Houston resident Veon McReynolds rides his bicycle everywhere he can.
Through his nonprofit organization Tour de Hood, he leads weekly bike ride groups through neighborhoods many Houston residents would never otherwise see. On his own, he’s taken long-distance rides as far as 4,000 miles that crisscross the country.
Everywhere he goes, he says, he sees a particular type of cyclist: a working-class person – usually a minority and often a recent immigrant – riding to work on whatever type of bike he can get his hands on. Those cyclists are men and women for whom biking isn’t an environmental cause or a response to an urban trend but a means of transportation that’s cheaper than a car and faster than walking.
“You can just tell they’re using the only transportation option they’ve got,” McReynolds said. “Those people are pretty much invisible.”
The ‘urban chic’
He means “invisible” both figuratively and literally. Those cyclists often aren’t seen in City Hall or other venues where people advocate for bike lanes and other bike-friendly policies.
But they’re also harder to see on the streets.
“They often don’t have lights,” McReynolds said. “They might be riding on the sidewalk. And you never see them with helmets. But, man, I see them everywhere I go.”
There’s a term in the advocacy world for the group he describes – “invisible cyclists” – and there’s some unease about a phrase that further excludes the group it’s intended to elevate. But the concept is increasingly moving to the front of the minds of many bicycle advocates.
“A number of people are wondering how we can do more comprehensive bike advocacy that includes people who can’t afford to get involved,” said Adonia Lugo, an anthropologist who left her job at the League of American Cyclists earlier this year because of a disconnect she perceived between bike advocates and those who ride bicycles regularly. “They’re on bikes, so they should be involved.”
“The big issue with why this matters is, there’s this cultural gap between bike advocates and others who bike,” she continued. “The strategy became, to market bicycling as an urban lifestyle. You don’t do it because it’s cheap and you need to get somewhere. It’s presented as an opportunity to be part of urban chic fashion.”
But the challenge facing both cities and cycling advocates looking to improve safety and efficiency for cyclists is significant. Often, they’re ignoring the largest group of people they’re ostensibly trying to help.
Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show that across the nation and in major cities across the sprawling, car-dependent Sun Belt, the largest share of people who bike are in lower-income brackets.
“It’s not just that bike advocates aren’t representing invisible cyclists,” Lugo said. “It’s that they aren’t representing the bulk of cyclists. Most of the people who bike aren’t being captured by the people who do bicycle advocacy.”
To be clear, describing the cyclist community with Census data isn’t ideal, but what’s available paints a clear picture: most cyclists are poor. It’s true nationally, and it’s true in specific U.S. cities.
The Census Bureau divides its data on how people get to work by income groups. However, cyclists are included in a catchall category that – somewhat bizarrely – also includes people who use taxis or motorcycles to get to work (notably, bicycle advocates have long advocated for their own category). Moreover, a hypothetical commuter who bikes to a bus stop then takes transit to work may or may not be considered a cyclist, further muddying the waters. In other words, the data is far from perfect.
Nonetheless, the numbers show that the group that includes bicycle commuters is hardly the upwardly mobile cadre of hipsters it’s often made out to be.
Nationally and in cities across Sun Belt, the bulk of those who bike to work – based on our best available data – are low-income people. Nationwide, 49 percent of people in the cycling category earn less than $25,000 per year. In Houston, the figure is closer to 42 percent.
And more than 40 percent of commuters in the cyclist community living in Austin, Dallas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and San Antonio earn less than $25,000 per year.
Despite a clear indication that most cyclists appear to be low-income people, other images of cyclists persist.
But the stereotypes aren’t new, and they didn’t come about by happenstance.
“People bike because biking is cheap, but also because other forms of transportation aren’t,” said Jim Longhurst, a professor at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse who recently wrote the book, Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the Road.
‘Cool kid urban hipster’
Misidentifying who, exactly, rides bikes is hardly a new problem, Longhurst said. Historically, every generation has created a new idea of who rides a bike, but the older associations have stuck around, too.
That creates a situation in which cyclists are simultaneously associated with elites displaying conspicuous consumption, those sacrificing for the good of society, competitive athletes, children, and sometimes those who are coming home from their job washing dishes at 2 a.m. because other options aren’t available.
Now, the new generation has created a new association: the “cool kid urban hipster.”
All of these conflicting ideas of who rides a bike matter because they inform policy discussions.
“I’d like to think that policy is created through reasoned debate finding the best choices among many,” Longhurst said. “But in fact, cultural associations shape a great deal of what decision-making bodies do, to both the good and the bad.”
Cycling advocates have contributed to this problem, Lugo said, by embracing and promoting the new idea of cyclists as a fashionable urban type. One effect is that cities investing in cycling infrastructure projects often see the neighborhood’s socioeconomic composition change.
“That’s why there’s an association between bike lanes and gentrification,” Lugo said. “That came from behind the scenes work cyclists were doing to associate bikes with New Urbanism.”
A new kind of outreach
The non-profit advocacy group Bike Houston is in the process of trying to get a better sense of who bikes, why they do it, and the safety improvements cyclists desire.
