When Los Angeles resident and bicyclist Lena Williams thinks about biking safety, it’s not the signs asking cars to slow down or to make room for cyclists that come to mind. Williams is the bicycle safety education manager at People for Mobility Justice, a grassroots organization dedicated to furthering transportation equity in the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles County. In her experience, discussions around making the city more bike friendly regularly ignore one of the biggest barriers BIPOC face in accessing any public space safely and equitably: police.
“When we’re talking about safety of Black and brown people, whether that’s on bike, whether we’re on foot, however, we’re deciding that we’re going to move through these public spaces, police have always been a problem,” Williams said.
Bicycling has exploded in popularity amidst the pandemic, and according to Williams, it’s time for city officials to bridge the gap between BIPOC communities and cycling. Bicycling has increased among BIPOC communities, more so than among other racial or ethnic groups, even while majority-BIPOC neighborhoods are often over-policed and under-resourced, especially in terms of roadways, sidewalks, and cycling infrastructure.
“We’ve got this huge growth of cyclists of color, but it’s not mirrored in the city decision making,” said Tufts University professor of urban and environmental policy and planning Julian Agyeman.
According to advocates of mobility justice, the freedom to move with dignity and safety is going to take more than pushing for improvements to bicycling infrastructure and creating incentives for bike commuting to encourage BIPOC cyclists to feel safe on the streets. Experts say that the underlying racism embedded in city planning and conventional ideas of public safety must be addressed before any physical infrastructure changes can be made.
As the bicycle safety education manager at People for Mobility Justice, Williams partners with city agencies and other grassroots or nonprofit organizations to provide bicycle education demonstrations, host bicycle “rodeos,” and teach community members how to navigate multimodal roadways, often shared spaces with pedestrians and cars. People for Mobility Justice has also worked with the Los Angeles Department of Public Health to execute the bicycle curriculum and workshops. Since the onset of the pandemic, Williams’ work has shifted online, offering virtual classes and bicycle mechanics skills training sessions in order to help get people back on the road quickly.
By working closely with communities least serviced and historically disadvantaged by local and municipal governments, Williams said there are many immediate changes public officials could enact to increase roadway safety for cyclists. Streetlights, cleaner bike lanes, road material paved to slow car traffic, speed humps, and trees that offer shade along bike lanes and near bus stops would dramatically change the experience of cyclists and demonstrate that the city wants to invest in BIPOC neighborhoods. And these aren’t just changes that improve conditions for bicyclists, rather they’re road safety measures that would benefit neighborhoods as a whole.
But that’s not exactly what’s been happening. Among city planners and public officials, police aren’t often viewed as a deterrent to bicycling. Cycling is typically solely linked with its benefits of increased mental, emotional, and physical health outcomes, but policing changes this and brings potential harm. For BIPOC, bicycling is connected to increased police encounters, which often lead to the exact issues that bike commuting should address: elevated stress on mental and emotional health, and physical injury or worse. For many, the benefits of cycling don’t seem to outweigh the risks. Williams said that public agencies have put money toward signage that encourages cars to slow down and share the road, but “that’s not really what’s going to do the trick,” Williams said. Rather, city officials need to understand that when it comes to moving through and making use of public spaces, BIPOC cyclists have to think about their movement differently, and city bike infrastructure plans need to take that into account.
Systemic racism within policing and urban planning harms BIPOC cyclists
Studies in major cities of police treatment toward cyclists find that BIPOC cyclists are more likely to interact with police and receive a citation or ticket, despite comprising a smaller share of cyclists and residents in the city overall. Conversely, while white bicyclists are most likely to use the road, they’re least likely to be ticketed. In some cases, Black cyclists have been killed by police. On Aug. 31, 2020, Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies killed a 29-year-old Black man named Dijon Kizzee, who police said was riding his bicycle in the wrong direction. In response, Williams began thinking about what would be the best safety advice to offer in classes.
“It’s not that I ever feel … absolute confidence to tell people that you’re going to be safe on a bike because we have no way of guaranteeing absolute safety,” Williams said. “Maybe we tell people, don’t get on a bike right now because you might be killed.”
Both city infrastructure and the racist origins of policing contribute to the disproportionate and targeted surveillance and ticketing BIPOC cyclists face, experts say. For starters, majority-BIPOC neighborhoods often lack biking infrastructure, offering police ample opportunities to ticket cyclists for riding or walking their bikes on sidewalks, which in many places is a traffic violation. But more fundamentally, Agyeman said, BIPOC bicyclists are targeted by racialization and criminalization that make them vulnerable to police presence. The barriers they face require shifting political and cultural perspectives as much as the way roads are constructed.
“As transportation planners, we’ve gone straight to the physical infrastructure, when for Black cyclists—and there are growing numbers of them—it’s not about infrastructure so much,” Agyeman said. “Cycling while Black is an issue. We are policing Blackness and brownness in these cities.”
The data reflects this. The Chicago Tribune found that in the first nine months of 2017, 321 tickets were issued to cyclists in a majority Black neighborhood in the city. For comparison, over that same period of time, police ticketed cyclists in a neighboring white community just five times. And not only do BIPOC cyclists face higher rates of ticketing and citation, one New York-based study found that 24 out of the 26 vehicle-related mortalities in 2020 occurred in lower-income neighborhoods, where residents are more likely to be people of color.
