Bicycling is for Everyone: The Connections Between Cycling in Developing Countries and Low-Income Cyclists of Color in the U.S.

Photo: Ray Fuentes

A Missing Story

As urban transportation bicycling becomes more popular, planners and advocates often use “bike friendly cities” like Portland, Amsterdam and Copenhagen as examples for facilities as well as political strategies and tactics.  Although these are wonderful cities with dazzling bike networks and impressive ridership numbers, a narrative is emerging that bicycle advocacy needs to follow their methods. On the contrary, the bicycle movement in Los Angeles is not rooted in mimcry of Europe or the “whitest city in America”. It owes much of its progress to the participation of immigrants of color who can share uncountable stories of everyday bicycling in their countries of origin.

The stories often sound like this one (told to author Allison Mannos as a family story):

In the 1950’s, my mother grew up in a rural area of Toisan, in southern China. When she was two, she contracted polio in her leg. At that time, polio vaccines weren’t available in her area and other developing places. Without medicine, doctors said her leg would require amputation. Her grandfather, in an attempt to provide whatever he could, hopped on his bicycle and pedaled down unpaved dirt roads to numerous villages nearby, looking for the prescribed milk and herbal remedies, which were scarce.  He eventually found enough milk and herbs, and he ferried them back to my mother with his bicycle, which helped to save her leg.

Although it’s tempting to focus on the role of bicycle as savior, the moral of the story is actually the ubiquity of bicycling—the foregone conclusion of it. These journeys for milk and medicine were simply one of many daily trips made for commuting, errands, and everyday life. This unconscious, mainstream, and frequent use of the bicycle to accomplish daily tasks without a dedicated bicycling infrastructure is common to developing places around the world.

Although not all Los Angeles’ bicyclists are immigrants from these places, work within the bicycling community reveals that the success of Los Angeles bicycling is based on the established behavioral patterns of these people.  They are immigrants, or children of immigrants, from rural and urban parts of Asia, Latin America, and Africa; their motivation to ride does not necessarily stem from an environmental or political stance. For them, bicycling is a cultural norm of inexpensive transportation that provides means for survival.

Moving Forward, Margin to Center

Infamous for car culture and congestion, Los Angeles has dramatically developed a large and visible bicycling community in the last ten years. It boasts hundreds of monthly rides, over half a dozen bicycle repair community spaces, an outspoken advocacy community, and a recent ambitious update to its bicycle master plan. While some planners and advocates attribute these changes to Los Angeles adopting ideas from bike-friendlier cities, the characterization overlooks the fact that a substantial number of people already rode in relative invisibility—invisibility based on their race, immigration, or low-income status. Many of these riders live and/or work in neglected parts of Los Angeles including portions of Westlake/MacArthur Park, Downtown, South LA, Pacoima/Van Nuys, and East LA.

Brenda, a City of Lights volunteer distributing a Spanish resource guide during Bike to Work Day. Photo: Allison Mannos

Reframing the discussion to reorient around this segment of bicyclists is paramount for planners and advocates to ground bicycling progress within social justice. The scope of change dramatically spans theoretical and practical. At a conceptual level, current planning methodologies are flawed. Within advocacy, efforts to get new, more affluent, and choice riders (read: converting drivers), to commute by bicycle are misplaced.

Problems in Planning Practice

An example of problematic planning practice can be found in the use of “Best Practice” reports, often used to guide infrastructure, program and policy recommendations. While the identification of a “best” is convenient, closer examination reveals that most of the examples are from European and American cities, perpetuating institutionalized Eurocentricity and American exceptionalism. In fact, numerous lessons can be learned from other places with high non-motorized mode use as well. A study by Michael Replogle revealed that “non-motorized vehicle trips account for 25-80 percent of trips in many Asian cities, more than anywhere else in the world.” Recently, the Institute for Transportation Development Policy awarded Guangzhou, China the 2011 Sustainable Transport Award for its Bus Rapid Transit accompanied with its bike parking and bike share programs. Though Guangzhou’s land use and density are arguably more similar to Los Angeles than Portland or Amsterdam or Copenhagen, Chinese solutions rarely make it into Best Practice documents.

Evidence of a successful solution from cities not usually identified as exemplary can be witnessed in the wildly successful practice of temporary car-free street closures for the benefits of bicyclists and pedestrians.  Since these have become extremely popular in American cities, it is only Los Angeles’ incarnation that cites the practice’s origin from Bogotá, Colombia by dubbing it “CicLAvia”.

Advocacy Blinders and Invisibility

In terms of advocacy, outreach efforts should expand ideas of target communities, not only to fill the ranks with as many bicycling voices as possible, but also to create a comprehensively transformative movement. Frequently, for example, discussions of the inequity in bicycling between men and women tend to focus on educated, middle-class white women (especially mothers), and usually do not examine the barriers to bicycling for, say, women of color.  This narrow approach in advocacy and planning often misses solutions to engage and serve the existing, dedicated population of low-income cyclists of color; in fact, it instead ignores them or takes their lifestyles for granted.

What has made it possible for some bicyclists to remain invisible? These communities of color and/or immigrant communities, though more culturally accustomed to bicycling, may struggle with establishing a political voice, especially within bicycling advocacy. Language, but also cultural representation is an obvious culprit. The Long Beach Blue Line Bike/Ped Access Plan comprehensively conducted multilingual outreach in English, Spanish, and Khmer, to accommodate neighborhoods in the scope area. But, for a vastly scattered bicycling community in a multi-centric city, does multilingual outreach alone ensure diverse participation?

Legal/voting status may also inhibit some immigrants from participating in the planning process making it less likely that elected officials are concerned about their needs. A larger gap is that the planning and advocacy communities need to directly educate and engage these communities to be able to prioritize and advocate for bike infrastructure in their neighborhoods. Lastly, these communities need to be explictly sought out and courted for their input and knowledge.

