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March 2022 - Episode 2

Sidewalk Riding

Many states and cities in the US have laws that make it illegal to ride your bicycle on the sidewalk. But, are these laws keeping people safe? Or are they another way that Black Americans and other people of color have had their mobility arrested?

Today, we investigate how law enforcement uses cycling infractions to perpetuate systemic racism in under-resourced and underserved communities. We’ll talk to Patric McCoy, who was stopped by Chicago police.

We also welcome Oboi Reed and Dr. Jesus Barajas to speak about their activism and research.

Next month, we’ll continue this theme on sidewalk riding by exploring the possibilities and pitfalls of micromobility devices like eScooters and eBike docking stations. We’ll also explore the importance of making room for everyone to travel safely, particularly persons with disabilities. 

Links:

Man standing with bike on sidewalk - Photo by Ving N on Unsplash
Photo by Ving N on Unsplash

Patrick McCoy:
My name is Patrick McCoy. I’m 75 and I still ride a bike. I was on the bike yesterday and plan to be on it later on today. I have always lived on the south side of Chicago in a completely Black neighborhood. Because for those who know Chicago, know that it has had essentially a Black city within the city, and we have been treated as such.

This is January of 2017. No snow on the ground, but 15 degrees. I decide to ride over to my friend’s restaurant. It’s about two blocks away from my house. So I come out of my place, come out the gate, get on the bike, ride on the sidewalk to the alley, then go to this parking lot for this grocery store, and I’m going across the parking lot and I hear this car come up from down the street and holler out at me telling me to “Come here, come here.” And I turn around and it’s an unmarked car, looks like anybody, and there’s two white men sitting in the car asking me to come back over to them.

I’m thinking they’re lost. So I turn around and go back over there, and soon as I get up to them, I see, “Oh, they have uniforms on, this is the police.” And they say, “Real smart. You know why we are stopping you?” I said, “No, I have no idea why you’re stopping me.” He said, “You were riding on the sidewalk.” So I said, “You have got to be kidding. Nobody is on the street. It’s 15 degrees and I’m only going less than 50 feet on the sidewalk.” And he said, “You know you’re not supposed to ride on the sidewalk?” I said, “Yes, I know that, but that’s not what this is.” And then he kept saying, “You know we could arrest you?” This man wants to get me riled up so that he can have the pretense to arrest me and put me in handcuffs and so forth. And I’m standing out here in 15 degree weather listening to this garbage, and I reckon could easily get real riled up and I said, “Let me just chill and just go along with this program,” and it just went on and on and on.

Charles T. Brown:
Many states and cities in the US have laws that make it illegal to ride your bicycle on the sidewalk. The idea is to prevent cyclists from injuring pedestrians and persons with disabilities and to keep them in streets and bike lanes. But oftentimes, there are no bike lanes, and if there are lanes, they’re usually unprotected and thus less than ideal. For the majority of people, biking on the sidewalk is much safer than riding in the busy street with traffic. However, the decision to do so for Black, Brown and or people with lower incomes may come with a healthy price.

There one of the biggest dangers you face is being stopped by the police, especially when you’re biking while Black. Sidewalk riding laws are just one way that Black Americans and other racial and ethnic minority groups have had their mobility arrested. Today, we’re investigating how law enforcement uses cycling infractions to perpetuate systemic racism in under-resourced and underserved communities. I am Charles T. Brown and this is Arrested Mobility. Thanks for joining us.

I am thankful that Patrick McCoy avoided escalation when he was stopped on that cold day in January of 2017. That same year, a former journalist for the Chicago Tribune interviewed Patrick about his experience. That journalist’s name is Mary Wisniewski. The city had made a large swath of traffic data public for their Vision Zero plan intended to reduce traffic deaths, but Mary looked at the data and discovered a shocking statistic. According to her analysis, most of the cycling tickets were for riding on the sidewalk. In Chicago, police issued citations more than twice as often in Black neighborhoods than in white or Latino neighborhoods. Patrick lives near the University of Chicago, which has one of the largest private police forces in the country. The neighborhood is also still patrolled by the Chicago Police Department. This area is essentially overpoliced and according to many, it’s rapidly gentrifying.

