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?

  • Here’s a few things that can be done:

    1) Amend the laws regulating commercial cyclists (delivery guys and messengers) so that their employers are responsible for their summonses.

    2) Support efforts to organize commercial cyclists, like those organized by

    3) Engage delivery guys with a nod or a word when stopped at intersections; make that cyclist-to-cyclist connection.

    4) Hand out these flyers from TA to delivery guys when out cycling, receiving food deliveries at home, or when dining out at places that do a take-out business.

  • I was just chatting about this issue with a fellow privileged bike commuter at lunch yesterday. Yes, I absolutely think it’s important to acknowledge the other “classes” of bike riders. The more people who benefit from livable streets, the stronger the movement will be.

    Just as the couple described above, I have been horrified at the lack of lights on delivery bikes. I think one thing worth doing would be to start encouraging/compelling restaurants to provide lights for their delivery men (yes, men, all men).

    Granted, this is more of a safety thing (for us and them) rather than a touchy-feely reaching out, but hopefully it could be spun as us taking action because we care about the *entire* cycling community.

  • LN

    I am wondering if this fantastic article was inspiration for you title? At any rate this article should be required reading for all urban cyclists:

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

    I often cite it when arguing that we should be respectful and accepting of ALL our fellow cyclists on the streets.

  • Sarah Goodyear

    LN, No, I hadn’t ever read that one, but I’m about to! Thanks!

  • Ken Campbell

    I see these guys riding to and from their jobs at all hours, even on the coldest nights. Lots of restaurant staff get to work this way. In the Great Depression they talked about the “forgotten man.” We should all make a point to remember those who face immense challenges in living every day.

  • Bobby

    Here in Los Angeles there is a group that is tackling exactly this issue:

    http://ciudaddeluces.wordpress.com/about/

    They have been working with bicyclists at day-laborer centers – distributing lights, teaching bike safety and repair, organizing recreational rides, cultivating advocacy, and more. Check it out!

  • These portraits of Q’bo bridge cyclists captures some of the diversity elizabeth is writing about.

  • Sorry, I meant Sarah!

  • Sarah Goodyear

    Bobby,

    That looks like a great project, thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  • Larry Littlefield

    I like the way the riders in the article approached the immigrant cyclist — with an offer of a set of lights.

    It’s a good idea in a practical sense — to many ride around in the typical NYC dark clothes with no lights, and as one who also drives, I can tell you they are hard to see.

    And a good idea in a social sense. Having offered something, the recipient could be asked if they would be willing to participate in a social organization with other riders, go on rides for fun, etc. You have to be able to speak the language, however.

  • Matt

    I commute from Sunnyside to Maspeth in Queens. I often see many factory workers commuting on their bikes among the trucks and vans. I feel pretty unsafe there even when I have lights and my helmet. Unfortunately, many of them do not wear helmets. I wish a group of people could go out and hand out helmets to these bike commuters.

  • ladyperson

    “You have to be able to speak the language, however” – WTF? News flash Larry and others: Hispanics, Asians and others have been commuting by bike for decades in this city, long before TA and Streetsblog took up their respective banners. Heading to their jobs as day laborers, dishwashers, and janitors; they’re not all delivering dinner. And – hope you’re sitting down – a lot of them not only speak sufficient English, they grew up here (like me and my cousins). To assume (from this comment) they are non-English-speaking offers a glimpse as to why they’ve been “invisible” to the current cycling advocacy community.

    Cristobal was far more gracious in his response to these obviously well-intended people than I would have been. Hopefully that couple took away a little personal growth from the encounter along with the feel-good vibe from gifting the lights. If people like Cristobal have been “invisible” I’d gently suggest you guys take a look in the mirror first. This city is chock full of well-intended white people, which is certainly better than the alternative but still extremely limited and therefore limiting when it comes to community organizing. It’s natural for humans to gravitate to people who are like ourselves, but true community activism happens when people step outside that comfort zone to build bridges with others in their communities, deliberately and constructively spanning ethnic and socioeconomic differences.

    Why are these ethnic groups an under-represented demographic within the cycling/advocacy community? Same reason they’re under-represented when it’s time to testify or participate in public dialogues about disparities in education, workforce development, housing, immigration, and health care. It’s more of an economic/class thing than a purely ethnic thing, but the two generously overlap in NYC. Numerous Hispanics (myself included) are already politically active and working for change, including change for safer streets. Look around – you’ll find us. Last, significant responsibility for speaking out remains incumbent on Hispanics to organize ourselves and work the political angles on this issue.