Solutions Moving Forward

Recent updates in the Los Angeles Bicycle Plan contained provisions that prioritize the needs of these long-overlooked neighborhoods and riders. New policies weight bicycle infrastructure priority heavily in low-income areas, which means they will receive facilities sooner.  This goal was originally not on the radar for the City or outspoken advocates. The shift was largely based on input from members of the LACBC City of Lights program, which targets low-income Latino immigrants with bilingual saftey, repair, and outreach programming.

Through focus on these cyclists and neighborhoods, which were historically neglected, the City can support healthy, sustainable lifestyles and reduce the high vehicle-collision rates in the most heavily-trafficked, industrial areas. This contrasts with the previous strategy of prioritizing improvements for streets in affluent areas, trying to persuade residents who prefer driving to give bicycling a try. Moving forward, City of Lights will work in conjunction with key community organizations and social service providers, to coordinate massive bilingual outreach along the low-income corridors to be created by the updated bike plan.

These are the types of strategies that need to be adopted by the broader advocacy and planning community in order to build bicycle infrastructure that serves current and future bike commuters most effectively. More importantly, focusing on bicycling in neglected, low-income, and immigrant communities of color will help us build the broader movement many of us desire: one that combines the concerns of advocates for low-income families, immigrant rights, social justice, and bicycling to harness the ability of bicycling to transcend ethnicity, class, gender, immigration status, or other hierarchies.

  • While I agree that bicycle is for everyone, and that infrastructure should first to where it would be most used, I’m not sure how connecting cycling with poverty helps it long-term. Cycling should be aspirational, a transportation mode that everyone wants to do despite income, rather than transitional, a condition to be escaped as soon as one is rich enough to buy a car. This is a situation similar to that facing our public transit system, where people (like my neighbor) have vowed to stop riding buses as soon as they can get a car. It’s not a recipe for wide-spread use.

  • Alan Thompson

    Good point Brent. I would counter that by having bike facilities in place, making it safer, then the purchase of a car becomes more of a choice, rather than a necessity. That is not to say that cars won’t be bought as income rises, but they may be used less frequently.

    However, I think that misses the point of the article, which is that traditionally we have focused on catering to the “wants” of higher income discretionary cyclists rather than focusing on the “needs” of cyclists who have no other real choice.

  • Furypants

    I’m not certain that you are interpreting the gist of this article as intended… As a professional, middle class woman who ditched her vehicle in favor of a bicycle this January, I can tell you that I will never go back to driving. I work as a transportation advocate, and often tell people about how I typically opt to cycle in lieu of the bus or driving because it is, quite simply, faster during rush hour.

    While I agree that we should all aspire to embrace cycling as a mode of transportation, lower income people stand to gain the most from cycling, both in health benefits and the empowerment of not being beholden to bus schedules or the high costs of auto ownership.

  • Jakewegmann

    I guess I generally agree with the diagnosis in this article — not enough attention paid to “invisible,” low-income, minority, and immigrant cyclists — but not the cure, or at least not all of it. Outreaching to existing cyclists of color, absolutely.

    But I’m not at all convinced that Guanzhou or anywhere else in China is in any way relevant to LA. The politics of trying to improve cycling conditions are enormously different in a place with an authoritarian government, not to mention a very low auto ownership rate. Also, I need some numbers, rather than than just arm-waving, to convince me that LA remotely resembles Guanzhou in terms of land use and density.

    I also think that the authors should also examine their assumption that modern European bike culture and infrastructure is only relevant to privileged white people. I can’t cite any numbers as evidence, but if you get out of the tourist zones in the core and go to the outskirts of Amsterdam proper, in immigrant-rich areas, you will see many people of color, including women with headscarves or even veils, using their bikes to go about their daily business. What’s striking is how thoroughly routine and normal it all is. (I can’t comment on Copenhagen because I’ve never been there.) Only when it’s transmuted to the US does European bike culture seem to pick up its overtones as an elite, fashionable (and mostly white and bourgeois) activity.

    Euro bike culture, as refracted in the US, undoubtedly carries overtones of ethnic and class-based privilege, and that’s a problem without a doubt, as the authors say. But if that culture could actually deliver Copenhagen- or Amsterdam-style biking infrastructure to LA, the benefits would be enormous and widespread, and arguably the “invisible cyclists” would see the most dramatic improvements in safety.

    It might not seem like it now, but Copenhagen and Amsterdam had to conquer mid-20th century car culture thinking to get to where they are now. Guanzhou and other Chinese cities have not. I think these places are interesting and worth learning about, but I don’t think they’re terribly relevant for LA bike policy.

  • Allison

    Thank you everyone who has commented on our article. I really appreciate the dialogue this is starting (the whole point of Adrian and I writing it!) and want to encourage more of this discussion. The point is to bring in to focus long-overlooked communities, with the understanding that more folks should get out of their cars and bike, and yes, bike infrastructure is GOOD.

  • @Jake: Dismissing Chinese practice because of that nation’s authoritarian government seems premature. How often do discussion on northern European bike facilities focus on the politics of  those facilities, and do we even want to emulate the Danish and Dutch political process which doesn’t even know to be inclusive of the ethnic ‘other’ because they haven’t had to deal with it the way America has? Danes and Dutch tend to trust  experts  and authority more than Americans, especially recent American immigrants, do.

     I’ll go a little farther and say many Chinese are more distrustful of authority than the Danes and Dutch are, and in some areas (e.g. transportation) the government is responding to public demand. The Chinese are building roads not as part of a Maoist five year plan, but because that’s what the people want. Sure, the government bulldozes their way through opposition when it suits them, but when local planners decide on bike facilities, there’s still plenty of give and take in the process.

