Adonia Lugo: Bike Advocates Need to Stop Overlooking Issues of Race and Class

Lugo's new book "Bicycle/Race" argues that bike planning discussions must take "human infrastructure" into account

A Divvy station in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood. Photo: John Greenfield
A Divvy station in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood. Photo: John Greenfield

“Riding a bicycle had given me more of a sense of physical power than I’d ever had; and not just physical, I felt I could change the world.” — Adonia Lugo, PhD, “Bicycle/Race”

A few weeks ago, I was at a laundromat in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood reading Adonia Lugo’s new book “Bicycle / Race: Transportation, Culture, and Resistance” when I caught the eye of a little girl.

She came up to me where I was sitting and got up close to me and asked me, “What are you reading?” I told her I was reading a book about bikes. She looked at my book cover curiously. The cover portrays a brown fist holding up a bike. “Why is there a hand with a bike in it?” I wasn’t sure how to answer her question, but that question forms the basis of this book. How and who does biking connect to community empowerment for people of color?

What made me particularly excited to read this book was the fact that someone named Adonia Lugo wrote it, and that says a lot about the bicycling world. Women, much less women of color, very rarely frame the narratives of bicycling. Unquestionably, it’s usually white men that dominate the narrative.

I was excited how the lived experience of a self-described “half-Mexican, half-white” woman from Southern California who described bicycling as a “possible tool for liberation” could reframe the conversation and who would be the people she would center. It seems only fitting that Lugo started her book with the story of Juan Umberto Barranco.

Umberto Barranco was biking home on a sidewalk in 2007 in Southern California when an intoxicated motorist jumped the curb and struck him. He had been a busboy at a local Denny’s. It was a powerful story to start with because it reminded me of so many people like him whom I see on a daily basis in Chicago, such as those older Latino men on the sidewalks of Archer Avenue in Brighton Park or on the sidewalks of 26th Street in Little Village.

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Those are people who don’t compete with me for road space when I’m biking. As Lugo puts it, “Unlike me, the men on the sidewalk seemed to care more about survival than feeling powerful, respecting the hierarchy of the street rather than trying to disrupt it.”

However, not even the apparent safety of the curb saved Umberto Barranco. It went deeper than mere infrastructure, which is exactly what Lugo sought to explore in her work and through this book.

Centering the lived experiences of marginalized residents is at the core of Lugo’s vision of human infrastructure to reimagine mobility justice in our neighborhoods, and that’s the aspect of her book that most struck me. “It was the people, not the traffic infrastructure who decided the order of the street,” Lugo writes.

Part of what Lugo explores is the relationships or lack thereof, between different types of bicyclists. On one hand, we have “transit-dependent” or “captive” bicyclists, who are cyclists who don’t have the option to drive. On the other, we have “car-free” bicyclists, those who have other options but choose to bike. Lugo says that the current bike movement tends to focus on the latter type of bicyclist. How do we find a common cause between them? When we focus on the priorities of people bike by choice, how do we further marginalize the people Lugo describes as engaging in “economic survival cycling?”

Lugo argues building bike lanes isn’t necessarily going to liberate our streets if we ignore the glaring racial, socioeconomic, and cultural issues that divide us. Do bike lanes matter when we disregard the people who are most marginalized on our streets? Would bike lanes address the root cause of car culture?

I was skeptical of this idea because I generally see bike lanes as a good thing, but I don’t think she’s saying that bike lanes are necessarily bad. Lugo argues that we miss the bigger picture when our bicycling advocacy work is merely focused on physical infrastructure. She vividly describes biking around the empty streets of Detroit and the realization that she wanted to change transportation culture more than street design. “When I’m waiting at a red light on my bike it’s not the markings on the street that make me feel out of place,” she writes. “I feel out of place because the driver behind me is honking.” Are bike lanes sometimes merely Band-Aids when it’s actually necessary to unpack why there’s so much hostility separating us on the road?

A bike advocacy approach that merely focuses on physical infrastructure overlooks key questions, while the human-infrastructure strategy centers the stories and identities that shapes how we travel. Lugo says “We carry our identities and histories with us as we mobilize into public spaces like streets…”

This is why the story of Umberto Barranco is so crucial. How would bike planning and advocacy change if more people like him were at the table? What would we learn? The people who show up for community meetings about new bike projects are rarely the ones on the margins, whether due to lack of interest, logistical barriers to attendance, or fear of interacting with government entities. The urban planning process is not welcoming to those on the margins.

