Equity Advocates Discuss Needs of “Invisible” Cyclists on HuffPost Live

Pedestrians wait to be able to cross Jefferson and continue south on Central along the sidewalk. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Pedestrians and cyclists both take refuge on the sidewalk as they head south on Central Ave. in South Los Angeles. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Last week, the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University published a story declaring that “Most Cyclists Are Working-Class Immigrants, Not Hipsters.”

If you spend any time in the streets and/or pay attention to cycling issues, this is something you probably already knew. At least, intuitively. It’s been a little harder to substantiate that claim using data, as the article explains, thanks to the way the Census lumps bicycle commuting to work in with motorcycling and taking taxis. The fact that the poor may also combine multiple modes to get from A to B (and C and D, depending on how many jobs or obligations they have) complicates the data. So does the fact that lower-income residents of color, particularly immigrants, are the people least likely to answer Census or other surveys or have habits that fit well into standardized categories.

The fact that the urban hipster persists as the face of cycling despite being the minority, author Andrew Keatts suggests, means that we aren’t dedicating enough time or resources to understanding and responding to the unique needs of the “invisible” majority — the cyclists that have the fewest resources or options at their disposal.

And then an interesting thing happens. Keatts reaches out to Adonia Lugo, former Equity Initiative Manager at the League of American Bicyclists, Sam Ollinger, who heads up Bike San Diego, the L.A.-based group Multicultural Communities for Mobility (MCM), and Watts-based John Jones III of the East Side Riders Bike Club to ask about specific challenges that keep poorer cyclists from being seen, heard, or able to ride safely. He hears about gangs, fears of gentrification, lack of access to reliable transit at off-peak hours, lack of access to reliable bikes and safety equipment (e.g. lights), and the lack of time to participate in city planning processes, among other things.

But instead of broadening the analysis to think about transportation in a more holistic context that accommodates these issues, he seems to try to fit their needs back into a bike-specific box.

He ends the article by paraphrasing his conversation with Geoff Carleton of Traffic Engineers, Inc. (tasked with putting together Houston’s bike plan), who he says argues that “there’s a formula out there…for increasing bike safety and multi-modal access that fits what each neighborhood wants. In some places it’s better infrastructure, but in others, it’s finding a balance between safety, education and enforcement.”

But what if there isn’t a bicycle-specific formula out there?

The impact improved infrastructure might have on the propensity of different categories of cyclists (and potential cyclists) to ride more often. Source: 2012 presentation by researcher Jennifer Dill
The impact improved infrastructure might have on the propensity of different categories of cyclists (and potential cyclists) to ride more often. Source: 2012 presentation by researcher Jennifer Dill

When investigating the potential for bikes to serve as a mode of transportation, we tend to do it in reference to traffic, infrastructure, and subjects who have a variety of mobility options at their disposal.

Not that that is a terrible thing. Advocates working on issues of equity in transportation tend to agree that traffic and infrastructure have a significant impact on how viable an option cycling is, even for those that ride out of necessity.

But they would also argue that those are only two of a number of factors that figure into the equation.

The “formula,” if there even is such a thing, is actually complex, multi-layered, responsive to the diverse socio-economic contexts of specific communities, and anchored in broader understandings of mobility, livability, safety, and health.

In a HuffPost Live chat on Monday, Eve Bratman (Assistant Professor, American University), Andres Ramirez Huiztek (MCM), Naomi Doerner, (Advocacy & Membership Director at Alliance for Biking & Walking), and Veon McReynolds (organizer of Houston’s Tour de Hood) elaborated on some of the challenges lower-income cyclists of color are up against and hinted at what a more inclusive model might look like.

