Michelle Mowery believes LA's racial diversity resists bike friendliness (LABP 17/100)

Michelle Mowery said that LA did not get the same robust Bike Plan process as Portland in part because Portland is “very white” and LA is “a very diverse, disjointed city.”  Mowery, LA DOT’s Bicycle Coordinator, made her assertion Wednesday in LA City Council Transportation Committee.  Here’s the transcript with Councilman Bill Rosendahl’s question and Mowery’s response:

BILL ROSENDAHL: Alta Planning is reportedly one of the finest consulting groups in the world for bike planning. How is it that the City of Los Angeles kicked off the Draft Bike Plan process with Alta but did not incorporate the robust Bike Plan process that Portland used/is using to develop their own Bike Plan?  For example in Portland Alta maintained eleven working groups, and they used community bike rides to engage and survey.

MICHELLE MOWERY: With all due respect the City of Portland is 450,000 people.  It’s a homogeneous community that is very white, and very progressive with respect to transportation.  They have a trolley system that works very well, as well as their transit overall.  We are a very diverse, disjointed city of 4 million people.  They are 30 years ahead of us in the development of their, well, they’re not quite 30, they’re more like 20 years ahead of us in the development of their bikeway.  So we’re a step behind Portland in what we’re trying to do. Granted, several of us would like to see a lot of changes in the city happen very quickly, but again we have a very diverse city with a lot of needs.

Ok, let’s start from the beginning: Mowery doesn’t even answer the question.  The question, rephrased, is why did LA not get the same intensive process in revising the bike plan that Portland did, given that we used the same consultant? Mowery never answers that question, and instead makes throwaway remarks about why LA is behind Portland in bike friendliness.  Mowery does mention that Portland is far ahead of Los Angeles in terms of being bike friendly.  You might interpret that as an answer to the question, in that a less bike friendly place will have less to talk about, and less people to talk to. Mowery never makes that connection directly, and even if she did, it’s still not an answer.  Frankly, given that she saw these questions 2 days ahead of time, and that she has been working on this plan for 2 years now, she should have an answer.

The real answer is probably that we didn’t spend enough money.  Or, rather, we didn’t spend enough money on community outreach.  LA contracted with Alta to update our bike plan for $450,000 . . . but most of that money went into things other than community outreach.  For example, instead of having a quality community outreach process, we spent a ton of the money on a technical handbook which we could have easily got from San Francisco at a 5-finger discount

Instead of mentioning the 450,000 bucks LA spent on a terrible plan, she focused on the 450,000 people of Portland and how that compares to LA’s 4,000,000.  I don’t see how LA being larger than Portland should mean that Portland would have a larger outreach process than LA?  MTA believes that LA has a 2.5% mode share for bikes, and Portland has roughly 9%.  That means that, in absolute terms, there are more trips made by bicycle in Los Angeles, than in Portland, because LA exceeds Portland in population by a factor of 9, but lags in mode share by less than a factor of 4.

What possible connection can racial diversity have to it?  By saying that Portland is homogeneous and LA diverse, Mowery seems to be making an argument that diverse places are inherently slower to adopt bicycles, or inherently dysfunctional politically.  It’s not clear to me, but it smacks of a freshman political science major selling a bad theory.  I can think of two examples of racially diverse cities that are politically functional (at least as compares to LA), and are making huge strides toward bike friendliness.

New York.


Those are the 1st and 3nd largest cities in the US, with LA being the 2nd largest. They’re both world class cities with cultural and racial diversity up the wazoo.  They are, very much, LA’s peers.  Therefore, the argument that Portland is ahead of us because of it’s alleged homogeneity falls flat. And it still doesn’t explain why the outreach process for LA’s bike plan update was so lack luster.

It all comes back to, why highlight Portland’s WHITENESS?  The homogeneity argument isn’t convincing, but at least it’s color neutral.  I don’t really think it has anything to do with bikes at all.

