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?