  • We lost a whole generation of American cyclists in the 1950s, when only the poor or children rode them. My dad, who turned sixteen in 1957, tells me he would not have been “caught dead” on a bicycle then. If a car wasn’t available, he’d walk, and sometimes long distances. Walking (plausibly) meant that he had a car, but couldn’t use it at the moment; cycling meant he didn’t have a car, and was forced to ride.

    I’m all for “empowering” the poor with bicycles, of conducting outreach, etc. But it’s not a long-term means of establishing cycling as way of life. Instead, I see this kind of “empowerment” as a means of getting the poor through a rough patch until they can join the ranks of drivers.

    The quality of our cycling infrastructure is really what counts, as demonstrated by the many cities where cyclists have been promoted to first-class road users. Until one has been on the streets of the Netherlands’ other cities (Amsterdam is actually a poor example), it’s very hard to comprehend what that means. It’s hard for me to imagine that the infrastructure that works so stunningly for largely white northern Europeans would fail to work for the variegated hues of Angelenos. In fact, cycling infrastructure in Guangzhou looks remarkably similar to that of the Netherlands. Infrastructure respects no income, no class, no caste, no race.

  • Anonymous

    I’ll say that most of the commenters so far have valid points. A big question that seems to divide the opinions is whether the investment in infrastructure is meant to induce MORE cycling or to make existing roads and users safer and more efficient. Of course, the answer is both, but there is a tension between the two goals.

    As the article points out, one of the key features of areas with high cycling rates is that it is a “cultural norm”. Without cycling being seen as ‘normal’ it will always be difficult to get investment in programs and infrastructure to support it. But how do you achieve this? By converting people in positions of power (i.e. affluent whites) or by normalizing the lifestyles of previously “invisible” people. Again, the best answer is probably both.

    It’s easy to argue both sides of this. When in doubt, my thinking is that since there’s no single obvious answer, shift to the technical merits of where to put infrastructure. If you have a wide street with dangerous intersections and lots of cyclists, seems like an obvious place to put a lane, regardless of what neighborhood it’s in. I think there’s a place for high profile projects like bike boulevards that serve to raise public awareness as much as to physically improve a street. But when in doubt, I think getting the most infrastructure for your dollar has to win over more symbolic victories.

    With that in mind however, I think it’s important to remember that the default way infrastructure gets improved and maintained is to over weight areas of affluence. One only has to observe pavement quality to predict the average incomes on any given block. There will be a need to consciously force investment in lower income areas merely to achieve some basic parity.

  • Anonymous

    Understandable, but maybe the reason people like this aspire to get cars is that cycling and public transit are considered dangerous and inconvenient. Make it safer, more convenient, and more useful and you may lessen the aspiration to switch to a car.

  • Anonymous

    This is a great piece tackling an important and under-reported issue. One beef though: Can we all agree to replace “Los Angeles Car Culture” with “Post WW2 investments in automobile infrastructure that made/make driving the only viable option for most people in Los Angeles?”

  • I wonder whether the utility cycling needs of those with no choice differ markedly with those who have the choice but cycle still.

  • I think it is a good point about making sure bicycles aren’t seen as a short term solution until they can afford a car. I am a minority, but I ride a bike because I want to, not because I have to. I definitely feel the bicycle advocacy is missing a big portion of their target audience by focusing on white, middle class commuters. The city of Austin, which is supposed to be sooo bike friendly, doesn’t have any of its bicycle information in Spanish. On the other end, you don’t want to pander to minorities, which can be a huge turn off. (I’m looking at you Walmart and your ads during Hispanic Heritage Month). So, its a fine line, one that can probably only be towed by someone who is from that community and who has a sense of that sort of thing.

  • jessica

    woot woot City of Lights Rocks! Great article – and Carlton G – hilarious! and totally a great idea. love the — “Can we all agree to replace “Los Angeles Car Culture”
    with “Post WW2 investments in automobile infrastructure that made/make
    driving the only viable option for most people in Los Angeles?”

  • Ron Milam

    Thanks Adrian and Allison for writing this article. I’m hopeful that Los Angeles meaningfully addresses this issue and serves as a model for other cities.

  • Let Them Eat Bike Lanes

    The only growth cabal you can organize around this are the bleeding hearts with their hands out for more government and corporate guilt money for trampling people’s rights.

    Bicycling as an aspirational commodity towards a happier life will do more than guilt-politics like this to re-make our city.

    This ain’t nuthin’ but grease to slide more dollars into lofty liberal arts degree holders’ pockets. The bike collectives, hundreds of rides, home grown bike lanes, etc. in LA have nothing to do with “support” from the government, advocacy and planning community, or any other vested interest in LA – these jerks are following on our coat tails.

    This is high-minded jibber jabber to distract the elite in LA that this is worth their charity. Fuck your charity. This is about business, it is about our future as a people (not just poor people that don’t speak English).

    This guilt-based narrative is a failure of vision and marketing. Or rather, it is designed to milk donor dollars and not shift the debate towards making transportation more equitable in this town – for the betterment of the rich (and the poor) alike.

    Small businesses, those large businesses looking to transition away from high energy and capital input businesses, middle class intellectuals – they all  need a narrative that shows them a way forward in the rather bleak national and statewide story of collapsing 20th century systems. This poverty pimping doesn’t help towards that, and it keeps bicycling in the “transportation charity” category.

    Thumbs down.