Intern Nabiha Hossain spent 35 hours riding up down a Houston light rail line early in the morning and late at night on weekdays, times she thought would give her a better chance of reaching overlooked bicycle commuters. When she saw someone get on the train with a bike, she talked to him. She also talked to riders at the Third Ward Bike Shop – located in the heart of the city’s black community – and on social rides, like those led by McReynolds.
Her evidence is anecdotal yet revealing. Sixty percent of the 77 cyclists she interviewed said they bike because they don’t have a car. Seventy percent said bicycling is more reliable than public transportation alone.
And none of them even knew Houston is writing a new, comprehensive plan for cycling, even though it’s long been a subject of discussion among bicycle advocates.
The consultant that’s assembling the plan, Traffic Engineers, Inc., is conducting a focus group for women cyclists as part of the plan to identify issues of particular concern to that group.
But Mary Blitzer, community and government affairs manager at Bike Houston, said she’d prefer a similar outreach project for low-income and minority cyclists. Given the neighborhoods they ride in and the hours they commute, she said, there would probably be more to learn about the unique barriers they face.
“What do they say they need to feel more safe and comfortable when they ride?” she asked.
A different approach to safety
For McReynolds, the answer isn’t just new bike lanes. It’s education: teaching drivers to share the road and teaching cyclists not to ride against traffic.
“Most people don’t ride enough to know how to ride bikes safely with cars,” he said.
“If you are just biking because that’s what’s available, you aren’t picky about what type of bike infrastructure you use,” she said. “Your commute might not be safe, but you aren’t waiting for the city to help, because you need to get to work. You’re already doing it.”
She advocates for smaller, incremental improvements including an effort to direct bike commuters to specific areas to ensure visibility – a sort of strength-in-numbers approach.
In Los Angeles, direct outreach efforts to people who ride bikes in low-income or minority communities are ramping up. The nonprofit Multicultural Communities for Mobility has organized programs that have reached 700 low-income riders, offering bilingual legal and safety workshops and distributing bike lights and helmets.
Sam Ollinger runs Bike San Diego, an advocacy group that, she says, is just beginning to understand the unique needs of “invisible cyclists” in low-income neighborhoods.
Part of the problem, she said, is that so much of the American bike advocacy world uses Europe as its model to make cities more hospitable to cyclists. Looking to European cities inevitably leads to infrastructure as a solution, even when there may be other options.
“There’s a pretty large gap in terms of what invisible cyclists need,” she said. “I don’t think traditional infrastructure is what invisible cyclists want. Since for them it’s financial – everyday they’re getting by, biking because it’s easy. They’ll bike whether there’s infrastructure or not.”
Another model in L.A.
Another L.A. area group, East Side Riders, has done outreach of a different sort. Its founder, Watts resident John Jones III organizes group rides in the community and advocates for bike safety. He’s also got a powerful advocate on his side: his boss, L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino.
Jones followed the lead of a local group, the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, which worked with law enforcement and area gang leaders to build a zero-tolerance safe zone on its property in the community. Following the same playbook, his group created a bike route through the community with the same ground rules. No turf fights. No problems.
His group was working to counteract a different narrative: that black people don’t ride bikes, unless they’re dealing drugs.
“We wanted to show, we use it to get back and forth from work, but also as a hobby,” he said. “We want to ride safely, and we want to be recognized as a community that cares.”
Now, he wants the city’s bike share system to put stations in Watts.
“Watts is an equal partner when it comes to advocating and programing for cycling,” he said. “But once again, you’re telling us ‘you’re not getting a bike station here.’ We want a docking station. That’s something that’s lost for us.”
And as bike share stations have boomed across the country, critics say many of those cities have consistently failed to make the systems a viable transportation option for all their residents. It’s among the most visible initiatives cities pursue in the world of cycling, but the option is routinely extended to only wealthiest portions of the city.
A report released last year showed far-reaching equity problems in bike share systems. Despite Census data showing cyclists are disproportionately low-income residents, bike share statistics show those who use it are disproportionately high-income residents, relative to their cities’ populations.
The plan in Houston
Geoff Carleton has a different plan to make cycling safer for low-income cyclists in Houston.
He’s the lead planner at Traffic Engineers Inc., the firm Houston hired to put together its new bike plan.
The plan is to outline a functional citywide network through the city’s major thoroughfares. But the goal is for individual communities to put together their own, neighborhood-specific patterns that will link up to the citywide network.
As part of the plan, he’d like to launch a pilot program in one community that can be offered as an example to residents across Houston. And his hope is for that pilot to happen in a low-income area where people bike to work because it’s their best-available choice.
“Many low income folks are busy and don’t have a chance to show up for posted meetings, so we need to go where they are,” he said. “You can’t just post an online survey and expect them to respond. And … some neighborhoods may not want new bike infrastructure, because they see it as a sign of gentrification.”
But there’s a formula out there, he said, for increasing bike safety and multi-modal access that fits what each neighborhood wants. In some places it’s better infrastructure, but in others, it’s finding a balance between safety, education and enforcement.
It’s difficult to come to many conclusions on who cycles from Census data, he said, but from what he’s seen in Houston, cyclists are part of every socioeconomic group.
“It’s everyone,” he said. “It’s cross cutting.”