An article in Bicycling magazine called, "How Low-Income Cyclists Go Unnoticed" offers an important look at an "invisible" segment of the biking population: The low-income people who use their bikes to get to work, not to save a little money or for the purposes of exercise, but because they have no other option.
Writer Dan Koeppel spent several weeks riding with and getting to know these "invisible cyclists" in the Los Angeles area and turned up a lot of information that may surprise the Americans who publicly identify as cyclists. Koeppel certainly thought it would surprise the readers of Bicycling magazine:
Neighborhood after neighborhood revealed surprise after surprise. The Invisible Riders, for instance, log far more hours than most “serious” cyclists. They do so on equipment most of us wouldn’t touch and under the most adverse conditions: at the height of rush hour on the busiest thoroughfares. [...]
Most of the riders I met viewed their commute as a battle, but exhibited none of the smug, anti-automotive posturing many committed middle-class bike commuters wear as a badge of honor.
It's odd that biking is such a politically charged and polarizing topic when so many people across the country are just using bikes as a simple, cheap way to get to work. These folks don't have a lot of choice about what style of bike to ride or which trail they'll take. Bikes are their main mode of transportation so they make do with what's around.
In addition to sharing eye-opening stories, Koeppel's article also references data collected by a local bike organization on the subject of low-income riders:
Last year, the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition conducted a survey that used a neat trick to partition the city’s two-wheeled community. Half the questioning was conducted via the Internet or mail; the other half of the respondents were approached on the street. One notable result: 42 percent of the street respondents said they rode five days a week or more. Only a quarter of the remotely queried cyclists rode that much.
And the riders who pedal so much more accomplish it with far fewer resources: 40 percent of the street respondents earn less than $15,000 annually (65 percent earn below $35,000), and 95 percent of them own just a single bike.
Nearly half of those surveyed by Internet and mail reported earnings of more than $75,000. The household income of subscribers to this magazine is $112,000, and, on average, four bikes are parked in our garages.
Now, obviously someone who gets Bicycling magazine is both someone who is deeply passionate about bikes and also someone who has the disposable income and leisure time to subscribe to a magazine like it. Still, this data drives home a salient point: The voices speaking for bicyclist rights and needs, and publicly representing the bicycling community in America are likely only representative of a small segment of the population that bikes. Koeppel writes:
The real question, the one that must be asked first, says Kastle Lund, executive director of the L.A. Bike Coalition, is, “Why do so many of us fail to see these groups as constituencies that even exist, let alone that we need and are duty-bound to serve?”
This is a question that everyone who's looking to build strong towns should be asking, not just bike advocates or cycling fans. We ought to take a serious look at the people in our communities—everyone—and ask what small steps we could take to make life a little easier for them. What would enable people to have a safer, cheaper commute? What would a bike-friendly town look like?
When we strip away the political connotations and the tribal signaling, what we have is simply an affordable way to get from one place to another. Let's focus our efforts on building strong towns that offer affordable transportation options for everyone. Let's look at the humans behind the statistics and past our own stereotypes about who does or doesn't bike, and recognize that slow, safe streets benefit everyone. Then let's start building strong towns by taking the small steps to make transportation a little safer and easier for people like the "invisible cyclists" profiled in Koeppel's article.