Silence on race, and the co-opting of language, in bicycle planning and advocacy (book chapter excerpt)

[Author’s note: The following is an excerpt from my chapter Theorizing bicycle justice using social psychology Examining the intersection of mode and race with the conceptual model of roadway interactions in Bicycle Justice and Urban Transformation: Bicycling for All?. The book is currently expensive and so I am sharing a pre-publication version of an excerpt of my chapter.]

This book, Bicycle Justice and Urban Transformation: Bicycling for All?, starts by problematizing the invisibility or denigration of certain types of bicyclists in the “dominant trifecta of advocacy, engineering, and policy” (see Introduction). Research, too, is guilty of excluding race from data collection, analysis, and theory. Even as the idea of “equity” has entered the vernacular of bicycle planners and advocates, equity is often conceived of from a modal standpoint, not a social or racial one. Whether because of the lasting impact of environmental determinism, discomfort with asking what are seen as “sensitive questions,” privileging the expertise of a White, middle-class viewpoint (Vivanco, 2013), a lack of understanding about the potential impacts of social identity, or likely, a combination of these, race is often absent from many studies of bicycling planning and safety, which has the effect of erasing it entirely. In their critique of traditional travel behavior approaches, Skinner and Rosen call for a more inclusive and mutable approach that shifts the focus away “from the circumstances and choices of an archetypal individual towards an understanding of the varied conditions in which differently-placed people negotiate transport problems and choices” (Skinner and Rosen, 2007, p. 85). Yet even they, while explicitly mentioning age, gender, employment, and geography, subsume race under “and so on” (p. 85).

The 2012 book City Cycling (Pucher and Buehler, 2012), which covers a broad range of topics and is aimed at practitioners, is imminently readable and useful on a variety topics, but is virtually silent on race. There are chapters devoted to women and cycling, and children and cycling, respectively, but no chapter devoted to the experience of racial minorities or a discussion of intersectionality beyond those somewhat narrow gender and age discussions. It is unlikely that this reflects any conscious choice to exclude issues faced by bicyclists of color, nor a conscious dismissal that they matter. Rather, it may reflect what the introduction to this volume describes as a common practice of privileging certain experiences when experts “lobby for changes derived from their own qualitative experiences of bicycling”. Many of the dominant voices in bicycle planning and research are themselves bicyclists, and have firsthand knowledge of the vulnerability of being a bicyclist. But engineering, planning, and bicycle advocacy are all spaces historically and presently occupied largely by White men who do not face structural and individual discriminations based on their gender, race, or other social identities. Thus, they may not even conceive of the idea that drivers might enact racially biased behaviors on top of modally biased ones.

Even recent sociological works like the excellent Cycling Cultures (Cox, 2015) speak very little to the ways that social identity, especially race, intersect with bicycling as a mode. While the introductory chapter lays solid groundwork for considering the social nature and the potentially problematic “travelling body” of bicyclists (Cox, 2015, p. 7), most of the curated chapters use words like “minority” (p. 20), “sub-culture” (p. 29), “diversity” (p. 43), “marginalized” (p. 69), and “colonized” (p. 71) primarily to refer monolithically to bicycling as a mode and to problematize automobility and car culture. While addressing automobility is necessary for improving safety of all bicyclists, this co-opting of language often used to understand structural racism can itself erase the presence of other social identities, including race, that intersect and may dominate over someone’s modal status. After all, a “cyclist” who otherwise has dominant group membership (i.e. White, male, cis-gendered, middle- or upper-class) can walk away from their bicycle and shed that “marginalized” modal identity, while a person of color or anyone who does not fit the default social status cannot shed their multiple stigmatized social group memberships.

In Mobilities, the sociologist John Urry states that a “[mobility] turn is spreading in and through the social sciences, mobilizing analyses that have been historical static, fixed, and concerned with predominantly a-spatial ‘social structures’ ” (Urry, 2007, p. 6). The corollary is also needed: to move away from a-social spatial approaches and incorporate tools from the social sciences. Planners, engineers, and anyone advocating for and promoting bicycle transportation must be willing to confront the potential impacts of racism in their work. A practical approach to bicycle planning and promotion must include “the social dimensions and tacit meanings people make” about their everyday travel (Vivanco, 2013, p. 10).

