The Sharpest BIPOC Minds in Bike Advocacy

A recent Outdoor Magazine article, “The Bike Industry's Sharpest Minds on How to Make Roads Safer for Cyclists: Eleven experts weigh in with their biggest, craziest ideas—all of which are eminently doable,” was being shared widely on social media. I was excited to hopefully see some of the familiar names and faces get some limelight. To my dismay, I did not see a single person who was visibly of color, and there was no discussion of race, class, gender, access, or any of the other things that I find are inextricably connected to “safety.”

Here is a collection of perspectives from Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) advocates. Some of our sharpest minds.

Experts take on safety for people on bikes

Bicycle advocacy has been called out for being unbearably white. Despite all of the talented Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) who work with communities for safer streets, it’s easy to believe that bike, walk, and disability advocates are all white when you see articles like this. Articles that hold up eleven white people as the “sharpest minds.” Articles that use an ableist slur in the sub headline.

This lack of visibility adds insult to injury when BIPOC advocates are typically among the lowest paid in organizations, often in the outreach positions that directly engage the communities we serve.

I am a non-Black POC, working with Our Streets Minneapolis, advocating to make Minneapolis a better place for people biking, walking, and rolling. After realizing how far and wide this white expertise article was being shared, I put a call out for BIPOC perspectives. I was overwhelmed by responses from all over the country. We out here. 

This collection of shining BIPOC advocates is not complete- there are even more of us out here, working for safer, more accessible streets. I hope people will read these perspectives and realize what is missing when BIPOC voices are left out out of your definition of the “bike industry.”  What is missing is an understanding that bike “safety” is more than bike lanes, bike lights, and car crashes.

For us, safety includes how we move in public spaces with the weight of racism and sexism on our shoulders and how we access bikes and quality infrastructure in spite of less access to wealth and privilege.

Thank you to everyone who was willing to give their free labor to this piece. I recognize that it is a tall ask when you have important work to do in the community.

1. Decriminalize cycling

Río Contreras

Río Contreras, MAED, LCI- Los Angeles, CA

Active Transportation Project Coordinator at Multicultural Communities for Mobility in Los Angeles, L.A. Better Bike Share Partnership
Pronouns: They/them/their
multicultimobility.org

I've been an avid cyclist, educator and advocate for our bike community for over 15 years. In that time span I've taught well over 12,000 people-predominantly Queer Trans* People of Color, Youth of Color, Women of Color and People of Color- bike arts, mechanics, safety, to bike touring, and much more. In Los Ángeles I've been doing bicycle education and advocacy for the last 4 years.

The recurring theme is that for many, cycling is criminalized. What I mean by this is that many black and brown people have become targets for police. In my immediate circles I know three Trans* Masculine friends who've been stopped for running a stop sign but when stopped faced transphobia from the cops and violating pat-downs. I also know a women of color who was stopped for taking the lane on a street that was marked with a bike sharrow. When she advocated for herself in letting the cop know that she was in the right because California law allows full use of the lane on top of the fact that she could point to the painted street with the bike sharrow she was handcuffed and thrown in the back of the patrol car with the windows rolled up on a summer day in LA. As I've worked with undocumented men, many times, I heard that these grown men over 40 years where being stopped by the police for not wearing a helmet, this in a state where helmets are only required for people under the age of 18. One of the hardest stories was hearing youth of color being stopped on the streets and being bullied by the cops for not wearing a helmet and given a ticket.

Why are we punishing people for biking? Biking benefits our communities! These experiences make streets unsafe and discourage our communities from riding our bikes. This already on top of a car-centric culture and the fact that many women and femme presenting people already feel unsafe and are discouraged from riding their bikes because of the street harassment often faced for being out in public.

Safer streets means that cops are halted from racially profiling our communities and over ticketing, it means creating a culture where we don't fear harassment from random people and the state. But no, we don't need more police enforcement to lock up people who harass, we need programs that help shape a more kind and mindful community towards all. Finally, it be amazing that people were awarded and given the right resources, including free helmets and lights, to continue to safely biking.

