Two Reasons Bike Advocacy in LA is on the Wane

Bicycling advocacy in Los Angeles is getting smaller and weaker.

“Defend Boyle Heights”, a social justice community group, has pilloried Metro’s bike share. The group sees bike share as a symbol of malevolent socio-economic changes in the area.

The Great Social Justice Awakening

Part of the weakening of bike advocacy in Los Angeles is a function of the take-over of nearly every civic issue or cause by a professional (and sometimes volunteer) class of social justice warriors. This class of people, like those swept up in previous mass religious awakenings in America, are searching for a moral cleansing of public life. As a result, practical problem solving, consensus building, historic fact and context, and measurable outcomes are overlooked. In exchange, this class of people is bestowed with self-righteous rage at whatever or whoever their various enablers point them towards. Our new moral arbiters are not the clergy or conventional religious leaders, but instead a loose confederacy of self-interested actors in the local media, non-profit, or social media sectors. They play a “Name the Racist” game that trivializes the day-to-day outcomes of public policy. Their moral narrative is incoherent as a text or direction for living a good life. Rather, it is driven by that which increases their power to purge. All who oppose them are to be purged from public life and from gainful employment. This type of religious zeal is not healthy when it comes to municipal government.

For example: how can citizens begin to talk about cleaning up a local dog park when, prior to having a public discussion, everyone’s privileges must be checked, language policed, and any descriptions of reality that approach sounding like a stereotype or biased against a “protected group” are not allowed to be admitted into discourse?

Colonial Politics

Another significant reason for Los Angeles’ weakening bike advocacy is this city’s status as a colonial outpost for various industry, union, national and global interest groups – with a political elite that can afford to ignore basic good governance in exchange for a small piece of whatever action those interest groups break off to mostly have their way with the region.

“Today is election day, and neither of the candidates for mayor seems to have noticed that the city he aspires to lead has now become a colony. The aerospace economy is gone. The city’s department stores have passed in and out of bankruptcy. The banks themselves are headquartered in Georgia and Seattle. Our remaining oil company has gone to British Petroleum. The industry of dreams – the making of movies- is owned in Australia, Canada, Japan, and New York. The Times was the last, big corporate presence that mattered by being in Los Angeles. And now, it doesn’t matter. Perhaps this is what globalization feels like, living in a place where everyone is a colonialist and among the colonized simultaneously.”

  • D.J. Waldie (2004) Where we are now: notes from Los Angeles (p. 35). Santa Monica, CA: Angel City Press.

Villaraigosa Era Overton Window

There was a moment, during the reign of LA’s former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, that bike advocacy sidestepped the byzantine nightmare of interlocked bribes and public relations stunts required to achieve any civic goal in Los Angeles. Those glorious days are gone, but it is worth looking back to compare that era with the current one under mayor Eric Garcetti.

Villaraigosa, prior to becoming a bike-centric mayor, was deemed a “failure” by Los Angeles Magazine and by many public figures as well at the time. His old-fashioned election goals (“fix traffic”, “more cops”, “balanced budgets”) went down in flames just past his election to a second term in office.

Bicycle projects were an easy out to score huge public relations victories doing extremely basic, and cheap, public works that had been planned for decades. Villaraigosa also employed a middle school student body government tactic with the city council: he stacked the council with people that owed their political careers to him. He did this by sending his donors towards his picks for various city council seats.

Former mayor Villaraigosa found a series of fiscally and politically easy wins transforming Los Angeles’ Department of Transportation (LADOT). In the early to mid-2000’s, the department was a car-centric throwback to the early 20th century. After Villaraigosa, it had transitioned into a more-or-less progressive beachhead in city hall for bicycle and pedestrian project planning and implementation.

The value proposition for politicians flipped, however, with mayor Eric Garcetti. Garcetti is a politician completely hamstrung by the complex web of interest groups that have bought a piece of his attention. Their money has kept the city in political stasis; which, despite all the horrific outcomes that stasis entails, at least gives these large interests a predictable landscape to ply their various hustles. Additionally, mayor Garcetti was too preoccupied figuring out his next political move to employ any politically meaningful strategy with members of the council (aside from playing nice in public ceremonies). Garcetti ceded power to the council president, Herb Wesson. Wesson’s own relatively deep donor base and concentration of networked power meant he had no reason to seek cheap and easy public policy wins. Further still, he could call a few of his favorite non-profits and generate whatever positive public relations he needed without resorting to bike lanes and safe crosswalks.

Some politicians still cling to the Villaraigosa play book. Mike Bonin on the Westside and Jose Huizar in Boyle Heights fully engaged the Villaraigosa strategy – seeking easy political wins available using bike projects. However, many on the council, and the mayor himself, saw only headaches, annoyance, or simply hated bicycle projects in general and owed nothing to the bicycling community.

John Buntin, the author of the book “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City”, once credited L.A.’s byzantine web of corruption as one of the reasons mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel left the city for Las Vegas. He’d had to bribe or blackmail the police commissioners, the city council, and mayor – but also individual station captains and LAPD division heads as well. It was a monumental headache dealing with networks of government officials all fishing for their needs to be met, the story goes, so Bugsy left for Las Vegas.

In a similar way, the money and networking required to move the needle on a civic project in Los Angeles requires more than what the cycling advocacy community can muster. The bike advocacy community is a rag-tag bunch of volunteers allied with one or two local millionaires. That ain’t much in a city packed with billionaires, unions with big campaign budgets and volunteer armies, huge investment funds, and large pools of foreign real estate interests shopping for returns. Similar to colonial governors, our elected leaders in Los Angeles are fine-tuned to pick up any disturbance in the various rackets and hustles these big players need to keep their interests going; while they ignore the day-to-day lives and experiences of normal people under their control.

Examples abound in many domains in Los Angeles where some local elites, or a community group, rises up, gets organized, pushes forward an entirely reasonable and often self-funded, self-directed, well planned, ready to compromise proposal, and is promptly heavily suppressed by their local politician and pilloried in the press. Sometimes the injustice done to these self-appointed advocates is spun as an outrage story in the local TV or radio news, and their project does move forward. More often than not, these nice ideas die painful deaths that forever turn away groups of motivated residents from ever engaging in public life again.

The toxic stew of the social justice religious revival movement and the power that complex webs of  interest groups hold over Los Angeles’ city council and mayor mean one thing for bike projects in Los Angles: they have been, and will likely continue to be, failures.

If we continue to limp forward, wounded by the insanity dominating public discourse, blind to political reality in city hall and, most importantly, ignoring the cold hard facts about bike projects in Los Angeles – the future is not very bright at all for cycling in this town.

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