Biking, according to Adonia Lugo, is much more than just a weekend hobby, or a trendy, spandex-clad exercise fad. Lugo, an urban anthropologist currently teaching a course on urban infrastructure at Antioch University Los Angeles, studies how transportation — biking in particular — can be a transportation-justice issue. Throughout the course of her studies, Lugo has noticed that the connection between biking, race, and class isn’t as apparent to some of her fellow scholars and activists as it is to her. For them, she says, the real goal is about making sure everyone has access to greater mobility, like cars and better transportation networks. To Lugo, the issue is a bit more complicated than that.
Within bicycle advocacy or the bike movement broadly, there is a longstanding tension between direct action and more institutional avenues for promoting bicycling. On the direct-action side, you have kind of a long history of street theater related to bicycling, like the group in New York, Time’s Up. Decades ago, they started doing street theater, trying to call attention to vulnerabilities on the street. A really good example is the ride Critical Mass, where people get together and use their bodies to actually disrupt space and say, ‘We deserve to have access to this road.’
I see ghost-bike memorials fitting into that sort of direct-action tradition in the bike movement, because they are there to serve as a reminder about the ongoing vulnerability of people who are using bicycles in that area.
A lot of people I know, myself included, who get involved in bicycle activism are motivated by a very personal experience of feeling marginalized in the streets. We’re coming at it from this very visceral, personal knowledge that we’re not necessarily safe in these car-dominated streets.
The idea of public memorials is more culturally accepted in some groups than in others. For example, I’m from a very Latino part of southern California, and it’s very common where I’m from and where I live now in L.A. to see cars that have memorials that say, ‘Rest in peace,’ and somebody’s name and their birth and death year. There are murals all over town that memorialize people, and then of course we’re all familiar with highway roadside memorials.
I see ghost bikes fitting into that genre except that what’s unusual about them is that those sorts of memorials are usually very personalized, they have to do with a family or a community that lost somebody, and ghost-bike memorials can be personalized. But they’re also trying to tap into this larger pursuit of bicyclists being more vulnerable.
I think the ghost-bike memorials probably play a greater role in giving people a common cause than they do in increasing the perception that cycling is unsafe.
Car culture creates all sorts of enmity between different car users
Something that’s not often talked about as one of the pillars of why we have suburban sprawl today was that desire to get away from social undesirables. The fact is that access to driving and being able to be inside a car is a huge status symbol.
Sometimes, I think that when people are saying [biking] is unsafe, what they mean is that it’s not very respectable. They’re also expressing a total lack of embodied knowledge. Car culture creates all sorts of enmity between different car users, so if you’re accustomed to just being in the car and seeing how recklessly some people drive, I think it makes sense that you would assume I’m safer in my car then I would be out there, unsheltered on my bicycle.
I’m mostly interested in accessing bicycle users who are very low-income or who are people of color; people who are doubly marginalized are already more vulnerable out in public space, and then they also are riding a bicycle.
When you talk about these transportation choices, you’re getting into a really complicated world of how we express our social status.
What I’ve learned through studying and participating in bicycle advocacy is that there are a lot of people out there who are not that familiar with these issues, because they themselves have not known what it’s like to not have access to a car. If you do know what it’s like not to have access to a car, it can be very embarrassing and very shameful.