In “Bicycle/ Race: Transportation, Culture and Resistance,” Dr. Adonia Lugo brings her anthropology dissertation research into a readable and accessible book, documenting the intersection of race, transportation inequality and bicycling. As a mixed race Chicanx, having grown up in Orange County, California, Lugo explores resistance against car culture as well as her own place in bike activism. Where does she stand in a majority white-led movement? Lugo’s book forces readers to understand the stakes of cars versus bikes, with particular consideration to history, race, and who gets left behind.
Lugo begins her book with tragedy: the death of Jose Umberto Barranco. Barranco, a Latino man, was biking home from work and was struck by a drunk driver. At the time, Lugo was already a cyclist and had been “car-free” since her time at college in Portland. She had recently returned to Southern California for graduate school and the tragedy of Barranco’s death helped her formulate ideas that connected race, bicycling, and street safety. But at the time, she was only beginning to understand the implications that people of color on bikes were not safe: “this wasn’t just a matter of vehicle choice, bikes versus cars. Race and class hierarchy were mixed up in how we traveled and whose safety mattered.” By starting with such an anecdote and backing up her analysis of the situation with citations and further reading, she establishes within the first pages the link she sees between bicycles and race. From there, we are more than willing to follow the rest of her story.
Throughout the text, Lugo retains an informal personal tone. This isn’t a book geared solely for anthropologists or a story that plays into elitism. Instead, Lugo lays out any terms clearly and succinctly: ‘“Human infrastructure’ is the term I use to describe how social networks make particular actions seem possible or impossible.” Her language always remains accessible, and she doesn’t need academic vocabulary to make her point. She’s too busy asking the questions dense with impact rather than dense with academic jargon:
How does trauma shape attitudes toward public transit, biking, and walking in Southern California today? What is it like to be a blight? To be the thing that blocks Progress, to be the thing that needs to be removed so that others can be healthy? [ . . . ] And what would make a person feel better faster: taking down car culture, or just getting inside a car?
With a focus on bicycling and car culture in LA, Lugo considers how American cities reached this point of anger where drivers assert their right to the road over the rights (and lives) of cyclists. She establishes the racial underpinnings of car culture that we can—and do—easily take for granted. That, to have “made it,” for instance, into the middle class is to have cornered yourself off into a private vehicle, enabling you to avoid “unsafe” streets, and therefore avoid different races who inhabit and travel those streets. She picks apart established concepts: urban renewal, gentrification, increasing property values. The structure of the piece takes us with her on her journey from 2007 up through the end of 2014. We’re learning as she’s learning, hitting every wall she hits as she hones her argument.
But though this structure helps establish camaraderie with the reader, it also means that at times Lugo relies on some heavy-handed descriptions of her emotions in an attempt to recreate an emotional moment. Even though Lugo’s capable of beautiful language—“We climbed the final hill at dusk, circling through a neighborhood of 1920s bungalows where the roar of the highway dominated the dry air”—descriptions of her own emotions often come down to “my heart was racing.” As much as we are following her journey in bike advocacy, if you’re looking for a more traditional literary memoir, this simply isn’t that text.
A bit of a hybrid of nonfiction genres, Bicycle / Race functions because it, like Lugo herself, shares a story of blurred boundaries. The book is neither purely academic nor purely memoir, the same way Lugo is not purely Mexican nor purely her Indigenous ancestry nor purely white. The history of race and the history of bicycling (and later car culture) is complicated, knotty and needs to be teased apart. Through both her text and her footnoted sources, she provides opportunity for readers to further engage with bike advocacy as cyclists and activists. She’s asking readers to not just follow her story, but to join her in “a movement toward sustainable and equitable transportation [ . . . ] a network that stretches all over the country, one that has been growing for years.”
Review by Cheryl Wollner