Unotkening Conference Pic

A Report Back From The Untokening

Tim Springer leads bike ride through streets of Detroit.

Tim Springer (in safety vest) leads a group ride through the streets of Detroit, on our way to the 2018 gathering of the Untokening on Sunday, November 11, 2018.

It was a relatively cold and overcast Sunday morning. I, along with 4 others, hopped on our borrowed bikes and proceeded onto the overengineered, mostly-empty streets of Detroit, many with derelict buildings on both sides. The four of us are comprised of a community organizer, a bikeshare planner, a food justice advocate, and the person who founded the Midtown Greenway movement. The bikes we had were, simply put, loaner bikes. Nonetheless it wouldn’t have made sense to buy or rent bikes for a daylong conference. It was 8:30am, and when we arrived to the Untokening on the north end of town, we were running about 30 minutes late.

We made our way to the Untokening with Tim Springer’s lead. Tim, one of the masterminds behind the Midtown Greenway and the founding director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, splits his time between Detroit and Minneapolis – but mostly Detroit – to work on local bicycling issues. He first visited Detroit 10 years ago for a friend. What drew him to ultimately split his time between Detroit and the cities was the potential for biking.

There does indeed seem to be potential for biking. While poorly maintained, the streets are incredibly wide and yet calm; even calmer than in both Minneapolis and San Francisco. But that’s probably because Detroit is much more sparsely populated than either of them.

When I first heard that he wanted to create a network of bikeways in Detroit I immediately thought that he was a white savior- the kind of people who come to communities to work on something they think it needs but that the community hasn’t the opportunity to demonstrate the need for.

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Participants of a group bicycle ride to the Untokening ride past barren streets and dilapidated buildings in Detroit’s Dexter-Linwood neighborhood on November 11, 2018.

That’s what the Untokening sought to address. The Untokening was founded in 2016 as a space for marginalized communities to talk about their lived experiences in transportation planning. The goal is ultimately to make mobility truly equitable and just, with community concerns, voices, and solutions at the center of the table. Later, after I went back to Tim’s place, I learned that he had put significant efforts into working with the community on envisioning a citywide bicycle network.

It seems that some of the residents embraced the idea, too. Eventually. While some residents appreciated having bike infrastructure, they initially resented it. They’ve always felt comfortable biking in a city without the necessary infrastructure. I can understand; why fix what’s not broken?

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Organizers of the Untokening review ground rules of the gathering in the Auditorium of Detroit’s Marygrove College on Sunday, November 11, 2018.

I wanted to come to the conference since it began two years ago. I couldn’t go the first year. I only lived – and was at my position – for five months. Not only was it too far – and at that time, I still hadn’t gotten over my fear of flying – I struggled to understand whether or not the Untokening was right for me, and I also struggled how to explain this in ways my then-supervisor would understand.

Last year, the event was hosted in LA. I had limited days off, not a lot of money, and was already planning to be on the west coast the next month, anyway. 

Certainly, I had the experience contending with and using public transit for all my life. But, would it matter to the organizers as much as it did to my parents (who insist that it’s necessary to have a car to get around, despite living in one of the densest neighborhoods in San Francisco)? Or to those with whom I organized back in San Francisco (some of whom insist that data, efficiency, transactionalism, world-class status, and flagging those who don’t share the same opinion as NIMBYs, are more paramount than others’ personal experiences)?

As I stepped into the auditorium for the morning plenary, I learned that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.

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Participants of a workshop discussing what to change about the status quo during the Untokening on November 11, 2018.

At this conference, the people dominated. Not people in managerial roles and in institutions that decide the type of change that happens, like urban planners, engineers, or miscellaneous “experts” in the profession. But *the* people. Everyday people. People who didn’t necessarily have access to power. People who were passionate about change but wanted to understand what this means. People who might not necessarily understand or care about what “deadhead” or “transportation demand management” or even “LOS” and “VMT” mean. Advocates who constantly fight the system but become disillusioned because those in power aren’t actively responding to them.

That’s just how we felt: disillusioned. We felt we were used more as pawns by well-intentioned white people to further their work, legacy, and amount of boxes checked. We felt that data, facts, and best practices are valued more than fully capable human beings with lived experiences (like us) who fight for transportation justice.

Detroiters – primarily Black Detroiters involved in transportation justice – were front and center of the conference, as they should be. Not only is Detroit majority black, it also happens to be one of the last metropolitan regions in the United States without a robust and meaningful transit system.

Some desired better transit service to better access jobs in the suburbs, so they could improve their lives. The only obstacles they saw were people who live in the suburbs who do not want bus service. The reason? They – predominantly white people – associate public transit with blackness, neither of which are something that they want to see.

Regardless of what people thought about the transit system, it was still celebrated. Bree Gant, a Detroit-based artist who rides the bus as a form of self-care, showed us a movie that she produced about her experience with DDOT. Oneita Jackson, a Detroit cab driver and satirist, read transit-related samples from her book “Letters from Mrs. Gundy“, which is based on her customer service experiences in the area. As much as they disliked the transit system, they appreciated that such a system exists, and they wanted to make it better.

Transit wasn’t just the topic of discussion of the day. Bike lanes, bike share, and scooter share also came up. People from Los Angeles-based People for Mobility Justice (PMJ), as well as someone from the City of Oakland – I can’t remember if they were a planner or an advocate – found that those who experience barriers, like not having drivers’ licenses or full mobility, are effectively excluded from these new mobility options.