  • PlebisPower

    I agree that ‘problems in planning practice’ deserve some scrutiny. Planning is a political activity, and therefore there are constraints imposed by policymakers that preclude even the most visionary planner’s best ideas. Ordinary examples abound in Los Angeles, for example, where we’ve witnessed real small-stakes squabbling over road diets when there is political advantage to be gained. 
    Even if we had the license, the problems of planning are more fundamental as professional planners come up through boilerplate, accredited programs in which creative problem-solving encounters scant rigorous criticism. Even standard planning practice finds only cursory presentation. Visionary thinking, long a part of the planning academy, remains the mere subject of exam essays in the professional schools. 
    That’s why I appreciate how this post turns over accepted convention in solutions to mobility challenges – existing ideas too easy to tweet or paraphrase on a blog – in favor of suggesting the questions that should force planners and activists alike to confront urban mobility’s perhaps most vexing challenge: aspiring to the greater good while continuing to elect non-visionary, self-interested representatives.   
    My own experience in school was that nobody lead the charge for solutions to pressing social problems (like equity in mobility) that in today’s market-driven environment appear so 1970s. Indeed library shelves are lined with fascinating ideas that found no traction in the turbulent political environment of that resource-constrained (as they say) era. And what has changed?

  • Let Them Eat Bike Lanes

    Saudi Arabia, the North Sea, and Mexico are past peak oil production.

  • Dennis Hindman

    From 2000-2009 Portland had the 2nd largest increase in bike commuters at 230% out of the 70 largest cities in the U.S. Bringing them to a 5.8% commuting share.

    Los Angeles had a increase of 64% with a .99% modal share for bike commuters. A whopping 2% higher than the overall average of 62%. Shouldn’t we try and find out how the “whitest city in America” did this and try to replicate some of this here in L.A.?

    In Michael Replogle’s study he states that “Transport planning and investment in most of Asia has focused principally on the motorized sector and has often ignored the needs of non-motorized transport.” Hardly an upgrade from what is currently happening in L.A.

    Guangzhou modeled their BRT after Bogata and Curitiba. Los Angeles Rapid buses and the Orange Line BRT were created after some Metro board members visited Curitiba.

    Hangzhou China created the worlds largest bicycle sharing system which was modeled after the previous largest in Paris called Velib. Hangzhou lets people use the bikes for free if they have use the transit. That idea would encourage many more people to ride transit in L.A.

    The Netherlands has the safest streets and the highest percentage of bicycling amongst countries where the citizens have stransportation choices. They did this by making it feel comfortable, safe, fast and easy to bicycle. Plus in many cases they prioritized bicycling over cars in some cities.

    There are many things that should be learned from best practices around the world that can be carried over to Los Angeles. It shouldn’t matter where these ideas come from.

  • Tom Wald

    I think Ashley just volunteered to help with League of Bicycling Voters outreach!

    Local advocacy organizations and the City of Austin are indeed reaching out to non-white, non-middle-class commuters (and of course, some of us are non-white and non-middle-class ourselves), but it may be difficult to notice, since advocacy organizations are generally not very well funded altogether, and neither is the City of Austin’s bicycle promotion budget.

    One example of outreach, is that the newly designed City of Austin Bicycle Map is printed in Spanish, thanks to a partnership between the Austin Cycling Association and the City of Austin.  So isn’t true that the City has no information for Spanish-speaking bicyclists.

    Seriously, about the outreach, Ashley.  If this is something important to you, and if you feel like you are prepared to help out, please do contact me.  I’d like to hear your ideas.  We also could use help translating our materials and important meeting and outreach information into Spanish.  My Spanish is barely passing.  (We had a native Spanish speaker on the board, but he wasn’t interested in helping in that way.)

    Most local bicycle advocacy is volunteer-based, so if you want something done, you have the power to follow through on it.

    Tom Wald
    Executive Director
    League of Bicycling Voters

  • adrian

    i completely agree that we can learn a great deal from places with (as the post describes) “dazzling bike networks and impressive ridership numbers,” wherever they are. and, this article is in no way a critique of those cities’ developments.

    the point in citing Guangzhou and Bogota as examples was not to proclaim them as overlooked bests, rather it was to challenge the “Best Practice” method. the notion of “best” is questionable. and the fact that best so often refers to European and extremely white places is problematic. there’re different lessons to be learned from different places, not best lessons from best places.

    the primacy of these “best” places is symptomatic of a larger need for bicycle planning and advocacy to refocus on people who stand to benefit the most from it–people (including/especially existing riders) who are largely invisible (as people of color, immigrants, low-income, etc.). essentially, this is the goal of connecting progress for bicycling to social justice.

  • Dirt In Your Fries

    I cannot disagree with Adrian more. Planning from our city fathers has not been focused on doing anything material for cyclists – so really, there is no “refocus”, there is only “focus”. Advocacy groups are many and varied – some have been focused on lower income groups for years, others cater to bourgeois bike riders.

    The groups with the bourgeois connections have money, education, and spare labor that they have thrown into the fight. If you ignore these people, and their needs, who will run all the precious “save the immergants” campaigns so close to your heart.

    Cycling as an aspirational lifestyle choice is an excellent marketing tool. Transportation charity is a shitty advertisement, and it plays into easy sterotypes about liberal commie hippy fag pinkos and our Muslim Presidents.

  • adrian

    Dirt in Your Fries, are you friends with Let Them Eat Bike Lanes? you write the same, and you both use the phrase “charity transportation,” a curious term I’ve never heard before.

    social justice and charity are not the same. role models like Malcolm X, Ghandi, or Audre Lorde never framed social justice against charity, nor can anyone accuse them of being “bleeding hearts,” or even “appeal-ers to bleeding hearts.”

    the article implicates everyone interested in progress for bicycling, not just government or bourgeois. everyone is responsible for creating a stronger movement that includes questions about institutional hierarchy. from your comments, it sounds like you think that’s important too.

    that isn’t at all to say that “cycling as an aspirational lifestyle choice” doesn’t have a role. in fact, the article advocates support for existing aspirational lifestyle choice riders who’re invisible due to various reasons (e.g. race, class, legal status).

    finally, although i agree with you that bicycling has been grossly neglected by major decision-makers in Los Angeles, i implore you not to completely abandon hope within this venue.  the last section of the article about City of Lights provides a clear example of a successful partnership between advocates and a government body.