Thoughts on the bicyclist typology (the short version)

I posted this recently on the ABPB listserv in response to what I felt were some alarming* comments about how bike facilities aren’t needed in downtowns where auto traffic is *only* 30 mph, or that people should feel comfortable mixing with buses because bus drivers are professionals (true, but buses are still HUGE from the perspective of a bike). I thought I would share my short but impassioned plea here:

We need to stop talking about the bicyclist typology like it is aspirational. The “strong and fearless” category is not (nor do I think it was ever intended as) a more enlightened place to be on the spectrum. We need to stop talking to people about bicycling like things will be great in some future state: “it will be fun/easy/convenient/safe when you are fit/confident/experienced enough.” We need to design and build facilities that meet people where they are, and quit acting like they just need a nudge along the typology. When many people see the “strong and fearless” designation, what it means to them is “fit but reckless.” And that’s a pretty rational thought, in the US context. With our current facilities, no amount of education or encouragement is going to transform a sizable amount of the US population into people who want to mix with buses going 30 mph, nor should it. Traditional traffic engineering gets criticized (and often rightly so) for prioritizing efficiency over safety, but this strong and fearless mentality prioritizes machismo over progress. It only alienates many of the people who we say we are trying to reach. And if it continues to infect our approach to design and engineering, it won’t make them safer, more comfortable, or more likely to ride, either.

*alarming in that they were coming from bike planning/engineering professionals, and I felt perpetuated the same old vehicular cyclist mentality that keeps US bicycling as an unsafe, unattractive mode for many.

On distraction and other bad behaviors . . .

Something I tweeted yesterday is getting a bit of notice, and I thought it warranted a bit more context than 140 characters can provide. While I try (mostly) to keep my tweets to the informative and/or humorous and/or contemplative, more emotional content is sometimes unavoidable, especially since spending a lot of time in a complex, contested environment (the roadway) with high stakes (my life) in a vulnerable state (my mode, often bicycling in particular) means spending a lot of time with heightened adrenaline levels and a hyper-vigilance over my safety.

So. Here is what I tweeted:

“My bad behavior while bicycling could get me killed. Your bad behavior while driving could also kill me. I’m always the vulnerable one here.”

I originally thought the word “distraction” instead of “bad behavior,” although obviously I opted to broaden the thought to include more behaviors. A huge percentage of what people call “bikelash” (as in backlash against bicycling) centers on people’s perceptions of bicyclists as law-breaking, unpredictable, self-centered roadway users (lots more on that in future posts, and my future research). But what prompted the tweet was actually distraction.

Yesterday I was bicycling along (I typically ride between five and fifteen miles on my ebike on any given day, going to work/school, meetings, events, out with friends, shopping, etc), lost in my own thoughts, and realized as I crossed through an intersection that I had failed to scan the side streets for oncoming traffic.

Here is the thing: I did NOT have a stop sign at the intersection. The side streets did. But my faith in drivers stopping at stop signs is fairly weak, especially because the risk is so high – unless the driver’s speed is very low, if I get hit by a car, I am likely to be badly injured or killed. Having the right-of-way won’t save me on my bike, so I ride like I’m playing a game of chess, trying to see five moves ahead, watching everyone around on me on the road. And this chess game feels like life-or-death, because it is.

Someone on twitter pointed out that my bad behavior might not only get me killed, it would affect the driver who killed me. That is true. But that was not the point of my tweet, and I probably muddied the waters by choosing to say “bad behavior,” especially since daydreaming on a pleasant ride on a quiet street shouldn’t have to feel like bad behavior. My point was that, my momentary lapse in judgment or poor choices, if they result in a crash with a car in particular, are likely to get me killed. I am very unlikely to cause any bodily harm to a driver. But a driver’s lapse in judgment or poor choices are also likely to get me killed, and unlikely to cause them any bodily harm – so no matter who is at fault, the bicyclist is going to suffer the physical harm. Hence the term “vulnerable road users.”

Traffic crashes that involve physical or emotional harm are terrible things. I don’t know anyone who would argue differently. My point was about the differential in the likelihood that someone’s bad behavior would cause physical harm, and who would suffer that harm. When one person is riding atop 25 pounds of steel or aluminum, and another person is cocooned within 4,000 pounds of steel and glass, the consequences of our actions are never going to be equally distributed.