Invisible Riders in the City of Angels
A typical streetscape in the Arlington Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles.

A typical streetscape in the Arlington Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Photo by Waltarrrrr.

Planners Network, the organization of progressive planning, wrote about working-class cyclists in Los Angeles this week. Poorer sections of cities are notorious for having more dangerous intersections and this is true of Los Angeles. Beyond faster moving traffic in residential areas of immigrant commutes, unsafe sidewalks, higher rates of violence in low-income areas, higher rates of diet-related disease along race and socio-economic lines and fewer opportunities for physical activity, under-served populations also face persistent barriers to cycling.  These barriers are especially pertinent given that immigrants are more likely to cycle than native born Americans.

The article’s authors, Omari Fuller and Edgar Beltran, two graduate students in UCLA’s department of urban planning, describe the 20,000 Latino cyclists, termed “invisible bikers” who “tend to ride alone, often intermingled with pedestrians on the sidewalk, and without lights or reflective clothing.”

These cyclists – many without other transportation options – face disproportionate challenges to biking including:

  • Limited knowledge of cyclists’ rights due to language barriers, lack of involvement in bicycling issues, distrust of non-profits and government;
  • Sub-standard bicycles and safety equipment;
  • Limited transportation options due to price and/or proximity;
  • Dangerous streets with fewer provisions for safe bicycling;
  • Increased likelihood of bicycle theft and robbery in neighborhoods with limited infrastructure for bikes, including lack of bicycle parking; and
  • Lack of health insurance.

These factors, as well as the high concentration of immigrant populations in many cities, make cycling policy and outreach an important issue that has long-been ignored. Job access for many low-income residents is a function of their access to public transit; and low-income communities are often far from public transportation, not only increasing transportation costs for those that must have cars (or stranding illegal immigrants without a driver’s license), but helping keep poor areas poor.

In Los Angeles, the Latino and low-income populations predominantly live in older neighborhoods with “dangerous biking conditions that result from crumbling pavement and no separation from car traffic.”

City of Lights, a program of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, assesses the needs of under-privileged groups of color the organization feels have the greatest need. Allison Mannos, program coordinator at Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, says accidents between cyclists and trucks are not uncommon especially given “the high volume of truck traffic that low-income cyclists encounter when traveling to and from work in industrial areas.”

City of Lights also conducts outreach to target populations, runs community workshops on issues like bike maintenance, safety, and legal rights and works to garner and develop narratives of immigrant groups and their biking experiences. The group is also advocating at workshops and larger policy discussions.

According to Mannos, the key is to rely on the experiences of the community to identify their needs: “When we talked to these cyclists,” says Mannos, “we found out they aren’t that into racing or wearing spandex, but they are interested in having a place where they can work on their bikes and see other people like them. Our priority now is to create spaces like that where they can build their own cycling community.”

The focus is not unlike the South Africa-based project we profiled that uses photography to show a different face of bicycling culture. The significance of bicycling and mass transit is another reason to advocate for inclusive planning in cities to ensure affordable housing and work opportunities so all populations can enjoy the benefits of biking – it’s cheapness, opportunities for enjoyment and accessibility. Other projects, such as the ones supported by the Complete Streets Coalition, have the potential to improve cycling for all — including for those with the greatest need.

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