Lugo sought to engage more people in bicycling through effort, such as the CicLAvia, an Latin American-inspired event launched in 2010 that opens a stretch of Los Angeles city streets for car-free recreation, or City of Lights/Ciudad de Luces, a program that provides bike lights and safety information to bicyclists, particularly working-class, Latino immigrants.

Adonia Lugo. Photo via University of California Irvine School of Social Sciences
Adonia Lugo. Photo via University of California Irvine School of Social Sciences

Reading about Lugo’s work to empower blue-collar, Latino immigrants struck a chord because these are the residents I see on a daily basis riding their bikes on the streets around my home in Little Village. These are the residents that remind me of my family. Lugo rightly points out the complexities of engaging Latino residents in Los Angeles, particularly if they are undocumented. “It seemed likely that some bicycle users felt safer staying hidden, and I knew how much work went into being invisible.” Do mainstream bicycle advocates often consider the experiences of undocumented immigrants on bikes?

Allowing more lived experiences to come into the fields of bicycling planning and advocacy could potentially help better align them with social justice movements. Lugo argues that the biggest indicator that bicycling advocacy is not aligned with social justice is the association it often has with gentrification. Through her work, she has heard the language utilized by bike advocates that often tied bicycling with trendy urban design.

She describes the dangers of the design-based approach, “Focusing on urban design, rather than the people who inhabit and produce places, all too easily naturalizes their market-driven displacement.”

This particular point really struck me because it pointed to the alienation that I have often felt in talking about streets, transit, and bikes. I often feel that I’m hearing people talk about space without the people in it. Perhaps that is what can make urban planning so removed from everyday people. For me, centering marginalized people before even starting to talk about infrastructure is the way to get equitable streets, which isn’t what Lugo thinks is happening. “Advocates seemed to want the public to view bicycling the way they did: as something for normal (i.e., white or at least economically secure) people, not something for the poor (who were probably Black or Brown),” she says.

If we want to reframe bicycling beyond the pastime of white men, we need to utilize other strategies beyond constructing new bikeways. Otherwise, we continue the marginalization of people who use bicycling to survive. As Lugo offered challenges to the status quo, I kept waiting for her to offer clear alternatives, but that was missing her point.

Lugo isn’t purporting to have all the answers; she is pointing out that we need to change the current way of doing things and that we need to challenge ourselves to come up with those solutions through a diverse coalition of voices. “Why are we waiting for new infrastructure to liberate our streets when we can reshape human infrastructure to reshape our streets?” she asks.

For me, it all boils down to finding how bicycling can be used as a tool for liberation, as Lugo puts it early in the book.

Sure, I ride my bike because it gets me places, but I also ride because it makes me feel powerful, but that power doesn’t have to look any one way and I think that’s the point.

Empowerment on a bike can mean being able to ride without fear of being pulled over by the authorities. It can mean seeing others that look like you riding next to you. It can mean finding a mellow bike route to and from your house to the grocery store. It can mean riding alone on the street for the first time. Power on a bike isn’t only a white man in a bike lane, and that’s the crucial point of reframing bicycling for all.

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  • planetshwoop

    It would be nice if the ATA did work for the people who pedal heavy trikes to sell ice cream (and bring so many kids joy).

    I quite enjoyed this story from 2006 that profiles some of the cyclists you are talking about: https://www.bicycling.com/news/a20049826/how-low-income-cyclists-go-unnoticed/

  • rohmen

    I know bike lanes aren’t the real point of this article, and not trying to derail, but the thing that upsets me even on a bike lane infrastructure level in terms of under-served areas of Chicago is what happens after they’re put in.

    Sure, Rahm/CDOT did a big push to add bike lanes to many historically under-served areas of the City, but the City often did it as more of a road calming measure instead of in a way that was designed to actually accommodate community needs. Moreover, once the City puts the lanes in as part of a project, it’s often left up to the Alderman to use their discretionary funds to upkeep them. How does an Alderman in an under-served area justify doing that when the community itself maybe hasn’t embraced the lanes fully, and the money is needed elsewhere? So, in the end, the lanes simply disintegrate and become yet another example of how things are under-resourced in these areas. I’ve seen this play out in countless examples on the west side.

