“…the City of Portland is 450,000 people. It’s a homogeneous community that is very white… We are a very diverse, disjointed city of 4 million people… So we’re a step behind Portland in what we’re trying to do.”
— Michelle Mowery, bicycle coordinator for the City of Los Angeles
We’ve discussed how race relates (or doesn’t) to bicycling on several occasions in the past here on BikePortland, but a story out of Los Angeles takes the conversation in an entirely new direction.
According to “LA’s hyper opinionated bicycle blog” Westside Bikeside, the bicycle coordinator for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation made some interesting comments at a City Council Transportation Committee meeting last week.
Mowery, speaking in defense of L.A.’s Bicycle Plan Update (which has come under fire from activists and advocates) said that the outreach process behind it was not as robust as Portland’s in part because Portland is “very white” as opposed to L.A. being “very diverse”. (It’s important to note that L.A.’s bike master plan update is being managed by Portland-based Alta Planning and Design.)
Westside Bikeside transcribed the exchange between City Councilor Bill Rosendahl and Mowery (emphasis mine):
BILL ROSENDAHL: Alta Planning is reportedly one of the finest consulting groups in the world for bike planning. How is it that the City of Los Angeles kicked off the Draft Bike Plan process with Alta but did not incorporate the robust Bike Plan process that Portland used/is using to develop their own Bike Plan? For example in Portland Alta maintained eleven working groups, and they used community bike rides to engage and survey.
MICHELLE MOWERY: With all due respect the City of Portland is 450,000 people. It’s a homogeneous community that is very white, and very progressive with respect to transportation. They have a trolley system that works very well, as well as their transit overall. We are a very diverse, disjointed city of 4 million people. They are 30 years ahead of us in the development of their, well, they’re not quite 30, they’re more like 20 years ahead of us in the development of their bikeway. So we’re a step behind Portland in what we’re trying to do. Granted, several of us would like to see a lot of changes in the city happen very quickly, but again we have a very diverse city with a lot of needs.
Westside Bikeside author Alex Thompson claims the real reason the L.A. plan doesn’t stack up to Portland’s is that too much of the project’s money was spent on things “other than community outreach”.
About Mowery’s comments on race, Thompson wonders, “What possible connection can racial diversity have to it?” and he points out that both New York and Chicago — both examples of racially diverse cities — are “making huge strides toward bike friendliness.”
Here’s Thompson on Portland’s “whiteness”:
It all comes back to, why highlight Portland’s WHITENESS? The homogeneity argument isn’t convincing, but at least it’s color neutral. I don’t really think it has anything to do with bikes at all.
Read more at Westside Bikeside. [Hat tip on this story goes to Joe Bike.]
Completely correct. There is such a thing as cultural diversity, and that means people may choose to travel in different modes.
For instance, some in the African American community do not like to walk because “that’s what poor people do”. Driving even a few blocks is done to avoid that assumption.
That being said, what I also find humerous is when people describe how “diverse” Portland is.
There was a recent article at NewGeography called The White City which touched on this in a broader sense.
To me it seems like there is some link between whiteness and general liberal progressive sentiments. Another recent example is the gay marriage vote in California, where most blacks and Latinos supported the ban.
Of course, there is also a link between whiteness and income… at the risk of jumping to conclusions, it seems like people who are more worried about meeting their basic needs are going to be less worried about progressive ideals.
Maybe she meant that there is less of a language barrier here regarding cyclists interpreting laws, new developments, new amenities, etc? Regardless, after all the trouble that others have gotten into when they bring up race issues, she made a bad choice of words.
wait, I thought the whole “black folks don’t ride” thing was debunked by the appearance of Scraper Bikes. I mean, before the white hipsters appropriated ’em.
If, as Nick (#2) says, there’s a link between whiteness and both liberal sentiments and higher income–a statement I have no argument with–then it seems okay to me to talk about how Portland’s bike-friendliness is because Portland is liberal, progressive and relatively rich.
Race per se is irrelevant and I get tired of it being mentioned. Is LA really saying “We can’t do what you do because you’re whiter than us?” Really?
