Recently I read the Seattle Bike Blog piece regarding their desire, but inability, to endorse Nikkita Oliver for Mayor of Seattle. Now, I don't pretend to be a super regular reader of the blog, but I check in and see what's going on (as a daily bike commuter, I like to get caught up on bike infrastructure policy).
Generally, I think Tom laid out a good case for "not closing the door" on Oliver's campaign, or her as a candidate. Yet, in the wide world of social media, this piece is regularly being used to discredit and harm Oliver within the Urbanist and cycling community.
I want to start with the Burke-Gilman Trail, and the "beautification project" remark. The blog reported data through 2015 showing 20 "traffic deaths" in Seattle, which was a decrease from 10 years prior, and skewed by the Ride the Ducks crash on the Aurora Bridge. A light search did not provide additional data for how many of these deaths were car v. bike, and how many of those were in the Missing Link corridor.
Compare that to people dying experiencing homelessness due to exposure, violence, etc. - 91 in 2015 (these are county-wide, but the data shows the overwhelming majority are in Seattle). Or the ever-increasing number of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle - in the thousands.
This isn't to say that serious injuries and deaths from lack of cycling infrastructure aren't important - if you followed me on Twitter, you see my near obsession with cars in bike lanes. But when viewing the greater picture, and when coming from a different socio-economic perspective, it's not only easy to view prioritization of general fund dollars in a way that puts housing first, I would argue it's the right position.
Too often, I feel we see white male candidates giving a pass for not being perfect on their understanding of the nitty-gritty of funding for various government services. I bring this up because it is important to consider before getting to my next point. "They're a new candidate, and are picking it up quick!" is something we hear far too often for white dudes.
Here, Nikkita Oliver has stated plainly that she believes transportation infrastructure investment should prioritize transit, then pedestrians and cyclists, finally cars.
I don't know the exact wording of Tom's email to mayoral candidates. But I do believe that, as advocates, we have a dual obligation to not only suss out people's positions and priorities, but also provide education in the process. I know that there are folks who disagree with me on this, and if you're one of them, we can agree to disagree. But I come to this because I want more regular folks to be in places of power, and to also have the support to thrive once there.
My point - Tom probably know the intricacy of transportation funding at the city level more than most, particularly as it extends to cycling infrastructure. So when he received the response, I wonder if he began to engage with additional information regarding where the money comes from for transportation infrastructure (specific levies, REET, state funds, etc.), beyond the general fund, and better understand how Oliver believes those funds should be prioritized.
What irks me is the continued trend of white, male urbanists drawing conclusions from their white, male perspective. I think Tom did a phenomenal job working to avoid that, yet the Facebook and the Twitter exhibit that many did not. I'm reminded of prior conversations I've had with folks about property taxes, and when they point to the (arguably) negligible amount of folks who will actually be "taxed out of their homes" by ever-increasing reliance on levy lid lifts, they seem shocked and dismissive when given information about who those people are - disproportionately communities of color.
Or discussions around displacement and gentrification, when free-market urbanists try to hammer it in that if we just build more, everything will work itself out. But this ignores that relying solely on a market rife with institutional racism means that while more affordable housing in historically black communities may be built, the commercial affordability for black owned small businesses is eliminated, or new white residents prefer a $5 cupcake to patronizing the black-owned pastry shop, simply continuing the sucking dry of wealth and income in black communities, in turn pushing more and more families out of our city.
That's not to say I don't take issue with aspects of Oliver's candidacy and conclusions on public policy. We've sparred a little bit publicly, and I wholeheartedly disagree with her assertions on 25%, an undefined number, being a reasonable starting point without a more extensive explanation of what it actually means (doing negotiations for a living, my experience is that not defining an opening offer means it's just not real and is not taken seriously).
But what too many white urbanists are doing is refusing to see what is happening in Seattle from the perspective of a big chunk of the city. Oliver has that perspective because she lives it every day - with a moderate income, being a queer woman of color, a renter, and someone just trying to get by. I want the Burke-Gilman to have the missing link fixed, and more (and better) bike infrastructure throughout the city. And I have a white privilege that allows me to have that be a major concern.
Folks I talk with in low and moderate income black and brown communities - priorities include safety from police, making sure they'll be able to keep a roof over their head, making sure their elders aren't going to be taxed out of the city, what supports there are for small businesses so communities can thrive. So while the "beautification project" comment may have been flippant, and many of us might not understand the impacts of gentrification, if we set aside our whiteness and privilege for a minute, I think we can better grasp the realities on the ground that are impacting the communities from which Oliver has risen.
I say this because we can bike and chew gum at the same time. By coming at Oliver with such sustained hostility and disregard for her perspective, many urbanists risk losing an opportunity to learn more and expand our perspectives, as well as our ranks. Oliver supports duplexes and triplexes in the SF parts of the city, and has stated she wants more Missing Middle housing. That's pretty huge. She wants more public investment in publicly owned housing, and opportunities for homeownership through community land trusts. Awesome stuff. She wants to prioritize transit in our infrastructure spending, followed by pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. This is a good thing.
Yes, she has slow-growthers absolutely in love with her, ostensibly because they believe she will just stop all change in the city. But from where I'm sitting, I hear a candidate who doesn't want to stop development or change, but wants - demands - that we have equity in investment in the process. Oliver may well become mayor, and who she listens to and appoints to key positions is going to have an impact. Alienating Oliver serves no real purpose - and the way it's being done gives the appearance that white urbanists don't give a shit about equity, just building more buildings and bike lanes.
I think Seattle Bike Blog gets that. Tom's post really seemed to suss all of that out. But what I've seen people use it for informs me that so many are missing that point. I hope they re-read the post, and re-think how they approach candidates - particularly candidates of color - who come from a very different background, and face very different obstacles in life that shape their conclusions.
As Tom points out, Oliver is a unique and phenomenal candidate, and the energy and passion she has brought with her base is impressive. If she is ultimately successful, I believe she can be a fantastic mayor. She truly is running a community-based campaign, not a self-aggrandizing campaign. I think urbanists have a choice in how we respond to and approach truly selfless candidates like Nikkita Oliver, and that will be reflective of how we approach communities like hers. It's either going to be us talking at them, or joining and working with our neighbors who don't have the same privileges we do.