  • I’m in California, and I’d say 90% of the people I see riding bikes for transportation are hispanic. The other 10% are usually in high school and going to or from school.

    The other cyclists I see are out for leisure or fitness (with their spandex of course)

    These two groups, hispanics and young students are ignored by the government, media and advocacy groups because they do not or cannot take the time to advocate for themselves. If they’ve just worked a 12 hour shift cleaning dishes, they’re not going home to blog about it. While language may be an issue for recent immigrants, I think a lack of information on the process is a big part of it.

    In Mexico, blogging about your route to work will not get anything done. My grandmother lives in mexico city and her sidewalk was built 60 years ago….and hasn’t been touched since. Nobody complains to the city about the uneven blocks that have been lifted up by trees because nobody expects anything to be done. And so nothing is done.

    Fortunately here, government is more receptive to local concerns. You might complain about how it takes 2 years to get in a bike lane, but it gets done. Potholes are generally fixed and sidewalks are even.

    So these immigrants do not talk to the media or their local government because they were never taught that doing so was anything more than a waste of time. Meanwhile, the government officials, which are generally wealthy, do not have the personal experience of biking to work by necessity. And as far as they know, nobody bikes to work because the people they hear from don’t.

  • Doug

    Out in the NYC suburbs, the vast majority of your non-sport riders are the working riders, most of whom appear to be Hispanic. I used the word “invisible” this fall when describing them to Mikael Coleville-Anderson, of the Copenhagen Cycle Chic and Copenhagenize blogs. These people ride out of necessity, not fashion, in all types of weather, even the sub-20-degree F weather we’ve been having lately. They’re not in it for fun or fitness. Any improvements to cycling infrastructure will benefit them, but as far as I know they’re not very well-represented by any of the cycling special interest groups. Perhaps that should change.

  • Sean

    I’m curious about the lights. I know people mean well by distributing free lights to the disenfranchised. But, is it successful? Do riders actually use the lights? Or are the batteries just taken out and used for something else like a Discman or game. And, if they do use the lights, what happens in several months when the batteries wear out?

    I ask these questions because of personal experience. The latest fad among Chinese deliverymen in NYC is electric bikes. These things are expensive – probably between $1,300 – $2,000. Yet, I notice that despite having the money and a massive battery, they almost never have any lights on their bicycles. Even in cases when the lights came stock, they’re turned off.

  • Ben

    These are not immigrants but illegal aliens for the most part. They seem to make up 70% of the bicycle trips in Manhattan, where they deliver food for law-violating restaurateurs that choose to hire workers illegally rather than pay normal Americans a decent wage.

    They frequently ride the wrong way on one-way streets, violate street lights and other laws (indeed, illegality seems to be the running theme here), and I have seen a good three or four collisions with pedestrians in the last year and a half.

    The businesses that hire these people are criminal and, as my own increasing rate of food-sickness attests to — often in violation of health regulations; how can you pass a health inspectorate test when you can’t even hire workers legally?

    So, yes, there are lots of illegal aliens on bikes in New York. They seldom pay attention to the rules of the road, frequently hit pedestrians, and result not only in Americans not having work but in health-code violations at restaurants across New York. This is a large part of why I’m seriously considering moving to London, Toronto, Sidney or other diverse, thriving cities where immigration is legal, normal and not leading to massive social and economic disparities as is happening in this country.

  • Glad to see some writing on this topic at this blog.

  • To address the question. There are a lot of people who ride bikes who would rather drive a car or even take the subway in NYC. But the bike is (almost) free and cars and subways cost money. The fact that it is seen as a “2nd class” option by many people is becuase it is unfamiliar and dangerous.

    I get scolded all the time for riding my bike by well-meaning folks outside of the “bike people” I know. Just the other day a guy from my building worried that “if you ride your bike to your job your students will lose respect for you and think you are poor.” This made me laugh…

    But, you know what, he’s right in some ways. So, I just have to deal with these things on my own terms and I don’t blame anyone for caving in to the social pressure. There’s a lot of it.

    Now, what is the source of all of this social pressure? It’s two fold: one is irrational– it’s just the cultural notion that having a nice car means you are a success…vroom vroom so having a bike is like … being a washed up failure. But, then there is the other layer: biking is dangerous. I know people will try to argue with me about this. But, I have gone over the Madison Ave. bridge 100s of times and I thought I was going to die every single one of them. You would too– it’s terrifying.

    Also, in (especially the Bronx) drivers have no respect for people on bikes they honk at you for no reason, cut you off, box you in, run you off the road and on to the side walk. And that’s when they see you. It’s very hostile. There are not enough bike lanes and not enough intersections planned with bikes in mind. So, not only do people think of you as 2nd class but you really are 2nd class.

