Who’s biking? Choice or necessity

I made contact this week with a fellow bike commuter I’ve seen nearly every day since last summer. His is a rare sight on a bicycle on the rural roads outside of Chapel Hill and Carrboro – an older Latino man that we dubbed Cristobal so that we could talk about him between us. When the temperature and day light permitted the 20-mile ride to town, we’d cross paths with this man going the opposite direction. My partner and I would both wave from our tandem across the busy road, and eventually he started waving back.

As a sort of complement to this story, a new report called “Bicycling and Walking in the United States: 2010 Benchmarking Report” was released today by the Alliance for Biking & Walking, which uses what (limited) available data there is to look at how many people are biking and walking in the U.S., and who they are. Well, there’s us. And there’s Cristobal.

Before we met Cristobal, we speculated that he was Mexican, probably from a certain state where most of the latinos in this part of North Carolina come from. (It helps that my partner works with migrant populations in this area of Mexico). We also figured that he was commuting by bicycle to work at a farm or quarry 12-15 miles out into the countryside because he didn’t have a car. In my head, I was happy for Cristobal, and hoped that he enjoyed the choice of bicycling as much as I do. I thought, he must be one of the most fit guys in his neighborhood.

He rides an older, beat-up blue bike with cruiser handlebars and baskets on his rear rack. Until recently he wore a cap rather than helmet, and still he wears a helmet only occasionally. When we would pass by on our tandem in warmer months, he seemed comfortable on the bike, even a bit amused. We stopped riding for the winter, but we see him every day on our drive. The morning temperatures are in the 20s and 30s. He has a thick coat, mittens, and a helmet sits atop a knit cap. He looks miserable.

As we were traveling home in the early winter dark, we didn’t see him. Not because he wasn’t there, but because he had no lights or reflectors. I decided to buy him a set of front and rear lights. I was worried for his safety, but I also took this as my opportunity to meet him. There’s a gas station where we often see his bike where he probably stops for a snack on the way to and from work. After weeks of driving by, we finally passed the store while he was there. We stopped and met Cristobal.

First off, his name’s not Cristobal, but it’ll do for this blog. We approached with big awkward grins and the set of lights. Luckily my partner is also fluent in Spanish. While I set to installing the lights on his bike, she was able to get Cristobal’s story. As she guessed, Cristobal is from Guanajuato. He’s a bit older than the typical recent Mexican immigrant, though he’s probably younger than he looks. He moved here two years ago and lives with his son who’s in his 20s. I shook Cristobal’s hand, and it was rough and chalky.

We introduced ourselves as the tandem couple that waved to him when we passed him back in the warmer months – he seemed to remember us. We told him that we were impressed he biked so far out everyday, that he must be strong, and that he’s a better person than us for dealing with the winter. The private bicycle cheerleader in my head was shouting RAH-RAH, but Cristobal’s take on it was different. He said he hates biking. That he only does it because he needs the job, the job is far from town, and he has no car. But he said he was grateful for the lights, shook our hands with genuine warmth, and mounted his bike to ride back home in the dark.

We passed him on our way home today and were glad to see his new lights flashing from the side of the road. It was a warmer afternoon, in the 50s, but tomorrow they are predicting snow, which at least means cold and precipitation. Trucks were spraying “brine” along the road.

Without speculating about Cristobal’s personal circumstances, we know that North Carolina makes it difficult for immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses now – a reckless conflation of poor immigration policy with public safety, which is what the license process should really be about – but that’s a problematic topic for another post. According to what I can gather from this new “Benchmarks” report from the Alliance for Biking & Walking (ABW), Cristobal’s reasons for bike commuting are at least as common as all of us folks now blogging about our conscious decisions to commute by bike. Mine is a choice, his is not.

As I said at the beginning, Cristobal, the Latino immigrant bike commuting out of necessity, is a rare sight out on the country roads. But it’s not so rare in cities and towns across this country. According to the ABW report, while Hispanics now make up 15% of the U.S. population, they account for 22% of total bike trips. If this data is accurate, then that population is overrepresented among bicyclists, while perhaps underrepresented in the popular media image of who bicyclists are.

The ABW report also attempts to break down bike trips by socioeconomic brackets, but that data seems to come from 2001 numbers, which may or may not be relevant anymore. For what they’re worth, those old numbers indicate that across income levels, the share of bike trips is basically the same. What is even harder to capture is the reason (utility or recreation or some combination of those) for the bike trip. ABW speculates that the lower-income share of bike trips may be more for utility, while higher income classes may bike more for recreation. Given that Hispanics have a very high poverty rate in North Carolina and the rest of the U.S., it’s probably not a wildly irresponsible assumption that among Hispanic bikers, utility trips out of necessity make up a large proportion of their total trips by bike, like Cristobal.

There’s another image of the bicyclist that I don’t see represented in the media and bike blog community that much, but was probably the most prevalent when I was a kid growing up in rural Maine, and may still be the popular image of bicyclists among certain communities, such as low-income communities and rural areas. My childhood mind remembers basically three types of bicyclists: kids like me on their bmx’s; the occasional odd-ball adult in neon lycra; and, more commonly, the slovenly-looking fellow biking against traffic. Bikes in this last category were known as DUI-machines, and I bet their popularity has not waxed or waned one way or the other.