  • adrian

    there’s a degree of cynicism in this comment that almost occludes the possibility that Social Justice is significant, or anything more than “charity” from elites or a guilt-ridden tactic. it’s sad that consideration of race, class, and legal status can be
    automatically dubbed as “pimping poverty.”  this isn’t a call for
    sympathy from authoritarians.  it’s a call for transformative action
    from every individual. 

    the post makes no pleas for donations, nor suggestions of endorsement. on the contrary, it sincerely implicates everyone, all stakeholders, who are interested in progress for bicycling, challenging them to question institutional hierarchy (e.g. whiteness) in their efforts. 

    i recognize how stories of collapsing 20th century systems (like peak oil) can leave a person jaded and pessimistic. personally, i draw upon the love i give, and receive, from community, which reminds me to fight the good fight. i hope others can find their motivation from a warm, positive and soulful source as well.

  • Dennis Hindman

    This is a very divisive article that attacks out of ignorance, for instance, the much more successful methods in some european countries in getting their population bicycling compared to Los Angeles, Calling it institutionalized Euroethnicity to follow for instance the methods used in the Netherlands for decades, which has 27 times more bike modal share than L.A. does. One city there has over 60 times the modal share that L.A. has, but apparently you have to match skin tones and income levels to have it translate here. No lets just blindly stay in the world of mediocrity. Or try following the methods in some Asian countries where high volumes of bicycling is created by the population simply having no other transportation option. Perhaps we can create more poor people here to increase the bicycling modal share.

    Or to dismiss Portland by discribing it as the whitest city in America. Portland has increased their modal share almost 3.6 times more from 2000-2009 compared to Los Angeles. I would call that a hell of a lot more successful than what Los Angles has achieved in that time period. In fact Portland’s mayor and city council unanimously voted to spend $600 million dollars for bicycle infrastructure over the next 19 years to reach a goal of 25% modal share. They would translate per population to about $212 million per year in Los Angeles. Try to achieve that politically with only a 1 or 2 percent modal share geared to only a segment of the populous.

    Utilitarian bicycling is done for pretty much the same purposes around the world including the Netherlands. What has worked in the Netherlands to get safe, calm, fast and convenient cycling for all the population whether they be young, old, poor, wealthy, male or female can be successfully transfered around the world. Dismissing it out of blind ignorance is a setback to bicycling in L.A.

    The top two reasons for bicycling in Copenhagen is that it is faster and easier than other transportation options. Health benefits or the enviornment rated towards the bottom of the list.

    Targeting the highest density areas where the bicycle can compete in speed and ease of use with the car has the greatest potential for modal share in any city. Those areas usually are not the wealthest or whitest in L.A., but they are underserved

  • Breast In The West

    “challenging them to question institutional hierarchy”

    This is what I have a problem with. Institutional hierarchy is how humans get shit done, warts and all.

    Nobody needs to be “implicated” or “critiqued” to push this movement forward. The social justice angle is a weak one for lasting social change. What success can you point to?

    It is much easier to commodify and market bicycling as a positive lifestyle choice to individuals, as a money saver (or money maker) to business interests, and as a safer lower risk investment.

    Equity arguments feel great to a minority of the population – but what has worked in LA? Parties, big ass bike parties. That and hippies donating their time to the community at bike collectives.

    Once you bring talk of race, gender, class baloney into the mix, it turns mainstream audiences off. You think that cycling advocacy is too “white”? Have you been on the hundreds of rides you mention in your article? It is brown all the way up and all the way down – but nobody needs to plaster a stupid liberal arts “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” poster on themselves to “celebrate diversity”. The raw matter of this social movement is in how it transforms our degraded cities and our personal lives into something better. All this mumbo jumbo about love and class distinctions is fucking malarkey.

  • adrian


    As I responded to one of your earlier posts, I agree that there’s a lot to be gained from all of the cities you mention.  In no way does this article dismiss Portland’s progress or suggest that certain European cities don’t offer lessons to be learned.  Perhaps you need to hear that I think Portland has a great bicycling network. My parents live there, and I love biking around when I visit.

    That said, I feel the article presents a logical argument supported by evidence–not constructed out of blind ignorance. It is not divisive to point out the fallacy in claims that suggest the above places are the “best cities” for bicycling. There are a lot of other cities, in other parts of the world, including Asia, where a lot of other people choose to ride over other transportation options.

    For example, the Tokyo Census 2000 reported a 16% bicycling mode share in all trips; that’s Tokyo, with the largest population of any metropolitan area in the world.  I’m not saying Tokyo is the best. Again, different cities offer different lessons. Why is the ridership so high in Tokyo despite wonderful public transportation? How can there be so many riders without any on-road bike markings or specialized signage? In fact, within the realm of inquiry, I am very interested in your claim: “…in some Asian countries…high volumes of bicycling [are] created by the population simply having no other transportation option.” Where did you hear/read this? And where can I learn more about this?

    What I find dismissive, is the ongoing invisibility of some riders due to their race, language, class, and/or legal status. What I find DIVISIVE is a complacent mentality that draws upon strategies which fail to include these communities, leaving them out in the cold.

  • Dennis Hindman

    Perhaps you need to read the article more closely. It states: “a narrative is emerging that bicycle advocacy needs to follow their methods. On the contrary, the bicycle movement in Los Angeles is not rooted in mimcry of Europe or the “whitest city in America” The bicycle movement in Los Angeles has produced a grand total of .99% modal share over the ten years that are sighted in the article that you co-arthored. That’s less than average for the 70 largest cities. Chicago, Minneapolis, Boston, Denver and Seattle all have larger modal shares than L.A.
    Your article also says:  “It owes much of its progress to the participation of immigrants of color” It doesn’t matter what color you are. It’s bicycling for gods sake. Which is almost as easy for people to do as walking. Fight for and get them safe, fast and easy to use facilities like they have in the Netherlands: which has the safest bicycling roadways in the world by the way. They’ll thank you for it.
    The article also states: “Reframing the discussion to reorient around this segment of bicyclists is paramount for planners and advocates to ground bicycling progress within social justice.” How about just focusing on the most crowded and densely populated areas which can compete more favorably with car travel, so that we can quickly get a large leap in modal share to help justify continued political and financial support. That would help ALL the people in Los Angeles.