 

2. Listen to neighborhood and community voices

Caroline Smith

Caroline Smith- New Haven, CT

Organizer for New Haven Bike Month
Pronouns: She/her/hers
newhavenbikemonth.com

New Haven Bike Month rests on the belief that through empowering neighborhoods and neighborhood advocates’ voices biking infrastructure advocacy can be sustainable and scalable. For example, local advocates will know best where biking infrastructure ought to be built to create the most impact in the community, resulting in compounding benefits for the community and city overall.

 

3. Bring bike rallies and bike education to schools

Holly Santiago

Holly Santiago- Minneapolis, MN

Digital Communications Manager, Multimodal commuter, Grease Rag organizer
Pronouns: She/her/hers
greaserag.org

My radical idea for making bicycling safer is to bring bike rallies and bike education to schools and other education channels.

I remember attending a kid's bike rally in my school's parking lot where we learned about biking, biked through an obstacle course, and received some freebies (reflectors, maybe helmets). The rally made sense for normalizing cycling as a mode of transport. The rally equipped my community with the info needed to incorporate it into our street-use culture. We were all on the same page and I was ready to safely ride at 10 years old.

When I grew older and eventually started driving, I used those same skills to be a better/safer driver. I was a lot more prepared than peers who didn't grow up with a bike education. I knew bikes belonged on the roads. I knew their hand signals. I knew the basics.

 

4. Justice for me should not mean injustice for others

Do Jun Lee

Do Jun Lee- New York, NY

Biking Public Project
PHD candidate of Environmental Psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York
intersectionalriding.com

We are all implicated in each other’s lives. If we want to dismantle the violence, excesses, and exclusions of a car-dominated streetscape to re-imagine a better street, we cannot reproduce car culture within bike culture. This means understanding how the car as a tool has been implemented to reinforce existing and create new forms of racial, gender, class and other inequalities and violence. To create safe and just streets, the bike movement must intentionally center radical inclusivity that loves the diversity of bodies, needs, and experiences of cycling rather than promoting a monoculture of privileged cyclists. This inclusivity means that marginalized communities such as people of color cannot just be included as token participants, but that we are active leaders and full participants in generating bike knowledge and shaping a bike movement for our collective liberation. Without radical inclusivity, the bike movement produces “ideal” cyclists whose privileges come at the expense of “undesirable” cyclists whose bodies are policed, dispossessed, and harmed.

Without radical inclusivity, the bike movement will simply tokenize people with my yellow skin as their gooks. Growing up in a middle-class Korean-American family, much of white society wants to view me as the “model” minority. To accept the model minority label is to gain the privileges of partial whiteness but only by being complicit in being used as a racialized weapon against black and brown peoples. The model minority myth is also a lie that erases the vast diversity of stories and experiences of Asian Americans. For example, many NYC Chinese delivery cyclists struggle with poverty, racism, exploitation, and policing. Many privileged NYC cyclists and residents have scapegoated “bad” Chinese and other immigrant delivery cyclists for unsafe streets. Instead we can embrace radical inclusivity to engage in dialogue with immigrant delivery cyclists who have expert, intimate knowledge of unsafe streets by riding them for upwards of 12-16 hours a day. If we re-imagine the base of safety with these marginalized cyclists who ride in every direction to every destination, then we may make streets much safer for all of us. With this inclusivity, we also can use our bikes as tools for social justice that help address labor exploitation, unjust policing, and precarious migrant experiences.

I am not your gook.

 

5. Invest in complete streets in Black, Latinx, Indigenous and/or working class communities

Teka-Lark Lo

Teka-Lark Lo- New York, NY

Freelance journalist and bicycle advocate, co-founder of the bicycle advocacy group and magazine Velo my name is and publisher of the literary journal Cycle Tracks
Pronouns: She/her/hers
twitter.com/velo_nyc

The issue with Black, Latinx, Indigenous and/or working class communities in regards to street safety is that there is very little money spent on Complete Streets infrastructure.

