Tamika Butler is a relative newcomer to bike advocacy. When she became Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition’s executive director in 2014, it was her first role in the field. But her work around infrastructure and equity in L.A. County has made a big impression nationally — a fact highlighted by the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals’ recent announcement that Butler was their 2016 Nonprofit-Sector Professional of the Year.
APBP is a professional group for government employees, planners, engineers, advocates and others working on bike and pedestrian transportation. Its annual awards recognize people in the private, public and nonprofit sectors.
In its announcement of Butler’s award, APBP said it was recognizing, “her bold and effective leadership in Los Angeles County to build a more inclusive movement at the local, state and national level.” APBP specifically noted Butler’s work around Los Angeles’ Mobility 2035 plan.
Adopted by City Council in January, the comprehensive plan for transit, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure emphasizes safety over speed. It also makes Vision Zero an official city policy.
“The Mobility Plan was this idea that we’re not just going to have a pedestrian plan or just a bike plan. We’re going to put together all the ways people get around L.A. County … . On some roads you’re not even talking about bikes. You’re talking about bus rapid transit and that’s fine for us,” explains Butler.
Of course, adopting a plan and getting new infrastructure on the ground are different things (and, in fact, council passed amendments along with the plan to strip bike lanes from south central L.A. and near UCLA). But Butler feels like Mobility 2035 is already a success for bringing diverse voices to the table.
“It wasn’t just bike folks at City Hall saying you need these bike lanes,” Butler says. “UCLA was out there saying this is important to our students and teachers. We had AARP coming to hearings saying all these things in the plan were important for older folks aging in place.”
“We need nontraditional partners,” she continues. “We’ll be stronger as a bike organization if we talk about more than just bikes.”
That idea of including nontraditional partners in bike planning is central to the national conversation around equity in the bike advocacy world.
Butler says part of her inclination for reaching beyond the sphere of traditional bike advocacy comes from her background in other fields. After getting her law degree from Stanford, Butler worked on employment law with a focus on LGBT and gender discrimination. Then she worked in healthcare policy, before taking her current job.
Part of it comes from just being herself. “I’m talking about the things that matter to me. As a person with many dimensions it means I talk about bikes because I love bikes,” she says. “But it also means I talk about race and I talk about gender and I talk about economic inequality.”
Adonia Lugo, co-founder of the consulting firm Bicicultures, says Butler’s approach to advocacy has been important for equity work and helps emphasize the fact that institutionalized racism can’t be undone by ignoring race.
“Tamika has two qualities that make her work effective. She puts people at ease and has really good interpersonal style. The other thing is she’s forthright about speaking from her own perspective as a black woman. I’ve heard her take the time to reassert that in spaces where people would prefer to not talk about race,” Lugo says.
Part of Butler’s goal of bringing nontraditional voices to the table is to make sure Angelenos who’ve historically gotten the least attention and resources now get the most.
“As we put an equity lens on our work, we ask ourselves are we as an organization making sure the people who have the least get the most? It’s an oversimplification of equity for sure, but it’s not making sure everyone gets the same,” she says.
Now that downtown L.A. has a bike-share system, LACBC is partnering with nonprofit Multicultural Communities for Mobility and L.A. Metro, the public transportation agency, to do outreach.
“We’re out there on the ground talking to people about the price, hearing about station locations, use, etc.,” says Butler. “Metro’s board said equity needs to be a key tenet of this system. It’s really exciting for us that we get to help shape that aspect of it.”
Like many advocates, Butler’s long-term goal is to simply continue making her adopted home the best place it can be.
“I want to be in L.A. for a while. I want to have kids here. I moved down here for a woman I love who I’m now married to. L.A. already is a great city. I want to get up every morning and work to make it better.”
In addition to Butler, the APBP recognized Alta Planning and Design’s Ryan Johnson as Private Sector Professional of the Year, Federal Highway Administration’s Dan Goodman as Public Sector Professional of the Year, City of Oakland Bike Share Coordinator Carlos Hernandez as Young Professional of the Year, and U.S. Department of Transportation’s Barbara McCann as the Lifetime Achievement Award Winner.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.