So far, we’ve seen a group larger than the entire population of California lose their jobs since March. As the pandemic coverage is swept aside by protests over police brutality and systemic racism, one calculation holds that half of all black adults are now jobless.” A Better Jobs Report Belies America’s Breadlines.
Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor), Bike Portland, May 28th, 2020
(From Seeing & Believing Bike Equity, Adonia Lugo/League of American Bicyclists 2014)
It feels awkward to publish content about bicycling and streets when so many people are hurting and struggling under the weight of current events — especially when those events seem (at first glance) to have nothing to do with transportation.
But look beyond the surface of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the woman who called 911 on Christian Cooper in Central Park this week and it becomes clear that these situations are about something we talk about on here all the time: Safe access to public space.
In the past few weeks BikePortland has been all about public space, providing a platform for discussion of open streets and boosting signals of people calling for more of them. We’ve mentioned equity and racism here and there. Today though, those ideas merit more than a mention.
If the murder of George Floyd and the racist phone call from Amy Cooper were isolated incidents, we’d all feel much different at this moment. But the pattern is so sadly familiar that it’s an inescapable truth that everyone who cares about bicycling, transit, open streets — or whatever your transportation activism persuasion is — must not only learn and absorb what’s happening right now, we must allow it to re-wire our brains and alter our consciousnesses in a way that prevents us from being hosts for the parasite of racism ever again.
It would be easy for me to not post anything about this. It would be easy for us to keep talking about bike infrastructure and bike fun culture (I had planned a post about Pedalpalooza today but a celebratory tone didn’t feel right) without facing these issues head-on. But the rising tide of overt racism in America is not only reason for us to acknowledge its role in transportation activism, it’s a clarion call for us to be more aggressive and proactive about confronting it and tearing it down.
What does this look like? I don’t know yet. One thing I’ve learned about complex issues like racism is that not knowing how to “fix it,” isn’t a justifiable reason to avoid trying. Another thing I’ve learned is how to follow and absorb thoughts and ideas from people like Tamika Butler. In her latest post, Stop Killing Us, she shares five vital questions for white people who want to help: “Do I understand that not being racist isn’t the same as being anti-racist? Why am I so afraid to be brave enough to confront my power and privilege? What am I waiting for to decenter whiteness and realize just because I have never experienced it (or seen the research to prove it) doesn’t mean it isn’t real? What am I doing every single day to force myself to think about racism and white supremacy? What am I doing every single day to stop the killing of black people?”
Understanding racism and its intersection with biking and mobility isn’t my strongest area of expertise (even though I have had some deeply personal experiences with it that have changed me forever). That’s why I don’t post about very often. It’s easy to stick to things I’m comfortable with. But the idea of staying comfortable has been gnawing at me as I watch my news and social media feeds erupt with pain, indignation, and hard truths about the country I live in.
After Donald Trump was elected in November 2016, many people were very afraid of what his rise in power would mean for their lives. We know now that people who don’t live or look like me — a white, cis-gendered man from a stable, middle-income family — had very good reason to be afraid. After the election I shared a message on Twitter that if you have the privilege of being unafraid; you have the responsibility to do fearless work.
I’m sad and sick about America’s racist treatment of black and brown people. I’m aware of how privileged I am to be unafraid in this moment. I’m resolved to use this platform to help those who need it most but are least able or likely to use it.
I see the pain many are going through because of the brutal deaths of black and brown Americans and the daily impacts systemic racism has on public health. It won’t be ignored here. I promise to be even more vigilant and vocal about how racism influences our debates around streets, mobility and and public space. I hope you’ll join me, because the hard work of making a community more open and tolerant can only happen if we support each other.
Below is a series of quotes pulled together for a project called “Seeing & Believing Bike Equity” that was created by Adonia Lugo for the League of American Bicyclists back in 2014. We first shared these quotes when we were reeling from the killing of another unarmed black man named Michael Brown on a street in Ferguson, Missouri. I think (sadly) they remain very relevant today.
Read the quotes, or scroll through the slides via the PDF below…
“The policing of communities of color has always had a large impact on how we get around our communities.”
— Miguel Ramos
“Some of us believe in the free and safe movement of bodies in the environments that they occupy whether it be cycling or other transportation. I am constantly reminded of that when a Black mother tells me: “Every time he goes through my door I pray there isn’t something out there that won’t let him come back.”
— Hamzat Sani
“Cars convey power and that’s something people (cops included) respect.”
— Ira Woodward
“If residents don’t feel safe in a neighborhood in general, how can we possibly encourage them to be more exposed in that neighborhood by biking and walking more?”
— Matthew Palm
“What people can learn is to first question what solidarity means to them and is it the same as how people of color see solidarity? What types of actions manifest as a way to address these systemic issues? And relate it to how they can have these conversations in their own communities. I’m not sure if bikes can play a vital role for every city, but I see the bike as a symbol of autonomy and self-awareness, something that many people that are privileged do not understand.”
— Miguel Ramos
“By allowing communities to self-determine safety issues, we can then prioritize how we move forward and start to frame a message of bikes as being one factor that addresses safety in a community. We must show our solidarity for safe streets and how that is a different experience for each community, and most importantly building that trust and relationship to continue to follow-up with the overall needs of a community.”
— Miguel Ramos
“It’s important for our profession to hear that people of color in the US have good reasons to fear being physically unprotected in our public right-of-way, and to hear that there may be pretty fucking good reasons that people of color feel biking/walking projects should have lower priority than, say, police brutality.”
