Dijon Kizzee’s last living act was riding his bike on the wrong side of a residential road in Westmont, Los Angeles’ poorest neighborhood.
In Black neighborhoods where car congestion is routine, protected bike lanes are lacking, and blocked sidewalks are expected, riding on the sidewalk or against traffic is a regular practice. It’s used as a safety precaution, says zahra alabanza, co-founder of Red Bike & Green Atlanta, a collective for Black urban bicyclists.
But for Kizzee, the act — and his race — led the 29-year-old to be stopped by two Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies. Within moments of the stop, the deputies — a supervisor and a trainee — shot 19 bullets in Kizzee’s direction. Fifteen bullets struck his body before the deputies handcuffed him while he lay on the pavement.
Kizzee’s killing, just a few months after George Floyd’s in 2020, invigorated a movement that began connecting the divestment, homelessness, and violence concentrated in Black neighborhoods to immobility for those living there.
For those who can’t afford to have a car, or aspire to be mobile without one, the connections are simple, says Yolanda Davis-Overstreet, who recently directed the LA-based documentary Biking While Black: Continuing To Ride Through Decriminalization, Disenfranchisement & Gentrification.
“Mobility can’t exist without justice, as it relates to the well-being and safety of Black lives,” says Davis-Overstreet, founder of Ride in Living Color, a bicycling and mobility justice advocacy initiative.
In the aftermath of the summer of 2020, the connections between mobility and racism have increasingly been made across the country, says Charles Brown, founder of Equitable Cities, a consulting group that works to “reconnect communities suffering from disinvestment through transportation planning.”
Despite laws and decades of policy decisions that have effectively boxed neighborhoods out of experiencing the health and environmental benefits of biking and walking, Black mobility justice groups have made huge strides in elevating these modes of transportation.
Groups have pushed city governments to create networks of byways catering to walking, biking and jogging, all while advocating for better community systems that promote access to healthy food and health care.
“The bike, for me, has been the tool I’ve used to build community,” says alabanza, whose organization routinely plans group rides that sometimes offer cooking classes, fresh food, child care, and reading and art lounges.
“I think that what’s important to note is that when we can make transit accessible, and do a cultural shift around car culture,” they explained. “We can build ourselves differently in our communities, and not have Black, brown, and poor communities be the afterthought. It’ll really make a difference on how people move around and the opportunities they can have, while having an impact on the climate as well.”
‘If one isn’t able to be mobile, one suffers’
Equitable Cities most recent policy report, “Arrested Mobility: Barriers to Walking, Biking, and E-Scooter Use in Black Communities in the United States,” outlines the various ways that limited mobility options has led to an increase in arrests and confinement at the hands of law enforcement. It also details the ways that Black people are “arrested” and subsequently trapped in their neighborhoods by policy decisions.
Brown argues that a lack of mobility in neighborhoods across the country has stunted generations of Black folks. This can impact “mental and physical health, the environment, jobs, educational attainment, social networks, and access to medical care, healthy food, and nutrition.”
Without mobility access, people lose the benefits of physical activity, improved mental health, and cleaner air, which would help lower the likelihood of many poor health outcomes. A recent study found that choosing a bike over a car just once a day reduces an average citizen’s carbon emissions from transport by 67%.
Across the country, other modes of transportation remain elusive in Black neighborhoods, as well. Black households are the least likely to have reliable access to a car. Roughly 1 out of 5 Black households in the U.S. do not own a car, which is twice the national average and three times higher than white households. As a result, despite making up just 13% of the U.S. population, 34% of all bus riders are Black, the largest share of any racial group.
The lack of infrastructure is magnified by discriminatory and inequitable enforcement of laws related to walking and biking that are often broken in Black neighborhoods in the “name of safety,” the Equitable Cities report states. “There’s a lack of dignity and pride when one is restricted to a particular place,” Brown says.
These realities make walking, biking, and riding public transit a difficult task and also a dangerous one. Studies have even shown that direct acts of interpersonal racism and implicit bias play a role: Drivers are significantly more likely to yield to a white pedestrian in a crosswalk than to a Black pedestrian.
“If one isn’t able to be mobile, one suffers, and the social fabric of these communities are destroyed,” Brown says.
The seen and unseen
While most attention given to increasing the amount of people walking and biking has been put on improving infrastructure, it’s not the only solution, Brown says.
In Los Angeles, and across the country, immobility proves the intersections of the inequities, from climate change and environmental injustices to gentrification and interpersonal racism. Without holistic improvements, these modes of transportation will remain underutilized.
Los Angeles’ Black neighborhoods, for example, are the least likely to have protected bike lanes and walkable streets, and are still reeling from the disruption caused by the building and expansion of three California interstate highways, which helped spur Black displacement, job erasure, and even the city’s homelessness issues.
Even attempts to correct the inequities, like expanding the city’s public train system and bike lanes through South LA, have only deepened racial inequality and displacement. The same could be said for Atlanta, says alabanza, who explained that the city’s BeltLine, a new development equipped with biking trails and public transit, has led to widespread gentrification.
“A lot of times it is not about what is seen, but what is unseen,” Brown says. “So the need for a better environment from the physical infrastructure standpoint is important, but also the socio-political environment, which oftentimes necessitates whether or not we’re free to move about.”
‘Coming back to humanity’
Nearly every day, you can catch Alexander “The Great” Epps riding his bike through Los Angeles’ “Africa Town,” a small pocket of Black life in the quickly changing city. The roads aren’t the safest, he says, and the sidewalks aren’t much better because of constant construction and poor maintenance.
Yet, he remains on his bike, not out of necessity, but by choice. It has been a way for him to feel a part of a community again after years of disruption caused by the pandemic and gentrification.
“It’s benefited me more. I feel like I’m coming back to humanity,” Epps says.
As a bike rider, he says he’s more aware of his surroundings, more likely to meet new people, and stumble upon cool events. He’s noticed improvements in his mental health and feels like it’s allowed the actor and poet to obtain more work opportunities without his creative process being tainted by the stress of driving.
“I’ve learned that cars got nothing to do with man, but society and the powers that be make it mandatory that you think you have to have a nice car, even if you can’t afford it, and it’s dangerous,” he says. “I deliberately unplugged.”