Why do you think they did it? Why did they stop you?

Patrick McCoy:
To get numbers. They had a quota. They had to get a certain amount of tickets, and it’s easy to do it in a Black neighborhood because you’re not going to get any pushback. You can get away with it. And the article that came out in the Tribune was showing that our neighborhood, the Black neighborhoods were over-ticketed for bicycle infractions, and yet our neighborhoods have the least amount of bicycle riding. The neighborhoods that have just unbelievable number of people riding and riding on sidewalks and endangering people, they didn’t have hardly any tickets.

Charles T. Brown:
You think gentrification played a role?

Patrick McCoy:
Yes. Over here, definitely. The part of the neighborhood that I’m in, to harass Black people, to make them want to leave would be in the interests of the developers definitely. And I would bet dollars to donuts that the white cyclists over here are never harassed. They could be doing things like riding against traffic, riding on sidewalks, they don’t get messed up. But Blacks would get those kind of tickets.

Charles T. Brown:
Mary continued her research on cyclist ticketing with a series of articles in 2020. The city took note, and so did many advocates and residents such as Oboi Reed, who is the president and CEO of the Equiticity Racial Equity Movement. Equiticity aims to operationalize racial equity through transformative legislation and policy. Like Patrick, Oboi grew up on the south side of Chicago. He was frustrated by the city government’s lack luster response to Mary’s research. So Equiticity commissioned their own study called Biking where Black. This new research showed that police officers were in fact eight times more likely to issue cycling tickets in Black neighborhoods compared to white neighborhoods, and Oboi’s commitment to racial equity brought this statistic to light.

Welcome, Oboi.

Oboi Reed:
Thank you. It’s a pleasure Charles, as always.

Charles T. Brown:
Please tell me why you founded your organization Equiticity.

Oboi Reed:
I’m trying to be brief here. In around 2016, 17, you recall, I’m sure many of your listeners recall, it was around the time of a racial justice reckoning happening in our society. We were being inundated with the visuals of Black people being murdered by the police. Vision Zero was gaining momentum in our society. Chicago and many cities around the country were leading their Vision Zero strategies using enforcement. Equity was just sort of starting to bubble in the transportation and planning sectors. The vast majority of people who talked about equity had no idea what it meant.

And all of that just sort of coalesced into a moment where I went through a bit of a metamorphosis. I had co-founded Slow Roll Chicago. I was squarely focused on bikes and bicycle organizing and community bicycle rides. And I had this sort of awakening where I realized that my work was bigger than bikes, my work was bigger than Chicago, and all of that led to Equiticity as a racial equity movement.

Charles T. Brown:
What was the impetus for your most recent study, which focused on over-policing and disparities in ticketing among Black and Brown cyclists on sidewalks in Chicago?

Oboi Reed:
We probably are going to go back to about 2014 when I co-founded Slow Roll Chicago. We were doing community bicycle rides in predominantly Black and Brown, low to moderate income neighborhoods here in Chicago, where we’re concentrated on the south and west sides of the city. I started hearing from young people in our neighborhoods that they didn’t like riding bikes because they felt targeted by the police. This is what young people were telling me because I’m the bicycle person. We riding, we are having a good time rolling around neighborhoods and we’re trying to get young people to ride. So I go to the city, I go to white mainstream bike advocates, and I tell them what I’m hearing young Black and Brown people in our neighborhoods in the city, and white advocates are saying, “No, no, that’s not happening. The Chicago police wouldn’t do that. I’m not sure why they’re telling you that.”

