Sunday, November 8, 2009

Friday Feature (on Sunday!),social justice in infrastructure?

This Infrastructure post not on Friday, I seriously should just make it whenever the freak I get to it post, will be a little different.

I am not going to showcase any cool trams or bike paths or parks anything. Today I want to focus on a topic that was brought up from and then again in the book I am reading for Native American History.

The book is called “Native Seattle: Histories From the Crossing Over Place.” And it’s by Coll Thrush(link is for Amazon, but support your local bookseller first, they should be able to get it in). Now I understand that from the first impression it does not seem that this has anything to do with transportation but in fact it has a huge part to do with it.

First let me talk about the bikeportland piece. It was called “is out bike scene too white” and talked a little bit about why Portland may have an easier ability to create alternative transportation on a large scale. This is also similar to Davis, California in the sense that it is overwhelming white. My history teacher lived just outside Davis, and while there are a good number of Hispanic communities now around the town, this didn’t use to be the case. I wonder if the bicycle mode share in Davis went down because of specific polices, or lack thereof, of the city, or it went down because minorities moved into the area and for some reason they don’t tend to bike in as large a percentage as whites.

Now I am not being racist here at all, I don’t think we should “cleanse” the cities and make them 100% white so we can get bicycle infrastructure in place. What I want to know is why this is? Anybody can go into a bike shop and get a bike right? (Well not exactly) However anybody can use the facilities that are specifically for bicyclists, or can they? So why is it that we don’t see more African Americans, or Hispanics, or native peoples on a bike? I don’t have an answer today especially since I live in 98% white New Hampshire and 90%+ white upstate New York, but this is a major problem as we move forward with non-automotive transportation.

This topic would make a very good thesis piece and I would love to do research on this and put something together, but truth is I have so little time as it is that I cant do this proper research justice, however I am going to keep thinking on this as I move into the field and maybe the opportunity will arise that will give me the opportunity to do this properly. From here is sheer observational data and making connections with a number of articles I have read over the last year, it is in no way heavily researched and quite possibly is very biased, please do not take this as fact, just something to think on and question in your own community.

For starters this is being looked at, at least in Portland, by the Community Cycling Center, they were the initial inspiration for the article. You can read the article for yourself but basically they were looking at the area they served and then who was actually riding and it was just white middle class citizens on two wheels. They saw a problem, and started asking questions. Now with some grant money focusing around social justice, they are undertaking work in this area. They discovered some issues regarding actually knowledge of what to do both on the road and what to look for in a bike, as well as some fear of police retribution. There is also cost, both perceived and actual. You can read more here.

I want to go further and actual look at some of the comments that this article generated. First what about cost? If you get a 2k used junker and drive it into the ground and then do that again in a couple years you see that cost at the time but typically the long term costs of that care are not taken into thought. This is not a minority issue; this is a human issue in putting less emphasis on long-term costs and more on short-term expenses. If you are new to cycling and outfitting a bike for cycling it will cost you 2k+ easy, depending on what you are looking for. A person looking at doing this will see, ok some fun maybe, maybe some environmental benefit (most likely not) maybe health benefit. However, they will see that they are paying the same price for something that takes double the triple the time to get somewhere, that you get really hot or really cold on, that riding means you are poor, that you will get run off the road by people in cars, and that you cant carry your family. With that in mind why would a lower class family (of any ethnicity) really want to ride a bike for transportation?

It is true that taking all the actual heath and environmental benefits into the equation, as well as the joy aspect and the actual cost of the automobile, that the bike wins hands down. These are long term costs however, many people don’t attribute that hospital visit to the non active lifestyle that they live, they don’t attribute the heart attack to the years of driving the 10 miles to work or the 2 miles to the store when they need milk.