  • Adonia

    I’ve been very frustrated in the past when I’ve read bloggers attacking Portland for its racial composition, as though the bicycling gains there could not happen in other American cities. I do not see that claim in this article, which speaks constructively from within the bike movement, rather than attacking it from outside. Biking in Portland is better than biking in any other U.S. city. That’s
    because of a combination of forward-thinking policies dating back to the
    1970s, a lot of people excited about biking for transport, and a
    driving culture that makes it easier for new cyclists to get comfortable
    on the road. At least that was my experience when I biked there from
    2005-2007. Portland looks and feels very different
    from Los Angeles, as I know from biking in LA from 2007-2011. LA has more and more people excited about biking, but it does not have those two other factors to help out. Infrastructure and policies that work in cities that already have a more equitable notion of transportation may not work in LA, where driving continues to be an important status symbol for old and new residents alike, and driving can seem like a bloodsport. That doesn’t mean LA can’t learn from Portland (it does!), it just means that we need to draw on examples from other cities as well.

  • The dude abides

    I really hope LACBC does not Become the BRU of bike advocacy. That would be a terrible waste of resources. Less social justice and more bike talk.

  • Bob Davis

    I didn’t realize that I was part of a “Lost Generation”, but it sounds like a good term.  There was a comment back in those days about the secret nerve pathway between the hand and the brain: When a driver’s license is placed in a teenager’s hand a nerve impulse goes to the brain and deactivates the segment that deals
    with bicycle riding.


  • Allison

    Dennis, I appreciate your vigor. (Dennis is a volunteer of ours at LACBC) I’m writing to challenge your claims of colorblind advocacy/placement of infrastructure. As you know, being involved in our work around the bike plan, that sort of non-forward thinking, “colorblind” approach only proposed putting bike lanes primarily in random, isolated areas of the Valley or Harbor, where low-income people, who comprise a larger and long-time riding population of cyclists don’t live. Low-income areas like South LA, East LA, etc. not only have high numbers of cyclists and are dense, folsk there don’t or can’t drive, sometimes can’t afford transit, it IS their only option, and ON TOP OF ALL THAT, face greater dangers of freeway/trucker traffic than even Hollywood (dense) or other affluent areas. Historically, poor transportation planning has disproportionately impacted low-income communities of color (freeway, etc) in terms of safety, health, and environmental health. This is the precise reason a targeted approach is needed, which is why the City of LA recognized and adopted the policy. Density is not enough of a criteria, but other factors, as discussed in the article above, need to be considered, in order to protect and serve exiting riders effectively. This is not to exclude affluent, choice riders from also getting bike infrastructure, nor to “diss” them, but ultimately, the large numbers of low-income riders need to be prioritized for the City’s lack of acknowledgement of their very serious needs.

    The dude abides–your post is very sad and shortsighted. The BRU do a lot to bring more service to bus riders, and we are not wasting any resources, much of the Measure R set aside for bikes and peds is now being allocated to striping bike lanes coming into the Central/South low-income neighborhoods we are fighting for, including 7th St. in October, and MLK and others next year. So, no worries, no bike advocacy or City resources are being wasted by highlighting the needs of the overlooked and underserved.

  • Dennis Hindman


    If as you imply that bicycle infrastructure was planned without colorblind intentions and targeted the more well to do, then putting bike lanes in poorer areas will be just as easy to accomplish as it was in the San Fernando Valley, with no parking or travel lanes to remove. Or could it be that the plan was to put in bike lanes where it would not be necessary to take anything away from some other mode of transportaion and hence the roads of the San Fernando Valley with left over space were frequently chosen. My own experience in the Valley is that as the road widens bicycle lanes appear and then disappear as it narrows. Sherman Way and Riverside Dr would be two examples of this. 

    Another example than runs counter to your conclusion is the L.A. river bike path. If they targeted the whiter and more well to do then there should have been a river bike path starting at the west end of the Valley and not next to Griffith Park where there is one of the most entrenched and violent gangs in the city of L.A. Nor would there be a bike path running next to the railroad tracks along San Fernando Rd, where the less well to do people of color live. I would assume putting a bike path next to Griffith Park was chosen to create a way for bicyclists to go around the hills that separate the Valley from the rest of L.A..

    It has been the policy of many cities in the U.S. to create bicycling infrastructure out of the cookie crumbs of space that is left over. Next to rivers, railroad tracks, suburbs with underutilized roadway etc. It’s simply relegating biking to an after thought and not as a essential means of transportation.

  • The L.A. River bike path is the exception that proves the rule. The city of L.A. and other So. Cal cities build way more bike paths on the (whiter) periphery than they do in the core (communities of color.) It’s because environmental and environmental justice activists pushed for the L.A. River to get built, it did. 

  • Dennis Hindman


    Then why didn’t L.A. build bicycle paths, on or next to streets, in the top travel corridors in the Valley instead of just around parks, railroad tracks and rivers. If they were thinking about the safety of bicyclists, the enviornment and that it’s a serious means of travel, there should be something other than two paint stripes to protect and encourage people to bike. Who would suggest that pedestrians walk out on a busy street with only a five foot lane of paint stripes to protect them from cars traveling at 40+ miles an hour? Yet this is expected of people sitting on a light,thin walled tube frame, with two wheels, and less than a tenth of a horsepower produced by their own body to propel them? It’s not as if this has not been done before. It’s been standard practice in the Netherlands for decades. If they were following Eurocentric ideas that should have been implemented. In fact what the Dutch have done to encourage biking for all their citizens has been routinely ignored here in the States.