You can hear the meeting audio here, with the Bike Plan report beginning around 20:20, the question and Very White answer at 40:28 (and you can also hear me briefly take Mowery to task at 58:01.)

(I  just read through my piece here looking for errors and I thought it came off a little bit Vulcan = detached, unemotional, logical.  So I just wanted to add a note here and say that I’m outraged at the way Mowery handled this question, and I think it’s a truly vile way to discuss an issue, and I’m mad about it.  So hopefully that informs the tone, adjusting it to an Angry Vulcan tone.)

Alex Thompson

Bikerowave co-founder, Cyclists' Bill of Rights co-author, President of Bikeside, and Math Phd. HULK SMASH straight from Michigan!

36 thoughts on “Michelle Mowery believes LA's racial diversity resists bike friendliness (LABP 17/100)

  1. I live in Madrid, Spain now and have never lived in LA so I profess ignorance about specific issues about the town. I lived in NYC for 13 years, Miami as well so big city living is nothing new for me. That said. I thought about the following.

    I agree that she brushed off the question and did not answer it directly. You may well be right that the real answer is not enough effort and budget have been put into the process to start with.

    Still, there are points here worth considering. “I don’t see how LA being larger than Portland should mean that Portland would have a larger outreach process than LA.” I think outreach in cities like LA as compared to Portland are magnitudes more difficult. There are cultural and economic issues present in LA at levels which Portland does not experience. That’s not an excuse for attempting proper outreach but I do see it as much, much more difficult for LA than Portland.

    “It all comes back to, why highlight Portland’s WHITENESS?” Well, why not? It’s a good idea to look at issues of race and economic distribution when it comes to city planning. What’s the economic distribution of Portland and LA? I don’t know. Off the cuff, I’d say LA has a much larger and more diverse lower class and poor population than Portland. That complicates issues.

    If you were looking at health problems, you’d do the same. You’d take a look at neighborhoods, at race, culture, economics and reach some statistical conclusions that perhaps lead to better planning for health services. I don’t planning for transportation and better cycling infrastructure is that much different.

    But your main point, that she avoided answering the question directly, I agree with that.

  2. Has Michelle Mowery not noticed all of the working class Latino people who ride bikes to get to work? Wouldn’t they be “bike friendly,” considering that there is a large number of people in that demographic who rely on bikes or multimodal transportation? So what does “whiteness” have to do with anything?

  3. I think the real issue is that Michelle and the DOT are not fully committed to delivering a bike plan that serves the needs of all people regardless of race, age, religion, ability, gender, etc. I’m wondering if the end goal for these folks is to simply produce an oversized document with little substance, call it a success and file it away.

    I also agree with the point about wasting time and money on a technical handbook when this information is readily available. The plan could address this need by requiring City staff and consultants to complete a minimum number of continuing education units on bicycle and pedestrian facilities every year.

    At the end of the day this whole process appears to be a ‘make work’ charade and Michelle Mowery is the master illusionist.

  4. They dodged a lot of questions yesterday. I still don’t know the actual number of miles of bike lanes being added. When that question came up (and the answer would be in number form, right?) they continued to clarify the differences between the former proposed bike lanes and the new proposed bike lanes, with no real discussion of the actual number. That smacks of no REAL, TANGIBLE goals. I’m a grant writer and when I write reports to my foundation grantors, if I said, “Well, we served more people than last year,” but had no proof of it and no actual numbers to provide? I don’t think I’d be getting any additional funds from that agency. Furthermore, if I submitted a grant proposal that did not identify tangible goals, ie: such and such after school program will serve 25 students in the after school sessions at 3 schools, etc., my programs would not be successful in funding. The LA Dept of Cultural Affairs would never fund anyone without actual numbers of participants, districts served, and actual line item budgets that break down the costs. Why would our bike plan, which is possibly far more important to the growth and connectivity of our city, require anything less?

