A gaggle of cyclists touring Minneapolis’ East Phillips neighborhood is led by Jose Luis Villasenor, who is tugging a 1,200-watt speaker blaring Latin tunes. The group’s energy is infectious. People from passing cars cheer on the cyclists or excitedly shout, “Who are you guys?”
This is Villasenor’s Toxic Bike Tour, a racially diverse mix of bicyclists coming together to check out environmental injustice in East Phillips. They ride past thick clouds of smoke and the diesel smell of idling trucks. Villasenor explains the health effects of arsenic and lead on residents.
Villasenor is the executive director of Tamales y Bicicletas, an urban grassroots organization that mobilizes communities of color to take on environmental advocacy through sustainable cultural practices, like bicycling and growing traditional foods.
Villasenor hopes his spirited tour will inspire people in his neighborhood to fight environmental injustice and health disparities. “I’m Mexicano, and when [the Latino community] talks about heavy issues, we give love and energy to changes [we hope to see],” says Villasenor.
Tamales y Bicicletas was formed in the belief that communities of color will come up with solutions to the problems that directly impact them, including environmental racism.
But what does environmental racism have to do with bicycles?
Immigrants and communities of color have often been left out of cycling culture’s evolution — from usability studies and advocacy for safety to city infrastructure improvements. Yet these groups do bike, and are more likely to travel by bike out of necessity, not choice. In the U.S., 49 percent of cyclists earn less than $25,000 per year. Communities of color are overwhelmingly represented in the low-income bracket.
That’s where equity comes in.
For Latino communities, bike equity means being able to ride safely through their neighborhoods and cities the way White bicyclists can. But what these communities need goes beyond protected bike lanes. They also need clean spaces to ride in, free from industrial air pollution.
Tamales y Bicicletas is just one of many bicycle advocacy groups across the country raising the equity issue.
The League of American Bicyclists has been working for years to bring equity into its advocacy work. According to the group’s 2014 report, its current focus “connects the bike movement’s long-standing fight for equal access to safe streets with the growing momentum to address health and wealth inequities through grassroots and policy interventions.” The report emphasizes the role that bike shops, clubs, and community rides play as the social infrastructure for biking.
The dense, heavily industrial East Phillips neighborhood has the city’s highest Latino population. The people in this neighborhood may not look like the urban hipsters of popular bike culture, but they bike a lot.
Communities of color are the fastest-growing bicycling populations. The League of American Bicyclists reports that between 2001 and 2009, the increase in bike trips taken among African Americans was 100 percent; Asians, 80 percent; Hispanics, 50 percent; and Whites, 22 percent.
Carlos Parra Olivera lives in East Phillips and is a youth volunteer for Tamales y Bicicletas. He leads bike tours and helps out in the bike shop. The shop provides affordable bikes for the community and invites people for community rides to create an energy around cycling that has to do with more than just transportation.
It was exactly that energy that led Tamales y Bicicletas in 2014 to organize a campaign to get two major polluters, Roof Depot and Smith Foundry, out of the neighborhood’s greenway. The polluters sit across from each other on the same street. The East Phillips community pushed for the polluters’ property to be sold to the neighborhood and reclaimed as green space.
Residents showed up in huge numbers at city council meetings to share stories of health impacts. Even when the East Phillips issue wasn’t on the agenda, “we made it the agenda by showing up and aggressively voicing our stories,” said Villasenor.
Environmental epidemiologist Scott Weichenthal studies chronic health effects of air pollution on the body at McGill University in Montreal. “Long-term exposure to air pollution means a higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease,” he says. The problem is not limited to cyclists, he says. People who live near busy roads, like many in the East Phillips neighborhood, are exposed to ultrafine particles from vehicle emissions.
After a year-long fight, the council did shut down the polluters. There were small victories: A private landowner agreed to offset pollution by giving a portion of the land to the neighborhood to grow urban food and to set up a greenhouse.
“We are gonna take over the lot, literally bring in dirt, and start growing food in the parking lot itself,” says Villasenor. He explains that growing food in traditional ways “is resistance to climate degradation and environmental racism, [as well as] talking in our own languages about our own history.”
Next steps are to push for community input on the plants’ pollution output and a legislative bill for a no-idling policy for diesel trucks.
Villasenor believes that “the polluters’ [days] are limited” in East Phillips. “We asked Smith Foundry how much it would cost to get it out of here, and they gave us a number: $32 million. We will work on that. They know we don’t want it here. They feel the pressure. They put trees in front of their business three months ago.”
Meanwhile, Tamales y Bicicletas continues to push community-centered education.
While leading bike tours, Villesenor and Olivera hand out maps that overlay the distribution of arsenic and lead exposures as well as hospitalizations from asthma. The maps were provided by an epidemiology report from the University of Minnesota showing that the East Phillips neighborhood has one of the highest pollution exposures.
Getting this kind of public health research into the hands of community members is important, according to Weichenthal. He developed a route-planning app that shows how air pollution changes across Montreal and Toronto. Cyclists use the pollution maps overlaid with Google maps to compute the shortest distance and lowest pollution exposure route. “People can see how small changes in how you commute to work can have a big impact on your exposure to air pollution.”
Villasenor ends his bike tours at Powderhorn Park, where there’s a bronze statue of Emiliano Zapata Salazar, a leader in the Mexican Revolution. Villasenor says the cyclists stop there and talk about “how our cultural resistance is a place we go home to and a place where we find energy.”