— Jessica Roberts
“I don’t think we can separate the bicycles from the bodies that ride them. Some of us have bodies that are perceived as inherently more political than others. I was thinking about that as the photos from Ferguson rolled in. There were lots of pictures of young Black men, and I thought: ‘Wow, those guys riding down the street would get a totally different response than I do.’”
— Michelle Swanson
Warren Logan, policy director of mobility and interagency relations for the mayor’s office of Oakland, which in April became the first city to launch “Slow Streets,” has been at the forefront of the movement to create more space for safe, socially-distanced transportation and recreation during COVID-19.
I first heard about Warren in an August 2019 CityLab interview in which he shared his desire to rewrite the script for city planning; Instead of asking people to come to you, go to them and get their view of the problem and their ideas for a solution. I absolutely loved his approach.
In retrospect it’s kind of sad that it was revolutionary for Warren to call for city planners do a better job of engaging communities, going from planning on or for to planning with. Of course, as Logan has acknowledged, Oakland is not perfect when it comes to equity or community engagement, but I still think there’s a lot that Chicago can learn from Oakland. Similar to Chicago’s Office of Equity and Racial Justice, Oakland has a Department of Race and Equity whose work is intended to eliminate racial disparities and achieve racial equity.
Last month Streetblog USA’s Jeff Wood did an interview with Warren focusing on the nuts-and-bolts of implementing Slow Streets, including community input issues. I was delighted to recently have the opportunity to talk to Warren myself and get his perspective on how we can work towards racial equity within a mobility framework.
Courtney Cobbs: What does equity within the Oakland Department of Transportation look like?
Warren Logan: The department of transportation is actually one of the newest departments in the city of Oakland; we launched three years ago. We recognized the injustices many low-income communities and communities of color are impacted by. The department of transportation is committed to using data to correct those injustices when it comes to transportation: from looking at how equitably potholes are filled, to prioritizing certain communities for multi-million dollar corridor improvement projects.
Each one of our processes asks the question, “How are we advancing equity?” Each one of the project managers has to state how a project will advance equity. We also make sure we’re asking the right questions so we can collect the right data. We want the data to reflect the challenges people are facing, and we want the outcomes to reduce or eliminate those challenges.
Another way we advance equity is by including the voices of community members where we are working. Through our consultancy work, we have hired on community-based groups and advocacy groups that reflect the hearts and minds of community members. We see it as bringing them into the process and giving them the tools to do the work they feel is critical for their communities.
CC: A recent thought I’ve had in regards to my own neighborhood is dividing public space equitably by mode share, providing more dedicated space for people walking, riding transit, and biking. What are your thoughts about that?
WL: I try to discourage people from looking at existing modal splits and usage as a way to [determine how to allocate] space because you end up discouraging climate goals. The way we look at the conversation is by looking at the larger problem: People are being killed on the road. It’s the department’s responsibility to keep people safe and if bike lanes are a way to do that, great. The key ingredient though is to really understand what the problem is.
If you’re a hammer, everything looks like nails. It’s important for transportation planners to get out of their silo. Planners need to translate the issue into residents’ everyday lives. People are not coming to us saying “Give us more bike lanes because they will make us safer,” they’re saying “Why do people keep getting hit by cars and why can’t I walk down the street without being harassed?” When it came to the issue of street harassment, we paired our street safety team and neighborhood crime prevention groups to look at intersectional ways to advance our goals together.
The need to dig a little deeper was reflected during Oakland’s rollout of Slow Streets. A lot of folks in our communities of color recognize why DOT created Slow Streets, yet they wanted to understand how it became a priority during COVID-19. Folks pointed to the barricades and said, “This is not advancing our goal.” Initially we thought, “I guess they don’t like Slow Streets,” but I challenged the team to think through,”What’s the problem they’re trying to address? Let’s dig deeper.”
Several conversations later it was discovered that the community saw a need for testing. Due to managing our testing program I was able to bridge that gap. I use that story as an allegory: Civil servants shouldn’t be so narrowly focused. The questions we should be asking are, “How can we, the city, help you? How can you thrive in your community and what are the barriers preventing you from doing so?” Based on the feedback we can bring back a menu of options to help the community thrive.
Oakland’s transportation department recently created the Essential Places program in response to feedback from residents of communities that were underrepresented when the DOT originally collected input on the routes that became Slow Streets. Essential Places are temporary safety improvements, such as using traffic cones to create pedestrian islands, installed to improve access to grocery stores, food distribution sites, and COVID-19 test sites. The first Essential Place was created at an intersection within the city’s high injury network (the same concept as Chicago’s High Crash Corridors). This is an example of the city intelligently using data to help choose the locations for COVID-19 transportation interventions.
CC: I love that! Thank you.
WL: This is hard work! I’m not saying we got this right. Our approach is to be authentic. There were shouting matches and hurt feelings and we came back for more the next day. Our heart is in the right place. The main reason people come to work for us is because we stand for something. It’s really rewarding to work with people who are so committed to their community and would do anything to help people feel safe and healthy. That’s what equity looks like: empowering community members in whatever way you can to give them the tools to make their lives better. That can look like a job in local government or contracting with neighborhood associations and bringing them on as advisory groups, to name a few.
At the end of my interview with Logan I was left pondering how equity-focused transportation planning could look in Chicago. Currently the Chicago Department of Transportation is not all that transparent and I’m envious of how responsive Oakland’s DOT has been to residents. Warren asserted that Oakland’s Mayor Libby Schaaf is committed to equity, and added that equity is woven into many city meetings. It appears to be a different world compared to Chicago where it seems Mayor Lightfoot picks and chooses when equity can be applied. I’m left with more questions than answers, but I do believe Oakland can serve as a model for a more equitable mobility landscape here in Chicago.