Bratman spoke of some of the obstacles she has observed, including how gentrification and displacement have impacted the ability of folks to live within a reasonable distance of their jobs, how many working poor have to juggle both multiple jobs and their responsibilities to young children, and how some might be suffering from poor health due to unhealthy environmental and housing conditions. Speaking to questions of safety, insecurity, and education, Ramirez Huiztek and McReyolds discussed the hit-and-runs which disproportionately impact poor cyclists of color, cyclists not knowing how (or having the means) to maintain their bikes, and the uneasy relationship undocumented immigrants have with law enforcement.

With regard to solutions, Doerner spoke of the importance of tapping into the unique “human infrastructure” in these communities. Residents are clamoring to have safer communities, she said, but they want to build their own capacity to take charge of that process rather than have someone else’s vision of safety and all that goes with it imposed upon them.

Pointing to MCM, Richmond Spokes, and Red Bike Green, she noted that there were many grassroots groups already connecting with communities that continue to be left out of planning conversations. Using non-traditional approaches to advocacy and engagement, these and other organizations are helping to build much-needed bridges between planners and marginalized communities. They are also hoping to forge stronger, more connected communities that will be better able to advocate on their own behalf in the long run.

In short, the advocates suggest, thinking about cycling in isolation isn’t appropriate in lower-income communities of color where the constraints on mobility are multi-layered and cyclists tend to be multi-modal (or live in multi-modal, transit-dependent communities).

It’s an observation that certainly holds more than true for the communities I cover here in Los Angeles. Years of disinvestment, disenfranchisement, and discrimination have left the social fabric of many neighborhoods in tatters and put opportunity and upward mobility far out of reach. The resulting insecurity in the public space — gang activity, harassment by law enforcement, zones of prostitution (in some areas), and the trauma and stress that they generate — can be a much bigger barrier to cycling or walking than traffic or a lack of infrastructure.

Take, for example, the case of a young man in South L.A. that left the gang he grew up in. To be able to get his high school diploma at a continuation school in Boyle Heights, he found that he had to change up the route he traveled every single day. He couldn’t take the same bus more than twice a week or former rivals would know where to look for him. But if he had to walk more than five blocks in any direction to get to a bus stop, he would be too easy to track and too far from a safe place he could run to. He wouldn’t have minded riding a bike to school, he said, but it left him too exposed, too vulnerable. Taking the bus was already risky enough. The day he got a car, he said, was the day he was able to breathe easy for the first time.

His case isn’t as extreme as it sounds. Young men re-entering the community after a period of incarceration or who are trying to get themselves on a job track after having run with the wrong crowd come up against this issue pretty regularly. And the contested nature of the public space works to keeps a lot of youth — even the vast majority who want nothing to do with gangs — from being able to feel it is safe to move around freely.

This is not to say a bike lane or other infrastructure can’t be of service to riders already cycling in a community that experiences challenges like these. But making biking, walking, transit, and the public space truly accessible for all requires so much more.

So what does a framework focused on broader and more inclusive understandings of mobility and accessibility entail? It’s a topic I’ve covered from a variety of different angles over the years I’ve been working in Boyle Heights and South L.A.

Usually, I make my case via the deconstruction of the frames advocates tend to apply to particular issues. But critiquing a frame and offering an alternative paradigm are two very different things — something that was underscored at the CalBike Summit held in San Diego last week. As the conversation swirled and stuttered its way around Equity in Motion — the theme of the conference — the overarching questions many of us were left with ran along the lines of, “What now?” And, “How do we see these insights incorporated into policy/data-gathering and analysis/approaches to community engagement/advocacy work/partnerships/our organization’s mission and programming/the stories we tell/the way we talk to each other?”

In the coming weeks, in articles and via podcast, we’ll take a closer look at some of the issues raised at the CalBike Summit, explore how they might be channeled into a more inclusive frame, and discuss some of the challenges of doing so.

As a primer to hold you over in the meanwhile, please enjoy the HuffPost Live chat below.

  • joe student

    Hi Sahra,
    you can use the Census’s American Community Survey to break out biking and walking from taxis, motorcycles etc by using Table S0801 “commuting characteristics by sex.”