A lower class citizen will most likely be working multiple service jobs (if they are lucky) and it’s not just them, it’s their partner and their children when they turn 16. When you work 16+ hours a day in multiple jobs across the city there is no way a bike would enable you to get to both jobs and work both jobs. The time and energy required is not there, at the end of the day you are dead tired, and the next day it’s the same thing. I did this for 6 months; I worked two jobs and took a chemistry class during my one semester break from college. I needed to be at work at 6am for store opening (I was maintenance) I got done at noon and then went home for lunch and then class at 1. Class got done at 2 and then I went to my second job, which started at, 3 or so. I was driving ~50 miles a day when I was working both jobs. While my first job and class were ~5 miles apart which is perfectly bikable every day (my current commute is 5.2miles daily) that means it would take me 30-45 minutes to my first job and then home, and then 35 minutes to class and another 40 (its uphill coming back) back home. Its then 15 miles to my second job. If I biked the easy bit that’s ~2 extra hours, plus a workout. It means biking in the very early morning and then afternoon; I always got home around 9-10 at night. There was simply no extra time to bike to these places, and not only that, there was no extra energy to do such, if it was a desk job, maybe, but I was set building and being a janitor.

Using my experience I look at people who work hard to provide for their families and realize, they simply do not have the time or energy to live without a car. If there were good quality bus service that is doable and you will find that many workers will take the bus because a year pass is usually quite cheap.

So maybe economic and social class is more important then ethnicity? (A higher percentage of Blacks, Hispanics and minorities tend to poorer)

Next lets look at language. If your first language is Spanish or Chinese (obviously skipping Black Americans since majority have English as their first language) and the only information on cycling in your city is in English you may be less likely to understand than if it were in English. People do not typically explore where they live too much, they have a rout to work, a rout to the store, and a route to school. There may be a separated bike lane one block away but many Americans would not know it unless it were signed and publicized. Now imagine you are Hispanic, would you know about that rout? Would you understand everything on the sign or the map? I would not imagine most immigrants have money and time for lengthy English classes every day, looking at my 6 months, I don’t know what would have happened if I were trying to learn English too. So not knowing about routs may play a part in this.

How about rules of the road? Yes, yes I know many cyclists don’t follow rules involving stopping and signaling (neither do cars) but some do and it is important. If you were an immigrant who may be targeted by the police anyway, would you want to be on a bike riding on the road scared that the police will ticket you because you didn’t follow some law? How would you know the laws if they were not explained to you in your language? Many of us take for granted that laws are for the most part obvious (red means stop) but how many of us knew that from our parents or from drivers ed. If you were first generation and wanted to bike somewhere would you know the laws requiring lights at night or certain other things (like you must use a bike lane if there is one)? I don’t think you would and that’s not your fault.

Maybe you want a bike, you go to the bike shop and are met by wonderful people who know bikes but maybe don’t know Chinese or Korean or Somali. Bike shops can be scary places I think if you don’t know what’s going on, dark, cramped, people asking questions etc. There has been some issues with women in bike shops and intimidation and I can understand this as well, since a lot are men owned and don’t have women present. It may seem petty or insignificant but it’s very important. A minority is going to have a worse time, and make that minority a woman and you have created an impossible situation.

It seems language may play a huge part here, both in finding safe cycling routes (if they exist) and in knowing the laws. Bike shop access also is important in terms of the language barrier; you may not know frame type in your own language let alone English.

Maybe you can see why this would make a great thesis piece. I only looked at a couple things here and they clearly both have impacts on cycling. I wish I had more time now to look at transportation planning and where bike racks and bike boulevards are placed and the social justice issues that come up with that but I don’t. And even what I have looked at here may be debatable depending on where you are. Should we go for the low hanging fruit and try to focus on getting the whites on their bike and leave the minorities for later when we have 30% mode share for whites? That’s not fair but what are the options? I think the first step in any of this is what the CCC is doing, reaching out and talking to community leaders. It’s the first step and until we do that everything I have talked about and more is pure speculation. I hope I have made sense here and if something is not clear please let me know, this is the first bit in a number of long posts on thoughts as I go forward. I don’t have answers I wish I did, but all I can do is bring up the issue and start the conversation. I wanted to specifically talk about infrastructure but that will have to wait for another post, I will bring up the book when I talk about that, as this post has actually made my tired :P

Thanks for reading
For further information please see the following links piece

Streetsblog, "mobility as a basic human right"
New Geography post

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