    This article is spot-on that more than just infrastructure is needed, but even the way we do the infrastructure points to simply window dressing larger issues in the City.

  • Brad Nagle

    Are there examples of orgs doing this sort of work in Chicago?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Equiticity, Slow Roll Chicago, and Go Bronzeville are some of the local leaders in this field, and the local nonprofit bike shops and youth education centers like Blackstone Bicycle Works, Working Bikes Cooperative, West Town Bikes, Bikes N’ Roses, and the Recyclery also tackle these issues in their work. The Active Transportation Alliance has also been paying more attention to social justice issues in recent years (example: https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/displacement-606-paseo-recreation-trails-transit-oriented-development-logan-square/Content?oid=28849131.)

  • Brad Nagle

    Great list, thanks!

  • Kenny Easwaran

    This sounds like a book I should look at! I recall a few years ago when Dr. Lugo’s work was getting picked up on Streetsblog LA, and I’m glad to see that she’s bringing it to a wider audience.

    One thing that seems to me really important in all of this, which seems closely related to her point, is that physical infrastructure is usually most effective when it can be used to actually affect the social structures. Putting in a bike lane doesn’t do much of anything if drivers still go just as fast and feel just as entitled to speed past cyclists or ignore their safety.

    But I take it that one of the important features of some aspects of recent urbanist movements is that they’ve focused on the way that some social structures are most effectively changed *by* changing the material conditions of the streetscape. If you want to slow down cars, you could attempt to do a mass education campaign about the dangers of speeding, while increasing police presence and enforcement of speed limits, but that is likely to be only marginally effective, and also worsen the problems associated with heavy policing in immigrant communities and communities of color. If you can instead remove the police presence, while narrowing the lanes, planting trees, and making bike paths *look* like they’re meant for ordinary people to use (rather than being next to fast cars), you’ll slow down car traffic and give people the freedom to choose to use bikes without obstruction from cars or police.

    A lot of contemporary talk about urban infrastructure does sound like it’s about discussions of space without people, and that is a major mistake. But we do need to be thinking about the space and the infrastructure, and in many cases, the most effective way to reshape the social structures is by reshaping the spaces with a good understanding of how these spaces empower and disempower different classes of people to do different things.

  • Ray Tylicki

    In Buffalo NY we installed 2 brand new bike lockers…at subways stations in the inner city and 2 years later they are completely destryed

  • Stephen Simac

    Umberto was killed by a drunk motorist jumping the sidewalk curb (not uncommon) because sidewalks provide only an illusion of safety for cyclists, while endangering pedestrians. We teach children to ride on sidewalks for safety, and many cyclists choose to use them because they seem safer than sharing the road with aggressive, distracted and impaired drivers, but they’re not. Far more common injuries from riding on sidewalks happen from crashes because of obstacles (sidewalks are purposely littered with them) including pedestrians and other bicyclists or collisions with motor vehicles at intersecting driveways or cross streets. Bike lanes, (unless a shared full curb lane with a 20 mph speed limit) offer the same illusion of safety, without even a curb. Some plastic bollards or a lane of parked cars constitutes “protected” bike lanes, but have the same problem with intersections and other users of differing skills and speeds. Education is a solution, but not if it offers the wrong answer, or isn’t understood or accepted.

  • Steve SanFrancisco

    “Focusing on urban design, rather than the people who inhabit and produce places, all too easily naturalizes their market-driven displacement.”

    Best part of article for me.

  • Steve SanFrancisco

    sounds like the bike lockers delivered more value/$ in 2 years than a new phone that is also worthless and completely destroyed in 2 years. Everything wears out and gets destroyed if it isn’t maintained. the question is how much value did the bike lockers produce in 2 years and why weren’t they maintained so they would continue to produce value?

  • Ray Tylicki

    Our bike lockers were paid by with a Fed Grant and run by a 3rd party. NFTA maintenance unions would not touch them because they are not NFTA property and no one rellay knew who was resposible for them.

  • Ray Tylicki

    Yes and somebody got value from my Schwinn I hope they enjoy it.

  • Steve SanFrancisco

    Yep, that will cause a project to fail.

