Being an Advocate
A friend recently asked me how I got into bike advocacy. Well, actually, she asked me how I got into “advocacy,” and I assume she meant bike advocacy, though I think I’ve been an advocate for social justice most of my life. It’s just part of who I am, I guess. I see something that needs changing and I research the issue and often join with others who are working on that issue. We call such people “advocates” or “activists” or sometimes “troublemakers,” but, really, when you get right down to it, isn’t that just citizenship? We’ve created these labels for active citizenship in part because we live in an era when our role as citizens is supposed to be passively consumed on TV or social media, not in real life. Those who get out and organize for change are thus labeled as an aberration—a “special interest”—when in fact that’s what every citizen should probably be doing.
Back to the main question. I got into bike advocacy because the moment I started riding my bike for transportation I started to realize most of our streets had been misdesigned. It was only as I studied the issue further that I realized how badly misdesigned they were and how it was connected to other misuses of social space and resources. About the time I began substituting my bike for some of my short car trips (around 2008 or so) a colleague at work showed me an article on bicycle infrastructure in Europe—focused on either Copenhagen or Amsterdam, I can’t recall which—and it fired my imagination for what could be, what might be, and what is possible. Since then, I’ve immersed myself in the history of how our society constructed a car-based infrastructure that limits how we live, interact with each other, and get from place to place. It has underscored the importance of radically changing our infrastructure to adapt to more socially and environmentally sustainable transportation modes.
Shortly thereafter I started finding and joining bicycle advocacy (there’s that word again) organizations like the LA County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) and CICLE that connected me with others who had a similar vision. I went on the LA River Ride sponsored by LACBC and several other group rides sponsored by CICLE. Around 2010, I went on a CICLE-sponsored “tweed ride” in downtown LA. In many ways I really saw LA for the first time. Oh, I’d driven through LA many times, usually on my way to someplace, but being on my bike revealed the rich texture of the city for the first time. It was a revelation that you could feel safe riding city streets if there were enough other people riding too. I also met Joe Linton on this ride, and he inspired me to continue my effort to be the change I wished to see in the world, as Mahatma Gandhi would say. I wanted to write about my experiences, share them with others to show that another world is possible, but I was reluctant. Joe provided the encouraging words that helped me to start this blog, too. I think that the experience of CicLAvia really reinforced how different—how much better—our human interactions could be in car-free spaces. CicLAvia sort of turned me into an evangelist for creating car-free space in our communities and giving people realistic alternatives to the car.
This hasn’t been easy. Recognizing how badly we’ve gone wrong when others don’t even recognize the problem exists can be a lonely and frustrating experience. Reading writers like Jane Jacobs, Jane Holtz Kay, Jeff Mapes, Charles Montgomery, Jeff Speck, Peter Norton, Christopher Wells, and others, made me realize I wasn’t alone and helped me deepen my sense that these changes were not only possible but highly desirable. Reading deeply about the existential crisis of climate change has reinforced that the status quo is unsustainable and that radical change is essential.
Change is never easy, but without a movement of organized people pushing for change it will not happen by itself. When I see the need for safer streets for myself, I know that they’ll benefit others, too. I also know that it won’t happen if we don’t shake people out of their complacency. No individual can do it alone—it takes a group of people to get anything accomplished and the bigger and more diverse the group, the stronger it is. It’s only working in concert with others that my choices make a larger difference. And really, we build on the work of those who came before and we’re dependent on others joining the struggle after us, too.
My experience as an historian leads me to understand that going against the automobile-fossil fuel-industrial complex and changing people’s living habits will not be easy, but neither was the abolition of slavery, the struggle for workers’ rights, women’s rights, or civil rights. Indeed, as Naomi Klein has suggested in her latest book This Changes Everything, these movements for human rights must be seen as part of the larger struggle for peace, civil rights, economic justice, a livable planet, and livable social space. Making our streets and communities safer and more convenient for alternative modes of transportation (walking, bicycling, and transit) doesn’t solve all of these issues, but, properly understood, it is part of the solution that addresses each of them in part.
Change is happening, a movement is emerging. Why am I an advocate? I want to be a part of it—even if only a small part. I don’t know exactly where the movement will lead, but that is what makes it exciting.