Adonia Lugo ’05 in Southern California, where the death of a Latinx bicyclist led her to ask why some bicyclists are seen as low-status and others as environmental heroes.

Adonia Lugo ’05 in Southern California, where the death of a Latinx bicyclist led her to ask why some bicyclists are seen as low-status and others as environmental heroes.

What’s Wrong With Bike Lanes?

Riding the streets of Southern California, urban anthropologist Adonia Lugo ’05 realized that bicycle advocacy has an equity problem.

By Tessa Hulls ’07 | March 7, 2019

When Adonia Lugo ’05 inherited an old Schwinn bicycle from her freshman-year roommate, she had no idea she was riding towards a career as an activist for mobility justice. “Mostly, I just remember it being really heavy,” she laughs in a phone interview. Those first pedal strokes were the beginning of a journey that led her to become a leading voice on racial justice in bicycling.

If you are asking yourself what race has to do with bicycling, you are not alone: this question has been lobbed at Adonia at every level of her career as a professor, activist, anthropologist, and author. In her groundbreaking new memoir, Bicycle/Race: Transportation, Culture, and Resistance, she tackles this question head on.

Her answer begins in her Southern California hometown of San Juan Capistrano, where a Latinx cyclist was biking on the sidewalk on his way home from work at Denny’s when he was killed by a drunk driver. The mainstream responses to his death made Adonia begin to examine how “this wasn’t just a matter of vehicle choice, bikes versus cars. Race and class hierarchy were mixed up in how we traveled and whose safety mattered.”

Growing up as someone who did not fit neatly into the binaries of racial divides made her highly attuned to nuances of race and  power. At Reed, after taking a class on urban anthropology, she became fascinated by the rogue space between how cities are planned and how they end up being used. “The experts on space want to control people,” she explains, “but human elements like poverty and creativity respond to pressure in unpredictable, uncontrollable ways.” For her thesis, which she wrote with Prof. Marko Zivkovic [anthropology 2001–06] she wrote about the region she’s from and told the history of successive waves of outsiders who came in and “dictated how space should be used, and how people should be arranged in space.”

After she graduated, Adonia stayed in Portland and realized her trusty Schwinn cruiser would never work for commuting—so she got a $10 bike at the bins. “I rode it up Steele towards 39th and remember thinking, ‘This is hard!’” But it wasn’t long before she found herself biking from Southeast Portland to her job at a fabric store in Milwaukie. She laughs and notes that as someone who had never been athletic or coordinated, biking felt like a reclamation of her body’s right to take up space. “I felt powerful, I felt graceful.”

In 2007, she moved back to Southern California to start graduate school at UC Irvine. Having grown used to riding a bike in Portland, she was surprised when people treated her as crazy for using a bicycle as her main form of transportation. “I hadn’t anticipated that being a bike commuter would renew my old sense of being an outsider in Orange County,” she writes.

She found herself thinking back on her time in Portland, where discussions about what made it a “bike-friendly city” focused almost solely on infrastructure. “I had a Reedie friend from Texas, and we would joke about how Portland drivers would all yield at four-way intersections,” she reminisces. “But no one was talking about that.”

As Adonia became increasingly involved in Los Angeles bicycle advocacy, she discovered that existing conversations again focused almost solely on infrastructure. With her training as a cultural anthropologist, she found this approach incomplete. “If we want to improve the ways in which people use streets,” she explains, “we must begin by asking: who uses the streets?” This line of inquiry led her to investigating “how street contempt continued racism and classism,” which became the seeds of her doctoral thesis, “Body-City-Machines: Human Infrastructure for Bicycling in Los Angeles.”

She finished her PhD in 2013 and was eager to work advocating for sustainable transportation while dismantling racism. She managed the Equity Initiative at the League of American Bicyclists (formerly the League of American Wheelmen, the nation’s oldest bicycle advocacy organization), but by 2015 she was burned out and disillusioned. “My work there was supposed to be creating the infrastructure so that new ideas and people could be part of the bike advocacy establishment,” she writes in Bicycle/Race. “Instead, I was being asked to equity-wash this new silver bullet that fit the same old mold: Northern European origins, pushed through via political capital rather than grassroots organizing, emergent from within the closed network of advocacy organizations.” While Adonia was regrouping and contemplating next moves, Elly Blue ’05 of Microcosm Publishing approached her about writing a memoir. “[Adonia] has a unique point of view,” Elly explains. “She puts herself out there, saying what needs to be said . . . pointing out truths nobody wants to hear: for instance, that systemic racism exists and that it affects our movements.” After years of feeling that her voice and perspective had been silenced, Adonia welcomed the opportunity to write about mobility justice through an intersectional lens. The shift to memoir was both welcome and intimidating. “I didn’t expect it to feel so scary to let go of citations,” she jokes. “Coming from academia, just making assertions was like taking the training wheels off.”

She hopes that Bicycle/Race will encourage readers to approach mobility justice through a racial lens. “There are always dominant narratives,” she explains, “and if we don’t have a multiracial panel looking at these problems, we will reproduce the same narrative gaps. I want my readers to consider that there are always more possibilities.”

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