Where Bicycles Meet Race: A Conversation With Dr. Adonia Lugo

Strong Towns's own Kea Wilson recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Adonia Lugo, an urban anthropologist and mobility justice strategist based in Los Angeles. Dr. Lugo is the author of Bicycle / Race: Transportation, Culture, & Resistance. The book is both a broad-ranging investigation of how people of color have historically navigated the cycling world, and a personal story of the author's life and experiences with bicycling as a commuter, an academic, an organizer, and a professional advocate.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and condensed from the original interview.

Kea Wilson: Can you tell us a little bit about what brought you into the world of bicycling, and eventually to write the book Bicycle / Race?

Dr. Adonia Lugo

Dr. Adonia Lugo

Adonia Lugo: I didn’t really use a bike when I was growing up. I got one around my 6th or 7th birthday and learned to ride it, but it wasn’t a form of mobility for me. We were a walking family. It wasn’t until four years after I went to college in Portland, Oregon that I got into bike commuting. It was a very common thing to do in Portland in 2005.

So when I came back to Southern California for graduate school in 2007, I was really surprised by the difference in reception to bike commuting. Whereas in Portland it had been this commonly understood, “good” thing, in Southern California, riding a bike felt scary in a way that I wasn't used to. I started to get this reception from other road users that I was doing something wrong, or getting in their way. 

At the same time, I was also noticing that there was a hierarchy of transportation that mapped onto race and class. Most of the people I saw using bicycles for transportation appeared to be low-income and were usually Black or Latino men. There were some people who seemed to be more like me—people who were bike commuting by choice and had road bikes and some gear—but most of the people I was seeing were on junky mountain bikes and riding on the sidewalk.

I started to put bicycling into this broader context I had gained from growing up in Southern California around the issue of racism and segregation here, the historical development of the region, and how the car is a really important status symbol.

KW: You were studying anthropology at Reed College, which is not the typical path taken by someone working in the transportation field. How does your training in urban anthropology inform your work now?

AL: In urban anthropology, there’s a big focus on the ways that people are creative with their environment. In some ways, it has kind of an opposite focus from urban planning. Planning is about the management and design of how people are using spaces. And so the way that transportation gets looked at in planning is more, “How do we make things work? How do we improve and solve problems?” It’s really focused on getting from chaos to order.

In anthropology, the idea isn’t so much to get from chaos to order as just to notice what a place is like, or how people interact with the spaces that they share, and what kind of power dynamics there are in that. My work in anthropology looks at urban space as a contested zone, where you have some people who think we should be moving this way, and others who think we should be moving that way, and then you have the people who just do what they can because they have to, and aren’t so ideological about it so much as survival-oriented.

When I encountered that hostility toward bicycling in 2007, to me it wasn’t a design problem. It was a question of, why are all these motorists carrying around such a negative idea of bicyclists? Why are they acting like I’m in their way and my life is not worth as much as theirs? What's that about?

Getting to know the field of bicycle advocacy—the subject of my primary ethnographic research—I learned that in that space, most people were talking about design as both the problem and the solution. But I had more of a focus on culture and how it informs the way that we interact.

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KW: One of the things you talk about in the book is what you call “human infrastructure.” I found this to be a fascinating concept; I had never encountered it before. So first, what is human infrastructure?

AL: You can’t just look at an infrastructure system as this physical thing that came out of nowhere. It actually has its own history in terms of being chosen and justified and designed and used and maintained.

I was particularly influenced by a couple of ethnographers doing work on Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: AbdouMaliq Simone and Filip De Boeck. Both of them wrote about the ways that people would step in to get things done when local infrastructure wasn’t working, and the importance of social networks and human relationships as a form of infrastructure in themselves. Getting to think of infrastructure in those terms made it click for me that bike advocates were tending to overlook own relationships and social worlds, and the kind of community we had built around bicycling, as an important part of what needed to expand. 

One of the concerns I have with environmental design as the primary strategy for promoting bicycling is that there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of diversity involved in who comes up with those designs and what parts of the world we’re borrowing from. So there are some barriers to really trying to promote more diverse social lives around bicycling.

When I moved to Seattle in 2011 to write up my dissertation, I realized I had been part of a circle of people for whom it was taken for granted that race and class and gender issues were relevant to bicycling and transportation, because there was a long history of activists in LA pointing to those connections. In Seattle, a place where most of the bike advocates are white, they were not necessarily seeing those same connections. 

KW: Absolutely. I’m a white commuter cyclist, and I cannot tell you how many times I have had the conversation with other white cyclists about how, well, anyone can use a bike lane, so bike lanes are not racialized, right? I’ve even had that thought myself at times. What do you say to people who make that argument? And how do you pivot the conversation to talk about more creative, human ways of expanding our infrastructure network beyond paint on the ground, bollards and concrete dividers?

AL: It’s a really ahistorical view to point to something like a bike lane and say, “This is accessible to all,” given that our urban spaces are the products of a long history of decision making, disinvestment, and reinvestment. That’s all been about making the city more accessible to some people than others. 

In bike advocacy, there are all these people who look to urban planning as this great resource and they feel really inspired by writers like Jane Jacobs. But the reality is urban planning also created urban renewal and more of the Robert Moses-style approach: sacrificing the local in favor of creating highways that commuters could use to bypass urban neighborhoods. If you’re going to put in a bike lane, you could see it as an amenity for the community. But you could also see it as yet another top-down decision coming from a city government that creates more space for certain voices than others.

