Invisible Cyclist Rides Again

It’s been well over a year since Julian and I conceived of and launched The Invisible Cyclist. And while our inaugural post, Origins of “The Invisible Cyclist” Blog, generated quite a bit of interest, the weeks and then months slipped away without another peep from us…until now.

Part of the reason for the silence is that we realized much of what we had hoped to achieve with The Invisible Cyclist–stimulating dialogue around the roles of the bicycle and burgeoning bicycle cultures and advocacy movements in remaking cities and their transportation systems to be just, equitable and sustainable–was already happening.

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As Magritte might say, “This is not a bike.”

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This, however, is definitely a bike.

Examples include blogs like Adonia Lugo’s Urban Adonia, with posts like “Is the Bike Movement Too Cynical for Social Justice?” Lugo is also behind the Seattle Bike Justice Project and Bicicultures, a network of scholars studying bicycling as a social and cultural phenomenon rooted in the recognition that “there are far more people using bikes now than fit into the types we associate with ‘bike culture.’”

Melody Hoffmann, a contributor to Bicicultures, also blogs at Our Bikes (and Desks) in the Middle of the Street, where she draws on her dissertation–”Our Bikes in the Middle of the Street: Community building, gentrification, and racism in urban bicycle advocacy“–to discuss bicycle culture, community, race and gentrification. In fact, the topic of bikes and gentrification gets a fair amount of attention, including the following:

For a more extensive list, see Hoffman’s “Gentrification & Bicycling Sources.”

Equity and justice in the context of bike share is another popular topic. The Surly Urbanist examines the issue in “The bikes were never about them…,” a post on Surly Urbanism. Darren Buck tackles the topic in “Bikeshare Equity Framework” at bikepedantic, and John Greenfield at GRID Chicago asks “Bike share, not white share: Can Chicago’s Program Achieve Diversity?” Additional coverage on the topic comes from Axis Philly’s Julia Bergman in “Inclusivity is a big hurdle for bike-share programs,” from Jonathan Maus at BikePortland.org in “Equity concerns take center stage as bike share funding moves forward,” and from John Greenfield at Chicago Streetsblog in “CDOT Provides an Update on Efforts to Ensure Divvy System Is Equitable.”

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Learning to use Bay Area Bike Share (@BABikeShare).

Specific concerns around bike lanes and gentrification or bike share and equity are beginning to drive examination of equity and inclusion in bicycling more broadly. For example, The Case for Cycling, a joint project of Portland Transport, the Bicycle Transportation AllianceBikePortlandPortland Afoot and AROW, compiles research and arguments supporting cycling’s benefits for urban livability, health, and sustainability, including a page on “Equity and Inclusion.”

The dialogue is even spilling over into blogs not directly concerned with bicycling. Plurale Tantum, a blog about identity and urbanism, tackles the topic in “Biking Advocacy and Race: Where’s the Disconnect?” Similarly, mainstream urbanism blogs are asking questions like “Can a bicycle network alone lead to more equitable bicycle use?” (see “Transport Opportunities for All – The Potential of Bicycle Networks” at This Big City).

Perhaps most impressively, mainstream bicycle advocacy organizations, not to mention mainstream media, are engaging in the dialogue as well. Bike industry-backed advocacy group People for Bikes, as part of its Green Lane Project, organized in May 2013 a Summit on Bike Lanes & Equity. Next month’s California by Bike Summit, sponsored by the California Bicycle Coalition, is organized around the theme “Mainstreaming the Bike in California” and includes a session titled “Who is mainstream? Multicultural Communities for Mobility.”

The growth and mainstreaming of the dialogue is perhaps epitomized by “The New Majority: Pedaling Towards Equity,” a “first-of-its-kind report released in May 2013 by the League [of American Bicyclists] and the Sierra Club.” Along with the report, the League of American Bicyclists rolled out its Equity Initiative, which explicitly recognizes that “youth, women and people of color are underrepresented in many bike advocacy efforts and local transportation decisions.”

Can world class bike infrastructure make motorists "invisible?"

Can world class bike infrastructure make motorists “invisible?”

All this dialogue begs the question, “So what do we do now?” Sahra Sulaiman at LA Streetsblog, unimpressed with the growing mainstream awareness of bike equity concerns, writes:

We’ve known for a while what NPR and the League of American Bicyclists appear to just be figuring out: namely, that people of color ride bikes and are doing so in ever-increasing numbers.