Other analysis found that 91% of streets in high-income neighborhoods have sidewalks, whereas 58% of low-income neighborhood streets have sidewalks. According to some research, the income of a neighborhood is directly linked with how dangerous it is for pedestrians for the same reason streets are unsafe for cyclists—a lack of sidewalks and streets designed to prioritize car travel.
Jimmy Shoemaker, a senior city planner in St. Paul, Minnesota, is leading the proposal to update the city’s bike plan, which is slated to be approved by the city council later this year. The current plan, first implemented in 2015, shows that many of the neighborhoods lacking sidewalks and bike paths are concentrated on the East Side, which tends to be lower income and have more residents of color. Most of the bikeways that are planned for construction will also be in lower-income neighborhoods.
Shoemaker presented potential plans to over 30 city groups and solicited responses to an online survey about St. Paul residents’ relationship to biking. But Shoemaker said that the 1,700 survey responses were “overwhelmingly white.” The office that’s tasked with updating the bike plan doesn’t track demographic or racial data of cyclists making use of bike paths and city streets, also known as a “bike count,” which Shoemaker attributes to a lack of staff capacity. As a result, it’s the concerns and priorities of white residents that largely drive the development and implementation of infrastructure, including where and how bike plans are put into place, while the perspectives and needs of BIPOC are left out of the picture almost entirely.
Additionally, Jesus Barajas, an assistant professor in the department of environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis, conducted research that found that a lack of infrastructure and police presence in underserved neighborhoods go hand in hand—the physical design of neighborhoods and disparate implementation of bike lanes allow racist enforcement of traffic laws to flourish. Together with the overrepresentation of white residential needs in city development and planning, BIPOC cyclists become trapped in an ongoing cycle in which infrastructure ignores or is outright hostile to their use, which discourages BIPOC from participating in further city plans, which leads to their needs being underrepresented in infrastructure development, and so on.
“Riding a bicycle on the sidewalk is not, on its face, an issue of racial profiling, but it’s the structural conditions that lead to those disproportionate impacts that police departments need to be aware of,” Barajas said.
Many public officials have yet to acknowledge the problem
In Los Angeles, getting to the root cause of cyclist safety depends on perspective. City planners and public officials view police as helping to support safety, whereas those who’ve been targeted by police, like Williams, view them as meant to monitor and control Black and brown people. Williams hasn’t been in the room with city planners when discussing road safety measures and bike lane improvements; those discussions generally take place between a community partner organization and the city.
There hasn’t been much movement in the mindsets of city officials, but Williams is optimistic. “I’m hopeful that there will be no more conversations that are focused on how dangerous and how detrimental it is to our experience as Black and brown people moving through public spaces, to have to deal with the police, how traumatizing it can be, just given the history of how the police have dealt with all of the things that have occurred, and that continue to occur,” Williams said.
As for the history of urban planning—which Agyeman refers to as a field built to create and further racist inequities in housing, education, and health—Shoemaker doesn’t believe he has the answers within his role for legacies of historical injustices, especially since the city of St. Paul has no dedicated funding for the bike plan. Any funding used to rehabilitate existing bike lanes and build separated bike lanes has to be dispersed from the general fund and would be tied to other road improvements, which means that a little money is going to have to stretch a long way, Shoemaker said.
“So I think the bottom line is that … we’re making this plan to give more comfortable and safe spaces for people,” Shoemaker said. “I think, just generally, the plan is trying to reduce conflicts between different road users by making it safer and more comfortable to ride in the city, and, I guess outside of that, if we give those spaces there will be less perceived or real infractions that are unlawful, I would hope.”
Shoemaker does believe that safe mobility is a right, and hopes that the bike plan is able to “provide that right of safe mobility to folks, and as much as we can, to prioritize our investments in the neighborhoods that most need them.”
The solutions require more than “good intentions”
Ultimately, which city departments designing infrastructure or police address how and why residents bike is an “issue and a question of power,” Barajas said. A city manager doesn’t necessarily have power over a police chief or department, and making a BIPOC cyclist’s journey free of racialization requires more than simply bringing together public planning experts and police officers. Other impacts on communities, like a more inclusive and extensive transportation plan or housing plan, need to be considered as well.
“I think it’s important for planners to see outside of the infrastructure and think about community [needs] more broadly,” Barajas said.
Agyeman said that the solution requires much more than the good intentions of an urban planner. It’s imperative that planners designing community infrastructure come from the communities they’re working in. Urban planning is overwhelmingly white, Agyeman said, and it’s not enough to be able to connect the dots between systems of oppression and violence.
“We need more people who look like the communities in which they’re planning,” Agyeman said. “You don’t get to greater justice outcomes and equitable outcomes unless you start with equity and social justice in the policy design process in the planning process.”
“I think this is kind of a pivotal moment for equity in the transportation field that we haven’t seen in a very long time,” Barajas said.
He’s hopeful that the swell of racial justice and equity organizing catalyzed by the response to the murder of George Floyd will continue to push local officials to “think about what racial equity means and the kind of work that they’re doing.”
For Williams, the goal of mobility justice is the guiding force behind the work: “I dream of a day where Black and brown people have the freedom and resources to move in this space, just as our white counterparts.”