The advocates' view has been one-sided: we’re supposed to forget all of the complexities and inequalities that are part of urban development, which is a really undemocratic space. So we say things like, If it enhances bicycling, it’s going to be good. That’s not true. There’s a lot of stuff that remains to be grappled with in terms of how people are able to remain in place. 

I’m part of a group in LA called People for Mobility Justice. We’ve been exploring how to get more public funding allocated for transportation into community members’ hands more directly. The thing about using an environmental design approach or an infrastructure approach is that all of the public spending goes to large planning and engineering firms, because they’re the ones who can do that kind of work. If we’re talking about spending public dollars, we should be talking about 1) who’s actually receiving those dollars and having their salary paid, and who got to have a say in how that money was allocated, and 2) is a person who lives in that neighborhood actually still going to be living there in a few years when the bike lane goes in? If they’re a renter and the bike lane is only going in because other kinds of reinvestment are happening, are they actually going to benefit from that lane down the line? 

We’re examining transportation equity in terms of how funding gets allocated toward certain kinds of projects, usually brick-and mortar projects, and what alternative models exist.

We’re partnering with a black-owned bike shop called Ride On to create something like a mobility hub. I think community bike shops are a really good model for bringing together mobility and economic opportunity or learning spaces. And expanding beyond just the focus on bicycling, it would be really cool to see a model out there of neighborhood mobility hubs. These places could be managed by community-based organizations who then become eligible to get contracts with the city around improving options for transportation. 

We're figuring out how to make that shift from the brick-and-mortar to more of the education and programming—spaces where people can spend time together and build up a culturally relevant understanding of car-free transportation. 

KW: I do want to say, for people who haven't read the book, that you make it very clear that you’re not some kind of anti-bike-lane zealot opposed to all physical infrastructure. We are sort of embroiled in this binary of, “This is the way we build bikeable places. It’s all or nothing.” One thing I appreciated about your book is that you’re advocating not against bike lanes, but for a larger, more creative set of solutions. You’re looking for how to expand the conversation around cycling, instead of saying, “Not this.”

AL: Definitely.

KW: I do want to go back a little bit to the financial and economic arguments. One word that’s prominent in your book is gentrification. Gentrification has a lot of baggage as a term; it means a lot of things to a lot of different people. Strong Towns listeners will recognize the way you talk about gentrification as what we call cataclysmic money—a huge bucket of money that gets dumped into a community and changes who can afford to live there, whose culture is reflected in the physical spaces, and who feels comfortable there.

Can you talk a little bit more about how biking can be used as a tool against that form of gentrification, and how specifically human infrastructure like CicLAvía, for instance, can be a part of restoring our communities’ financial health in a way that lifts all boats?

AL: When I first recognized that there was this messaging being employed around bike lanes that they were good for urban renewal, that they were going to attract the right kind of people to neighborhoods, I just thought, “Dang, maybe these advocates really don’t know that what they’re saying doesn’t sound positive to everybody." If you’re not a property owner, then it doesn’t necessarily sound positive to say, “Property values are going to go up in that neighborhood.”

I mean, You have people literally issuing reports, as People For Bikes has, that say bike infrastructure is going to increase property values in neighborhoods and that’s why you should put it in. I’m not the one making the connection to gentrification. It’s the advocates who made that connection! And I think they did it because they really focused on the environmental design, and thus on what would sell to elected officials [who approve public works projects]—they were not focused on what was going to sell to the public.

The value in bicycling to me and a lot of other people I know has nothing to do with property values. It has to do with it being the mobility tool for a different kind of world, where we don’t rely on fossil fuels, and where we don’t see the overarching need for exploitation and hardship. That was what bicycling represented. Numbers-wise, many people who use bikes are poor. They’re doing it because they don’t have other options. Are we saying the only way to have better conditions for bicycling is to just eliminate those low-income cyclists from the landscape?

KW: I might add that even if equity and environmentalism aren’t your core operating values, saying, “Let’s build bike lanes to attract some young people with money who will be able to pay higher property taxes” is not really a great economic development strategy. That’s a fragile strategy. The real resilience that we advocate here at Strong Towns has a lot more to do with being responsive to the needs of people who are living in communities right now, where we can make things incrementally a little bit better for each of them. We get a lot of flack for overemphasizing the “wealth” of communities, but for me, we’re using it in a different way—we’re talking about the collective prosperity of a whole town, not the net worth of the individuals you attract with a marketing scheme.

So in that spirit, I want to close out with an action item. What would you recommend that a person who wants to make the world more bikeable, especially for the low-income and people of color, go out and do?

AL: A broader notion of what is included in street safety is key to making bicycling inclusive for more people. That means launching more conversations about how transportation and street spaces are part of broader community safety issues. For anybody who’s deeply, personally committed to bicycling, it means bringing that with them into the other spaces where they have deep personal commitment. One thing that has sapped a lot of the popular energy out of the bike movement in recent years has to do with trying to depersonalize it and make the message a simple, “Bicycling should be accessible for everyone," instead of us just being more direct about our activism.

Celebrating the diversity that’s already there in bicycling is something we don’t get to do enough, because there’s such a focus on that future vision of all the people who will be bicycling, and not so much of a focus on, “Why do we care about this now?”

And hopefully we have some fun with it. There’s a dualistic world in bicycling because the sense of urgency that motivates advocacy is often coming from a place of pain and harm, and real encounters with the danger of car-dominated streets. So that’s one side of it. But the other side of it is joy, and community, and health, and that feeling of power that you get when you’re propelling yourself through these vibrant places that we get to be part of.

(Cover photo: Metro – Los Angeles via Flickr)