  • Fantastic article you two. Those who want to dismiss race (among other factors) as separate from biking or the planning of bicycle infrastructures clearly do not understand how deeply engrained racial hierarchies are in our (specifically U.S.) social and political structures or rather they would like to continue enjoying their many privileges than include or “waste time” with conversations and considerations of race.

  • I really appreciate that the LACBC has recognized and reached out to those of us who are transport cyclists of color; helping connect us with the rest of LA’s biking community.  Like those guys in colorful spandex who ride around on the weekends.  And families with kid seats and wagons who bike through parks for recreation. Now bike infrastructure serves my daily needs too and instead of feeling resentful of those rich folks with special trails, I feel like we’re all connected.  That’s in big part because of the LACBC and the city of lights and similar programs/policy emphasis. The improvements to the Mac Arthur park area make me feel proud that policy-makers actually recognize what I, as a long-time LA biker(or cyclist as y’all call it), have recognized to be the bulk of LA riders.  Its cool that the streets I used to navigate to get to work everyday have bike lanes.  I feel a lot safer.  Plus I’m super happy to see our young people on bikes using the lanes and bike-safe storm grates I used to wish for.  

  • adrian


    thank you for reading the article closely. as you can see, it doesn’t advocate a complete rejection of all things white and/or European. it also doesn’t claim that LA is the best.  it simply/logically points out that the ridership and the bicycle movement in Los Angeles have alternative experiences and narratives to offer–ones that haven’t been discussed within the hallowed “best cities,” ones that are markedly different because of race, class and legal status.

    why shouldn’t we talk about them? immigrants matter. race matters. talking about them in a bicycling context isn’t divisive. it’s an opportunity. we don’t have to restrict our discussions to bicycling’s health benefits, environmental benefits, or freedom from automobiles. we can, WE SHOULD, discuss how it can be a vehicle for social change, equality, and connections to other cultures, histories, and traditions. in considering these, we open the door for new possibilities, and we welcome communities which have previously been/felt unwelcome. ALL the people benefit from that. why would we close ourselves off to it?

    i am still waiting for a citation regarding your claim that some Asian countries have high bicycling volumes because they don’t offer other transportation options. i provided a counter example (Tokyo) with source data (Tokyo Census 2000). please provide some for your claim.

  • adrian

    if anyone, anywhere in the bicycling world, was able to secure anything like the Federal Consent Decree that the BRU secured against the MTA, i would lobby for their sanctification.

  • Yougurtman

    give it up already – people of “color” ride bike because that’s all they can afford.  If you can’t buy a car and pay for the gas to run it – YOU DON’T GET TO USE THE ROADS. PERIOD.  that’s why the gas is taxed – to pay for the roads.  i’m tired of hearing about how anfair it is for the cyclist and how their lives are at risk every time they ride on the road.  well DUH! the roads are made or CARS, TRUCKS and BUSES – not bycycles.  when you start paying a usage tax – and pay for the building of “bike lanes” then you can whinge about how bad it is.  till then shut the f up! get a CAR!

  • sharing is caring

    your degree in public finance has failed you.  Streets, sewers, lights, sidewalks, etc are public goods.  we all pay for them, just as your taxes go to public transit and public schools even if you don’t use a bus or have kids in public school.  we all share the burden to make cities great places to live.  perhaps streets are designed for auto traffic, but that doesn’t make it right, equal or just. think about the history of disenfranchisement and the ability of those in power to say, “well, thats the way its always been so it must be right.”

    final note: calm down and share the road, its really not worth injuring someone else or going to jail over.

  • James

    I ride a bicycle because it is the best way to get around any city on the planet.  Cyclist generally have broad smiles on there faces  even when dealing with rough traffic.  I don’t use cars in cities because they are slow.  I ride on the streets we don’t know the names of because the cars are on the big streets.   For the poor fellow who calls him self sour milk i mean “yougurtman” I can see he is in a fix, cause of all the kids on brakeless fixies that pass him daily  while he sits smoldering in his over-powered 3000 pound steel box.  He only needs to relies that every day there are more bicycles and his car is getting slower. Slower because it is more expensive and he has to spend more time earning the money it takes to sit in traffic and drive around the block countless times looking for place to park.  On average cars go 19 miles an hour in cities world wide,  most car trips are less than five miles and it cost $8000 per year to maintain a car (latest AAA numbers).  If you add the time it takes to earn the $8000 to the speed quotient the car only goes 6 miles an hour.   That really makes cars dumb.  Our taxes need to be spent on mass-transit.  Light-rail mixed with last mile pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure will make our city cleaner, more friendly,  more productive and a safer place to live.     

  • SteveD

    Yougurtman – You are tragically misguided.  Gasoline taxes don’t really pay for roads.  There are no “user fees” for roads, except in the case of toll roads.  Gasoline taxes make up a small (some sources say 0% to 30%) of road construction and maintenance costs.  Most of your precious gasoline taxes go to partially paying for state and federal highways.  In most cities and counties, very little if any gasoline taxes are available for road construction and maintenance.  These city and county roads are the very roads that cyclists uses 99% of the time are paid for mostly by property taxes, income taxes, and other things like business taxes, real estate taxes, federal grants (again, income taxes), etc.  These are taxes that everyone pays whether they own a car or not.

    So please stop with all this crap about “bikes don’t pay their fair share.”  In truth, motor vehicles pay the least for the roads they have the most impact upon.

  • Judy B.

    “A larger gap is that the planning and advocacy communities need to
    directly educate and engage these communities to be able to prioritize
    and advocate for bike infrastructure in their neighborhoods” –  YES. 

