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.


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