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Interview: Allison Mannos of City of Lights on advocating for a diverse cycling community

   /   Feb 10th, 2011California, Interviews

A City of Lights mechanic workshop at CARECEN

Bikes may be trendy, but they are also just a way to get around. How can people who use bikes in different ways be united for the good of the community? City of Lights started in 2009 in Los Angeles to make visible the large community of immigrant and day-laborer cyclists who cycle across the city and to raise awareness of their needs and rights. City of Lights has grown from giving out lights at a single day laborer center to a volunteer-driven collective for community advocacy. Here, Dowser talks with Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition Development and Urban Program Coordinator Allison Mannos about who uses bikes in L.A. and how City of Lights expands what we mean by a cycling community.

Dowser: What were the motivations for starting City of Lights? What needs does it fill?
Mannos: Back when I was an intern in 2008 with the L.A. County bicycle coalition, I was working on bringing bikes into equity related transit plans. I’m an L.A. native from the outskirts of the San Fernando Valley, and I remembered seeing all those immigrant cyclists riding toward the industrial parks of the Northeast Valley – people who are usually on the sidewalk, don’t have lights and don’t have helmets. As I started getting more into bike culture and seeing who it was attracting, I talked with our co-founder about how we could reach out to these people who were really not included in the biking world.

Why combine biking and social justice advocacy? How does that intersection work?
Both of the founders were interested in social justice issues and saw this large gap in a community. We started talking with Planet Bike and other bike shops about getting lights donated that we could give out to immigrant cyclists as a start. We sent staffers to farmer’s markets, day labor centers and transit hubs and tried to write down what people were experiencing as riders. Many people at the day labor center were receptive and had lots of questions about their legal rights and about bike infrastructure, and we realized there was a need for workshops that would educate and empower them through this form of transit. We wanted to approach this from an organizing-type background, and knew we would have to go beyond just giving out lights.

How does City of Lights deliver its services?
We started gathering people in our database with an interest in social justice issues to lead workshops, develop resource guides and give out resources. The bike advocacy movement in L.A. is not representative of the diversity of bikers so we needed to look outside of that world to find volunteers who were part of the immigrant community.

What are City of Lights’ central advocacy programs?
We lead safety workshops, put out resource guides and give out lights, maps, vests and bike patch kits. Our bike maintenance and rules and regulations classes are available for free at CARACEN [the Central American Resource Center in L.A.].

Why do you think that urban biking communities are often identified as upper-middle class white communities?
I think this is a problem in many cities, and is most dramatic here in L.A. because we have a particularly diverse population. The problem is that the people who started the bike advocacy scene here came from roadie backgrounds or are interested in recreational and competitive riding, and they bring in people who they are familiar with and know. There isn’t much awareness of other types of cyclists. Even if they wanted to approach this day-laborer cyclist group, they don’t know how to approach them or where to start. Fear of the unfamiliar is the biggest barrier.

Are you seeking to bring these two communities together, or more to bring equal rights and awareness to both?
These two groups often have pretty different needs. A lot of people who ride on paths are mostly concerned with paths and rides outside of the city. Day laborers who ride to get to work don’t see themselves as cyclists. However, when we have broader citywide initiatives, that’s where all these people can come together and all advocate for better bike lanes. It’s very important that recreational cyclists are aware of day-laborer cyclists who ride to work. People often misunderstand them – people will say, ‘why are they on the sidewalk, it makes the community look bad,’ when they really need to go deeper and see why are they riding on the sidewalk in the first place. It’s not randomly happening, it’s because they are from low-income industrial areas where it’s dangerous in the street.

Why is City of Lights particularly relevant and important in L.A. right now?
Until very recently transportation was not a very political thing in L.A. There would be a lot of labor groups and immigrant groups and other social justice causes, but they would focus on housing and wages with a more ‘old school’ focus. Recently a lot more people are starting to see transportation as about justice and access, and neighborhood improvement projects include bike improvements. This is not just about building multimillion dollar paths, but building a really useful network to get around in the city. It’s about informing people that they can’t get pulled over for not wearing a helmet if they are over 18 [as per L.A. law] and that the police can’t use that as an excuse to check their immigration status.

What are your metrics for success and how have you measured them?
We try to keep track of our quantitative success in terms of how many items we give out and how many classes we give, but really the success is seeing our projects sustained. Our population is so varied – people don’t know when they are going to get work and a lot of our most active members in our bicycle collection live in a homeless shelter downtown. We’re looking to the long term to see people be empowered, and actually discuss their own ideas and run spaces themselves.

What are the biggest obstacles you have faced in your work?
The transient population is tough – it is hard to do community organizing with a population that moves and shifts so often. Also, people have a specific vision of how they think of bicycle advocacy – sometimes through the green movement, through certain forms of city planning, a policy perspective or bikes as workforce development – and because we are really making up something new, we have difficulty getting people to hear our niche. Lastly, it can be tough to advocate specifically for bike lanes in low income areas because often those areas tend be older with narrower streets. Planners are afraid of liability issues and taking up car capacity, and struggle more to reach out to those communities.

Where do you envision the work of City of Lights in 5 years?
We want to really expand our organizing focus so we are not necessarily just oriented to Latino immigrant day-labor cyclists – our intention was to start there and open up to other groups. We’d love to see Asian American and Black cyclist groups start to form, to provide nurturing for those and to keep raising awareness of the diversity of bikers, biking needs and uses of bikes.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo: Courtesy of City of Lights

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