    I still, I wonder if it wasn’t a profitable idea even for a 2 year single investment. It would be hard to quantify how much value was delivered by the bicycle lockers per $ of infrastructure investment without some sort of monitoring of usage levels and costs accounting which was likely never even attempted. It might even be possible the bike lockers made a profit over the 2 years just from bike lock tolls (if the bike lockers cost money) or from increased usage of bicycles and time saved for the community.

    considering the cost of bike lockers is relatively low and if someone makes $100/hr and saves 6 minutes (0.1 hours) then they would save $10 of value every time they used a bike locker? That would pay for the bike lockers pretty fast. but if the average user makes only $10/hr and saves 6 minute of time by using the bike lockers then it would produce only $1 of value every time the bike locker was used. maybe it cost more value than it produced? Kind of depends on if it was used by rich people or poor people? In general we know that bike lockers can be operated at a profit in some cases depending on the demographics and use and life expectancy. We know it’s possible because there are places where they have for profit bike lockers that make a profit. But in this case?

  • Ray Tylicki

    They were bring your own lock bike lockers. NFTA Police Chief George Gast are still trying to decide if it was there responsibility or “Buffalo GO Bike” .. https://gobikebuffalo.org/ Anyway there are dozens of community orgs that get grants take there cut off the top and then move on to the next grant opportunity to make more cash to pay there salerys

  • Ray Tylicki

    They were bring your own lock bike lockers. NFTA Police are still trying to decide if there respiblity. Buffalo GO Bike is one of many community orgs that is inthe buisness of writing grants and then taking there cut and moving on to the next projexct

  • Steve SanFrancisco

    Anyone desperate enough to spend their time and risk getting caught to steal a Schwinn deserves a free Schwinn out of general human compassion. it’s like if someone is faking suicide, they obviously deserve a few minutes of attention from a psychiatrist because they are in such a bad place that they would resort to faking suicide.

    But that doesn’t mean you deserved to have your Schwinn stolen. Ultimately the Schwinn theft is a sign that our economic and political system has failed to provide the basic necessities to all people. The government and rich people of the world should buy you a brand new Schwinn since it’s their failures and greed that led to a world where someone would feel the need to steal a schwinn (or fake suicide).

    Also, since wage theft amounts to 3 times the total dollar loss as all other property theft combined (including stealing you schwinn) it seems like employers have a debt to pay and should be giving their employees free schwinns just as a settlement penalty for employer and business theft globally. A lot of those poor people who have to resort to stealing a schwinn got that poor because they were stolen from by employers.

    A decent government would automatically compensate people for stolen property since preventing that sort of thing is part of what we pay government our taxes for. Government promises it will stop you from being victimized if you surrender rights and give them to police officers and if you surrender your money in taxes and give it to the government.
    When government fails to protect the public, the government should have to give a refund on the taxes and their broken promise. The government is like an insurance salesman that says it can keep your bike safe and then doesn’t pay up when something happens to your bike.

    Bad government.

  • Steve SanFrancisco

    So many community orgs that get grants for good projects have them sabotaged by establishment insiders who appose them secretly and want to see them fail because they threaten the establishment power and salaries. No party loyalist bureaucrat wants some upstart community org to successfully accomplish what they can’t or don’t want to do. Seems like in this case for sure, there is nothing the community org could have done and it was the establishment power interests trying to defend their turf and control. It looks kind of bad when a community org succeeds in doing something and getting credit for it that some over paid appointee with insider connections and a private agenda said was impossible or undesirable.

    It’s not uncommon for status quo establishment types to try to sabotage any thing new that might upset their position of power and privilege. They even brag about it sometimes behind closed doors. Establishment vested interests are probably the cause of more sabotaged community initiatives than you think. It’s understandable since the establishment status quo politicians and power brokers want to make the most money and not share with any new groups (community based or otherwise).

  • Ray Tylicki

    How do I email you?

  • Ray Tylicki

    It would be cheaper to give poor people electric bikes then to subsidize the slow transit system that we have now. It would also be cheaper to have a UBER vanpool system as well since Buffalo is a small city. When we built the Subway we had 700,000 people now we are down to 280,000 people.

