This interview is part of a bi-weekly series with sustainable transportation advocates, planners, engineers, journalists, sociologists, and other experts working to shed light on best practices and solutions from across the globe. We welcome your suggestions for future Q&As.
We recently wrote about some of the research and programming initiatives in Los Angeles to integrate immigrant bike commuters into the city’s bike culture and planning efforts, as well as expand the education and safety tools to immigrant communities. We spoke with the program coordinator Allison Mannos of Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition’s program, City of Lights, which aims to cultivate future advocates in the Latino community, provide safety resources and empower working class Latinos to educate and spread bicycle safety information and advocacy to their communities.
How did you start the City of Lights Program? What were you observing?
It started on two independent fronts. Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) did a report on bike riders, especially Latino riders that would bring their bikes on transit. It was the first foray in addressing low-income cyclist issues. Other volunteers and myself [discussed] how we would see Latino cyclists around and how they weren’t a part of the cycling community. So we started meeting and observing basic things like the fact that bikers didn’t have lights. We started in March or April of last year by linking with the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), a non-profit organization that runs a day laborer center. We started going there every Friday for a month and learned there was a need for more information by immigrant cyclists.
Our strategy transitioned away from bike lights and helmets. We partnered with Bike Kitchen to do bike maintenance. Then we developed a bike parking rack campaign in Pico Union and the Westlake area by submitting a neighborhood request. We also came out with a Spanish bike resource guide and distributed hundreds.
We are mostly focused on workshops right now – we are doing an open workshop where people can fix their bikes and can go through a certification process to run your own workshop.
Can you describe the immigrant communities of L.A. a bit?
There are a lot of immigrant neighborhoods throughout L.A. that tend to be lower income. In these particular neighborhoods there’s very [few] bike routes and the areas are dangerous because they tend to be industrial areas. It’s not the safest conditions for bikes and we noticed people often bike on sidewalks.
How are the residents you are working with taking to the program?
We started to build relationships last year by spending time and speaking with residents. The classes we’ve been teaching and the group bike rides elevated our relationship. The community saw we had a long-term commitment to working with them.
We just had a ride two weeks ago that people enjoyed. I also noticed that there was some surprise that we acknowledged the day laborer community as cyclists first rather than as immigrants and day laborers.
Have you faced any barriers to people’s interest in your program?
Since we work with day laborers, they don’t have a consistent job or location so it’s more difficult to coordinate them into political advocacy campaigns. The day laborers tend to be more of a transient population. However, since there’s been such a downturn in work, we are able to work with them on a regular basis.
What is your role with the program specifically?
We operate more like a volunteer collective. There are 10 core volunteers that meet monthly. We work like a volunteer grassroots-driven organization. A lot of what I do is documenting the program and administrative work.
What are the goals of City of Lights?
We want to see what we focus on – education, safety and bike mechanics – expand to other sites in the city and county. We also want to see additional [work] spaces geared to immigrant communities and more Spanish language safety classes. The youth ride fixed-gear bikes but don’t know about bike safety and their legal rights so we’d like to have them more involved.
Do you foresee the city building bike lanes and other bike infrastructure in this part of L.A.?
A lot of times the city just doesn’t hear from immigrant communities so there’s not a lot happening in low-income neighborhoods. The city of L.A. is doing its bike master plan right now. And we’ve attended some of these meetings and suggested that equity be considered a priority when gauging which projects to do first. For the City of LA bike master plan, the public hearing closes on October 8 and then will go to a different commission. By the end of the year the council will vote and start implementing the plan.
How do you do outreach? Are people wary of what they might perceive as a “social service” organization?
We are a youthful, diverse group of people talking about bike stuff. In the beginning, we would talk and hang out for an hour or so at the day laborer sites. I don’t think people instantly felt connected us, but I think once we started giving out lights they started to see us as people they could trust and rely on. Some people have gotten more involved then others. There’s a connection.
How many people are involved in the program?
Workshops reach as many as 50 people. There’s a mix of young men, 18 and 19 years old, and middle-aged men. With the middle-aged men, they have family back in their home country. Most are Guatemalan and Central American, but the majority are Guatemalan.
How did you get the program started? How would you suggest other interested groups start a program like this?
A big barrier for non-bilingual agencies or bike groups is that they haven’t done their homework in terms of understanding the community they want to work in. Once you do the legwork on figuring out your target population, I suggest groups partner with a well-respected organization in the neighborhood. In other places it might be going to a work site or maybe a soccer field to get to know the people. For us, we called the day laborer center (CARECEN) and just brainstormed and did outreach.
How do you empower communities to take on these issues for themselves?
With the mechanic space, we think members should eventually be self-sufficient. Because the day laborers are a transient population, you have to go to them. So I don’t see them taking a lead on safety workshops or going out to other sites. That’s why we want to work with youth because it’s easier to incorporate them into safety workshops.
I think having community spaces will allow people to plan bike rides and the program will have a life of its own. Normally day laborer populations are fairly isolated – giving them a space that they can run will give them a place to congregate especially because some are homeless.
What’s been your biggest victory thus far?
The bike parking rack installation is very exciting. We’ve been pushing LADOT so much to get the racks in and it’s been such a bureaucratic struggle, so that’s a major point of satisfaction. We do an end of the year community-building dinner which I’m excited about. Last year we showed a StreetsFilm.