From last weeks Merc:
“letters to the editor”
As a minority who lived in Portland my whole life I have to say riding a bike is pretty much a white people thing [“More Bleeding-Heart Liberal Jokes about Hate Crimes,” Letters, Dec 3]. And a tweaker thing. I don’t want to be on your team. Not now, not ever. Thanks.
-Posted by P.Caulfield on portlandmercury.com
hat tip to joe bike, okay, but also hat tip to elly, who did after all include a link to this in yesterday’s monday roundup
On the other hand, last week it was 10 degrees out and today it is pouring down rain. In LA it has been 70 degrees and sunny.
“Excuses are tools of incompetence and those who specialize in them rarely excel at anything else”
MICHELLE MOWERY = FAIL.
I get tired of the refrain that “white = not diverse.” I bet that the attendees at both a bike portland happy hour and a tea party protest are 99% white. But if you can’t see diversity there, there is something wrong with you.
Michelle is right. Her reasoning also applies to violence and crime.
And how, pray tell, is biking liberal or progressive?
Portland is the most European of American cities because it has the most European-Americans.
Also, diversity is the number one negative factor effecting community cohesiveness. A Harvard prof discovered it hoping to quantify the strength of diversity. When he found otherwise, he sat on the data for 7 years trying to figure out some other way to spin it. (can’t find link at the moment, but it’s out there)
Of course, PC group-think aside, there should be nothing wrong with this. Let people move to where they want and live how they most see fit. If you love sitting in traffic there are 4 million people waiting to make friends with in LA. If you love riding your bike to work, store, and home, Portland has an app for that…
This is a fascinating article. But I disagree with the assumption that Portland is homogeneous (though there are lots of very intelligent gay people here).
I think the issue is that the central areas btwn 39th and PSU are predominantly white. But there are lots of neighborhoods north of Alberta and east towards the I-205 with a huge amount of black, hispanic, Russian, and Asian populations. I think that as the previous posts mention, these people don’t join in the bike community either because of cultural pressure or because their working long hours and/or have families which prevents civic involvement. Thankfully CCC is working on this issue.
It sounds like Mowery is using cultural diversity as an excuse for poor initiative.
i agree that often income is a better indicator than race regarding progressive goals and values. i can find you vast populations of white folks who wouldn’t saddle a bike for the very same reasons that folks of color don’t.
A very interesting chart (and discussion) at http://isteve.blogspot.com/2009/01/unbearable-whiteness-of-portland_25.html
Among top 40 metros:
Portland metro as a whole is 4th whitest at 78%
Portland city core is most white at 84%
Portland burbs are 11th whitest at 80%
Ignoring Seattle, the urban core runner-up is only 67%. That is a considerable difference. Again, back to Occum’s Razor: Portland is most like N. Euro because Portlanders are mostly N. European. If you believe otherwise, the burden of proof is on you.
It sounds to me like Mowery’s statements are just sloppy excuses for the city’s methodology, and I think that they’re, sort of, being taken out of context when being used to add fuel to the fire of a larger debate about Portland. I think Thompson nails when she (he?) calls out his poor choice of language and comparison of LAX to PDX, instead of somewhat more comparable NYC or ORD.
Also, I’m really nervous about the spurious debate this is enflaming on Portland. Yes, we do have the question of outreach to diverse communities in Portland (including people of color) but this really doesn’t have much to do with biking in Portland, except for someone in LA describing Portland and its process somehwat inaccurately.
Also, this is specifically directed at #2, but the general idea goes out to all the commenters here: DO NOT BLAME PROP 8 (and other ‘failures’ of ‘progressiveness’) ON PEOPLE OF COLOR. thanks. there is plenty of reading available on this topic.
People way too often, and way too reductively, link color with not adhering to whatever ‘progressive’ standards or banners that they want to advocate for. I think linking ‘progressive sentiments’ with color is dangerous. I mean….then where did the ‘progressive sentiments’ of all the people of color who were working the civil rights movement in 19th and early-mid 20th centuries, come from if they weren’t white? Just because people of color aren’t all hopped up to advocate for cycling,d oesn’t mean there aren’t people of color out there bicycling, doesn’t mean there aren’t people of color involved in advocacy, and doesn’t mean that all people of color feel one way or the other about cycling. Even casting these general rules is specious. As the CCC study found, every micro-community and invidual has different reasons for cycling or not cycling.
