Responses to Cities, Bicycles and the Future of Getting Around

Last Thursday, June 17th, Nice Ride Minnesota paired with The Citizens League to host a bicycling themed Policy and a Pint. Panelists included David Byrne, musician and author of Bicycle Diaries, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, author Jay Walljasper, and bicycling advocate Steve Clark. Each panelist shared his view on the future of transportation. To encourage dialogue and to bring more perspectives to the table, Bike Walk Twin Cities invited several community leaders to attend the event and react to the presentation s as well as share their own visions of the future of getting around in our cities. What is your vision?

A Response to Cities, Bicycles and the Future of Getting Around

By Jose Luis Villaseñor, Executive Director of Browning the Green and host of the “Tamales y Bicicletas” Latino Youth Program

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I recently attended Nice Ride Minnesota’s event titled “Cities, Bicycles, and the Future of Getting Around” in the hopes of hearing how author Jay Walljasper, musician David Byrne, Mayor R.T. Rybak, and bike advocate Steve Clark envision the future of a sustainable transportation system that is equitable and accessible for all communities, including the Latino and immigrant community – a community I belong to and work with.

The panel conversation took me back to any apocalyptic movie like The Post Man; 1975 Omega Man; Water World and Mad Max where a cast of exclusively White characters are fighting to sustain life on a dying planet and the future survival of this sector of people is being defended by (again) another exclusively White cast of “he-roes.” Literally – all white men. And yes, there are no people of color – not in the apocalyptic movie nor in this public conversation about the future of biking and sustainable transportation. The question then becomes – how can we rewrite the script to this movie or imagine another movie all together where we truly include and engage all sectors of the population in a meaningful and grass-roots led effort to redefine, expand, and reinvigorate the discussions about the future of our cities, bicycles, and getting around?

As Executive Director of Browning the Green – an emerging community based organization that serves as a vehicle for the Latino and immigrant population to participate in growing the environmental justice field while working to increase the responsiveness of policies and systems to the needs of people of color and low-income communities – I believe that the invitation I received to attend this event was a positive step forward in diversifying the cast of characters in this movie and in this real life conversation. However, much more needs to be done in Minnesota in order to authentically engage and fund efforts to help low-income and communities of color participate in creating a better and more inclusive future of getting around. At the core of creating more equitable and accessible “green” methods of transportation and sustainability systems is an inherent unpacking of Ecoprivilege – the notion that for some “going green” is a choice where as for others, going green is not a trend nor a choice, it is a survival technique. After all, I am a strong believer that poor communities invented recycling.

As we move forward in our efforts in this front, I wonder – can we imagine a new panel conversation with multi-lingual translation, with panelists from various ages, genders, ethnicities, cultures, and class backgrounds? Can we work towards building neighborhoods where every youth has a reliable bike and access to winter clothing and equipment to let him or her ride bike to school year round? Can we create green jobs for our low-income neighbors and our own families so they can put food on the table while helping our whole communities move towards a more equitable and sustainable transportation system? If we can imagine it, we can build it. Nice Ride Minnesota’s panel event was a start for some people – but if we want to work to build inclusive and equitable communities where all are included then we must organize a different kind of conversation with a more colorful script.

Thoughts on: Cities, Bicycles, & the Future of Getting Around

By Mary Karlsson, PE Professional Engineer, Transportation Planner, Neighborhood Activist & Mom

David Byrne and Jay Walljasper hit on an idea that’s been troubling me about cycling for some time: it’s presently not viewed as “normal” in America. In my mind, this is the single, biggest challenge the cycling community needs to overcome before cycling will become an accepted way of getting around in the future and before our society will broadly commit to investing in appropriate infrastructure.

We’ve created the culture ourselves. If you walk into a bike shop, it feels like you’ve entered a different world. There’s lingo and gadgets galore. We’re taken a typically American approach to cycling by making it bigger and more specialized than anywhere else in the world, but is it better? Would my 65-year old mother be able to walk into a shop and find a reasonably priced and reasonably suited bike? My answer: she’d be too intimidated by all the specialization to walk into the shop in the first place. Our cycling culture is one of special: special vehicles (road bikes, mountain bikes, hybrid bikes, cruisers) with special seats, special shock absorbers, and special breaks that you ride with special shoes wearing special clothes and carrying a special bag. When you get where you’re going, you park your bike in a special locker or a special rack with a special lock and then proceed to special showers at work for the days we bike. Special, special, special –this is too complicated to be mainstream!

But it doesn’t have to be this way, and I’ve experienced it firsthand. I lived in a place where biking isn’t special – it’s normal. It’s normal to see all people, young and old, using bikes to go from here to there in their daily lives. They use their bicycle all of their lives. I know two women who have lived long lives, are productive to society, and traveled the world while having access to only a bicycle, mass transit (including taxis and air planes), and an occasional a private vehicle –but no driver’s licenses of their own. These women had careers and raised seven children between them. And bicycling was perfectly normal through the course of their lives and, from an American view, exceptionally unspecialized.

In this place, there are few special, tricked-out bikes on the street. Most are pretty standard (and locally manufactured) and include a basket on the front or back to carry groceries or briefcases. There, no one needs special bike lockers or racks or locks. You have a little deterrent on your back wheel to slow someone down, but the bikes are so standard there’s little incentive to steal it. And there’s no clothing or bags or showers. Leaving the house, or the store, or the office, or school and getting on your bike is as normal there as getting into a car is here.

But there is something special there –it’s not the bikes or the clothes or the support facilities –it’s the infrastructure. From my American point of view, what makes it special is that (a) it’s for people-powered activities like cycling, in-line skating, walking, or running, (b) the scale of the infrastructure network is appropriate and on par with that for motor-powered vehicles, and (c) the people-powered and motor powered infrastructure networks are integrated (motorists and cyclists safely coexist).

And it seems to me this is a direct reflection of our cultures. Here in the USA we pride ourselves in individualism, innovation, specialization and so we have an exclusive, highly specialized, individualized cycling culture. Whereas in the land of my other life, which happens to be Finland but could be a number of other places in our world, the people pride themselves on reason and equality. We Americans invest in specialization for individuals. Our counterparts invest in getting the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Our cycling culture reflects our collective priorities.

Jay talked about how cycling can be stereotyped as a male, upper-middle class, white activity. And David talked about how his friends ask him all kinds of curious questions about bicycling. My hope, as a professional civil engineer, transportation planner, but even more as a mom, is that we can change our cycling culture to allow cycling to become “just another way to get around” for my son, and as “normal” for people in Minneapolis-St. Paul as getting in a car is today.

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