When I was a little boy growing up in the city of Bell, my skateboard was my instrument for experiencing my world and my community. My friends and I would skate up tree-lined sidewalks, exploring the Southeast Cities with eager, carefree abandon.
But now, when I cruise up those same streets on my bike or in my car, I see skateboarders, cyclists and even pedestrians moving along dangerous sidewalk and road conditions. “Our roads aren’t prioritizing those that need them most,” I think.
The reality of this situation informs my work at the Los Angeles County Bike Coalition, and my passion for building healthy communities through transportation. Gateway Cities like the one I was raised in are ethnically diverse, culturally rich, and home to some of the region’s most vibrant neighborhoods. But they’re also proof of the deep inequality that exists when it comes to air quality and infrastructure, and the ways low-income communities of color suffer disproportionately from this rift. We believe that infrastructure is key to improving the health of disadvantaged communities- that means transforming transportation in the Gateway Cities, and restoring clean air as a basic right for all people.
Transportation’s role in creating and maintaining inequality often goes unseen, but it is deeply felt. Take Vernon: located southeast of downtown Los Angeles, the self-proclaimed “exclusively industrial” city is home to 1,800 businesses and 55,000 employees. Many of these workers bike to work from adjacent communities on streets with zero infrastructure, white-knuckling their way down the road shoulder next to 18-wheelers hauling goods and materials that will eventually end up in the Midwest. The absence of safe walking and biking conditions is acute – it’s no wonder that Vernon and other Gateway Cities like ours have the county’s highest rates of traffic injuries and fatalities.
The health and safety concerns produced by these big rigs and other industry are arguably even more alarming. While pollution bears an immediate impact on people’s respiratory systems, it produces lasting consequences for asthma sufferers. The effects of ozone on lung function are staggering: it can instantly trigger an asthma attack, spur difficulty breathing, and cause permanent lung damage. The industry in this area is not going anywhere — something has to give when it comes to protecting public health and safety.
Luckily, some of our local leaders are headed in the right direction. Having grown up in Bell Gardens and a cyclist herself, Assemblymember Cristina Garcia has joined cyclists in John Anson Ford Park on a community ride through the Gateway Cities. Her on-the-ground engagement with her constituents speaks volumes: it says “I see you. I’m with you. Change is coming.” That kind of relatability is the best way to build the type of connection and trust in our community that will help us know who we can turn to fight for more open space and the better, walkable and bikeable community we deserve.
Change will come as we build networks of protected bike lanes to get residents safely to work, schools, errands and appointments, distributed widely enough that a person could get to downtown LA on their bicycle. Alongside walking and bicycling improvements, we need to ensure public transit is convenient, reliable and affordable; with stops that are covered, well-maintained and accessible. Every day these residents do their part for the environment by hopping on a bike or bus instead of in a car. We have to start investing in infrastructure that provides a level of dignity to non-vehicular modes of transportation.
Though my skateboarding days are behind me, I long for today’s kids to enjoy the same youthful joy, safety and dignity that I did as they roll down the streets of their neighborhoods. Prioritizing quality infrastructure will restore this opportunity for local families while cleaning our air and improving public health. These communities deserve that kind of win-win – they’ve endured too much for far too long.
Bryan Moller is the Planning & Policy Director for the Los Angeles County Bike Coalition.
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