Yep, there are general ways that advocates can get out there and there are general rules of thumb that can be applied (doing things in other languages. being aware of cultural customs. all the stuff you learned in Cultural Competence 101), but I don’t think that this article/incident is a good tipping point for furthering the debate or discussion.
Correction, Anonymous Coward: Portland’s inner core is 74% white, not 84% (from the link you provided). So the suburbs of Portland are actually slightly more white than the inner city.
Esther: I wasn’t being accusatory. I was trying to show that the common stereotype of minorities (especially blacks) being socially liberal is not necessarily true to the extent that it seems to be propagated, particularly when you break things down to individual issues instead of the red/blue dichotomy that our elections tend to be reduced to.
rex: Bike culture in America, particularly in Portland, and particularly in regard to urban cycling (and even this website)– is overwhelmingly dominated by progressive thinking. I’m not sure what your objection is to this fairly obvious generalization, but it seems far-fetched and needlessly defensive
@Anonymous Coward, #15
Correlation does not imply causation.
I sounds like Mowery was caught off guard without a good answer to an unexpected question. She was trying to think of an acceptable excuse for hiring a consultant instead of engaging in a public process. She talked around it and used one of the facts she knew about Portland to try to sound like she had good reasons. Sounds like the reasons for not having a public process are still hidden.
Portland is rather white. If LA was as white as Portland it wouldn’t make it into a bicycle mecca. Whiteness may co-vary with biking, this doesn’t make it causal.
Homogeneity makes for easier planning and organizing, it makes it easier to build community support around a certain idea. A bike community in more diverse place will require that more diverse players be brought into the process.
I’d be curious to look at the organizing efforts in more diverse communities. Have Chicago, New York, Minneapolis and elsewhere been able to bring a variety of groups to the table? Did it result in more effective lobbying and better biking?
One thing worth analyzing is who views biking as an inferior good vs. being a straight substitute for other transit methods. Are attitudes similar across demographic groups? Basically, does race same people’s views of cycling as a form of transit.
maybe alta didn’t do a good job with outreach because…
1) they just didn’t do a good job in a way that had nothing to do with whiteness
2) the city wasn’t involved enough in that aspect?
i mean, you can’t just hire a firm from out of the area and expect that they’ll know all of the ins and outs of your community to the extent that city government should. it’s not fair to just bitch about it later, they should have made sure it was going right all along. but LA is such a cluster-you know what right now (and has been for some time, especially regarding transportation) that really it’s hard to expect a good public process there at all
i’m just saying that it sounds to me like she was just trying to save her own ass, and the city should probably find someone else to replace her. preferably someone that’s not going to sell their city short on its potential
Aside from the comic absurdity that is the aforementioned statement. I find it stunning that it will take LA 20+ years to reach the level of bikability that PDX has today. We’re not that far ahead of the curve. Barely on the leading edge, which isn’t all that hard in the US.
Found the diversity actually sucks link:
Harvard political scientist Robert D. “Bowling Alone” Putnam said:
In the presence of [ethnic] diversity, we hunker down. We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us.
He told Financial Times columnist John Lloyd: ““Prof Putnam found trust was lowest in Los Angeles, ‘the most diverse human habitation in human history.’”
Wow, racist and provincial. But then again, that’s par for California.
tbird, if you’ve visited LA at some point in the last 15 years, I’d say they’re easily 40 or more years behind Portland. 20 doesn’t even begin to come close to a long enough timespan to reverse the damage they inflicted on themselves out there in the desert.
I completely understand MICHELLE MOWERY’s argument. Having a more homogeneous group that is already inclined to one course of action is much different than how she describes LA and does deserve its own planning process that is not cook cut from a much different population. I feel that if someone does not believe that different ethnic (and I will include social/economic) groups often have varying views on issues as large is regional planning, I feel they should most likely spend more time with different ethnic and social/economic groups.
Thanks, typo. My bad.