    Why its in that table and not the more readily accessible table, I don’t know. But being able to break it down to individual mode and even further by gender is a big plus.

  • rulesterm

    The Kinder Research article basically comes out against dedicated bike infrastructure in poor neighborhoods. Lets take a look at all the things that urban “progressives” are now against:

    1. Density (because gentrification)
    2. Rail expansion (because buses)
    3. Congestion pricing/tolling (self explanatory)
    4. Road diets (because gentrification)
    5. Diversifying neighborhoods of concentrated poverty (because gentrification)

    And now bike infrastructure, also because of gentrification. With friends like these, who needs the Koch brothers?

    “But there’s a formula out there, he said, for increasing bike safety and multi-modal access that fits what each neighborhood wants. In some places it’s better infrastructure, but in others, it’s finding a balance between safety, education and enforcement.”

    Safety, education and enforcement was the strategy of vehicular cyclists for over 40 years and never saw bicycling mode share rise above 1%. Dedicated infrastructure has been proven to increase safety outcomes and reduce fatalities in cities all over the world, across all ages and incomes. How condescending the implication that poor people in the U.S. are somehow the exception.

    The saddest part, of course, is that it’s poor people themselves who bear the greatest costs of these anti-urban positions.

  • sahra

    True indeed. And I wasn’t sure why Keatts didn’t include that in his story, too. But the ACS surveys and studies like that by the NHTS (http://www.travelbehavior.us/Nancy-pdfs/Walking%20and%20Biking%20in%20California%20Final.pdf) were what I had in mind with the note about surveys not capturing the habits of lower-income cyclists very well. Because many have irregular work patterns, are completely dependent on bikes for the vast majority of their trips, and the immigrant status of many of those cyclists (making them much less likely to answer surveys), pinning down how/when/how far they move (or the wider range of reasons they don’t use certain modes) is tough. And averaging numbers out makes it harder to interpret what is really happening in specific communities. That said, I’m still trying to figure out ways to think more concretely about how well data captures the way people move in the communities I cover or how what the alternative picture looks like… so many kids COULD walk or bike to school, for example, but their parents don’t see it as safe (but not because of traffic). And there are older guys I know in South Central that spend their days on their bikes going all over the place all day long. So the numbers are only one component of the story…without the context, it is hard to get the full picture of what is happening with “invisible” cyclists.

  • sahra

    That’s really a deeply unfortunate misread of the way I think most equity advocates are thinking about infrastructure. What they are doing is recognizing that there are potential negative consequences that arise with things that more mainstream advocates tend to accept as unequivocal goods. I would never say, for example, that you should not put a road diet or bike lane in South LA “because gentrification.” What I would say, and have said many, many times, however, is that you can’t waltz into a community that is suffering from many constraints on mobility and expect that they will be interested in hearing about bike lanes independent of anything else. They just won’t be. In Boyle Heights, for example, a disadvantaged and highly transit-dependent neighborhood where people have been clamoring for years and years to see their sidewalks fixed so their elders and families with young kids and people trying to push carts with laundry or groceries can actually get from A to B easily, a bike lane becomes controversial. “Who is this for?” people want to know. “We need X and we have been asking for X for years, and now you come to us with Y?” It’s not that a bike lane won’t serve anybody or that it can’t be of value to such a community. But, to the community, it seems to fit a pattern of their needs being ignored and the city showing up with things they don’t need as consolation. Especially because these communities tend to have poor relationships with the city, thanks to years of neglect, so there is already a lack of trust that the city has their best interests at heart.

    Advocates and city agencies need to learn how to speak to different contexts and understand that concerns are generally not NIMBY-based, but born out of years of marginalization and broken promises. In understanding those contexts and making an effort to build relationships with marginalized communities, they may be able to find ways to mitigate these concerns or bring infrastructure in in ways that fits a community and helps it thrive. The perspective you seem to be speaking from — one that assumes that if communities/those thinking about equity don’t buy into bike lanes and road diets the way that more mainstream advocates are currently selling them means that those communities/equity folks must therefore be anti-infrastructure, playing race cards, or strawmanning hipsters — is unfortunate and inaccurate. They are looking at where these things fit into the contexts they work in and asking “How can we ensure these things actually benefit the people they are supposed to without inadvertently doing them harm?”

