Invisible cyclist: Has the term reached the end of its usefulness?

The Bike League’s new report, The New Movement: Bike Equity Today (PDF) asks an important question about terms like “invisible riders” and “invisible cyclists”:

Have the terms distracted us from the vital importance of making every person who rides a bike visible? 

Click image to download the report

The report’s authors, Adonia Lugo, Elizabeth Murphy, and Carolyn Szczepanski, acknowledge that “these terms have given us a way to talk about low-income cyclists, immigrant populations, or other groups that bike advocates have found hard to reach.”

But they also make the following compelling point:

“bike advocates who are people of color, women, and youth often hear people who look like us called invisible or scarce even when we are in the room. We are not indicator species to be monitored; we are enthusiastic supporters of bicycling who have a lot of ideas about what bikes can do for our communities. If we stay hidden, so will the new paths we are creating.”

When we began the Invisible Cyclist blog, we argued that a new and vibrant bicycle culture was helping the bicycle advocacy movement finally thrive in North America, but that the movement was overlooking “the invisible cyclists, those for whom cycling is not a choice but a necessity. This population of cyclists,” we wrote, “is largely uncounted, unrecognized, and unrepresented.”

It’s exciting to realize that our original claim may need revising. So-called invisible cyclists are increasingly recognized by and represented in mainstream bike advocacy organizations. We look forward to critical dialogue around the declining relevance of these terms and constructive dialogue around the evolution of new types of framings and terminology.

Whatever our terms, we want to keep drawing attention to at least two important concerns. We wrote about both of these in “Lessons from the Green Lanes? Listen to Communities of Color,” but they bear repeating.

How we count bicyclists

When we measure who bicycles, which we do often in order to justify investments in infrastructure, we need to be more creative so that we also count bicyclists not using infrastructure intended for them or who are riding at unusual hours of the day. Bicyclist intercept surveys, a popular method of both bike advocacy organizations and transportation planners, are often conducted where we tend to see the most bicyclists. Bicycle counts are usually conducted during the morning and evening “rush hours” when white collar workers on 9-5 schedules happen to be riding. Both methods leave an important constituency uncounted.

The New Bicyclist Bias

Related to the problem of how we count bicyclists is the bias in advocacy and planning towards creating new bicyclists (e.g., converting drivers into bicyclists). The focus on recruiting new bicyclists leads to conclusions that certain types of infrastructure in certain locations are needed to overcome the safety concerns of these “Interested but Concerned” individuals (a term drawn from Roger Geller’s “Four Types of Cyclists” typology which is explained in brief here or in its entirety here.) Yet by attending to the needs of the cyclists we’re currently undercounting, many of whom happen to be bicycling out of necessity, these individuals may begin to feel recognized, respected, and safe in their mode of transportation. We need a better understanding of whether such feelings would result in bicycling persistence rather than car ownership aspiration. As we wrote previously

Dan Koeppel–author of the piece in which “invisible riders,” many of whom ride on sidewalks for safety, were first introduced–asked Guillermo Diaz what it would take for him to use the streets. According to Koeppel, Diaz “answered instantly, without a hint of irony: ‘Owning a car.’

So we would agree with the Bike League’s new report that “‘invisible riders’ are only invisible to us if we choose to draw our bike movement boundaries in a way that makes those riders and their experiences irrelevant to producing bike-friendly streets.”

It’s time to explore successors to terms like “invisible riders” and “invisible cyclists,” and to answer vital questions that the Bike League’s report asks, such as:

How do we bridge from diversity in bike users to equitable bike advocacy?

4 thoughts on “Invisible cyclist: Has the term reached the end of its usefulness?

  1. Stephen, I discussed some of these issues in a blog post here: and here:

    To elaborate on your point about the new-bicyclist bias, bear in mind that the number of “interested but concerned” people is usually more than 50% of the population. This is great for bicycle advocates who want to demonstrate that a majority of people are interested in bicycling, but it doesn’t give them a lot of guidance as to which groups to target first.

    So when we combine this fuzzy focus with the fact that infrastructure is seen as the only arrow in authorities’ quiver that can get people into the bicycle saddle, we get results like “bicycling population increased along this new protected corridor because it’s now safer.” But infrastructure costs money, so it tends to go where the authorities want it, which may not be the places that would give the biggest boost to the more invisible and marginalized cyclists among us.

    “Who needs bicycling most,” is the question that authorities should be asking, but we need more groups like the ones Ms. Lugo describes in the Bike League report to start answering, “We do!”

    • Thanks for such an insightful comment, Jonathan! I read the post you referenced and it’s full of food for thought. I started to tap out a longer reply but you’ve spurred so many thoughts I am going to gather them, add them to some of the threads from tomorrow’s ‘invisible cyclist’ webinar, and then maybe leave a comment on your blog and post some additional thoughts here. For now, let me just say that I appreciate your observation that “When advocates set infrastructure as their number one priority, that means that their number one priority is to petition the authorities, not to get more people on bicycles.”

  2. Pingback: Counting Bikes | Stephen Zavestoski

  3. Pingback: Recommended Read: “Most Cyclists Are Working-Class Immigrants, Not Hipsters” | Invisible Cyclist

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