In urban areas you have lots of streets that are essentially four-lane highways, highways with little to no commerce, no nature, just cement strips designed for people to get through as quickly as possible. The high rate of death owing to crashes in Black, Latinx, Indigenous and/or working class communities is by design. There is no amount of education that is going to make riding a bicycle on a four-lane highway where people are driving 45 mph owing to its design safe. The four-lane highway excludes safety for pedestrian and cyclists in its configuration. There is no amount of education that is going to make sharrows superior to cycle tracks.

The bulk of the money in Black, Latinx, Indigenous and/working class communities in regards to Complete Streets is spent on education of the public on how to be superhuman in inhumane infrastructure and police enforcement. Real resources and real changes need to be made in Black, Latinx, Indigenous and/or working class communities and racism in regards to funding needs to not be tolerated. There needs to be an audit by race and socioeconomic levels in regards to what and who gets funded in regards to Complete Streets fixes and if it shows that infrastructure is more likely to be put in white communities of higher socioeconomic status there needs to be a federal lawsuit.

Racism shouldn’t be tolerated in education, labor or in transportation and too many times in transportation racism is accepted, tolerated and used to save money.

People in Black and Latinx communities are being murdered in crashes and those communities can’t get cycle tracks or pedestrian plazas, because there is never funding until white people move in. Black, Latinx, Indigenous and the elderly are not getting murdered in crashes owing to their ignorance, they are getting murdered by crashes, because racism and classism allows bad street design to be acceptable.

The first thing I would do to make streets safer for cyclists in the community is change the structure for funding for Complete Streets. Communities with the highest motor fatalities and injury rates would get funding first with a priority on infrastructure changes. The second thing I would do would be to require that all bike lanes be cycle tracks, because some paint on the ground is not a bike lane. The final thing I would do is eliminate police funding for Complete Streets, because punitive enforcement is too tempting in this racist environment as the only answer in Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities.

 

6. Slow down, and don't slow down alone

Magdalena Kaluza

Magdalena Kaluza- Minneapolis, MN

Year-round commuter, beginning MTBer, & Youth Programs Manager at Cycles for Change
Pronouns: She/her/hers & They/them/theirs

Our communities will be safer for cyclists (and pedestrians, wheelchair users, strollers, pogo sticks, stilts...) if we don't rush.

Everything from the the 9 to 5 grind and daily survival to the Gregorian calendar and capitalism's pressure to produce/be busy keep us at a go go speed. If we are able to be gentle with ourselves and allow for a greater diversity of paces, we will notice more in and around ourselves. And, we will slow the heck down when traveling. I think it is important to practice gratitude and mindfulness, both on our own and in community, so that we become increasingly observant, forgiving, and empathetic. If we incorporate gratitude and mindfulness into our daily practices (in ways that feel doable and energizing for us), stress levels will be reduced and communication will be clearer and more direct. Of course, some folks have employers and/or persistent oppression or stress that makes slower paces of life very difficult to attain. So, with the slowing down individually comes community mutual support and relationship building so that we aren't leaving neighbors or fellow humans stuck in rush. Examples of supporting others in slowing down can look like making meals for someone, providing childcare, offering rides, and inviting people in non-coercive ways (and inviting them again and again even if they are unable to join you after the first 1 or 2 invites).

 

7. People first

Bri Whitcraft

Bri Whitcraft- Minneapolis, MN

Multimodal transportation user who prefers traveling by bicycle, Director of Marketing at Dero, Grease Rag participant
Pronouns: She/her/hers
twitter.com/bristar9, instagram.com/bristar9, greaserag.org

Before you have a plan, listen and learn from people in the communities you are serving. What issues are they facing? What do they want their streets to look like? What does safety on their streets mean to them? People know best what their community needs, since they experience challenges daily. Whether that is a lack of infrastructure, over-policing, street harassment, transportation access, or all of the above (or more), safety solutions for bicyclists may go beyond just bike lanes. Work for and with community members to make their streets safer.

This answer is based on what I learned from Charles Brown, Dr. Torian Easterling, and James Rojas, who were on the Untokening Safe Streets panel at Vision Zero Cities 2017.