    I would think that looking to ensure that the poor get the most benefit from the investments made in their communities would be something we could all agree on, no?

  • Dennis_Hindman

    It’s mandatory that a household chosen to receive the American Community Survey answer the questions. If they don’t answer the questions by mail or electronically, then they will be called or Census staff will visit them to get the answers.

    Here’s a chart that shows how the process works.


    Here’s a five-year average American Community Survey 2013 results broken down into small Census tracts.


    If you look at the far west side of the San Fernando Valley in the Canoga Park area you’ll see a darker brown color Census tract under the category bicycle commuting. Those are working poor Latinos who live in apartments in that area. The 5-year average for 2012 had one Census tract that is immediately to the left of the darker brown one for 2013 that was 18-19%, which almost matched the highest Census tract for bicycle commuting in the USC area.

    The five-year average 2014 survey results will be released in December.

    Breaking down the survey results into small Census tracts does not give as accurate a result as a it would by zip code and zip code is not as accurate as it is for the whole city. That’s due to the small number of surveys that are taken. Results for larger cities are more accurate than they are for small cities. There is not a lot of fluctuation up and down in year to year results for NYC, LA and Chicago for instance, but there is for Santa Monica due to the much smaller number of survey results for bicycle commuting in that city.

  • Chewie

    Meaningful public participation is really hard to do, especially when people don’t really want to do it. I’ve seen so many legalistic public hearings that are technically or theoretically designed to gather public input but which are attended by nobody. “Lets open the hearing . . . seeing nobody in the audience, let’s close the hearing.” Literally like that. A 10-second non-hearing. It’s not a surprise if you read a public notice, which is typically worded in really technical legalistic language that is challenging even for people who have a good command of English (assuming you even see the notice, buried in the legal section of some obscure newspaper).

    I think a lot of that is just checking a legal box, like some law requires public participation, so let’s do it in the most minimal way possible so that we can just keep doing what we want without any real public engagement. It’s what Sherry Arnstein called “tokenism,” or the bottom rung of the ladder of citizen participation.

    On the other hand, lots of people disempower themselves by not making the time to engage in political processes. When people never pick up a newspaper, never vote (assuming they are citizens) and never speak out, they are easy prey for sophisticated political insiders who are eager to see their own designs carried out. In short, personal responsibility to be civically engaged matters too. I don’t think it’s right to carry a narrative of social injustice to the point where we absolve people of their responsibility to be engaged. Things aren’t going to change because insiders see the light about inclusive planning.

  • sahra

    I am aware of this process. But it is well-known that data on the lowest-income folks, immigrants in particular, is the hardest to capture.

  • sahra

    Folks in lower-income communities tend to have less time to be able to participate in the political process. People I know that are working 10 or 11 hour days 6 days a week can’t really show up at a forum, may not have internet access and therefore are wholly left out of the social media campaigns that agencies and organizations tend to rely on (like the Mobility Plan/LA2B effort…there were a few forums, but most feedback came from the usual suspects via their online forums), or can’t access planning materials because they are not in the right language or in language non-planners really understand. And disinvestment and disenfranchisement in South LA and other communities means that there is a significant level of distrust between them and the city. What it requires is for city agencies and nonprofits alike to take different approaches to engagement…door-to-door relationship building and other approaches to meeting people in person is really needed to lay the foundation for more participation in the long run.

  • Chewie

    I’m thinking about that time I think it was Metro held a hearing on plans to redevelop that land just north of Mariachi plaza and a bunch of people from Boyle Heights turned out and raised the issue of affordable housing. Now Metro is talking about creating a minimum percentage of affordable units on land it is trying to have developed. That’s what can happen when people show up.

