The Invisible People on Bikes Right in Front of Our Eyes

Today from Streetsblog Network member Honking in Traffic,
an important reality check about a mostly overlooked segment of the
bicycling population — people who ride bikes out of economic necessity
and not necessarily by choice. These aren’t the oft-lauded "bike
commuters" who ride for a sense of freedom and with at least some
intention to "be green." These are people who could never be accused of
smugness, many of them immigrants with low incomes.

Honking
in Traffic is written by a man who in the warmer months commutes by
tandem bicycle with his partner in North Carolina, riding 20 miles each
way from the country into town ("honking"
in this case is a slang term for both tandem riders getting up on the
pedals in unison for greater power). Now that the weather is colder,
they’ve been driving to work — and have taken notice of another bike
commuter in their area, a Latino man who has been riding without fail
through the winter. They finally introduced themselves one day in order
to give him some lights, because they had seen him riding in the dark
without them and were concerned for his safety:

DSCN4686.jpgThe balconies in the largely Latino neighborhood of Corona, Queens, are like bike parking lots. (Photo: Sarah Goodyear)

We introduced ourselves as the tandem couple that waved to him when
we passed him back in the warmer months — he seemed to remember us. We
told him that we were impressed he biked so far out every day, that he
must be strong, and that he’s a better person than us for dealing with
the winter. The private bicycle cheerleader in my head was shouting
RAH-RAH, but Cristobal’s take on it was different. He said he hates
biking. That he only does it because he needs the job, the job is far
from town, and he has no car. But he said he was grateful for the
lights, shook our hands with genuine warmth, and mounted his bike to
ride back home in the dark…

The Latino immigrant bike
commuting out of necessity is a rare sight out on the country roads.
But it’s not so rare in cities and towns across this country. According
to the Alliance for Biking & Walking report, while Hispanics now make up 15 percent of the U.S.
population, they account for 22 percent of total bike trips. If this data is
accurate, then that population is overrepresented among bicyclists,
while perhaps underrepresented in the popular media image of who
bicyclists are…

I’m happy, and exceedingly lucky, to have the choice to ride my bike
(er… choice of one of many bikes) for utility or for fun… There’s probably
at least as many bicyclists who ride out of necessity as out of
choice. As our society looks at products to market, services and
education to offer, and new transportation plans and policies, I hope
that a major demographic of the bicyclist population doesn’t get lost
on the side streets.

This
post touches on a lot of issues that rarely get spoken about in the
bicycle advocacy movement. In New York, where I live, a huge proportion
of the people I see riding bicycles are Latino or Chinese immigrants
who use bikes either to get to work or to do their jobs. When they are
mentioned at all in the discussion about bicycling infrastructure, it
is often in a derogatory way — as the proverbial delivery men who
flout the rules.

So, what can we do to reach across the gap?
How can we acknowledge what so often goes unspoken — that we ride the
streets each day with thousands of other people who do not feel
included, and perhaps are completely unaware of, the movement for more
livable streets? Do we even think that’s worth doing? And if we do
think it’s important, why have we done so little about it up to now?

  • Evan

    It’s an important issue. And like the man in the original post, I bet a lot of people that are currently riding bikes not only are doing so out of economic necessity, but would also probably choose NOT to ride a bike if they were able to afford a car and gas.

  • DJB

    ¡Hay que hablar español!

  • LAMosca

    Evan: let’s not already further set aside segment of the bicycling community just because they may not ride a bike otherwise. That’s the problem with the bicycle “advocacy” community in Los Angeles. It presupposes that if you’re not really doing it for the environment, then you’re not really a bicyclist that should be counted.

  • Evan

    No, I agree completely.

  • City of Lights/ Ciudad de Luces in LA is working on connecting the bike movement with Latino cyclists. We gave out over 500 lights last year, and have started giving out helmets. Contact us if you want to get involved. This year we’re opening up a bike repair space at a labor center in downtown LA!

  • MU

    I think this is a very important issue, although I always get a bit uncomfortable with this kind of “us” and “them” distinction that embodies huge assumptions about both. But, that said…

    what can we do to reach across the gap?
    Take all types of riders concerns into consideration when forming goals, initiatives, and programs. But don’t make assumptions about what those concerns are – ask them. Spread your message in places where people who are not already involved in the ‘movement’ are – don’t preach to the choir. Translate materials into non-English languages. Identify people already in your organization, circle, contacts who have language skills, neighborhood contacts, links to other community groups that might make good partners. (You might be surprised how many are already there.) Directly reach out to groups who operate in immigrant communities to ask how you can speak to these communities better. Contact city council staff and other pols who represent these areas as well. Reach out to other transportation activists who may already have deeper ties with immigrant communities. I’ve found that bur riders’ groups and other mass transit organizations tend to have larger immigrant representation.

    Finally – ask them for help. Recognize that while the “cyclist by necessity” community may not have the financial resources that other groups have, they have as much energy and ability to organize and demand change. I believe nothing inspires people to help as much as asking them to.

    How can we acknowledge what so often goes unspoken — that we ride the streets each day with thousands of other people who do not feel included, and perhaps are completely unaware of, the movement for more livable streets?
    Well, I’d start by not making assumptions about how people feel or what they are aware of. Maybe it’s true, but the assumption smacks of the paternalism that tends to turn off people. Acknowledge it by doing something about it. Self reflection’s important, but actions count.

