Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Solving Social Equity for the Bicycle Movement

Over the past few years, some U.S. bicycle advocacy organizations have been grappling with concerns over social equity in our movement. Just recognizing that there is a problem with equity in bicycle programs is an enormous and admirable step, especially for national and bike industry organizations who have always been detached from the local level.

It’s easy to get caught up in our own program goals and not recognize that we may be leaving whole sectors of communities out because of location, age, income level, culture, or ability. That’s why One Street included social equity in our mission at our very start, so we could never forget. We’ve also gathered a few worthy resources on our Social Equity page, but it remains quite sparse.

Unfortunately, most of the recent attempts at the national level miss the mark that will actually solve the problem. Their detachment shows through their platitudes and jargon. Bicycle organizations are not alone in doing a poor job with this. Here’s an example, written by a national center that claims to be an expert on social inclusion as they attempt to teach a national bicycle organization what they know: Five Things the Bike Movement Can Do Now to Move Toward Racial Equity. Here are my concerns about each:

  • #1 Interrogate Root Cause of Disparities – They tell us to ask “why” five times. To whom? When we find five different pet peeves, do we go racing after solutions for each?

  • #2 Lift up Leadership of Color in Your Movement – Why would you choose a leader based on their skin color? Isn’t that the very thing that the civil rights movement has always combatted?

  • #3 Reframe the Message – Good idea, but their approach leads to jargon that I don’t even understand, let alone someone not yet interested in bicycling.

  • #4 Engage with Communities – I thought I’d agree with this one because, as you’ll read below, the solution centers on knowing your community (neighborhood, town, or city), but again it drifts into meaningless jargon muddying the definition of community.

  • #5 Share Power and Resources – It claims “plenty of ways” but opts again for a paragraph of jargon rather than helpful solutions.

Other national bicycle organizations or bike companies twist the concept of social equity to sell their programs such as protected bike lanes (which should be assumed to provide equal benefits to anyone) or bike share programs (which will never serve low-income riders).

I find the jargon and platitudes to be worse than the thinly veiled sales pitches because the reports and articles that result from these detached efforts are heavily funded and then promoted as “groundbreaking.” Anyone frustrated by seeing only one sector of their community riding bikes would be thrilled to find such a report. Instead, we find notes from endless discussions and surveys that always end with a fixation on skin color or assumed gender.

These useless attempts have only heightened the frustration at the local level. A recent article I posted about late last year reveals the level of frustration, not just from local bike advocates, but those who have had the misfortune to have worked on these reports.

To even start on a solution for our own communities (meaning neighborhood, town, or city), we first have to understand that any discussion of social equity derails as soon as we attempt to categorize people we see as different from ourselves and thus not equal. Such categorizing is different from recognizing unique qualities. For instance, young individuals could bring welcome energy. Old individuals are sure to have important experiences to share. Individuals from various cultures can offer new ideas. Individuals with disabilities can show able-bodied people what they struggle with.

The categorization I’m warning against is just a short misstep away from recognizing the value of individuals. Instead, it leaps to the assumption that all people with that trait will bring that particular value or, even worse, that particular complaint about bicycling. If you do take the time to read some of those misguided reports you’ll find far too many assumptions about “women,” “black people,” and “Latinos.”

To clarify, there are some excellent local bicycle organizations who focus on specific ages, cultures, abilities, or even gender identities. They are specialists who serve communities of traits rather than boundaries. They are helping to make the shift toward social equity by lifting those specific, marginalized communities, but none would claim that their organizations are inclusive or socially equal. They can’t be.

My concern is about bicycle organizations who should serve everyone, but present “social equity” as serving skin colors or genders. This confusion is not unique to bicycle organizations. Why is President Obama more black than white when he had one of each for parents? If a white baby is born to black parents he or she would be black by birth, but would be treated as and considered white by people who write social equity reports. If a woman is as assertive and athletic as male bicyclists, why is she grouped in with women who fear traffic in these reports?

The whole conversation needs to shift to a totally different mindset that all people have equal rights to bicycle. Bicycle advocacy is about breaking down barriers, about ensuring that everyone can choose to bicycle. If anyone in a certain community (neighborhood, town, or city) has the ability to ride a bike, but cannot, there is a problem that needs to be solved.

A neighborhood surrounded by freeways might have a predominance of black people. Advocates could look for gang violence and police brutality as possible barriers as these are frequently called out as barriers to bicycling in black neighborhoods. Here’s a classic example: People in Your Hood Ride Bikes to Shoot People. Just as likely, though, are those darn freeways. A tunnel or overpass that reconnects that neighborhood to the rest of the community could be all it takes to open the flood gates of bicycling.

The solution for social equity in the bicycle movement starts with knowing your community. No one at the national level can do this for you. Stop wasting time on all those jargon-filled reports. As I describe in Defying Poverty with Bicycles, take a long careful look at all the people in the community your organization serves. If it’s a retirement community, the vast majority should be over 60. You don’t have to worry if there aren’t that many kids riding. The neighborhood you serve may be mostly Latino with some white and Asian residents. Then don’t worry that black people aren’t bicycling there. Social equity for bicycling in your community will mean that the people who ride represent a cross section of that community.

Look past skin color and gender to see what obstacles these particular people face. Do they live in a neighborhood shunned by the city? Then their neighbors of all skin colors are also burdened by that problem. Are women not riding because they can’t ride with their children? Then single fathers and men who spend quality time with their children are also burdened by that problem.

If you find certain ages, cultures, income levels, and/or abilities missing from the people bicycling, only then should you begin your investigation into the problem – why they aren’t riding. If people with certain traits aren’t attending your events and engaging as volunteers or leaders, something needs to change in your bicycle programs to make them valuable and interesting to people like that. If the problem is external, define it and then launch a customized campaign to solve that particular problem. Read our Campaign Planning page for specific steps or email me at sue{at}onestreet.org for help. That’s what I’m here for.

If we expect the bicycle movement to equally serve all people, we have to shift our focus from skin color and assumed genders to honoring the expertise of local leaders of bicycle organizations who are the only ones who can truly assess the inequality of their particular communities. By dropping the national bravado and supporting these local leaders toward their unique solutions, the entire bicycle movement will eventually shift toward social equity.