    I would rather have a comprehensive plan, staged to roll out in phases, that has A) an overall mission that addresses transportation and connecting the city B) goals to support that mission, and C) objectives, with specific deadlines, that get fulfill those goals. Is that really so much to ask? Is this Business Planning 101?

    Furthermore, I just have to say that the fact that there are no deadlines, etc., and discussions of the timeline yesterday, reminded me quite a bit of the controversy with former President Bush and the timeline to disengage from Iraq, and his refusal to set goals/benchmarks for a retrenching strategy.

    On another note, I do appreciate Rosendahl’s energy and enthusiasm (at least publicly) for the cause. And Tom LaBonge (is he the one who was complaining about being scared to commute by bike?) is a cry baby. (Okay, don’t jump on me, that was a joke.)

  5. I was going to make the same point as KateNonymous. Los Angeles has a racially diverse population of people who use a combination of bicycles and public transportation to communte to and from work on a daily basis. How about making efforts to reach some of the more disenfranchised members of this population?

  6. I though it was also telling that Mowery stated that LA is 30 years behind Portland… then corrected herself to say we’re 20 years behind Portland… either way, the department she works for is responsible for that gap… and is working to wide it. groan.

  7. With all due respect (because I knOW our turgid bureaucracy takes forever to do anything), LA’s diversity does in fact make outreach more difficult (and expensive) to coordinate, requiring teams fluent in both the various languages in widespread use besides English (and Spanish is by no means the only one) and fluent in bicycle policy, benefits, arguments, etc. This factor also multiplies the number of documents and meetings needed. If LA weren’t cheaping out on bikes, it wouldn’t be a problem–DMV handles the issue every day for motorists–but it is a factor adding to the bureaucratic inertia.

    I doubt Mowery is racist, considering that she’s part Chippewa and studying the language; but it does seem like she’s making excuses.

    The issue is not that LA is too diverse, but that LA is too cheap to promote bicycling issues and benefits to our very diverse population.

    LADOT, as always, is all effort for cars and little or nothing for anything else.

    Since Metro seems to have no problem engaging in live and published outreach to our diverse communities, and since it already has a bikeways program of sorts, and since it covers the entire county, maybe we should try to get bikeway planning given over to MTA? What do you all think?

  8. I thought the same thing when I heard Mowery talk yesterday, but still – what a shitty response she gave! She could just say, “We don’t have the money, or didn’t set it aside, for the type of citywide outreach necessary so we spent it all on some consultant to make a pretty map for us.”

    That would have been a good response … oh wait, they had half a million dollars! They could have done a couple dozen meetings and rides across LA, and gone back for more money. It would have kept them employed and it would have grown the bike movement as well, so that they’d have the educated masses supporting them as opposed to trying to tear them down.

    The whole process has been “We have a plan, you may now comment, we don’t give a shit about what you say” until very recently when Box et al started bringing the crowds to city hall.

  9. The LAPD, the LADOT, and the City of Los Angeles have taught me that because I choose to use a bicycle as a means of transportation that my life is less important than those who drive cars. If I am killed or injured injured in hit and run, the driver will get off scott free with just a slap on the wrist, or no investigation or effort will take place to find the suspect. Whenever there is a need to put some paint on the roads to distinguish a bike lane or sharrows, the money will go to expanding the road for cars instead. If I am trying to ride safely in a group of fellow cyclists, the police will harass and tackle us off our bikes for no good reason. Also, because I am not “white”, LA cannot have as extensive a Bike Plan process as Portland does. Because I choose to ride a bike in LA means that I have fewer rights and privileges than someone who drives a car in LA. Riding a bicycle makes me a lower class citizen in the eyes of city officials. Therefore, I hereby charge the city of LA, the DOT, and it’s police force with discrimination.

    Dot Com

  10. As Bob Marley says, Complaining is making prayers to the devil. Let’s continue to speak up, be heard, and show our leaders that this “plan” is nowhere near sufficient for a city with the longest commute times in the country, and the worst air quality to boot.

