor Latinos see themselves as “primarily bus riders” either. But you do even minimal outreach to them regarding bus and transit service and you know people will show up. The Bus Riders Union has held DOT’s feet to the fire for years now and had a huge impact on city planning.

    I don’t really buy the ‘poor latino’/’middle-class white kid’ bicyclist dichotomy that always seems to be taken for granted. It just doesn’t fit with my experience of who is out there riding or talking about these issues. Sure there are some language and cultural issues that should be accounted for. But it’s not that hard. At the end of the day I think they did the minimal possible outreach they could get away with because they knew what kind of response was coming. Why would they purposely engage a large population who cycle out of necessity and have a history of organizing and pressing officials for change? Better to target the small number of activists they know are going to show up anyway and keep the discussion as limited as possible.

  • Man, Ubrayj’s comments almost brought a tear to my eye…could you imagine a Bikeways coordinator who comes out to Ridazz rides, drops into the Oven to say what’s up, and brings together bike advocacy groups with other community groups to sit at the table…gut wrenching, infuriating to think we don’t have this, though I wonder if any city in the county, nay, world, has this (portland?nyc?copenhagen?) And could you imagine the work this person would have done with Matt Benjamin at their side? Speaking broken spanish to the guys down at MacArthur Park, asking him to think big on this project, go all out? I would normally say we need a mayoral level position pushing this kind of thing, but I don’t think someone that high up would consider all the litle people…but that’s the most exciting thing about bikes, the higher profile we can get this thing, combined with the inherently horizontal and communal organization of the bike world, the quicker we’ll see a structural shift in the way governments interact with their citizens, with bicyclist and bicycles on the forefront of that civic reinvention.

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