More Conversation About Not-So-Invisible Bicyclists

The other day, we wrote a post in hopes of starting a conversation about the way certain groups of people who ride bicycles — notably, immigrants who ride to work and for work — tend to get overlooked by bicycle advocacy groups and planners. The post (which grew out of an item by Streetsblog Network member Honking in Traffic) got a lot of responses, including a few from people who thought we were stating the obvious or being patronizing. (On Twitter, @feedmeshow put it this way: "Wealthy white person notices that some ride of necessity, as opp. lifestyle choice." Ouch.)

What seems clear is that there needs to be more discussion on the topic, not less. Many people sent along some great resources that could help to further a productive conversation, and it seemed worthwhile to collect some of that feedback in a separate post.

IMG_8080.jpgCiudad de Luces reaches out to day laborers who use bicycles for transportation. (Photo: Ciudad de Luces)

We learned about an outreach program in Los Angeles called Ciudad de Luces, a project of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition whose mission is "to increase working-class Latino immigrant bicyclists’ safety and
empower them to educate and spread bicycle safety information and
advocacy to their communities." They’re due to publish a Spanish-language cycling guide in March and are working with grassroots groups like CARACEN (the Central American Resource Center). A few readers also referenced an article in Bicycling magazine on the topic.

One of the most the intriguing responses came from Michael Smart, a doctoral student at UCLA’s Institute for Transportation Studies, who just published a paper entitled "US Immigrants and Bicycling: Two-Wheeled in Autopia" (download the PDF here). Smart’s paper looks at many variables that influence immigrants’ use of bicycles — income, neighborhood density, inability to obtain a driver’s license because of immigration status, and past habits. It includes some very interesting statistics — for instance, "even among non-drivers, native-born Americans make only 1 percent of trips by bicycle, while immigrants make 3 percent of trips by bicycle."

In his conclusion, Smart notes that despite the high rate of biking among immigrant groups, very little effort is made to include those people in the planning process:

[T]his research serves to highlight that transportation planning agencies should include immigrant communities in the planning of bicycle networks and facilities. There is little evidence that this is currently the case. In Los Angeles, a city with one of the largest concentrations of immigrants in the United States, the city’s recently released draft Bicycle Master Plan Update was crafted without targeted outreach to immigrant communities, and indeed the most significant element of the public participation process was an internet survey…. While the survey did not ask respondents questions related to immigration, the public participation process on the whole does not appear to include input from low-income individuals such as low-income immigrants. In fact, the opposite appears to be the case, with nearly 85 percent of all respondents to the survey having had a college degree — and nearly half of those respondents had post-graduate degrees.…

Similarly, a recent citywide bicycle survey in New York City was conducted online, in English only, and a majority of its respondents (55 percent) were members of bicycle advocacy groups…. Indeed, as many have noted, typical public participation processes such as community meeting and public review processes tend to attract the attention and input of organized and relatively powerful special-interest groups, while failing to receive meaningful input from others — even when the issue at hand is important to those individuals…. Transportation planning agencies may therefore need to use targeted outreach processes in order to receive meaningful input from immigrant cyclists on bicycle-related questions.

Let’s keep talking. It can’t hurt.

  • Marco

    I think we need to be a little honest here – does the bicycle advocacy community really want to take responsibility for riders who are the most irritating and dangerous to pedestrians? If the deliverymen are welcomed into the tent, does it force responsible riders to acknowledge them as part of this community? I always thought that there was a kind of blissful and deliberate ignorance on this point.

  • Marco, there is no blissful ignorance, because non-commercial cyclists are constantly being berated, heckled and denied a fair hearing at community boards and other fora based in significant part on the alleged behavior of commercial cyclists. So cyclists have no choice but to be held responsible for commercial cyclists, unless we start vehemently criticizing them like the general anti-cycoist crowd, which is obviously unfair and which most cyclists would not do.

    So we are stuck with our commercial cyclist bretheren, whether we like it or not. The fundamental problem is that these cyclists have a financial incentive to break the traffic laws, no less than the trucks perpetually illegally blocking the bike lanes (or the private motorists doing so, for that matter). The answer is to pass legislation that requires the employers of the commercial cyclists to pay their traffic tickets. If this can be done, employers will only employ cyclists who follow the traffic rules.
    Under the current set-up, cyclists get pressured to cut corners by both customers and employers, and simply don’t pay on the tickets they get. Also, customers need to be educated that it is their insatiable appetite for delivered food that is causing much of the problem they complain about.

  • crhilton

    I think that cities absolutely should be thinking about this in planning. These are people who live and work in the city, of course the city should be concerned about how they have to get around.