 

8. Ask about what "safety" means -- and listen

Kelsey Mesher

Kelsey Mesher- Puget Sound, WA

Puget Sound Policy Manager at Cascade Bicycle Club

"Safety" is a term that's used daily in bike advocacy. The dominant assumption is that "road safety" for people who bike means separation from vehicle traffic, protected intersections, and connected networks of places to bike. It's hard to find someone that doesn't agree this is an integral part of what safety means.

But, there's a whole host of other ways to define what it means to feel "safe" on the road. It may mean feeling free to wear shorts while riding and not draw unwanted attention. It may mean you can park your bike or ride through your neighborhood without fear it will get stolen. At times, road safety means good lighting; or smooth pavement; or a clearly marked route. And while some people feel safety means being able to report a traffic incident to police; for others it means freedom from unwarranted enforcement.

So when we talk about "road safety," and when we advocate for it, it's important to check the assumption of what it means. Checking the assumption means listening to people that ride bikes -- or people that would like to -- were it, you know, safe to do so.

 

9. Keep people safe from street harassment

Tiffany LamTiffany F. Lam- New York, NY

Urbanist, Feminist and Cyclist
twitter.com/tiffany_frances, tiffanylam.me

When we think about making roads safer for cyclists, we typically think about road traffic danger. While this is undoubtedly a key issue, safety from street harassment is also a critical issue that often gets overlooked, especially given the gender gap in cycling. In English-speaking, low-cycling contexts, the ratio of female to male cyclists is 1:3 or 1:4. This gender gap is emblematic and reflective of broader gender inequalities and structural sexism in society. Cycling advocates must acknowledge how larger societal inequalities get reproduced in the cycling world and proactively work towards making cycling more inclusive and equitable.

Violence against women—ranging from seemingly innocuous verbal harassment on the street to more insidious forms of physical and sexual violence—constrains female mobility in public space. From a young age, girls are taught to avoid walking down certain streets, to take longer and perhaps more indirect routes to go home, to have their keys and cell phones easily accessible when walking home at night, and to avoid dressing a certain way when going out. The resounding message is that public space is unsafe for women and girls, and that street harassment and violence against women are normal, everyday parts of life that women and girls have to ‘prevent’ from happening to them.

These gendered perceptions of safety impact one’s mobility choices, like bike riding. Personally, cycling was empowering because it liberated me from street harassment. I felt that I experienced less street harassment and even when I did, I could get away more quickly on two wheels than I could on foot. However, other women report that they experience more street harassment when cycling as opposed to other modes of transportation. While some women may feel that cycling is the safest mode of transportation (from a street harassment perspective), others may feel that the fear of road traffic danger compounds fear of street harassment, thereby making cycling even less feasible.

The point is that it’s nuanced. Unless gendered perceptions of safety, street harassment, and violence against women enter into our discourse and thinking about road safety for cyclists, the gender gap in cycling will persist.

 

10. Eliminate police profiling, build infrastructure and bike share in minority areas, support culturally-relevant bike community

Steven Cousins

Steven Cousins- Atlanta, GA

A disproportionate number of people of color on bikes are stopped, given citations, and even arrested. People of color are targeted and harassed by law enforcement. And white citizens make 911 trouble-calls against Blacks on bikes, just because they are passing-through. Cycling is not completely safe for people of color when they are put at risk by unfair 911 calls, profiling stops, and sting operations that focus on them.

Charles Brown and James Sinclair, researchers at the Rutgers Voorhees Transportation Center, studied bicycling among Blacks and Latinos, and found that one in five Black and Latino males surveyed felt they had at some point been unfairly stopped by police (while on bicycle). Black residents in those communities interviewed indicated police harassment as a barrier to bicycling. To them, bicycling makes one too vulnerable to be worth it.

How can we make the roads safer in this regard? The roads are not safer until this situation is remedied. An obvious solution – is to stop the active profiling of particular groups of cyclists. And stop the targeted sting operations. Discontinue these practices. But what about those unjustified stops and harassment that are not a part of intentional profiling or part of a canvassing campaign? How can the police stops that happen sporadically or at the spur of the moment be diminished? I believe the harassment will lessen when it is considered normal for people of color to be on bicycles. Law enforcement gets suspicious too often when they see a Black or Latino male on a bicycle. When the appearance of people of color on bicycles is seen as routine and normal – especially with young males, there is less of a compelling need to investigate. When it becomes a normal sight, every Black male on a bicycle is not viewed as a potential criminal.