Wow, Occam’s Razor completely blunted by the density of your wit. And your explanation as to Portland’s uniqueness is…
I’d be curious to look at the organizing efforts in more diverse communities. Have Chicago, New York, Minneapolis and elsewhere…
Um, do you mean more diverse than Portland, which is everywhere, or more diverse than average, which Minn-Sp is most certainly NOT?
Whiteness may co-vary with biking, this doesn’t make it causal.
Based on the evidence world-wide, for most (not all) communities, being white is a necessary, albeit insufficient, condition of cycling-by-choice. What causes white people to be that way, I dunno. But if you’re trying to take biking to non-whites, prepare yourself for a more difficult challenge… that is, based on the evidence.
Carter Kennedy (#20) has it right, though my question is why can’t Los Angeles hire a consultant AND engage in public process? Portland does it just fine. Heck, the City of Milwaukie did it better than just about anyone for their TSP update 2 years ago, and they don’t have anywhere near the planning budget of larger cities. Perhaps L.A. doesn’t have an equivalent to Katie Mangle or Mia Burk. Perhaps they do, and they’re hamstrung by the city. All I know is it’s hard to take seriously a person’s remarks on Portland’s racial background when they don’t even know our population figure. (557,000 – not 450,000)
hmm (#22) – I wouldn’t be so quick to blame Alta for the lack of outreach. They’re limited by the scope of their contract with the city, and the funding provided for them. The city bears the greater burden – they create the contract, and they know the people. There has to be some initiative on the part of the municipality to engage the populace.
General Comment – the greater Los Angeles basin has had 80 years to implement all of the worst aspects of car-dominated culture, and they’ve been more successful than any other metropolitan area in the country. L.A. has a legendary reputation for communal infighting, apathy, and antagonism. If there is even a shred of truth to the rumors, then perhaps those factors weigh as heavily as the perceived difference in diversity. I think a far greater factor in Portland’s success has been the fact that there are very active communities, groups, and neighborhood associations here.
Councilor Rosendahl: How is it that the City of Los Angeles kicked off the Draft Bike Plan process with Alta but did not incorporate the robust Bike Plan process that Portland used/is using to develop their own Bike Plan?
Mowery: With all due respect the City of Portland is 450,000 people. It’s a homogeneous community that is very white, and very progressive with respect to transportation.
Race-aware anonymous coward’s translation of Mowery’s answer: Portland is a mostly white city of 450k. LA is a mostly Latin-Mexican city of 4,000k. Everything we know about sociology is that smaller groups are more cohesive than larger, homogenous more than hetero, white more than brown. So, just because Portland had group rides and the community showed up, doesn’t mean having group rides is going to help make people care here. Portlanders for the 3 obviously politically incorrect reasons I just gave do things differently than what can be accomplished here. They have a working street car for crying out loud!
Hmmm. Look how much of this thread is given to gazing at our own apparently white navels.
Bigger picture: NY, Chi-town = far from homogeneous, yet stalwart bike cities. LA, suck it up.
Aaron 13, what’s all this about “joining in the bike community”(whatever that may be)? Seems to me it’s about convincing folks to just plain old *ride*.
not sure what outreach, or lack thereof, has to do with a bike plan that doesn’t actually deliver much. if the LA bike plan sucks, then it needs to change, no matter the makeup of the community.
regarding race, a commenter on the (last?) toronto spacing podcast said, essentially, that portland was able to do things in the 60s/70s that other cities were not able to, because those non-portland cities were busy with race riots and all the problems that come with racism. not sure how he came to that conclusion, but i thought it was interesting.
@ Nick #18: Issues or not, data/statements like “80% of white people feel that bicycling is good for the environment” or “30% of black people feel that bicycling is what poor people do so they don’t like to do it because they’re desiring upwardly mobility” is harmful and reductive in the greater dialogue of increasing bicycle infrastructure and promoting cycling as a form of transportation. It does not serve ANY specific purpose and is fundamentally racist, because it is dividing things up by ethnicity in a way that is as pointless and overreaching as the “red/blue state dichotomy.”