    Now, if you have some friends who are in to biking too they will say nice things and cheer you up. But, that isn’t making me feel any better about the fact that when I’m on the road I hardly ever feel safe. So no wonder some folks I know are totally mystified. What kind of idiot takes a worse alternative when they can afford better?

    So, I guess what I’m saying is the best thing we can do about this divide is work to make biking safe. The fact that the least expensive form of transportation is the lest safe says a lot about who is being taken care of. We should bring this up whenever anyone dare to call bike infrastructure programs elitist. And while were at it let just check that they aren’t elitist.

    If delivery bikes and “no-choice” commuters together are a majority of traffic then the infrastructure should focus on serving their needs. Not just making more park paths for weekend riders.

  • Good analysis Susan,

    I totally agree about how riding a bike is perceived. I often have to refuse rides from well meaning people because they feel sorry for me. Then they really freak out when I tell them about the rare and somewhat exotic sports car that I own but now only drive 2 or 3 times a month. They can not fathom why I prefer to ride when I own such a nice and luxurious car. They’ll never understand the joy they are missing out on.

    I also wonder what the social perceptions are amongst the cultures that are most represented by our marginalized immigrants. Unlike us from European backgrounds that have cultural references to rich nations where bicycling is celebrated, I don’t think immigrants are ever exposed to such ideas.

    Anyway Susan, stay safe up there in the Bronx.

  • Oh and by the way. I do ride out of economic need as much as for enjoyment and exercise (something pointed out in either the SF or LA Streetsblog on this post). Like many these days, I make no where near the money I earned when I bought my car 15 years ago despite having earned both a bachelors and a masters degree since then.

    So much for an education helping you to get ahead (yeah, I’m bitter).

  • Wanna make bike-riding more acceptable, even by those who do it because they have to (rather than want to)?

    Simple.

    1. Legislate — and actually ENFORCE — laws that protect bike-riders.

    2. Stop the govnerment/private collusions that create huge subsidies, and in the process hide many of the true costs of owning and driving a car.

    3. Re-design cities so that everyone can live closer to meaningful, sustainable jobs and enjoy smaller, more local economies of scale.

    4. Require the very rich — who benefit the most from the private development that drives our capitalist economy — to pay the lion’s share of the costs to effect this kind of change.

    Nothing real will happen until these things can be MADE to happen. Lobbying, agitating and demonstrating for anything less is simply a waste of time and energy.

  • This whole post is sort of offensive. Lots of people bike for various reasons. Who says poor people have to belong to Streetsblog and wear helmets and have $30 bike lights? A bike is just a tool. Not everyone who walks on sidewalks or takes the subway needs to know anything about the advocacy movements dedicated to making them better. Who says these folks are invisible anyway? The article has a very condescending tone. Not all motorists or pedestrians follow the rules or have middle class incomes. Why do all cyclists have to belong to the “club”?

  • Even the most egregiously reckless drunk driver has lights on his/her car.

    I don’t think its too much to ask or to reach out to the less fortunate who ride a bike out of need and help them with getting lights on their bikes. First, its the law and second, the person who will be helped the most is the bike rider him/herself! It’s not about being in the “club”.

    Also, how is helping the less fortunate or trying to bring the topic to forefront offensive?

  • As for the law, not all states have bike light laws and they all vary from state to state. There’s no bike test like a driver’s test, so how is anyone to know other than by WOM.

    My problem with tone is that I don’t think there’s a “correct” way of using a bike. If you get from point A to B, you’re doing it right. It has a lot in common with walking.

    I’m working down in Orlando, at the moment, and most of the people on bikes are minorities and men. The weather is fine. No one is invisible. I’m sure most people would rather have a car for the big distances between things down here. No one is throwing a pity party. People are just going about life.

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

    Great picture! This is a great idea to complement ped/bike counts. Like a balcony census!

  • . I think one thing worth doing would be to start encouraging/compelling restaurants to provide lights for their delivery men

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  • nice post!thanks for your share.
    it’s very useful for me.

  • They frequently ride the wrong way on one-way streets, violate street
    lights and other laws (indeed, illegality seems to be the running theme
    here), and I have seen a good three or four collisions with pedestrians
    in the last year and a half.

  • Bibi Bobo

    We do indeed resent what the luxury of driving has done to the places- now it’s everywhere- that we must go through un-included. It’s a long, loud, dangerous walk- the stones that ding your windshield ding me. Everyone drives- the nobody’s are aware.

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