    To me the great importance of this article is in opening the discussion
    about the unspoken divide in advocacy and activism, in cycling and
    beyond. In general, the cycling movement comprises, and seeks to address, people who bike by choice.

    Meanwhile, thousands of low-income people of color just do it – they just bike, everyday, because they have to.  No convincing needed.  Biking works – it’s cheap, it doesn’t stop at certain time of night, it goes everywhere, there’s no fare, there’s no place you have to wait forever for something to come, it doesn’t cost thousands of dollars in initial outlay, plus repair costs, fuel costs and insurance costs. The fact that it’s good for the world is icing. The fact that your life is on the line every time you do it is an unfortunate given.

    As with public transportation, the real point is that we need to integrating the concerns and efforts of discretionary vs. non-discretionary riders. As with many issues categorized as racial, this is in fact a socio-economic phenomenon.

    Activists need to be far more inclusive in our outreach to low-income communities, which are usually of color; low-income communities of color need to be far more open to (“outside,” if you will) organizing entities that can help us harness our dormant political and social power.

  • Judy B.

    “A larger gap is that the planning and advocacy communities need to
    directly educate and engage these communities to be able to prioritize
    and advocate for bike infrastructure in their neighborhoods” –  YES. 

    To me the great importance of this article is in opening the discussion
    about the unspoken divide in advocacy and activism, in cycling and
    beyond. In general, the cycling movement comprises, and seeks to address, people who bike by choice.

    Meanwhile, thousands of low-income people of color just do it – they just bike, everyday, because they have to.  No convincing needed.  Biking works – it’s cheap, it doesn’t stop at certain time of night, it goes everywhere, there’s no fare, there’s no place you have to wait forever for something to come, it doesn’t cost thousands of dollars in initial outlay, plus repair costs, fuel costs and insurance costs. The fact that it’s good for the world is icing. The fact that your life is on the line every time you do it is an unfortunate given.

    As with public transportation, the real point is that we need to integrating the concerns and efforts of discretionary vs. non-discretionary riders. As with many issues categorized as racial, this is in fact a socio-economic phenomenon.

    Activists need to be far more inclusive in our outreach to low-income communities, which are usually of color; low-income communities of color need to be far more open to (“outside,” if you will) organizing entities that can help us harness our dormant political and social power.

  • why’re you on xreetsblog?

    what about hybrid cars? they pay half as much as regular cars for gas (your “usage fee”) but they drive just as much. maybe we should only let them drive on even or odd numbered days. 

    what about pedestrians? they never paid. what the hell are freeloader pedestrians doing crossing the street, making drivers wait?!?! oh, and talk about sidewalks: i don’t remember pedestrians paying to use those. imagine the increase in car capacity we could have if we replaced sidewalks by widening roads. if you really think about what people pay for, pedestrians should ONLY exist in parking lots when they walk between their cars and their destinations….wait a second….

    WAIT ONE SECOND. i don’t remember paying a usage fee to think. maybe we’re not actually thinking right now.

  • Dirt In Your Fries

    It is a waste of time to pursue political dead ends. Cycling advocacy is about bikes, not a liberal racial mixing policy. We have a really healthy racial, ethnic, and economic mix on our spontaneous bike rides in this town. What is needed is the full support of government and a shift in our cultural perceptions about how bicycling fits into our transportation network.

    You want to make bicycling into some race/class issue, good luck! It will not work and will set back cycling advocacy.

    What works: big bike parties; raising hell in city hall; meeting with neighborhood groups to build consensus; professionalizing bike advocacy; selling cycling as an aspirational lifestyle choice.

  • The dude abides

    Dirt in your fries is my favorite commentator since fart box 3000.

    As he eloquently states you will waste your time like the BRU has in the past 10 years. Everyone wants to take a victory lap and extoll the virtues of the consent decree, but it made metro less efficient and tax payers are not in the business of funding social justice. We want bike lanes not racial politics.

  • Marcotico

    One of the important distinctions between low-income need-based cyclists, and choice cyclists of all classes is how they view the spectrum of acceptable speeds that the bicycle covers.  This is purely observational, and based on other articles concerning low-income cyclists that I’ve read.  However,  my observation is that one sees a lot of low-income cyclists using the sidewalk.  Based on quotes in other articles it seems that this type of bike user views the bike as an improvement over walking, and they have a mental upper-limit on how fast (but not how far) they are willing to go.  There was an excellent article in Bicyling from 2006 (I think) and they asked what it would take to get a low-income Latino bike rider to take a lane, and he responded “Getting a car”. 

    On the other hand choice riders (even low-income choice riders) who see themselves as cyclists would view the bike as filling the entire speed space from walking (4mph) up to auto speeds (20-22mph).  So it seems like a two way street:  advocates need to engage with these other communities, but these other communities need to be trained to think as advocates.  They too need to embrace some of the “cyclist” identity, and seek to use infrastructure like bike lanes and parking.

  • Good interesting point, Marcotico. This suggests that beyond political or organizational involvement, even the way a person rides can be affected by socio-economic status. Of course, since more injuries occur from “cautious” sidewalk riding, this may result in a vicious cycle that prevents need-based bikers from embracing bicycling as an aspirational lifestyle choice. Even worse, if we neglect this problem, we might be losing existing riders!

  • Thanks Tussanee! If anything, these comments have been especially instructive in showing that there is a wanting discussion that needs to be a part of the bicycle world, about privilege in general. Some say the bicycle movement is about bikes, not social justice. They forget that the bicycle movement isn’t about bikes–it’s about bike RIDERS, who are people affected everyday by things like race, class, gender, sexuality, age, language proficiency, legal status…etc.

    Dirt in Your Fries and the dude abides, i can tell you’re passionate bicycling advocates. I hope we further explore how privilege, or lack of privilege, and bicycling intersect, or why you think they don’t. I appreciate your frank comments here.