By Sam Ollinger / BikeSD
Last year, Councilmember David Alvarez appointed me to represent his council district, District 8, at the city’s Bicycle Advisory Committee. It was an incredible honor and a challenge, because I live in Council District 9, not 8. In an attempt to understand the district, the needs of the community, and the challenges I would be dealing with, I met with one of Alvarez’s staffers for coffee one morning.
At the meeting, the staffer told me, in no uncertain terms, that bike infrastructure was not necessarily a priority for the district. I was a bit blindsided and it has taken me almost an entire year to understand what she meant when she gave me the low-down on District 8. This post is an attempt to explain that understanding.
First, here is a little personal history, which is relevant for this story. I am an immigrant, brown-skinned woman who co-founded a bike advocacy organization in San Diego. For those of you whose first contact with bike advocacy is BikeSD, you may not find anything unusual about that. However, nationally, the bike advocacy movement is struggling with trying to broaden its scope both within its leadership and within its advocacy focus.
Historically, the bike advocacy movement has been dominated by men, often middle-aged, and almost always white, sometimes even with racist historical baggage that is hard to dispose. There is nothing inherently insidious with the movement’s historical representation in and of itself, both because of historical realities and also because of how the oil and the automobile industries have dominated the American life experience and culture. So, standing up for something that has never benefited from either policy or funding priorities outside of a curious interest or the focus of childhood play almost seems bizarre. But bicycling isn’t just a hobby. It is a very simple solution for many complex problems.
Solving problems that are complex and varied with many underlying root causes cannot be addressed by any one single or ethnic group.
Policy wins in a period of scarce resources and strange media rhetoric in a crowded field of numerous competing priorities can be extremely challenging. How can one expect the basic amount of respect for a cause when jokes about killing your constituency is both commonplace and tolerated?
Around the time BikeSD was founded in 2012, many advocacy organizations began to realize the huge missing representation within their own respective organizations. Women were rare birds in bike advocacy leadership. There was also a glaring omission of any ethnic or racial minority group at the top levels (and often even at the staff levels) of bike advocacy organizations.
So not only was BikeSD founded with the intention of changing San Diego’s culture that was centered around the automobile, but the organization was created to also push the envelope of what it meant to be part of an organization that focused on equality of sexes and was inclusive and fearless in challenging the status quo. We wanted the organization to be a public platform for every voiceless resident.
My vision, that my board, advisors, and supporters have bought into, was to create a city where it was not just white guys in spandex riding around in circles at the Velodrome. Instead, we would work together to create a city where our differences, while external, could be celebrated and become learned experiences for everyone. We envisioned a city where our streets could be public gathering spaces where we could share ideas, converse, and enjoy, while moving through it comfortably and safely. We wanted BikeSD to be a platform to address historically broken promises by being an organization that would be willing to stand up to and challenge the status quo.
Bike infrastructure isn’t important.
This may sound strange or even seem like a heretical statement to be making on behalf of an organization whose entire mission is ostensibly to advocate for bike infrastructure. However, our organizational focus on equity should provide a hint to the deeper meaning and purpose of our existence. This doesn’t mean that we want everyone to “share the road” with multi-ton vehicles on 45mph roads by riding on sharrows. But, bike infrastructure also cannot be the only solution that we advocate for to the detriment of the lives and dignity of communities and neighbors that have always been forgotten.
Infrastructure, in its bluntest terms, means funding. Money. Dinero. Cold hard cash. So by advocating for bike infrastructure, we are advocating for reallocating funding, away from driving and away from design features that isolate, harm, and kill us—both metaphorically and literally.
Are parking lots, with hundreds of parked cars, thriving centers where great minds congregate to solve problems and innovate? On the other hand, how many ideas have been hatched on group rides, on solo rides, in coffee shops, or at the local parklet? By advocating to reallocate funding we want to work to connect communities and create people-centric havens that not only make bicycling safer, but also make our cities more livable and humane. We envision a city where walking is less stressful and driving is less dangerous.