For some separated bike lanes are seen as a barrier. People who have limited mobility and need to drive, or use paratransit or a taxi, cannot safely get on and off their vehicles. Either the concrete islands separating a bike lane from traffic are too small and obstructive, or there is no place for them to load at all.

On the other hand, for bike share and scooter share, a driver’s license is generally required. People who are too old, have committed traffic crimes, have a disability that prevents them from driving, or those who do not even want to drive, likely won’t have a driver’s license and won’t be able to use the services.

San Francisco recently completed this multi-use path adjacent a train yard. The walkway is next to the parking, which allows people with limited mobility to load and unload without interfering with bicycle traffic and vice versa. This layout also allows people on bikes to have more buffer space from vehicle traffic. Photographed December 19, 2018.

This is where mobility justice comes in. Mobility Justice is the more inclusive kind of mobility. Conceptualized by the PMJ, it acknowledges that everyone has to get around and are able to do so safely and without barriers. This includes not building infrastructure around the private automobile and revolving people’s lives around it, and not requiring Drivers’ Licenses to use a service. For those who have limited mobility, infrastructure should be designed so that they have an easier time getting around by however they choose.

Also at the Untokening, PMJ explained their Vision Incomplete platform. It is a critique on Vision Zero and its focus on implementing European practices as if their practices are sacred. In addition to the guidelines outlined in Vision Zero, they also want projects to acknowledge what Vision Zero does not acknowledge: that we are on stolen land, that people of color are more likely to be subject to state-sanctioned violence, and more importantly, that people should be considered fully worthy humans who have feelings about the places that they experience, and that they deserve to live – and be treated with – dignity and respect.

I met a number of people from across North America- Toronto, Pittsburgh, New York, Los Angeles, and everywhere in between. Even from Minnesota! (I was the only person coming from Greater Minnesota.) In one of our sessions, we aired our grievances and what support we wanted in the fight for mobility justice.

Generally, we wanted our white superiors to be more supportive of us. We wished that they had an intersectional analysis, for example, of how affordable housing influences walkability in cities, or how you can’t solve homelessness, harassment, and drug addiction with more policing. We wished they were proactive, engaging, and interested in taking seriously people who have lived experience, regardless of whether or not we have degrees. My former colleague nails this sentiment in an article she wrote weeks after she left her fifth nonprofit job in the Bay Area.

It’s true that self-advocacy is important too. This is something that I’ve learned since moving out, even more so in the past year. But it only works if other people are willing to take you seriously enough to carry out those needs and desires. We don’t necessarily live in the best state for that, even if we were to use our white voice.

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Participants of the Untokening pose in an auditorium at Marygrove College in Detroit on November 11, 2018. Participants hailed from across the US and Canada, including Minnesota. Photo: Takeisha Pack

There are many opportunities to support BIPOC and marginalized folks in fighting the transportation fight. For example, with the election of our new Governor, the Met Council is seeking applicants to serve on its council. This is a perfect opportunity for someone interested in transportation, sewers, housing, and open space issues to have a meaningful impact. It even pays just as much as a part-time job.

Instead of seeking reappointment, members of the current Met Council should support prospective appointees from marginalized backgrounds in the application process, including mentoring (if the new appointees desire). As of this writing, seven members of the Met Council, Councilmembers Cunningham, Rodriguez, Commers, Melander, Rummel, Reynoso, and Elkins have announced that they are not pursuing reappointment, while Councilmembers Schreiber, Barber, and Dorfman have not yet announced whether or not they intend to seek reappointment. On the other hand, it appears that Councilmembers McCarthy, Kramer, Chavez, Wulff, Munt, and Letofsky are seeking reappointment.

People who are white (particularly white males) and benefit from cisgender and class privilege should also not seek appointment; instead, they should support those from marginalized backgrounds who are seeking appointment. If the elections of Angela Conley and Ilhan Omar – both of whom ousted decades-long incumbents – are any indication, it is showing that marginalized folks want to be worked with, not for.

Late last year, the United States released a report stating climate change will shrink our economy and negatively affect our quality of life. We need to do something about it. We need to make it easier to get around without having to drive.

But we cannot look at transportation issues as just transportation issues. We simply cannot develop proposals based on data and what we learned in school, soliciting feedback from the public as an afterthought.

We need to work together. Carol Becker has a point – to an extent. We need to make it easier to get around without having to drive, but we also need to understand the reason why people drive: our infrastructure revolves around it. Afterward, we need to work with them to develop solutions that enhances the way that we get around while tackling climate change.

Otherwise, as a participant told me, we’re replicating colonialism.

H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏

About H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏

H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏 (pronouns: they/them/theirs) is a Minneapolis-based introverted freelance journalist who reports primarily on their lifelong passion: transportation issues. Find them on a bus of all types, the sidewalk, bike lane, hiking trail or perhaps the occasional carshare vehicle, camera and perhaps watercolor set or mushroom brush in tow, in your community or state or regional park regardless of season. If you can’t find them, they’re probably cooking, writing, curating an archive of wall art or brochures, playing board games, sewing or cuddling with their cat. Follow on Twitter: @h_pan3 or Instagram: @hpphmore or on BlueSky: hpan3 dot bsky dot social See bylines after March 2020 in Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, Racket, Minnesota Reformer, Next City, The Guardian, Daily Yonder and MinnPost.