I don’t know about your area, but where I ride the vast majority of cyclists ride cheap flea market bikes and speak Spanish. The areas around Home Depot are littered with their bikes chained to trees and fences. These cyclists hug the gutter, go the wrong way, often ride without lights or any other safety equipment, and ride bikes that most of us would consider woefully inadequate. They’re not represented by any cycling advocacy group I’ve ever been a part of, are rarely invited to transportation planning meetings, and have no say in public policy. They’re the mostly Latino immigrants who use their bikes every day for transportation.
When I participated on the Bike To Work organizing committee for the Denver Regional Council of Governments, I suggested outreach to the Latino immigrant community. I was pleased that they agreed to provide material in Spanish and paid for advertising in Spanish-language publications, but I’m thinking back right now that more can be done. Look at this flyer, for example:
This is just a Spanish translation of the original English version of the flyer, which touts the health and environmental benefits of cycling to work. I’m not sure this approach appeals to a recent immigrant day laborer, who likely came to the United States to pursue the American Dream of being a fat cat resource hog. The free breakfast stations probably appeal to them, but on Bike To Work Day every immigrant on a bike I saw biked right past the breakfast stations, though a few did look with curiosity. I noticed last year that the Denver region provided Spanish language signs, but I wasn’t around to see what effect they had.
I don’t know that recent immigrants need to be encouraged to bike to work — they already do that. But many (most?) recent immigrants equate bike riding with poverty. While my middle class friends think I’m a little bit eccentric, the Latinos I speak with all think I’m completely nuts for cycling to work when I can clearly afford a car. Can anything be done to encourage the idea that bicycling for transportation can be a positive experience, even for those coming to American to improve their lives?
These thoughts were prompted by Concrete Guy who observes the Latinos on their bikes navigating every day through all conditions in all weather through all traffic on their cheap bikes. Freewheeling Spirit observes that this invisibility extends beyond their death, since we don’t build ghost bike monuments to short anonymous brown men. And all of that reminded me of this excellent article on the invisible cyclists from a few years ago in Bicycling magazine. Even if you read it back when it was published it’s well worth another visit.
The men who pedal the streets at daybreak with Francisco are invisible in so many ways. Some are here without permission and must hide from the official world. They are not noticed by the cars and buses that roar past, sometimes to tragic effect. They’re not even seen by those of us who claim to love cycling. We’ll pick out a sleek Italian racing bike from across an intersection, but a dozen day laborers on Huffys dissolve into the streets.
You and I have seen the bikes everywhere–cheap, department-store rigs chained to fences and signposts outside car washes, lumberyards, budget chain restaurants. But we’ve never seen the riders, not really.
“There are more of them than us,” says Aaron Salinger, a public school teacher and bicycle-only commuter who also volunteers as a mechanic for local riders in his Los Angeles neighborhood. The “us” Salinger is talking about is recreational riders, dedicated fitness cyclists, people who commute on two wheels by choice–the readers of this magazine.
Neighborhood after neighborhood revealed surprise after surprise. The Invisible Riders, for instance, log far more hours than most “serious” cyclists. They do so on equipment most of us wouldn’t touch and under the most adverse conditions: at the height of rush hour on the busiest thoroughfares. Workers without documentation have no vacation or sick days, so they keep a grueling schedule. One rider told me that last winter, when Los Angeles received a record rainfall, he didn’t have a single day off.
Riders like me want to believe we’re doing our part for the environment. We want to believe that having the best equipment is an expression of commitment. But I don’t know a single rider who commutes more than the people I met for this story, who do it purely out of necessity, and who do so on bikes that, while fashioned to look like high-end mountain bikes, are stripped of so many essential engineering details that we’d consider them unreliable, unsafe and certainly unenjoyable.
Most of the riders I met viewed their commute as a battle, but exhibited none of the smug, anti-automotive posturing many committed middle-class bike commuters wear as a badge of honor. Guillermo Diaz, who works at a restaurant near MacArthur Park, was standing near the entrance of a shopping center, waiting for a friend. He lives in a house with seven others, all of whom ride bikes, all on the sidewalk. I thought of cycling advocates who engage in pitched ideological battles over whether it’s safer to mix bikes and traffic or to separate them. There’s no doubt that a rider with the skills and equipment needed to navigate alongside cars is probably best balanced between efficiency and safety, but I couldn’t argue with Diaz that getting off the sidewalk is simply “too dangerous.” What would it take for Diaz to use the streets? He answered instantly, without a hint of irony: “Owning a car.”