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?

  • mcas

    The points of derogatory comments are also likely in relation to the perception that Latino men are often riding on the sidewalk. This is, in my belief, out of the fear of police due to immigration issues– that if you are in the street, you are more likely to be stopped and harassed by police, and possibly asked for your papers, which in some cases may lead to deportation.

    With people rarely killed or injured by cyclists on the sidewalk (though it is the most dangerous place for a bike to enter the roadway…) it seems like a small issue in the larger immigration debate. If there are enough world-class facilities in the cities, people will use them correctly. Until then, fear of deportation will– and should– always win.

  • the greasybear

    “Invisible” to whom?

  • soylatte

    “White middle class America meets the world”. What? Some people can’t afford cars? But they want to?

    I read this situation differently. The real, massive, and probably unsolvable challenge is to get such people to not resent their situation, ie. to KEEP them out of cars, even if their economic standing improves. But, in fact buying a car is the first thing this guy would do if he had more money. People want to become like Americans, and hating their current arrangements for being “lower class”. The Chinese are buying cars as fast as they can afford it and dumping their bikes as fast as they can.

    Unfortunately, I do not think that much can be done, unless we fundamentally transform the system. Selling concepts like “upward” and “progress” is the foundation of our capitalist system, and it is very good at making people want to move “up” which always means to be more wasteful and less sustainable and almost without exception, not actually happier.

  • That post is very well-written. Necessity/choice exists on a continuum, and so let’s not build any efforts on false dichotomies, and either-or thinking.

  • Nick

    I started riding when I was 16 out of necessity. Back then biking was the best way to avoid being a victim of random street crime. If you walked on the street you were an easy target for gangs.

    I resented biking for many years. I wanted to drive a car like normal kids but had no money. I continued to bike to my job at night and biked to college during the day. MUNI was too slow and expensive. I remember not being able to afford new bike tires so I would constantly repair them with duct tape and small pieces of cardboard.

    One night in 2000 or 2001 I was riding home and the SFBC were there handing out flyers in the panhandle. Being exposed to people who were passionate about cycling started to change things for me. They showed me that cycling for transportation was something admirable and we could all use our collective strength to make the streets safer for all of us.

  • If anything, they should be one of the strongest reasons reinforcing the need for bike-able streets as a social justice and equity issue. (But who am I kidding, when did anyone ever care about the needs of the poor?)

    I was in New York recently, and saw many of those delivery riders on going the wrong way on one-way streets in Manhattan. But the scale of one-way streets is something that only motor traffic would ever find necessary. My thoughts were, “There’s no good reason all these streets can’t have two-way bike lanes.” There’s obviously a real necessity for it. We shouldn’t be punishing people for not wanting to ride the length of two entire Manhattan blocks just to go the other way – we should be giving them a way.

  • LisaRuth Elliott

    I suppose I visibly fall into that white middle class category of folks who ride for freedom, but the reality is that not only do i choose not to own a car, I couldn’t afford one on my earnings. This post is interesting to me not just because of that, though, since in the bicycle advocacy movement it is a frustration I often feel that the folks who are biking out of pure economic and circumstantial necessity often get left out of the mix in outreach and PR (of who is a cyclist). It wasn’t until I myself got out every day in the streets with my laborer clothes on (whether going to a site where I was doing some construction or painting murals) that not only did the cyclist day laborers and Latino minimum wage workers become visible to me, but I became visible to THEM. Here was where I really felt freedom and connection, in the mutual acknowledgment of each other as cyclists on the road. It is a reminder to me to get out of my “must get from point a to point b” mentality and recognize all my fellow cyclists on the road.

  • Bicycling magazine had a feature article on this exact topic over a year ago:

    http://www.bicycling.com/article/1,6610,s1-3-12-13639-1-P,00.html

    It was and uncommonly good piece from them, but stopped short of any discussion of advocacy or policies to help the so-called “invisible riders”.

    I’d bet that cycling advocacy organizations don’t have many members from the low-income, immigrant demographic. However, they’d be well-advised to consider them an important demographic–perhaps their most important, since for them bikes are not about recreation but survival.