I’m not denying the existence of data like x% of Portland population is caucasian, y% of the inner city of Portland is caucasian, z% of people of color have lost housing because of rising prices/gentrification etc…I’m just exercising and encouraging caution about how those data are applied to enflame people about how Portland Sucks for Diversity, how Black People Don’t Bike, etc. when making blanket statements like that (which happens extremely often, both here and on other local fora) does not contribute to the greater discussion and plays into harmful stereotypes
I have always enjoyed how a long time, multi generation portlander of european descent and a fob russian(for example, could be anyone, even say, gasp, someone from CA) are grouped in as some homogeneous “white” when it suits people.
LA’s failure to adequately plan bike routes has little to do with the ethnic make up of portland. the more that people of all backgrounds ride, the better we are.
“Um, do you mean more diverse than Portland, which is everywhere, or more diverse than average, which Minn-Sp is most certainly NOT?”
More diverse then Portland. Minnesota also has large immigrant communities that Portland lacks. I should really find the numbers but it seems like MSP is less segregated in the core urban neighborhoods. Still, more facts!
“Based on the evidence world-wide, for most (not all) communities, being white is a necessary, albeit insufficient, condition of cycling-by-choice. What causes white people to be that way, I dunno. But if you’re trying to take biking to non-whites, prepare yourself for a more difficult challenge… that is, based on the evidence.”
Getting non-whites to bike may be more difficult, but race might not have any causal implications. It may well be a confound for some other variable that roughly tracks race. If we want to explain something it is critical to move beyond things that co-vary and towards understanding causality.
If whiteness is truly necessary but not sufficient we have a problem with any community that is NOT pasty white. My guess is whiteness is really acting as a proxy for other factors. Just a guess though. What about bicycles in China? Does anyone know enough to craft an example out of China?
My instinct is also that reaching racial minorities is not going to be easy, but I’d be willing to bet that it is doable. There is no reason cycling is inherently a racial issue, it might be tied in with things that track, but that might be solvable.
The economic rationality of cycling is undeniable. It is cheap, point to point transit. If you live within a certain distance of work, school or shopping it is very easy. This appeal with the right background may work for virtually anyone.
Cycling is still a relatively small transit movement, lets be creative to grow it in a way that reaches out to as many people as possible.
From the 2000 Census Portland is about 10% whiter then Minneapolis or St. Paul. So, a fair difference. MSP is still fairly white.
MSP seems like a good place to look at since it has a solid bike community and more diversity then PDX.
LA’s problem isn’t race, it’s massive ungodly sprawl with the freeway as god and the car as king. If you live 40 miles from where you work bike commuting just isn’t practical for most people.
I wonder if the difference between NY and LA has to do with proximity and street design. New york was planned well before cars were popular and so it naturally has a walk-friendly infrastructure. LA became the city it is today in the age of cars. I couldn’t say what race has to do with it, but of course, I don’t live there. I do know that it’s much easier to be idealistic from a distance.
The truth of the matter is, LA’s bike plan and any of LA’s past, present, and future attempts at being a bikeable city, have been and will always be hampered by one thing most importantly, namely, almost a full century of automobile-centric urban “planning” and land-use decisions, which have led to the sprawled-out, over-paved, blighted, traffic-and-exhaust-choked urban dystopia that it is. Portland’s chief advantage is that it has a reasonably dense and compact core, it’s “small,” both in terms of population (which Mowery correctly picks up on) and area (more importantly). This debate about “whiteness” is a stupid bugaboo and remarkably boring. But it does happen that Portland is verifiably less racially diverse than LA.
Too many people from Europe? Oh that’s rich. Man, I was born at NW 22nd & NW Marshal. How’s that Europe? Oh, you mean 400 YEARS AGO?!! Right. I almost thought we were talking about something relevant.
California is the place you all left, right, so what do you care what anybody has to say about you now? Less talking, more riding will surely solve the problem, yes?
velo; mpls/stp isn’t nearly as diverse as you think. it is highly segregated. the twin cities as a whole is a large metro area. the cities of minneapolis and st. paul proper have much smaller populations than portland. like around 200k less than here, give or take some. the vast majority of cyclists there are white.
