Social Justice on Two Wheels - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Social Justice on Two Wheels

Social Justice on Two Wheels

By Melissa Pandika

Among the community of day laborers found in Los Angeles, bicycling is a common method of getting to locations that workers gather each morning in hopes of being selected for a day of work.
SourceDavid Butow/Redux


For some, biking isn’t the preferred form of transportation — it’s the only one. So being able to get around safely isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.

By Melissa Pandika

Fixie-riding hipsters and spandex-clad triathletes may be the poster children of the cycling community, but they’re not the only ones cruising on two wheels. For many immigrants and low-income individuals, biking is the only way to get around. But even though “everyone’s sort of aware” of these bikers , said Allison Mannos, “there’s not really any outreach.”

At the heart of MCM’s goals is social justice. In notoriously car-centric L.A. County, more than 1 in 4 people live in poverty… 

That’s why Mannos co-founded Multicultural Communities for Mobility (MCM), a volunteer-run group that advocates for safe bike routes and provides free safety gear, repair services and bilingual safety workshops for immigrants and communities of color in Los Angeles. Now serving 600 people, MCM recently began offering pedestrian safety workshops as well. 

Allison Mannos holding up a bicycle in sunglasses

Allison Mannos.

At the heart of MCM’s goals is social justice. In notoriously car-centric L.A. County, more than 1 in 4 people live in poverty and 1 in 10 are undocumented immigrants — meaning they may not have access to a car, either because they can’t afford it or as had been the case last year, the law prohibits them from getting a driver’s license . MCM makes it easier for these communities to navigate their neighborhoods safely and freely.  

“Up until a few years ago, there really wasn’t much” of a bike infrastructure in L.A., said MCM advisory board member Betty Avila. Yet “bikes and public transit are really the only way that low-income people can get around.”

MCM started in response to complaints about immigrant cyclists pedaling down sidewalks at night sans lights or reflectors. When Mannos and a friend, Adonia Lugo, teamed up to distribute free bike lights to day laborer centers, workers flooded them with questions about bike routes and repair.  

Man pointing to projection on wall that is written in spanish

Andy teaching bicycle safety class at Boyle Heights Affordable Housing Complex.

Wanting to build a more meaningful relationship than simply dropping off reflectors, they formed what began as a bike collective for immigrants, a program within the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition they named City Lights. Their first step was to open a bilingual safety and bike-repair workshop at a day laborer center south of downtown. They also helped develop the Los Angeles Bicycle Master Plan, making sure it prioritized bike lanes and racks in the underserved areas of south and central L.A.

In 2012, City Lights spun off as its own organization, renamed MCM. Today the group’s early baby steps are paying off in a big way. “People leave our workshops feeling totally empowered,” Avila said. Aware of traffic laws and their own rights, they can avoid getting pulled over and spot when law enforcement is taking advantage of them. The workshops also build community among people who may not have access to organized services, especially if they’re undocumented.

Woman holding up bicycle helmet with others listening and bikes in the background

Bicycle safety classes being taught at the North Hollywood day laborer center.

With the city painting bike lanes in its poorest neighborhoods, MCM now faces a problem they never saw coming. “People see bike lanes as a catalyst in the process of gentrification,” Avila said. “They see the lanes not for themselves but for hipsters.” So MCM is partnering with affordable housing groups to ensure that rising living costs don’t push out the people the lanes were meant to serve.   

But MCM isn’t alone in embracing bikes as a  form of social justice.  Similar collectives have sprung up in L.A–like the Eastside Riders Bike Club and Ovarian Psycos — each tackling the issues in their own neighborhoods. They’re embracing bikes not as a last resort but as a part of their identity. “It’s not, ‘I’m biking because I can’t afford a car,’ but because it’s affordable and sustainable,” Avila said. “It’s a movement.” 

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