In fact, people of color have been on bikes for years, especially in lower-income communities. Spend a day touring South L.A. and you will see tons of folks on all kinds of bikes…

So, it is hard to find recent affirmations that people of color are indeed on bikes all that interesting. What is interesting, however, is the increasing diversity of the groups and reasons they ride, their tendency to use bicycles as a vehicle to advance unique forms of social justice, and what the growing recognition of their presence means for their ability to lobby for investment in their communities.

(see “Assessing the Momentum of the Bike Movement in South L.A., a Year and a Half On“)

Sulaiman seems to provide some possible answers to the “What next?” question. We need a better understanding of the “the increasing diversity of the groups and reasons they ride.” We need a better understanding of how these groups “use bicycles as a vehicle to advance unique forms of social justice.” And we need to explore “what the growing recognition of their presence means for their ability to lobby for investment in their communities.”

We hope that its resurrection might attract to the Invisible Cyclist the bloggers, thinkers, activists, advocates, planners and others who have long known what NPR and the League of American Cyclists are just discovering–that people of color ride bikes and that they are mobilizing to demand visibility and equity. With their involvement, the Invisible Cyclist can become a place where we can continue documenting the diversity of bicyclists and the bike advocacy movement, but perhaps more importantly, also engage critically around questions of how to grow the movement’s diversity; build bridges with the mainstream movement, municipal governments, urban planners and others; and design equity and social justice into the emerging bicycle infrastructure in cities around the world.

Origins of “The Invisible Cyclist” Blog

Recently Steve was preparing to teach a course in which students would develop a bicycle transportation plan for the University of San Francisco, so he began to look into the range of issues the class would need to understand in order to situate the plan in the broader context of the bicycle advocacy and bicycle culture bursting from what seemed like every corner of San Francisco.

Trained as en environmental sociologist, and working at a university that takes its social justice mission seriously, transportation justice was one issue Steve knew the class would have to examine. So he delved into the literature on the transportation justice movement and looked at the websites of major environmental justice organizations doing transportation justice work. He found little to no mention of the role of the bicycle in transportation justice.

Julian came at this from a slightly different perspective. Trained in geography and environmental policy and planning, he was getting interested in streets as the public space that most people interact with daily. He began to see streets as contested spaces, as sites where rights were afforded, often and certainly in the US, based on the size of your vehicle. His growing interest in ‘spatial justice and streets’ made him realize that the democratization of streets must become a priority if we are to move toward more just and sustainable cities. Julian and Steve met through their common interests and this Blog is the result.

We noted that mainstream bicycle advocacy organizations, like the bicycle coalitions found in most major cities, seemed to pay little attention to the work of transportation justice advocates (with a few notable exceptions that we’ll profile in future posts). Perhaps more significantly, we began to see signs that some mainstream bicycle advocacy organizations were even being criticized for what appeared to be their bias towards bicycle infrastructure projects that primarily serve middle-class and largely white urban cyclists.

For example, Chicago resident and founder of the African American Pioneers Bicycle Club, Oboi Reed, criticized Chicago’s priorites in a New York Times article, “City Bike Plan is Accused of a Neighborhood Bias.” According to Reed, “The lion’s share of the resources” of the city’s $150 million bike plan “are going to go [to the wealthier neighborhoods] downtown and to the North Side–the South and West will only see a sprinkling.” In New York City, a report by graduate students from the Urban Affairs and Planning Program at Hunter College, “Beyond the Backlash: Equity and Participation in Bicycle Planning,” concluded that “traditionally underserved areas outside of the core of Manhattan and northwest Brooklyn have inadequate bicycle infrastructure. These areas have many cyclists and residents who are largely new immigrants and people of color.”

Next we turned to the bicycle blogosphere to see who was discussing the intersections of bicycle advocacy, race, and class, and what they were saying. Are Bike Lanes Expressways to Gentrification? over at shareable.net described a contentious neighborhood meeting to discuss proposed traffic changes to increase bicycle safety along N. Williams Ave. in Portland, OR. Portland resident Donna Maxey tried to explain the frustration of people of color with Portland’s bicycle support efforts:

“What is causing the anger and resentment is that it’s only an issue of safety now that whites are the ones who are riding bicycles and walking on the streets. Because we have been in this community for years and it has not been an issue and now it’s an issue. So that’s the resentment you’re hearing…years of people being told, you don’t count, you don’t matter…but now that there’s a group of people who’s coming in that look like the people who are the power brokers — now it’s important. That’s the anger. That’s the hurt.”