    The bicycle movement would probably do better to not make a big fuss out of it. Politically I don’t think it’s advantageous to talk a lot about it. And things which help those who “bike as a lifestyle choice” will help people who bike because they need to if:
    1. Changes are made across the city, not just in wealthy areas.
    2. The changes are actually sensible, like gridded streets, smaller parking lots, and well placed bike paths. Not poorly designed bike lanes that aren’t obvious and easy to use (you could have well designed bike lanes).

  • Marco

    Well put, B-O – appreciate your perspective. I guess the question is what do we do to get that legislation passed and help educate these cyclists about responsible urban biking?

  • Streetsman

    “typical public participation processes such as community meeting and public review processes tend to attract the attention and input of organized and relatively powerful special-interest groups, while failing to receive meaningful input from others”

    i see this as the largest obstacle of all – the city has a terrible inability communicating with anyone that is not organized. just because you can cut a demographic and identify a user group (immigrant, low-income, rides bicycle) doesn’t mean they have any unified voice, and without that they are not at the bargaining table. the city is unlikely to go door-to-door asking each and every person who they are and what they think about every project. getting underrepresented individuals organized is job one.

  • Marco, I think there is a great opportunity to push for this legislation at Community Boards. There is always someone who complains about delivery cyclists that “almost hit them constantly.” These people should be told to put up or shut up (that is, support the legislation or stop complaining).

  • Great commentary BicyclesOnly!

    I also think it is important to reach out and educate those less fortunate who are using there bike for transportation and work doing food deliveries. I see this down here in suburban New Jersey in and around New Brunswick and other older prewar towns that now have large migrant communities. An overwhelming majority of cyclists that see in these towns appear to be immigrants with very few of them following the most basic traffic rules. Riding on sidewalks, riding in the wrong direction, no lights at night, running traffic lights and stop signs, etc.

    Admittedly recreational and other cyclist that have a choice about riding are just as guilty of breaking these same laws. However since the immigrant or impoverished cyclist makes up a large portion of cyclists that many New Jersians see (my personal observation from central New Jersey), they equate this groups flouting of the law with that of all cyclists.

    I also think we need to get realistic and acknowledge that traffic norms are much different (to our ideal) in the countries where many of today’s immigrants come from. Many of these countries have extremely lax traffic enforcement to the point that the rules of the road all but disappear. To think that a person’s societal norms about traffic rules suddenly changes once that person comes to America is naive particularly if they live in NYC with its crazy traffic. And this also likely doesn’t change once that person “moves up” from a bicycle to driving an automobile.

    Finally, I know I’ve brought up some sensitive ideas. I love my new immigrant neighbors but I think its time we discussed some of the possible causes of traffic chaos in greater detail even if they might not pass the “political correctness test.” I’m only asking the question at this point and am freely willing to admit that I could be totally off-base.

    Respectful to all,

    Andy B.

  • Adam (@feedmeshow)

    It’s worth mentioning that no survival-minded illegal alien is likely to come forward in any political forum, for fear of job loss or deportation; and that no elected representative of the citizenry is likely to speak up for the rights of illegal aliens for fear of committing political suicide. It is sorry but probable that legal immigration status is prerequisite to any attempt at organization.

  • J:Lai

    Framing bicycle infrastructure as a poor immigrant issue would be one of the best things that could happen for bicycle advocacy.

    The stereotype of cyclists as upper class, spandex-wearing tree-huggers who voluntarily give up automobiles out of smug superiority makes it easy for politicians to portray drivers as middle class “working stiffs” when in reality it is the drivers who tend to be entitled elites. If cyclists were instead identified as restaurant delivery men or unskilled laborers making below minimum wage, people who bike because they have to, it would destroy this ability to pit upper class cyclists against middle class drivers.

    Perhaps even more importantly, the immigrant (legal and otherwise) constituency is huge – much larger than the bicycling constituency. It is large enough to deliver real votes to elected officials – yes there are actually many legal immigrants in the city.

  • Giffen

    J.Lai —

    I’m not not so sure. Most politicians, especially republicans, at best completely misunderstand, at worst hate, poor people.

  • LN

    Good news for uptown delivery riders! The person who has been mugging deliverymen in vestibules at knife point in Washington Heights during the last few weeks is in custody, according to today’s Manhattan Times.

  • Considering, counting, and contacting these folks is crucial especially at moments when the bike plan is updated. Here in LA, we have a series of outreach meetings, and we just don’t see these folks (despite a flyer translated into Spanish). Of course, they’re not reached. I suspect that outreach component is not carefully considered by most bike consultants and planners, especially – the latter in the outreach business but not outreach-minded.
    We need to get out on the streets with flyers and comment cards and actively pull these comments in at plan update time.

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