I’m happy, and exceedingly lucky, to have the choice to ride my bike (er… choice of one of many bikes) for utility or for fun. (I’m even luckier to have a partner to ride a tandem with, who has by and large the same motivation as me, plus can speak Spanish…). There’s probably at least as many bicyclists who ride out of necessity, as out of choice. As our society looks at products to market, services and education to offer, and new transportation plans and policies, I hope that a major demographic of the bicyclist population doesn’t get lost on the side streets.

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71 Responses to “Who’s biking? Choice or necessity”


  1. 1 2whls3spds January 29, 2010 at 7:58 am

    Good post!

    I have a similar fellow cyclist that I finally met in my area of Harnett County. His name is John. I bought him a set of lights a while back after not being able to see him at night. When I first started seeing him he was riding a beat up huffy mtb and barely moving along, turns out the bike was in very poor shape so the slow speed was all it was capable of. We have since helped him get a better bike, so he can ride faster. I thought perhaps he was a DUI cyclist, but it turns out he has never had a driver’s license. He spent many years working in the textile plants in and around Harnett and Lee counties. He is now retired and living on what is left of his family’s farm. He cycles into the community where I live to get to the grocery store and the bank. He also picks up cans along the roads for a bit of extra income. Great guy and I always look forward to seeing him along the roads.

    Unfortunately the report you mentioned points out some gross shortcoming in cycling and pedestrian expenditures on the part of our DOT. I found out that DOT Div.6 has no plans to spend ANY funds for pedestrian or cycling projects in the next 3 years even though the population in that area is expected to double in the next 4-5 years due to Fort Bragg. Welcome to my world!

    Aaron

    • 2 pomocomo January 29, 2010 at 8:32 am

      Thanks for your comments! Yes, there’s a a lot of diversity out there among reasons for biking. I’d to explore stories of how people started biking in the first place.

      I agree that an important finding of the ABW Benchmarks report is the analysis of the disproporionate federal and state ped and bike funding versus how much of a share pedestrian and bicyclist injuries and fatalities make up.

  2. 3 Julie January 29, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    So glad you wrote about this under-represented (in the media and in many middle-class cyclists’ minds) portion of cyclists!

  3. 4 Emma J January 29, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    I’m writing/riding from the rural Pacific Northwest and yes, a slim majority of cyclists here are biking out of apparent necessity. A slim and largely invisible majority.

    I volunteer at the food bank and once when I showed up in my car (a minivan – not particularly impressive) one of the guys was taken aback, “I thought you didn’t have a car” – because he usually sees me on a bike.

    My local bank has a policy of no-bikes at the drive-up window. When I went in to chat with them about it, it became obvious after awhile that the “safety” reasons they were citing were primarily their tellers’ safety and bank security, not mine. Proper, decent, trustworthy folks own cars. Others need to walk inside so that they’re not so likely to make a fast getaway.

    I applaud both of you for the gift of the bike-lights. Our cycling culture needs to start seeing all its riders (literally as well!)

  4. 5 kmcdade January 31, 2010 at 3:23 am

    Hi – your post showed up in my Google Alerts, and it was a very interesting read! I live in cycling-centric Portland, OR, but I too have noticed that there are many cyclists in my neighborhood who don’t look like the popular image of cyclists, and who are probably cycling more out of necessity than by choice.

  5. 6 Jess @OpenlyBalanced January 31, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    Very insightful post. I worry, as you do, about the safety of this segment of the bicycling population. I wonder if it might be worth working with local community centers to set up bicycle safety and maintenance classes in tandem with ESL classes? As I typed that, it seemed a hopelessly naive idea, but I hate the thought that recent immigrants, many of whom are already disadvantaged in so many ways, would lack access to basic safety information and equipment.

    • 7 pomocomo February 1, 2010 at 9:41 am

      From what I’ve seen in my own community, and from comments about this post, there are a lot of great projects out there that provide bicycle assistance and education to anyone who wants it. I guess it’s just a question of connecting the people who need it or are interested in it, to the people providing the resources and tools. Partnering with other groups is a great idea, and I’m sure there are a few good examples around this country.

  6. 8 John B. February 9, 2010 at 9:52 am

    Many thanks for this post. Here in Wichita, we really need to have this conversation as well–indeed, I decided to try bike commuting precisely because I live in a largely-Hispanic neighborhood where lots of folks regularly ride their bikes out of economic need–and I’m glad that so many people are finding your post to be helpful in starting the conversation.

  7. 9 T R Ever March 26, 2010 at 9:40 pm

    I find that here in Maine there are many that ride bikes because they;1 can not afford a car/gas or 2 have to many OUI’s and are not permitted to drive any more.
    And then there is Antonio. A gentleman from Cuba who has lived in Portland for at least 10 years. He is almost always riding a different bike donated/stolen not 100% sure, none of them nice.
    he made sure to stop every half hour or so and flip people off and say F-You F- America! did I mention he always has snot running down his scruffy unshaven face even in the summer.
    What a guy.
    I was never sure if I wanted to give him a hug or shiv him in the gut with a sharpened bicycle spoke. Guess it depended on if I had my morning coffee yet.

  8. 10 Charlie NC January 7, 2011 at 12:39 am

    Very nice post. It is always nice meeting people who we see on our commutes etc. Small towns like mine the riders are few and far between. I just happen to have a large surplus of bike lights.
    Think I’ll stash a pair in my bag for that happen to meet a needy rider day. It’s always great helping someone that needs help with their bike etc.

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  1. 1 Streetsblog New York City » The Invisible People on Bikes Right in Front of Our Eyes Trackback on January 29, 2010 at 11:31 am
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