Bike infrastructure is the clarion in the coalmine for a better life. But more importantly, reallocating funding allows everyone to partake in the riches that our society has for too long failed to deliver to our most marginalized and neglected communities.
Understanding why bike infrastructure doesn’t matter (as much) in underserved communities
So back to that coffee meeting with the Alvarez staffer. Barrio Logan is a community in District 8. Last year, the community suffered a devastating defeat when business interests lobbied to crush and destroy a community supported Community Plan that would have given the residents the very basic dignity of not having to live alongside toxic industries.
This is a community where residents have to regularly deal with toxic dumping that affects not only the quality of life, but their very existence. This is in addition to living alongside a gigantic bridge that serves as a daily visual reminder of the sheer callousness of how little policy makers think of their community. In this reality, where exactly do bike lanes (protected or painted) belong in the list of community priorities?
Earlier this week, our City Council unanimously supported a council resolution to adopt a Vision Zero resolution—a commitment of sorts to work on reducing all traffic fatalities to zero within the next decade. While a post on that is forthcoming, addressing Vision Zero appropriately also includes a focus on addressing equity.
I live in City Heights where cases of police overreach have been documented, as it has been elsewhere. So amongst the six E’s, is Enforcement an appropriate solution to making sure Vision Zero is a success? Granted, not everyone within law enforcement are untrustworthy and bad people, but when community interactions with law enforcement has only resulted in the breakdown of trust, it is possible that enforcement of minor roadside infractions may not be the most judicious use of our valuable public dollars.
Is penalizing jaywalking the appropriate solution if a jaywalker was killed previously? Or would a road diet, alongside speed reductions and the creation of a mid-block crossing, be a better solution?
A group of riders that exists in every community but remains hidden are invisible cyclists. They are your local service workers: the cashier at your fast food restaurant, your janitor, and even the friendly homeless panhandler who straddles the median on Balboa Avenue.
These people don’t have a choice and use a bicycle as the most cost effective way of getting around, just like I did many years ago when I was working five jobs and trying my best to get through college (an endeavor that took nearly a decade to accomplish).
Bike lanes don’t feature into their reality and it didn’t for me either when I was struggling to make rent and get an education. And, neither do community meetings where uneducated rubes selfishly fight against any sane solution that would make our streets safe for every person.
So does that mean bike lanes are bad or unwanted? Absolutely not. But in a community where people would like to live in homes free of mold and cockroaches, bike lanes aren’t on a top priority list, especially if they generally allude to an even more unattainable and pricier life. This disconnect has been studied and documented by a friend and researcher, Dr. Adonio Lugo, some of which was expanded upon in a recent Governing article.
The elephant in San Diego’s living room remains the automobile. The relentless quest to prioritize and elevate the automobile’s dominance has destroyed many San Diego neighborhoods, as well as killed and injured countless lives. There is a way out and the only way forward is to move away from the automobile. But, to do that, we need everyone on board. Changing a culture isn’t easy, but neither is witnessing growing societal disparities where our own friends, neighbors, and service workers are denied a voice at the table of public resources.
So remember that while bike infrastructure is a solution, and a valuable one at that, sometimes it’s not a priority for other more pressing needs. The challenge is to dissect and understand the real concerns that cause greater disparity from ones that don’t. Stay tuned for more on this subject.
This was a long post to delve into. In future blog posts this post will be expanded to include topics such as:
- What are some things that other bike advocacy organizations have done to help bridge the gap?
- What exactly are some of the things BikeSD plans to do?
- What can I, as a volunteer do to help bridge the gap?
Samantha Ollinger is Executive Director of BikeSD. She is an accountant by trade and graduate of Temple University. She has a vision to transform San Diego into a world-class bicycle friendly city. She and two friends originally created BikeSD.org to change the conversation about bicycling in San Diego. She now has formalized the site into a non-profit organization that will push San Diego in reaching its potential as a world-class bicycle friendly city. You may reach Sam at sam@bikeSD.org