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Recognizing the Diversity of People on Bikes - a Q & A with Adonia Lugo

Adonia Lugo, Ph.D. is a cultural anthropologist and activist who considers issues of transportation, social justice and sustainability on her blog, She will speak at Thursday's Bicycle Brown Bag (Oct. 17, noon,  in City Hall's Lovejoy Room), on the topic "Lessons from L.A.  -  Recognizing, Supporting and Celebrating Diversity in Bicycle Culture".  In anticipation of her talk we invited Adonia to share her thoughts on culture, bicycling, and Portland's transportation and social landscape:

Adonia LugoQ: There seems to be a common perception that only a certain people bike in Portland (young, white...).   Do you think this is accurate?

A:  I've been hearing more people talking about this perception issue recently, and I think it's a great approach. For example, Metro's 2012 "Existing Conditions, Findings and Opportunities Report" documented that in the region there is much more active transportation usage by people living in low-income households or identifying as people of color than the "Portlandia" image of bicycling would suggest.

I think that the skewed perception comes from the varying status that we give to bicycling in different communities. We operate with transportation hierarchies in mind, and for many, many Americans, the car is still sitting on top. In speaking with folks in Los Angeles and Seattle, I've found that immigrant commuters may be using active transportation modes out of necessity or to save money while they'd really prefer to be driving. If you're carrying around a negative idea of bicycling, that it's something you might have to do until you can afford something better, you're probably not making an effort to be visible the way that bike enthusiasts do. Would you go to the World Naked Bike Ride or other kinds of bike subcultural events if you saw riding a bike as an embarrassment? The people who get seen are the ones who are excited about biking. 

Q: What can we (city government, activists, et al.) do to encourage people from every community to bike?

A:  I think that all of us can benefit from a better understanding of what kinds of ideas and expectations we bring to the streets we use. What I found in my dissertation about Los Angeles was that streets have multiple meanings. Our habitual ways of using them give us expectations for how people should behave, and these expectations are not tied directly to infrastructural designs. Changing the life of our streets is not just an infrastructure problem or a culture problem: it's a complex combination of the two. I'd love to see more city policy that takes different transportation cultures into account.

Q: What factors helped you to choose a bike for transportation?

A:  I wanted to impress my boyfriend back in 2005, so I pushed past the fear and anger I initially felt riding a bike in traffic. Then riding became a personally empowering experience, where I'd feel great zipping across town. This was in Portland, and so when I moved to L.A .in 2007 for graduate school, I was already very bonded to riding a bicycle. That bond between me and my bike helped me push past the new waves of fear and anger I experienced down there, where motorists treated me with much less respect than I'd been accustomed to in Portland. Then through biking I started meeting a lot of really cool people in central Los Angeles, and that made it an afterthought to keep my bike at the center of my transportation practices even in that car-dominated city.

Q: Since you've returned to Portland what impresses you most about what has changed and what has not changed?

A:  Portland's rents have increased considerably since I lived here in 2007. I wish I could say that rise has been accompanied by tangible improvements, but unfortunately I see less energy in the SE neighborhoods where I used to live than I did before. I think this city is a crucible for innovation, but I'm seeing a lag in its commitment to affordability. That's a problem to me, as someone who wants to live in a diverse neighborhood, because affordability ensures that you've got a mix of people living and working alongside each other. When neighborhoods settle into being what only one socioeconomic class can afford, they're less engaging.