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  • Clarrissa Cabansagan

Undoing Systemic Racism with Better Bike Planning

A group of riders from Scraper Bike Team bicycle on an Oakland Street

The definition of a systemic problem is that it shows up everywhere. It’s tough to root out a systemic problem, but the silver lining is that you can start anywhere. Oaklanders are working to dismantle systemic racism from a lot of different angles, including our new bike plan, Let's Bike Oakland. Thanks to an unprecedented collaboration between residents, advocates, and city staff, the plan does more to identify and address historic and ongoing injustice and inequities in biking than any other bike plan we’ve heard of.

Barriers to biking are alive and well in Oakland, as they are in cities across the nation. This should come as no surprise—we’ve spent over half a century engineering our streets to allow cars to go fast. We dismantled public transit streetcar and rail lines to make way for yesterday’s new technology—the (dockless!) personal automobile. Fast forward to 2019, cities are seeking to roll back car-centric planning and the inequities it brought with it, from air pollution to climate change.

As urban centers continue to attract more and more people, they all have this challenge: How to prioritize carbon-free travel options when the people who have the most to gain from them—Black and brown communities—are rapidly being priced out of walkable, bikeable, transit-rich places?

Here in Oakland, we are digging deep to ensure planning and policy for biking remedies historic and ongoing injustices that planning has perpetuated in the past. Below are a few ways the Oakland Bike Plan is:

  1. Identifying the real barriers and gaps that exist, including those that are products of structural racism beyond transportation.

  2. Finding community-based solutions to close those gaps and (if fully implemented) move us towards undoing systemic racism.

BARRIER: Policing practices disproportionately target people of color riding bicycles, and this deters people in Oakland from bicycling. The Bike Plan calls out the disproportionate policing of Black residents on bikes. In Deep East Oakland, 90% of bike stops are of Black cyclists, who only make up 25% of Oakland’s population. The term “bike safety” takes on a whole different meaning for people of color. Of course, we also know that racially biased policing extends way beyond biking.

STRATEGY: Improve monitoring of police stops to include transportation mode, and include data on race, gender, and reasons for stops in annual bicycling reports. Convene inter-departmental conversations based on annual police stop data, and explore including police officers’ racial bias metrics in performance reviews. Develop non-punitive approaches to safety enforcement.

BARRIER: To feel comfortable biking, people need to see themselves and their experience in the bike culture of Oakland, and get instruction and encouragement from culturally relevant programs. The city has focused on infrastructure in the past, leaving bike programming and education to others, on a largely volunteer basis.

STRATEGY: Funding bicycle programs are equally as important as funding bicycle infrastructure in creating a safe biking environment for people of color (POC). Social bike clubs and culturally relevant programs offer safe spaces for people to learn how to ride and repair bikes, receive encouragement from the appropriate mentors, and find a supportive community. This strategy has been proven to increase biking in Black and brown communities whether or not the infrastructure exists.

BARRIER: Black and Brown communities have disparate access to comfortable places to ride and have been historically underserved in terms of transportation investments (e.g. infrequent transit, poor pavement conditions).

STRATEGY: Prioritize infrastructure funds for Black and brown communities with the greatest disparity. Collaborate with local neighborhoods and POC leaders to implement community-driven ideas that build up existing bike culture led by POC and youth. Exhaust every opportunity to enable self-determination and cultural expression in bike infrastructure. For example, plans to convert the center lane on 90th Avenue into a bikeway formalize how community members are currently riding, though planners might say it is "unsafe." Oakland isn’t forcing the usual curbside protected bikeway concept on a street where there is already a popular way to ride — it’s using infrastructure to make how people ride safer.

BARRIER: Lack of bike repair shops and resource centers.

STRATEGY: Create pathways for Black and brown communities to lead and benefit from the local biking economy. Flex the city budget to create new bike jobs. For example, Let’s Bike Oakland has a goal to turn its public libraries — a resource center frequented by low-income residents — into community bike resource centers, including by hiring two bike mechanics as public library staff.

These are just a few highlights from Let's Bike Oaklandit’s a readable, informative, and powerful plan that is well worth looking at in its entirety for anyone interested in biking, city planning, racial and social equity, and how those topics intersect.

It’s also crucial to recognize the hard work of all our community partners — their leadership on community engagement steered the plan’s conclusions and recommendations toward equity. We’re happy to attest that community and grassroots were instrumental in shaping the plan itself. Many of the priorities in the plan (both problems and solutions) came from community partners like Cycles of Change, Bikes4Life, Scraper Bike Team, Outdoor Afro, East Oakland Collective, Bike East Bay, and Walk Oakland Bike Oakland. The plan development process was an exercise in systemic change-making and trust-building, and that’s evident in the final product.

That level of engagement isn't free, or at least it shouldn't be. The City of Oakland did an unprecedented thing to fund five local community-based organizations to lead the community process in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Too often, organizations on a shoe-string budget are expected to participate in community engagement processes without any compensation. Of the close to $500K budget for this plan, almost half was dedicated to outreach, testing new models designed to meet people where they are, empower local ideas, and deeply understand the barriers to biking in Black and brown communities. That included community-led bike rides with planners and residents, listening sessions, a design lab, and more that is detailed in the plan.

We hope Oakland’s example encourages people in other cities to think differently about how we can all be moving our bike plans—and our communities—forward by using a racial and social justice lens to analyze problems and propose solutions. Any plan to improve a community can do that. Piece by piece, this is how we can and must undo systemic racism to build more just and equitable systems.

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