    I’ll grant that sometimes low-income people are working multiple jobs and really busy. However, I think that just increases the need to be political. If you’re working two jobs at minimum wage just to be able to barely afford rent in your gentrifying neighborhood, being active on planning issues and voting aren’t some abstract luxury. They’re incredibly important to your economic survival. America isn’t known for being a particularly fair place. The hard truth is, poor people, people of color and the undocumented are at a disadvantage. I wouldn’t wait for the government to do the right thing. As you say, the government isn’t trusted in these communities anyway. These people need to organize themselves and demand to be heard. The wealthier NIMBY types in other parts of the city don’t wait for the government to reach out to them. They vote, they speak out, and sometimes they even sue, and that’s what gets results.

  • sahra

    That’s very true. But it is also complex. In Boyle Heights, you have a younger generation that is a product of an activist history, dating most prominently, back to 1968. And there, you have more cultural cohesion than you have in South LA, where the demographics have been in constant flux and there are so few resources that the groups sometimes look at each other as the part of the problem (if one group gets some sort of assistance, it always seems like it comes at the expense of the other…either one group benefits more or their power is more entrenched), so the distrust between neighbors/business owners can run deep in some areas. That’s sort of a simplified explanation, but you get the idea. Reaching folks and making sure you’re reaching a good and representative sampling of folks is hard.

    And you’re right, there are issues in play right now that will determine folks’ economic survival. But it is a lot to ask that they have the same level of engagement as wealthy NIMBYs elsewhere. Understanding the complexities of how particular decisions in planning might play out over 2, 5, or 10 years — or even understanding planner-speak — is hard enough for me, and I spent several years in a ph.d. program and speak several languages. It’s a lot to ask someone with no money, time, or idea how to access to information on those issues and no background in those concepts to see the bigger picture when their business may not even be operating on a proper lease or they don’t even know their basic tenant rights. There are good orgs out there trying to do that work and educate people in planning, but the learning curve is steep and requires a lot of face-to-face communication. But that requires resources and manpower, and foundations/grants don’t like to pay nonprofits for overhead costs like that…they want to pay for measurable outputs/actions. And when communities do organize, as in the case of the community trying to push back against the huge REEF development on the edge of South Central, they are often not heard. There is no easy solution to this, in other words. Obviously it has to come from the communities, but making that happen is hard. Given that, historically, the city has purposely made it hard for those communities to organize and gain power, this is a moment where the city also needs to play a more active role in ensuring their voices are heard.

  • William

    I was on a BAC and raised these issues with a county Supervisor and was told, “They don’t vote.” End of conversation.

  • calwatch

    Then why even participate on a BAC then? Sometimes it may be necessary to raise the level of conversation – either with the organization you are representing or to the general public. I would love it if more appointees, when frustrated that they can’t do anything, publicized the issues and metaphorically threw their appointers under the bus, if only for a clear conscience. At the County level, I’m thinking about how Dr. Genevieve Clavreul told Mike Antonovich to shove it, even when her AIDS Commission appointment was in the balance.

  • calwatch

    Ultimately, though, with enough organization it is possible for minority groups to get into power and achieve, and sometimes it’s as easy as voting out incumbents. Look at Patty Lopez in the State Assembly, representing the Northeast San Fernando Valley. Due to the previous officeholders’ arrogance, he lost and she won, bringing the issues of people outside the established political machines to the table, and accomplishing quite a bit in the process.

  • calwatch

    I don’t trust ACS data at all for Limited English Proficient populations and populations with itinerant jobs/commutes like low income people. First, as been widely criticized, the ACS only covers the answer to the question, “How did the person usually get to work last week?” The average respondent will not understand the nuances of the word “usual” and the rule to use the mode that covers the most distance – and what if the respondent has multiple jobs? (The NHTS at least captures all trips in a Nielsen-diary like format.)