First and foremost, police profiling and intentional targeted stop of people of color must cease. Secondarily, things can be done to establish a climate of where more people of color feel compelled or comfortable to get onto a bicycle. When that happens, it becomes more normal to see these demographics cycling, which leads to less justified anxiety with the general public. And a greater voice among people of color who call for fairness, when this unsafe environment of harassing stops occurs.

Educate law enforcement, and hold them accountable.

In many cases stops of people of color on bicycles originate from the assertion that a traffic safety law is being violated, such as riding on the sidewalk, wearing earbuds while riding, or not wearing a helmet. Police made the stop because they allege that a law had been broken – when in fact, no law was broken. Police should know the law as it pertains to cyclists – and cease to stop a bicycle rider for taking the lane, wearing headphones or not wearing a helmet.

Law enforcement should know the cyclists rights to the road, and be held accountable when they stop a cyclist based on a misunderstanding, misinterpretation, or personal opinion of what applies.

Put cycling infrastructure into and through minority neighborhoods.

To encourage more people of color onto bicycles, make the roads they are more inclined to be on bike-friendly. Communities of color have been documented to have less of the infrastructure that keeps pedestrians and bicyclists safe. Cities should make political and financial commitments so that every neighborhood has bike lanes and safe streets. This will get more people onto bicycles, and get law enforcement more accustomed to seeing Blacks and Latinos on bicycles.

Establish bike share that is inclusive and equitable, with a system that serves all demographics.

A bike share system that serves everyone and is reasonably priced can be a catalyst for greater numbers of bicycle riders in minority communities. And if the bike share system is sponsored by the city, the city becomes invested in creating an atmosphere that encourages bicycle riding by all people.

From what I’ve seen in cities across the country, the early stages of bike share installations are concentrated in the more affluent neighborhoods and within the central business & government district of the city. If a bike share system is to be installed, then there should be stations in communities of color, and in marginalized communities. This can help remove racial profiling of Blacks on bicycles, because their use of the bike share system would be considered normal. Authorities would become adjusted to seeing Blacks on bikes, and cease to perceive it as reason to stop and interrogate.

Further, since bike share bicycles are not easy to steal – and are intended for public use, the suspicion that a bike has to be stolen is removed. Bike share can be a tool of improvement by removing a police excuse for bicycle traffic stops, and be a remedy by establishing a norm for Blacks on bicycles.

Develop and encourage bicycle clubs that celebrate under-represented demographics.

Cycling clubs that organize people of color, and cater to their needs are a good thing. These groups can educate their communities, support and build confidence in the new rider and rally involvement on causes that will benefit cyclists in the community. They can be successful at making bike riding more comfortable for their neighbors, and their collective can also be a voice for equitable treatment.

Anything done to remove the perception that a person of color on a bicycle is a safety threat or has nefarious intent thwarts justification for the police stop. Getting more underrepresented people on bicycles helps to achieve this.

 

11. Change the question

Anneka

Anneka- Minneapolis, MN

Grease Rag organizer
Pronouns: They/them
greaserag.org

Photo: Emma Freeman

What would I do to make U.S. roads safer for cyclists? I have one short answer: CHANGE THE QUESTION.

The question we need to ask is “What do we do to make our shared spaces (including roads) safe for people of color, indigenous people, people with disabilities, pedestrians, queer people, trans people, seniors, children, people experiencing homelessness, immigrants, Muslim people, ...?” If we don’t broaden our gaze to see the greater picture, our solutions are narrowed, our dreams are smaller, and our visions shut people out. Of course, all the people I mentioned can be, and are, cyclists too! But when bike advocates use the word cyclist, they are really mostly referring to white, able-bodied, middle class people. So first, change the question. And then invite, welcome, listen to and act on all the incredible ideas from people traditionally left out and pushed out.