And I’m relatively new to the work. I am not sure. I don’t know. I’m only repeating what others have told me. I believe about two years later, Mary Wisniewski at the Chicago Tribune did a study looking at bicycling tickets from the Chicago Police Department and found what I had been telling the city and white bike advocates for a couple of years now. So we confirmed that it’s happening. We talk with the city, they assure us… This is the mayor’s office, they don’t know anything about this. They didn’t know the Chicago Police Department was doing this, and they’re going to put a halt to it.

Well, Mary Wisniewski for the second year, one year later, did a similar study and found the same thing was happening after the mayor’s office said that they were going to halt that strategy. And then for the third year, same thing, although the numbers did start to decrease. We believe they decreased because of all of the attention that the mayor’s office, the city, and the Chicago Police Department was receiving around this inequity. And around that same time, there were some court cases and maybe a consent decree had even been established that sort of forced the Chicago Police Department to change its tactics.

So it was all of that that pushed us to do our own study led by Dr. Jesus Barajas, a professor at UC Davis, to do our own research and confirm that this is still happening and study it ourselves and share it with policymakers and organizations in Chicago as well.

Charles T. Brown:
How surprised were you to discover that Chicago police issued tickets for cycling on the sidewalk in majority Black communities or neighborhoods at eight times the rate in majority white areas?

Oboi Reed:
When it first happened, of course I was surprised because I just didn’t know. As someone who was early in the work, I just didn’t know that this was a thing. Because I’m Black, I’m a Black man growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I know what police inequities look like. I’ve experienced it myself. It just didn’t occur to me that the police would be stopping Black people at that high of a rate relative to white people. So I was completely surprised.

By the time we did our own research, I wasn’t surprised because we had three years of studies from the Chicago Tribune confirming that this was happening. Now we’re just doing our own research in a way, just confirming it for ourselves. It wasn’t a surprise anymore. Now I’m four or five years into the work and I have an understanding of how the transportation is embedded with structural racism just like any other sector in our society. So by that time, I was keenly aware of these inequities.

Charles T. Brown:
How did Black and Brown communities and individuals in Chicago suffer as a result of higher rates of citations and fines?

Oboi Reed:
Yeah, so we did a research study that executed qualitative focus groups for Black and Brown, low to moderate income people living on the south and west side. And one of the findings that came out of it was that over 85% of people who participated in those focus groups said transportation was a barrier to getting or keeping a job. So we know that unemployment is the highest in our neighborhoods. Poverty is the highest in our neighborhoods. Violence is the highest in our neighborhoods, and our people are saying transportation is stopping them from creating livelihoods for themselves, getting a job or keeping a job. Another finding that came out of that research is the deep concern Black and Brown people have for violence.

Now in the white planning transportation sector, there’s always conversations around vehicular violence. That’s the only kind of violence white planners care about in our neighborhoods. There’s always conversation around interpersonal violence. How do we stop gun violence? How do we stop crime? Right? Well, our research showed us there’s also concerns around police violence, and those concerns around police violence are shaping our mode choice. Now you layer on top of that concerns around police violence, on top of concerns around vehicular violence, on top of concerns around interpersonal violence, and what that does is it forces people in our neighborhood to own vehicles because people feel like that’s the safest way in and out.

And remember, public transit is not an effective vehicle for many of us to get to where the jobs are. So we are willing to spend inordinate amounts of percentages of our income on transportation because we’re concerned around violence and transit is not an option for us. So financially, we’re already poor and now we’re spending so much money on owning a vehicle, it’s financially harmful. And then traffic violence. The neighborhoods that are the most impacted by traffic violence is Black and Brown people. We are dying in our neighborhoods as a result of traffic violence. So the harms are multilayered, the exponential, they’re compounding. The harms are across the board given the structural racism that’s embedded in the transportation and planning sectors.