  11. Let’s be clear, the bike plan only exists to satisfy requirements for receiving federal transportation dollars. The relevant committees would much rather deal with the “young, white, hipster” elements of the bike riding population. There’s a few who complain, but they really don’t have much power or organize in any significant way that might impact a pol’s job. If they did outreach to the hispanic community or any other groups where the majority of bike riders are not perceived as “optional” riders deciding not to take their car that day, they fear stirring up an actual activist base a la the Bus Riders Union that could manage to put some real heat under the pols asses.

    I know I’m including some fairly inaccurate racial/bicyclist divisions & stereotypes here. But you see my point?

  12. i have to say, i find this pretty shocking and a very strange use of logic.

    i am a white guy and i live with my black girlfriend in a latino neighborhood.

    none of us have quality bike infrastructure anywhere near our house. case closed.

  13. Oh yeah, forgot to mention I visited (and biked in) Portland over two years ago. Me, the brown-skinned L.A. Filipino dude thought that I would be very out of place there. It was actually more diverse than I thought it would be. Basically there are Latino neighborhoods to the east, African American neighborhoods to the north and Asian neighborhoods in the west. And PSU’s student diversity isn’t too unlike that of Los Angeles.

    How do bikes work there? They made their bikeway network connect like two-wheeler freeways. They put directional signs for cyclists. They put some thought and effort into it. They made it work.

    What they didn’t do – was make excuses.

  14. if you want an example of a diverse city with a successful urban planning outreach, look at Vancouver, BC! about half of the city’s residents are “visible minorities, including central and south americans, east indians and asians.

    in 1995, they came up with a program called “cityplan” that has successfully connected business and neighborhood leaders together with urban planners to create a world-class transportation network.


    if they could do it, why can’t we?

  15. What she is saying is code for “I’m a bureaucrat, I don’t have a damn clue about said bike plan, diversity nor am I willing to try…So rather than using some of the money for community outreach I used it to sustain my yuppie lifestyle…Whatever I am saying in any particular meetings about said bike plan, no matter how nonsensical it may be is simply the bullshit we bureaucrats say to sustain the status quo”. You don’t like it, run for office, replace me but the money is already gone.

  16. not that it really even makes a dent when comparing the population of LA and Portland; but Portland’s pop. is more like 580,000 in the city proper.

  17. AAaaaah! FUCK! Enough! Make ME LADOT Bike Coordinator. I’ll do it for free, on top of my regular job. I am sick of this bullshit. Michelle Mowery’s been pussyfooting around for almost fourteen FUCKING years.

  18. Some input from Portland (for what it’s worth): If this bike coordinator has been then for 14 years, it’s time for some new blood!

  19. For the record, City of Portland pop. is aprox. 560,000, (40,000 less than Seattle; 240,000 less than SF and millions less than LA). The regional population is nearing 2 million, as is very diverse with large asian, hispanic, eastern european and russian populations. It also attracts immigration from arabic and african states.

    Cycling is a means of transportation that all ethnic groups participate in, yet I think it is fair to say that there are cultural reasons why cycling is not as embraced in certain immigrant groups as it is within the white population. In this circumstance, Portland’s ethnic populations may be behaving in a way similar to Amsterdam’s where status and economic success are expressed with auto ownership. Many ethnic groups may equate cycling as a sign of poverty, as they may have rememberance of the necessity of bike riding in their former home countries.

    Further, Portland’s inner city neighborhoods where cycling is most prominent are fairly white, while the outer neighborhoods and suburbs are where the majority of the ethnic and immigrant populations live.

    The outer neighborhoods and suburbs are more auto oriented in urban form. The inner city is more urban, based on a finer grained block and street structure.

    In Portland, it also rains a lot (in the winter) and it is very hilly. These two factors would lead one to conclude that cycling would be less attractive than in a flater, more climate friendly environment like LA.

    However, cyclists ride all year, all over the region.

    LA is far denser than Portland, and therefore would seem to support cycling naturally by virture of its density, and resultant mixed use character.