  • Ray Tylicki

    I contacted Justin Booth of GO BIKE Buffalo (https://gobikebuffalo.org/about/staff/) and told him about both sets of lockers being vandalized and he said that he was not interested in replacing them. The First Locker was vandalized within 3 weeks of installing them last year at LaSalle Subway Station and the Second Bike Locker at University was destroyed and cut into with bolt cutters over the past winter. The Bike Lockers were paid for by a Federal Grant from ISTEA or whatever they call the program that pays for bike trails and ped and bike improvements. Once GOBIKE writes the grant and installs the project they take there cut and move on to next project. GOBIKE is a NGO that gets money from the city and state and fed grants. They can get money to start projects but they rarely can get money to fund operating expenses. They can get money to build a bike path but ongoing maintaince is up to local governments who are often broke. The Elgin Rail Trail is a prime example which is pristine in the suburbs but is pot holed in the City of Chicago. Riverdale can get grant money to build bus shelters but not money to maintain them. so on and so forth

  • Steve SanFrancisco

    by telling me why you want my email and then giving me your email and asking me to write you so you can reply?

  • Ray Tylicki
  • Ray Tylicki

    Talk about South Shore railroad and there bike policy

  • Steve SanFrancisco

    So I’m not really local and not usually interested in bike policy. I live in SF and I have a project to promote a bicycle highway over market street. . . Maybe start by watching a 5 minute youtube video to make sure we’re interested in talking about the same sorts of solutions (low cost suspension cable elevated bicycle highways over busy urban streets.)?
    https://youtu.be/DGjdAaF-cC8 Usually I don’t spend my time on bicycling issues and talking about the south shore railroad and there bike policy doesn’t sound that fun or relevant to me. But if you watch the video and want to comment and have a discussion there, it would be perhaps be something I would be interested in discussing more.

    Mostly I talk about a novel solution to poverty in general which I’m focused on if you want to discuss how to make money as a seller by charging more to rich people and less to poor people for the same thing, then lets talk about that at https://goo.gl/c6DC8i .

  • Steve SanFrancisco

    Sorry, I don’t think it’s the sort of discussion I want to have over email and I’m not sure I want to have the conversation much at all. There’s just other things I want to do and I have a full email in box already. I wish you luck and might chat on a few topics if it’s convenient, but email seems like a commitment to me on a topic far away and remote from me personally. Sorry for suggesting I would email you. I thought it might be about another topic more relevant to me and more immediate for me.

  • Ray Tylicki

    Can U take bikes on the Cable Car in San Fran? Those hills are a killer.

  • Ray Tylicki

    I Like the elevated bike and ped ways…But expecting the government to pay for it is not always the solution. Having some sort of corporate sponsorship and charging a toll might help.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Gentlemen, your discussion is getting pretty far away from the topic of the article. Please take it somewhere else. Thanks.

  • Steve SanFrancisco

    I am not apposed to corporate sponsorship and charging a toll. Hardly seems necessary since the cost of a suspension cable lightwight bicycle bridge will be like 20% the cost of road infrastructure to cary the same traffic underneath the bicycle highway. Maybe easier to state the cost of a bicycle highway over market street as less than the profit to be made by getting the bicycles off market street and letting cars have another lane on the road. I think the math is something like (A) build another lane for cars above market street @ $2000/ft or (B) build another lane for bicycles above market street and give the old bicycle lane on the ground back to the cars @ $200/ft .

    A similar solution would be to give large buildings in SF the option to build dedicated bicycle highway extensions to the upper offices of the execs so the CEO’s can bicycle down hill through the sky from their tall buildings on a private bicycle highway leading to their rich neighborhoods or connecting to a public shared free bicycle highway grid. There’s a salesforce building in SF that could support a bicycle highway going downhill to Knob hill and other rich parts of SF. presumably, it would only be used by salesforce employees bicycling home from work or they could charge a fee for the public to take an elevator to the top and then ride downhill to anywhere in SF. Certainly Salesforce and other business could put advertisements in their 2nd floor, 3rd floor and up windows where the bicycle highway passes by. Macy’s could have their own 5th floor exit and entrance to the bicycle highway grid with their own branding and toll fees.

  • Steve SanFrancisco

    @Mod,

    Sorry for off topic. Will do. Just read your message. I’m done here. thanks for indulging my digression.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Hey guys, like I said, this thread has nothing to do with the article. Please move this discussion offline or further comments will be deleted. Thanks.

  • Ray Tylicki

    Then please start a CHI Streetblog public forum

  • Ray Tylicki

    Earthquakes in San Fran? hate to be on this when this happens. However be great for warm weather place or resort

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Feel free to post on our Facebook page or tweet to us:
    https://www.facebook.com/StreetsblogChicago/
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