Tonight as I was out dutifully putting in some miles to finish up my yearly goal, I encountered a man stopped in East Austin, near downtown. He was working on his bicycle, and observing the unwritten code of bike riders, I stopped to ask if I might help. He had a screw driver and was adjusting his rear reflector while enjoying an adult beverage. He was also worried about his front light, which was red (illegal). There wasn’t much I could do, but we chatted a bit. He was friendly, perhaps due to the aforementioned drink. He introduced himself as Tommy, I replied with my name, and he proferred an ungloved hand for me to shake in the cool temperatures. He also said that he is homeless. It got me thinking about the large number of people who ride bikes as transportation, but are not connected with bicycle advocacy organizations. So here are a few thoughts.
Just Getting from Point A to Point B
Not having done any research into this population of riders, I can only make some assumptions. But they are based on observations of seeing these guys around for some time. Yes, they are by and large men who ride around without helmets or decent bikes in good working order, and at night they usually have no lights. They are coming from work or going to it, or maybe a friend’s house or the store. They don’t have a car, and maybe not even money for the bus, or the bus doesn’t go where they go. Although they do use it if it suits them. And a key factor of this group is that while they are often pretty good bike handlers, they don’t seem to know about bike safety and traffic law. Or if they do, they don’t care.
In November, I participated in the recent League of American Bicyclists class and became a League Cycling Instructor (LCI) . (Part 2 of that is here.) There was an after-class assignment. My classmates and I were to design a program for teaching the Smart Cycling curriculum. What we came up with was a plan to reach these utility or invisible cyclists. To do so, we would need to partner with various organizations like helmet and light manufacturers or sellers like bike shops, government public health departments, private health organizations and more. Ideally we could offer them the incentives as a way to sign up participants in the class. The plan is solid but would require alot of volunteer hours and fundraising before it could come to fruition. So currently it’s just another of a zillion good ideas.
Tommy Just Wants to Ride… and Have a Roof
I may be going out on a limb here, but I think it’s safe to say that mostly white, male, middle- to upper-class “bicycle community” doesn’t really give a shit about people like Tommy. That’s because they don’t donate to their organizations, show up at events, or vote for their candidates. I may be projecting my own biases as a white male, although not currently a card-carrying member of the middle class, I still have those values and aspirations. I also have the education and privilege to access things that Tommy, who is poor and African-American, cannot.
But I’m still entitled to my opinion and observations, and it’s clear that there is no one monolithic “bicycle community.” I’ve written about racism before in this post: Car Hits Truck, Which Kills Austin Cyclist, Racer, Author & Dad on a Group Ride Saturday among others.) Now, I’m not hurling accusastions here; I don’t think most bike riders with means are intentionally discriminating against invisible or utility riders. They just don’t have much contact with them. By nature, you don’t see them. The reason I do is that I live on the East Side, and frequently ride at night and also am underemployed and so am out at times during the day when most people have jobs.
The point is, injustice exists, and lack of access to resources. And there’s another issue at play here: who’s to say that these bike riders really even want or need any help? Well, I’m just asking the question. And if they do want lights, helmets, better working bikes and the knowledge how to ride them safely, then how do we reach them and teach them? What can we learn from them about their experiences bicycling? Are there are crashes involving these riders? Are they getting reported? To me it’s an area ripe with opportunity, if enough other people and organizations are interested and assuming the proper and sufficient resources can be mustered.
Hey, I’m just a dude. But I am interested in seeing if this project could be funded how I might fit into it. As the new year approaches, I’m hopeful I can find ways to apply my LCI training and put it to the benefit of the community. This might be one. But I also have to pay the bills. As Austin continues to deal with huge influx of people, displacement and gentrification that makes rent go higher and higher, and transportation woes best addressed by getting people out of cars onto bikes and into mass transit, will invisible and utility riders be forgotten? Let’s hope not.
Here’s a blog that’s dated but has some interesting posts about this topic: https://invisiblecyclist.com/. Linked therein is a blog post by Dr. Adonia Lugo, whose new book Bicycle/Race: Transportation, Culture, & Resistance, a memoir about racial justice and sustainable transportation, just came out in October 2018. For a time, she worked at the League, too, where things didn’t go so well. The post is titled “Unsolicited Advice for Vision Zero,” it’s a powerful piece all white cyclists should read.
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4 thoughts on “The Invisible or Utility Bicyclist: An Ignored Population”
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