    With the advantages of weather, topography, density, mixed use urban fabric and diverse population, one would think LA would be a great place to ride a bike.

  20. Sorry I haven’t been in here and made any substantive comments yet. This blog has been hacked 6 times in the last few days – the Mowery revenge – so I’ve been working on that. Now I’m just testing the new “notify me of followup comments” feature. Werd,


  21. Oh, dear. Mowery’s not totally off the mark, but she didn’t explain herself (at all), & more to the point she should have known better. She is not new.

    White people are annoying. Give ’em an inch, & we’ll ask for a mile. In the meantime, we’ll take every sliver of that inch & complain about it.

    Other ethnic groups are less demanding. Some are disillusioned by a system that was established without them in mind (kinda like … you know, bikers). Some are here on tenuous legal grounds & therefore feel like speaking up (about anything, not just bike issues) would be a hazard to their residency here. MOST LIKELY, Ms. Mowery was galloping past these points owing to lack of time, or being flustered, or inarticulateness. Either that, or she’s a flaming white supremacist & needs to go.

    To a previous commenter RE Portland & its diversity: It is, indeed, a fairly diverse city. This isn’t really known, because it is the scruffy, opinionated white people that have transformed the city in the past thirty years. Scruffy white art collectives. Scruffy white record stores. Scruffy white local, organic, sustainable restaurants (a dime a dozen, & I miss them). But there is a HUGE Hispanic community, one of the larger Asian communities on the West Coast, & yes, a long-established, strong, & vibrant African-American community, too. But much like Los Angeles, it’s the white folk that make all the fuss. Squeaky wheel, grease, &c.

    In short: Mowery is not necessarily wrong about diversity being an issue in getting the Bike Plan to make sense. But she is wrong about Portland. She is also wrong in thinking we will accept this as an excuse. If she’s been in her position for fourteen years, she bloody well better know the demographics of Los Angeles very damned well. Or she should. And she should have accommodated for it.

    In the meantime: Are there some streets that other, more silent ethnic groups need bike laned or sharrowed that aren’t addressed by LA’s Best Bike Plan? Is it too late for outreach?

  22. I had asked around at the public ‘meetings’ why there was only presentation and the taking of public comment. Why couldn’t we have more meetings with some actual dialog. The default answer was money. Now Michelle has changed her tune and cited our ‘diversity’ as the problem. In speaking with Michelle at the multiple public presentations on the bike plan she did nothing but deflect my comments with excuses, contort the discussion into issues I should solve, and she even stomped away so she would have to listen to my ideas. Often times after our dialog ended I felt that LA’s bike problems were all my fault.

    Do we really think that more money or a less ‘diverse’ community is going to change the way she treats the dialog between her office of ’senior coordinator’ and the cyclists she serves? All the money in the world is not going to change the way Michelle perceives cyclists in LA. Even when she’s presented with a case of road rage against a cyclist she warns that cyclists should be more careful.

    If we are going to get anything done in this city we need an optimist — not a negative, ‘wear your helmet’ ninny troll parasite living off the lost future of the bike plan.

    to that point of having more outreach: various groups across the city have been putting their own free time and effort into improving the bike plan and reaching out to the public. if Michelle loves her job so much why doesn’t she put some free time into it too. why hasn’t she attended any of these open and public meetings arranged by these outside groups? If you noticed the whole DOT, Planning and ALTA crew ended the meetings promptly and drove away in their cars as soon as they could. In it for just the paycheck?

    It’s obvious Michelle must hate her job — why doesn’t she just quit and find a better one? Or retire and polish the lugs on her Colnago?

    if we consider all streets a street cyclists will ride it doesn’t matter the color or language of the cyclist.

  23. I for one hope we get more bike friendly lanes on the Westside; then I can turn my windshield nozzles back on my windshield rather than pointed outward to squirt the rude ass bike riders that think they can ride in the middle of a 35MPH street.

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