    Secondly, data quality for smaller geographies are suspect due to measurement error. This is due to sampling, but as people never look at the margin of error of the survey, they report things as absolute numbers rather than ranges. This is especially the case when we look at numerical small populations like those in a community or those who use transit or bike. http://www.icip.iastate.edu/sites/default/files/uploads/help/census-overview-icip.pdf

    Thirdly, the ACS procedure does NOT kick back surveys when every question is not completed (item nonresponse error), but rather “imputes” data based on answers from other households that the computer determines are “like” the household being surveyed. http://www2.census.gov/programs-surveys/acs/methodology/design_and_methodology/acs_design_methodology_ch15_2014.pdf

    Fourth, having participated both in an ACS as a respondent and having filled out my mom’s ACS questionnaire, there is a lot of measurement error going on. The ACS, like all surveys, tries to put people in boxes that may not necessarily fit in. The ACS is only in English and Spanish, and not in the many other languages that are in this country. I filled out the ACS while watching a baseball game in the background and just wanted to get it over with when they sent me the second reminder, and I am a practitioner who knows what the ACS is. Since there is no ACS questionnaire in Chinese, and the only phone help is someone asking questions over the phone, which can take a half hour, I filled my mom’s survey on her behalf, but when she got annoyed when I started asking all those questions I ended up doing my own “imputation” of the data based on my knowledge. I suspect that for many Spanish dominant households, they have delegated the task of completion of these surveys to their English dominant child.

  • sahra

    It’s really not that easy. In Watts, for example, where tensions can run high between groups and there is a struggle for limited resources between groups that have long been deprived of them, getting representation for the immigrant community is quite a challenge. Local politics on the ground level can be quite contentious… even the bike lane issue along Central Ave is one where one group of stakeholders is being favored over the other, despite the clamor the non-favored group has made to have the bike lane put in.

  • Sue Knaup

    The divisive tone of the article, “Most Cyclists Are Working-Class Immigrants, Not Hipsters” as well as supporting comments in your post, disturbs me. I appreciate your points about the additional barriers to bicycling faced by many inner city youth, but they seem to support divisiveness more than offer unique solutions for inner cities.

    The author of the original article as well as your references seem more interested in dividing various sorts of cyclists than finding ways to improve bicycling for working-class people. I tried to capture my thoughts in this post on our Defying Poverty with Bicycles blog: http://www.blogdefyingpovertywithbicycles.org/2015/11/divisive-article-on-working-class.html .

    I appreciate many of the other comments here and on the Governing post as they seem to share my concerns. Articles and messaging like this only do harm to bicycle programs; any bicycle program, for anyone.


  • sahra

    This comment leaves me at a bit of a loss. You have read things into two articles that were not there, either explicitly or implicitly. Both articles were aimed at raising awareness around the fact that the most vulnerable cyclists’ needs are still slow to be acknowledged or addressed by planners, creating the existing divide we (the authors of the articles and the speakers in the livechat) are working to bridge. We want to see that the safety of working-class cyclists does not suffer because they do not fit the urbanist mold, and we want to see that they are not displaced or on the receiving end of harassment as law enforcement moves in to protect newcomers to gentrifying communities. Your disappointment (expressed in your post) at not having heard “a story of the author’s inspirational discovery
    of working-class cyclists” is one of the more hilariously ridiculous, condescending, and white-savior-ish declarations I have heard in a very, very, very long time. Which, considering the times we live in, is saying quite a lot. Bless your indignant and privileged little heart.

  • Sue Knaup

    Have added your comment to the list started in my blog post.


When You and I Collide…We Probably Won’t Report It.

“Shut up, bitch!” the injured African-American cyclist snapped at the Latina woman on her phone sitting next to him. “You talk too much!” “Hey!” she protested, giving him a dirty look. He shifted his leg, grimaced in pain, and let out a big sigh. The Latino gentleman hovering over the cyclist and I looked at […]