A recent comment on a Streetsblog article titled “On Gentrification and Cycling,” hammered the point home:

“As a person of color who works to get more bike lanes in low-income areas in Los Angeles, … It’s high time the bike advocacy community, which is heavily dominated by white men unaware of social justice principles, step back and say, ‘how can we include MORE marginalized, low-income people of color in this struggle??’”

In an LA.Streetsblog.org article co-authored with Adrian Leung, “Bicycling is for Everyone: The Connections Between Cycling in Developing Countries and Low-Income Cyclists of Color in the U.S.,” Allison Mannos, Urban Strategy Director for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, raises specific concerns about mainstream bicycle advocacy groups’ failure to reach out to communities of color:

“In terms of advocacy, outreach efforts should expand ideas of target communities … to create a comprehensively transformative movement. Frequently, for example, discussions of the inequity in bicycling between men and women tend to focus on educated, middle-class white women (especially mothers), and usually do not examine the barriers to bicycling for, say, women of color. This narrow approach in advocacy and planning often misses solutions to engage and serve the existing, dedicated population of low-income cyclists of color; in fact, it instead ignores them or takes their lifestyles for granted.”

These conversations point to an important constituency seemingly overlooked by both the bicycle advocacy and transportation justice movements. This population of cyclists is largely uncounted, unrecognized, and unrepresented. Put simply, these are the invisible cyclists.

Through a series of conversations, we delved deeper into this apparent conundrum. On one hand, a new bicycle culture is finally flourishing in North America. Major cities are competing with one another to see which can add more bike lanes the fastest. But the bicycle boom is driven by relatively narrow segments of the population where individuals with disposable income, and the option to choose a bicycle over an automobile or other forms of transit, are turning what was previously a utilitarian device into a celebration of design, style and simplicity. But this movement overlooks the invisible cyclists, those for whom cycling is not a choice but a necessity.

[Note: We did not coin the concept of "invisible cyclists." A future post will explore the lineage of the term, which begins with Dan Koeppel's 2006 "Invisible Riders" article in Bicycling Magazine, available here.]

On the other hand, the transportation justice movement calls into question government subsidies of transportation forms that tend to benefit largely white and affluent urban and suburban commuters and advocates for better transit options and safer streets for poor people and people of color. In many cases, invisible cyclists are the constituents of transportation justice organizations, but only insofar as they are poor people of color. As cyclists, they remain invisible.

“Why is there not more dialogue between these two movements?” we wondered. Surely a more inclusive movement would be more robust, richer in resources, more powerful, and therefore more effective at enhancing bicycle infrastructure for all bicyclists. The mainstream environmental movement missed the boat entirely so that by the time the environmental justice movement matured, the relationship between the two movements was contentious. We hope that by creating space for dialogue between and among activists, advocates, and constituents from a wide range of bicycle advocacy, transportation justice, and other organizations and interests, we can head off a similar divide.

So we bring you Invisible Cyclist, which will explore potential linkages between the bicycle culture/advocacy movement and the environmental/transportation justice movements. Through our own posts and those of volunteer and invited guests, we hope to help identify common ground and shared goals around which the two movements can build healthy and mutually beneficial relationships.

Though both academics, Invisible Cyclist will by no means be an academic exercise nor exercise an academic voice. Steve Zavestoski is a lifelong bicyclist, bicycle commuter, and bicycle advocate, while Julian is a car-free citizen and lifelong advocate for just sustainabilities. We are both passionate about and committed to fashioning a more just and sustainable society that “ensures a better quality of life for all, now and into the future, in a just and equitable manner, while living within the limits of supporting ecosystems.” We believe that we can make a contribution towards such a world through Invisible Cyclist by working to establish dialogue between two movements each working towards just sustainabilities in their own way.

But there are caveats. Issues of race and class can easily ignite strong emotions, including defensiveness, anger, and resentment. We will write with honesty and openness–tackling sticky issues of racial and class stereotypes head on–as well as a dash of humor, in order to deftly navigate this minefield. By focusing on promising signs of bridge-building across the two movements, we will aim to generate constructive dialogue while steering clear, where possible, of unproductive debates (e.g., who to assign blame to for past injustices). We hope that you will join us in this dialogue.