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Business Cycles: Race, Gentrification, and the Production of Bicycle Space in the San Francisco Bay Area


This dissertation examines the politics of urban transformation in the San Francisco Bay Area, using the bicycle as a lens into the processes by which social movements engage in the production of urban space. It analyzes how, over the past two decades, urban bicycling has gone from a practice of diverse countercultural and subaltern fringes to an accepted and valued mode of mobility in many cities. Cycling remains regionally marginal but locally hegemonic. In San Francisco and Oakland, bicycle advocates now play key roles in the politics of urban development and the planning of changes to urban streets. Through their participation in these endeavors, they have framed livable urban space as a necessary material base for economic growth, amid the acceleration of gentrification and the displacement of working class people of color. Self-identified progressives, with bicycle advocates in the lead, work tirelessly to make the city more livable, just as livability becomes a key source of value in the urban space economy. Because of this, bicycling now symbolizes the white, middle-class retaking of the city.

Through archival research, ethnography, participant observation, and GIS, this dissertation uncovers how this came to be, and its contemporary implications. It examines the politicization of bicycling, from the early 1990s onward, as a specifically urban phenomenon with aspirations to change the city itself. In San Francisco, the political tumult of Critical Mass created an opening for bicycle advocacy organizations to claim a role in the planning process. For strategic reasons, they appealed to the economic interests of business interests and claimed the economic contribution of cyclists. This argument has become normative in the growing networks of bicycle policy. A decade later, it is taken up by advocates pushing for a new wave of infrastructural development in Oakland, amid a new cycle of gentrification. In this context, bicycle infrastructure represents an urban future within which Oakland’s working class African-American population has no obvious place, revealing the social divisions of Oakland’s “renaissance.” The dissertation concludes with an argument for learning from subaltern cycling voices and for broader coalitions with a vision for more equitable urban development.

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