Charles T. Brown:
The discriminatory enforcement of sidewalk riding laws may appear to be an isolated phenomenon, but in structural racism, all dangers and disadvantages are intertwined to create an oppressive system for the Black and other racial and ethnic minority groups who live in underserved, under-resourced and over-policed communities. When Oboi put out a call to the academic community about commissioning this research, he connected with Dr. Jesus Barajas, an assistant professor at UC Davis in California. While Oboi is mainly focused on the consequences of excessive cycling citations, Dr. Barajas brought up some important points about why people are biking on the sidewalk in the first place.

Jesus Barajas:
Hi, my name’s Jesus Barajas. I’m an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy and a researcher in the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis. My research focuses on transportation equity generally. I’m interested in the conditions that prevent people from moving around freely and how planners and policy makers can respond to systems of inequity.

So this work, which I’ve called biking, where we found a disproportionate lack of bike infrastructure in the City of Chicago, in Black communities in particular. And the intersection of that lack of infrastructure and the over-policing led to a higher number of bike citations than you might expect if that infrastructure had been present. So we looked at bicycle infrastructure in particular, and we looked at differences between separated bike lanes, like bike boulevards and protected bike lanes. We looked at kind of the regular bike lanes, just paint on the street, and we looked at bike routes that had sharrows and shared lane markings too. We didn’t look at sidewalk infrastructure in particular in this study. The City of Chicago has pretty good sidewalk coverage where it’s absent… It’s the same story. It’s absent from disinvested neighborhoods from Black communities, but most of the streets in the city have sidewalk coverage.

Charles T. Brown:
Why do you think people bicycle on sidewalks? Do you think the behavior is justified?

Jesus Barajas:
Well, people are going to bicycle where they feel safe. And so if they don’t have that protection on the street with cars where they’re legally supposed to ride, your rational brain is going to put you in a place where you feel you’re the most safe, and that’s going to be on that sidewalk. It’s separated from traffic in a way that riding in a painted bike lane or without a bike lane is not.

And so I think people are certainly well justified to find a place where they can get around, where it’s safe, where they’re less likely to run into confrontations with cars, get hit, get killed by vehicles. The other side of that is pedestrians have the right of way on sidewalks too, and so then there’s some negotiation there. Should bikes be on the sidewalk in the first place because pedestrians are kind of the most vulnerable level of road users, and what’s the potential for conflict there? Or if the sidewalk is crossing a lot of driveways or cross streets, is the danger level higher on the sidewalk than it is on the street? But I think if you kind of take everything together and look at sort of the two ton vehicle versus the 180 pound bicycle with rider, I think being as separated as you can makes a lot of sense.

Charles T. Brown:
Where do you stand on the enforcement of laws to prevent sidewalk riding? Do you think we should lead with enforcement? If not, how might we best protect vulnerable users without over penalizing cyclists from making such a safe and logical choice?

Jesus Barajas:
So I think there is a role for enforcement in ensuring safety, but it needs to be focused on the most dangerous behaviors out there. We need to be focused on cars blasting through red lights and crosswalks to prevent vulnerable pedestrians. We need to be focused on speeding because the faster the cars go, the more likely pedestrians are to die. We really need to be focused on those behaviors that are going to result in the highest rates of injury and death.

So to me, that’s what enforcement should be doing. I think it’s a whole separate conversation about who should be conducting that enforcement. But what I don’t think is a good use of enforcement resources is on things like riding a bike on the sidewalk. Because the role of enforcement should be to protect and improve safety, and we don’t have a lot of evidence that riding a bike on the sidewalk is a dangerous activity to the extent that it is to other behaviors. And I think we have other examples in biking and walking where enforcement has been used with a pretense of safety, but the safety effects of enforcement are questionable.

Charles T. Brown:
Dr. Barajas feels that there may be a place for enforcement in ensuring safety on our roads and sidewalks. It’s just a matter of focusing that enforcement on behaviors that are actually dangerous. On the other hand, Oboi Reed asserts that law enforcement should not play any role in traffic safety, and he has alternative solutions.

Is there any role law enforcement can play in traffic safety?