Nick 18, I disagree the idea “bike culture is dominated by progressive thinking” is an undisputed fact.
Urban cycling, yes – as you said, many progressive people. However, a still much larger part of “bike culture” in the US includes roadies and weekend warrior type mountain bikers. Some are progressive, some not, but I would guess that a cross section of these groups would look very similar to a cross section of the general population.
Roadies and mountain bikers may not really be the groups we are talking about in regards to this article on bike friendliness in cities, but they still control a huge part of so-called “bike culture”.
Hey, guess what? Blacks love cycling too. No reason diversity prevents social progress of cycling infrastructure.
city biking isn’t directly a black or white thing, it’s an educated liberal thing. and most educated liberals are white. so, indirectly, yeah, biking is a white thing, until we manage to get some demographic shifts.
One thing to note is that Chicago is a very segregated city with white people on the North side, black people on the South side, and Hispanics to the west, with a few pockets of each mixed in. The neighborhoods are VERY clearly defined and there is little integration. The majority of the bike infrastructure changes are happening in these wealthier and majority white areas.
I live in Chicago, and the vast majority of the people riding bikes that I see (I live on the North side, but not in Lakeview or Lincoln Park) are white. I work at a job that has me driving throughout Chicago in many neighborhoods, and I hardly see people in Black or Hispanic communities riding their bikes other than the occasional homeless person that uses it to get around. Chicago also has one of the highest obesity rates in the country – perhaps this is not a coincidence. I do have to say though that even in these communities that don’t seem to be using them, I have seen some random bike lanes.
That being said, I think that LA is just using demographics as an excuse. They need to get out there and get community organizations behind what they are doing. If community organizations are behind a project in these communities, the rest of the people living there will likely also be behind it, or at least not fight it.
Take a look at Long Beach. Lots of bikes and fixies. Then again, it is a smaller self contained area. Bikes seem to work in neighborhoods in LA. But not between them. The area is a bit too spread out to work like Portland.
Portland invested more in cycling infrastructure, therefor it has more people cycling. I don’t see how this relates to its homogeneity.
Yes, Portland is white, I am an ex-NYCer and lived in Portland for 5 years. It was shocking to my wife and I how white it is. And we were carless while living there, taking mass-transit everywhere. But it has good mass-transit, it has good cycling infrastructure and so those facilities get used.
Los Angeles is known thoughout the US as a car centric locale. In NY we make jokes about how Angelos are born in a car, live in a car and die in a car. Shockingly a car-centric metro area has poor cycling infrastructure. The entire exchange makes me laugh.
“20 doesn’t even begin to come close to a long enough timespan to reverse the damage they inflicted on themselves out there in the desert.”
I just want to say for clarity sake, Los Angeles is not a desert, an oft repeated myth. The rainfall pattern of the LA area is Mediterranean in nature, and as such has a unique range of biodiversity adapted to those conditions, which are rare on the planet. We don’t get much rainfall most years, but we are not living in a desert and it’s possible to ride a bike over to the forest from LA.
Statistics, graphs, opinions we got’em. But arn’t we discussing bicycling. That activity where you balance upon a wheeled device, that feels great when you coast down a hill and not as much when your going the other way.
Maybe economically disadvantaged persons(poor)family’s view bicycle riding as something more well off financialy familys do, I don’t know. I havn’t been exposed to that mindset or have sought it out, but the familys that lived on our street were poor and hard working and most had bikes.
They were what some would call clunkers, we just rode them. Some of us rode them far and wide. Some did not.
If we are talking about higher population participation, we need to look around. Non-bicyclists are everywhere, they’re our neighbors, co-workers, friends and family, casual aquaintences, people we ride by on the way to the LBS, pub, or anywhere
Look around, be friendly. Let’s build a great community of people, who bicycle.
One casual observation….
as kids the less wealthy usually played sports with less equipment….like just a ball. Hoops, soccer, etc.
The wealthier kids tended to play sports that required more equipment or “access” to facilities.
I wonder how much impact riding a bike as a child has upon riding habits as an adult. If a poor kid grows up without a bike, are they more likely to not bike as an adult?