Photo by Ryan Thornton
Wednesday, June 17, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

Bicycle Advisory Council examines race and active transportation

In response to the confluence of Covid-19 mobility projects and renewed efforts for racial justice, the Bicycle Advisory Council has opened a conversation over its role as an advocacy group in city-led efforts that impact communities of color.

“A lot of the discussions we tend to have are dictated by the public processes of the agencies that we work with, whether that’s (Austin Transportation) or the state, and we often are forced to be very reactionary to projects that are very infrastructural,” alternate member Carol Fraser said. “That focus on infrastructure, which I think on a certain level we as a body are kind of forced into, makes it really hard to think about these bigger issues and think about the people who use the streets.”

Fraser invited Shavone Otero, president of the local organization People United for Mobility Action, to discuss ways BAC could help improve the city’s public engagement process, from inviting communities of color to the table to discuss particular plans to actively rebuilding trust with residents and centering project plans around their lived experience, needs and input.

“The infrastructure historically, with the example of I-35, we’re still grappling with those effects of how transportation was used in a way to harm communities,” Otero said. “And if we don’t have those discussions and acknowledge that, then we’re still building on those systems of oppression.”

Considering the city’s recent adoption of the Healthy Streets program, board members acknowledged a culture of resistance within BAC and Austin Transportation to engaging with communities of color.

Member Kathryn Flowers said it’s not just Austin Transportation’s “structurally backwards” public engagement process that is to blame.

“I was one of the people who was initially asked for feedback on (Healthy Streets) before it ever went anywhere and I did bring up at the time … maybe we should engage some other groups of people and see what they think,” Flowers said. “When I bring up these things I often feel like I’m kind of met with, oh, you’re getting in the way with this process or with this good thing that we’re trying to do.”

In rolling out some parts of the Healthy Streets program, Sean Smith, one of the designated program block captains, said the city “just put a bunch of bollards and sawhorses and barrels right down people’s streets,” instead of engaging residents first by knocking on their doors or asking them what they would prefer.

Otero said decisions like that are contrary to the concept of mobility justice, which places people and communities before infrastructure: “Even though recreation is healthy and fun, it’s decades of historic disenfranchisement and traumatic wounds from what the city has done in terms of I-35.”

Fraser said BAC could form a subcommittee to consult frameworks like Seattle’s Racial Equity Toolkit to take a proactive approach to public engagement and make recommendations to Austin Transportation and other departments. Alternatively, Otero said Chapter 6 of the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan already states the need for convenient and meaningful engagement with underrepresented communities, which could be leveraged to hold the city accountable.

“BAC is the major conduit for community feedback to the city about issues related to bicycles,” Fraser said. “I think we have a role and I think we have a responsibility to shape the public processes in general around bicycles, whatever project they’re in.”

More simply, Jake Boone said the group could use social media to streamline and popularize the process for public participation at meetings.

Chair Christopher Heathcott, however, said it “doesn’t seem realistic” for BAC to take on the role of public engagement on behalf of Austin Transportation, especially since it is the city’s responsibility to do that job.

“This is kind of a niche body, really narrowly scoped around bicycles,” Heathcott said. “That’s not to say that doesn’t touch upon a lot of things, but I guess when I’m in this meeting and I have my BAC hat on, I kind of recognize sometimes there’s compromises to be made, but I feel like it’s my role in this space to be the advocate for the bicycle.”

Looking at the weeks ahead, BAC members expressed interest in making a concentrated effort to improve the public engagement process as the Healthy Streets program evolves and expands into new neighborhoods.

“Obviously whatever we want to do we want to advocate for bicycles and against cars and stuff like that,” alternate Alice Maz said. “But at the same time there’s a level of figuring out what people actually need within the scope of what we want to advocate and providing that, rather than just from a top-down paternalistic perspective saying, we thought really hard about it and this is what you need.”

Among Otero’s top resources for adopting an equity lens for active transportation was the book Bicycle/Race by Adonia Lugo, who participated in the Imagine Austin speaker series last year. Otero also cited a framework of public engagement by the Greenlining Institute, the work of mobility justice organization The Untokening, and the concepts developed by the Los Angeles-based collective People for Mobility Justice.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Bicycle Advisory Commission

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