Oboi Reed:
Not today. Policing in our society has a direct line to the institution of slave catchers. And coming out of slavery, and for generations having that foundation is why these systems, these institutions are criminalizing our neighborhoods, and worse, killing us. I’m confident that the institution of policing in our society is beyond repair. It is irreparably broken. It is fatally flawed. I don’t see a contemporary role for police in improving traffic safety. I don’t know LAPD that well, I don’t know NYPD that well, I don’t know Minneapolis PD that well. I know Chicago Police and I know that that institution is racist, corrupt, and abusive. And should you not believe me, read the US DOJ report that was done after the investigation when Laquan McDonald was murdered. Should you not believe me, read the newspapers of record who came in and did their own investigation on Chicago police, and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

I’m not being hyperbolic here. This is the reality of that institution. It’s a rogue institution that won’t even take direction from the mayor. They won’t even hold to a court and enforce consent decree. This is a rogue institution that has no business trying to improve traffic safety in our neighborhoods. And every time there is a role for them, it comes with harms and risk in our neighborhoods.

What I do see is an equitable investment in re-engineering our streets to improve traffic violence. I’ll give you an example. The intersection of 79th and Stony Island in South Chicago here in Chicago. On the South side, a neighborhood where I grew up, it’s one of the most dangerous intersections in the State of Illinois, and it’s been that way for generations. When my grandfather was running these streets, it was that dangerous then. And generations later, it still looks the same. There’s been no wholesale re-engineering of that intersection. And about a month or two ago, there was a fatal accident at that intersection, and then everybody came on social media, “Oh, this intersection has been so bad. We got to do a study.” The intersection has been studied ad nauseum.

So that’s one of the solutions is investing equitably and re-engineering our streets. Some other solutions is funding the socialization that happens through community mobility rituals. These include community bicycle rides, neighborhood walking tours, public transit excursions, group scooter rows, and open street festivals. It’s critical to do that work. It’s the socialization we need around mobility, helping people reimagine their connection, their relationship to our neighborhoods and to modes of travel and to mobility. And there is some research that explores the potential for community mobility rituals to help reduce interpersonal violence in our neighborhoods.

Charles T. Brown:
What role might white led bicycle pedestrian and transportation advocacy groups play in reversing these trends?

Oboi Reed:
Number one, they need to get out the way. The leadership from a racial equity perspective, from a mobility justice perspective must come from Black and Brown people. It must come from Black and Brown led organizations who are in our neighborhoods and understands the context and the needs and the culture of our neighborhoods. The leadership, we’re not going to allow the leadership on racial equity and mobility justice to come from white led organizations. Their role is that of allies. They have resources to bring to the table. In some cases it’s financial, in some cases it’s expertise, in some cases it’s the technical parameters. However, the leadership must come from us. And we’ll gladly work with white led organizations that bring us some capacity, bring us some financial resources, bring us some technical expertise. However, their role is an ally not in leadership.

Charles T. Brown:
What role should local and national Black led cycling groups and clubs such as Major Taylor play in reversing these trends?

Oboi Reed:
Yeah, let’s take Major Taylor. I love my brothers and sisters in Major Taylor. They’re in Chicago. That chapter is amazing. They’re an important partner with us. However, many of those people, our people, are middle to upper income. They are riding bikes that cost thousands of dollars. They feel some level of protection from the inequities we experienced because of the income level. And this is in no way a slight to Major Taylor or to other similarly situated clubs. What we need though is their partnership. They should be as vocal an advocate as I am around racial equity and mobility justice. Because we’ve seen, we’ve seen what happens when we think we’re above the inequities. The price you pay for your bike doesn’t mean you don’t get stopped because you’re riding in one of our neighborhoods and the street felt dangerous and you hopped on the sidewalk. And that stop could go bad.

So we’re not above it. So we need all of these bike clubs to really work with community-based organizations around racial equity and mobility justice and partner with us on network. I’m proud to say that Major Taylor Cycling Club of Chicago is actively working with us. I know some other MTC chapters around the country are doing the same. However, we need more Black and Brown folks to do this work.