    Do we even think that’s worth doing?
    Of course. Unless there is some assumption that “this distinct group of people” is universally antagonistic to livable street’s goals and methods, why wouldn’t we want to expand the constituency?

    why have we done so little about it up to now?
    It’s natural to speak to those we feel most familiar with, those who share a language, background, upbringing, and perspective. But any movement that is serious about making change is always looking for ways to expand its constituency, adjusting its message and methods to suit, and seeking to harness power wherever it can.

  • DJB

    There’s definitely a difference in LA County’s transportation patterns by Hispanic status for the journey to work (2006-08 ACS).

    White non-Hipanics made 78.3% of these trips driving alone
    Hispanics made 66.4% of these trips driving alone

    White non-Hispanics had an average per capita income of about $47,300
    Hispanics had an average per capita income of about $15,400

    (From the following tables: B08105H, B08105I, B19301H, B19301I)

    This suggests a strong link between income and mode of transportation. Still, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Every person is unique. There are Hispanic environmentalists and poor white people too.

  • DJB

    Sorry, should have said “of white non-Hispanics aged 16 and up with a job 78.3% drove alone to work” etc.

  • MU

    Evan/LAMosca – I’m sure Evan’s right that a lot of cyclists wouldn’t be if they had a choice. But maybe that would change if the streets were safer and more friendly to cyclists. We spend a lot of time trying to talk people out of their cars. I think it’s worth trying to keep people on bikes who might revert back given the choice. But I’ll second LAMosca’s point. Only speaking to the environmental issues leaves out huge groups of people who would fight strongly for livable streets’ goals, but on the basis of other reasons.

  • ALLISON

    Hey all-

    As Adonia said, please check out LACBC’s City of Lights campaign, we have been working with Latino day laborer cyclists for 1 year now, are in the process of printing Spanish language cycling resource guides, which are culturally sensitive, on maintenance, advocacy, and legal rights; have started advocacy working groups with day laborer leaders, and hosted a bike ride.We also partner with Latino organizations such as CCNP, CARECEN, IDEPSCA, and NDLON. Here is our website to peruse more: http://ciudaddeluces.wordpress.com as we have discussed and started to try and address many of the concerns you all and the writer have raised. Damien (of LA Streetsblog) has also already written about our program: http://la.streetsblog.org/2010/01/13/success-in-pico-union-highlighted-in-new-bike-parking-resource-guide/

    Please get involved with our campaign,if you want to help bridge this gap!

  • The other issue is this sort of elitism with the bicycling advocacy community, and recreational cyclists in general, over the bicycling commuter by choice. I always bring up the example of my mom, and I will again – until she was laid off two years ago, she commuted via bicycle for the better part of 20 years. She rode at a leisurely pace on the sidewalk, with cheap Wal-Mart bicycles that cost on average $50 and no more than $100 (and a $10 basket in front of it), and even without a helmet and lights for most of that period (even after I bought her one).

    The bicycle advocacy community needs to understand that people have different comfort levels with riding on the street, and in suburban communities, some would rather ride on the wide sidewalks, such as in my town, where it is not illegal and there are plenty of curb ramps to use for travel; that we don’t patronize independent bike shops because we can’t afford their prices, or the economic impact when our bikes are stolen; and that we don’t want to be pandered to, but instead partnered with.

  • KateNonymous

    Recently I saw comments from city officials saying that L.A. and Portland couldn’t be compared because Portland was homogenous and pro-cycling to begin with. It’s stories like Cristobal’s that show what BS that is. Does diversity mean that we need to use a variety of methods and languages to reach the entire constituency? Sure. But how does that make it differ from any other civic effort?

    Seriously, who thinks that Cristobal and other people who bike out of necessity wouldn’t welcome better infrastructure?

  • Two years ago, at the first community for the development of LA’s Bike Plan, Portland’s Mia Birk had a room full of people call for the inclusion of the “economic necessity” cyclist in the “Types of Cyclists” matrix.

    The suggestion was added to the pile of post-its and then summarily ignored. A year later it was brought up again and the local consultant said “We took the feedback, we considered it and we determined that it did not resonate nor warrant inclusion in the Draft Bike Plan.”

    Go LADOT! Go Alta Planning!

    Cyclists ride for many reasons. We must provide for all of them. To do that we must identify them and then include them in the Bike Plan.

    All cyclists must be a part of our vision for a more bikeable future.

  • calwatch I don’t know what the heck you’re talking about. All the bike advocacy I’ve seen has embraced all levels of riding, with individuals working on different sectors as they can (for free, on their own time).

  • Max

    In terms of places for improvement, I find the ‘Invisible Cyclists’ phrase a little difficult. I understand that the phrase intends to call out the ‘bicycling movement’ for ignoring these low-income/riding-out-of-necessity riders. But if the bike movement wants to (and, many would argue, needs to) ‘see’ these groups more often, it seems like calling them ‘invisible’ isn’t helpful anymore.

    Ciudad de Luces me parece really awesome! The Community Cycling Center’s (Portland) Understanding Barriers to Cycling Project is a great approach to these issues as well: http://www.communitycyclingcenter.org/index.php/understanding-barriers-to-bicycling/

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