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).