And also, we need to be clear around what racial equity is. There’s still far too many people who don’t understand it. They don’t understand what it is. They don’t understand how to operationalize it. They don’t understand the impact that we want to see as a result of it. And one thing we have to be clear about is whatever institution, whatever system or structure is committing to racial equity: a DOT, a Department of Housing, a mayor’s office, that institution must go through an internal transformation. Because without the internal transformation, why should we have any confidence that an institution that has embedded racism, has executed harms in our neighborhoods for many generations is now all of a sudden in a place to improve life outcomes for racially marginalized people?

It makes no sense. There must be an internal transformation at those institutions. You don’t leave a commitment to racial equity or mobility justice to people. It’s legislated, and the legislation is unlike anything we’ve seen. It is comprehensive. It’s pervasive and persistent. It touches everything under a mayor’s purview because structural racism leaves nothing untouched. Capitalism leaves nothing untouched. Why should racial equity pick and choose where it’s going to be impactful? It must impact everything.

Charles T. Brown:
Once again, Oboi sees that racism and inequity in transportation and urban planning are systemic and pervasive. He feels it’s not enough to fight this battle on a personal level. You have to think about the big picture.

That said, please grant me a moment to reflect on one man’s personal experience. I want to return to Patrick McCoy who shared his story about being stopped by the police at the beginning of the episode. We’ve talked about how over-policing of sidewalk riding creates adverse health, safety, and economic outcomes in Black and other racial and ethnic minority communities. But we haven’t touched on how it threatens the freedom and joy of bicycling. Mr. McCoy began riding his bike as his main form of transportation about 30 years ago. At the time, he was working for the EPA as an environmental scientist with expertise in air pollution control. Today, he still rides his bicycle. It is not just because he wants to keep his environment clean.

What do you love most about riding your bicycle?

Patrick McCoy:
The freedom. The freedom to be able to move through the universe on my own energy and to move beyond the distance that you would normally be able to walk. In fact, a long time ago, I think it must’ve been around 1985, Scientific American did a whole issue on cycling. And they identified, and I don’t know if their analysis is still correct, but they identified that a human being on a bicycle was the most energy efficient mode of transportation in the universe. The amount of energy that requires to move that mass that far that fast, there’s nothing that compares to it. So it’s just a very exhilarating concept that at this age, I can do this easier than I can walk.

Charles T. Brown:
Everyone should be free to move around cities in a safe, efficient, affordable way. But let’s not forget that cycling can be enjoyable and it can be used as a tool to build and sustain community.

Today, we centered our conversation around the city of Chicago, but Chicago is not uniquely affected by over-policing and discriminatory enforcement of sidewalk riding laws. We’ve noticed racial bias in ticketing cyclists in other cities across the US, including New York City. Where between January 2021 to September 2021, data showed that police issued 118 tickets to cyclists for bicycle related infractions, such as reckless operation, biking in a park, and biking on the sidewalk. Black and Latino New Yorkers received 75% of those tickets, and only 10% went to white cyclists. It’s highly likely that this is also happening in your city.

Next month, we’re going to continue this theme on sidewalk riding by exploring the possibilities and pitfalls of micromobility devices like e-scooters and e-bike docking stations. We’ll dive deep into the increasing tension and focus on the potentially fatal interactions between micromobility users, pedestrians, and persons with disabilities. We’ll also explore the importance of making room for everyone to travel safely.

I want to thank my guests, Patrick McCoy, Oboi Reed, and Dr. Jesus Barajas. I appreciate your expertise and your time. For Arrested Mobility, I am Charles T. Brown. I encourage you to follow me on social media at ctbrown1911 on Twitter or using hashtag Arrested Mobility. To read the research we’ve discussed today, you’ll find all the links on our page for this episode at arrestedmobility.com. You can follow Arrested Mobility on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.