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The Invisible Cyclists: Immigrants and the Bike Community

Can social justice be achieved through cycling? New groups like the LA Bike Coalition offer support and advocacy for the immigrant biking population.

They ride on the sidewalks around the city, many of them without helmets or lights. For thousands of immigrants in Los Angeles, the bicycle is their primary means of transportation. But while “everybody’s sort of aware of these bikers,” says Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition organizer Allison Mannos, "there’s not really any outreach. My interest is to address the people who never get taken into account."

Mannos has co-founded a program, called City of Lights, to do just that. The program is bringing material benefits to immigrant bike riders, but, more broadly, is trying to strengthen the sometimes tenuous-seeming links between transportation and social justice.

Helwin Aguilar, an immigrant from Mexico, had heard that he wasn’t required to wear a helmet over the age of 18. At a recent workshop operated by City of Lights, Aguilar raised his hand, and had his question answered: Adults over 18 do not legally need to wear helmets, and should not be ticketed for failing to do so. (Aguilar says he wears one, just to be safe.) The bicycle is his primary vehicle for work, education, and health care, yet he is fundamentally unaware of the laws surrounding its use.

The goals of the City of Lights program are ambitious, but the group started small, in response to complaints that immigrant bicyclists were riding on sidewalks at night (which is legal in the city of Los Angeles) but without lights or reflectors (which is not). City of Lights began distributing lights at day labor centers and were soon inundated with questions about routes and the intricacies of bike repair. Their next step was to open a weekly educational and bike repair workshop at a day labor center, south of downtown. In October, they were successful in getting the city to install bike racks in some of the poorest neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

All small steps, the organizers concede. But they could be crucial ones in building momentum for big picture environmental justice.

Los Angeles is a city where riding the bus or taking any kind of alternative transport tends to be viewed as an aberration. But since the people who do so often have no other choice, advocacy for bikes and buses occurs largely on behalf of the poorest Angelenos. Perhaps the closest ally bike advocates have in their work is the Los Angeles Bus Rider’s Union, one of the strongest voices for the minorities and people of color who, like those who bike because they cannot afford bus fare, have no other transportation options.

City planning perpetuates systems of inequality, explains Sun Young Yang, an organizer at the LABRU, when meager transportation options keep people from attending school or work. "In the rest of the world, mass transportation is seen as a basic human need," says Yang. "If you’ve seen major riots and revolutions in Venezuela and Iran, there were social upheavals because of mass transportation fare hikes." Yang says that the United States, also, has a venerable history of social activism linked with transportation, and she sees the work of the LABRU as an extension of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which led to some of the greatest civil rights gains in American history, but started because of inequities on public transport.

Yet it’s clear that this level of consciousness is not growing naturally among immigrant bikers. Only about eight people participate at the bike workshop each week, while dozens of others sit watching TV in the day labor center next door. Recently, outside one of the centers, the newly installed bike racks sat empty and bikes were chained to nearby fences instead.

Allison Mannos isn’t surprised. Immigrants, she says, are not accustomed to amenities that cater to them as cyclists. "They’re not used to someone giving them a light and saying, 'What you’re doing is awesome, keep riding," she says. "So it just takes a lot more education."

Yang points out that advocacy on behalf of the poorest populations is always an uphill battle. If members of the LABRU reach out to 50 bus riders in one week, out of those, perhaps five will respond by attending a meeting. "A single mother is not going to use her one Saturday to go to a meeting," Yang says.

And yet, over the past 15 years, the LABRU has built up a base of more than 2,000 dues-paying members, and their work has brought material benefits to tens of thousands more in the form of reduced transit fares and increased bus lines. Similarly, she says, the work of just a dozen bicycle activists could bring benefits to thousands.

One of those benefiting may be Daniel Rivera. Recently, Rivera was waiting for work outside a day labor center west of downtown with dozens of others. They milled about in a huge strip mall that included a Home Depot and a McDonald’s. When a car would slow, laborers would rush toward it, hoping for any odd job that a Home Depot patron might need. Rivera doesn’t ride a bike because he says it’s too dangerous. Instead he borrowed a relative’s car and filled it with gas.

"It’s better to ride a bike than take a car, because gas is so expensive," Rivera says. "But I don’t ride often because it’s so dangerous. People get hit in the streets. Obviously, I would like to ride bikes. If they had lanes, like in Santa Monica, I would."

One of the next steps for City of Lights and the LACBC will likely be a new bike lane on Figueroa Street in downtown. It’s difficult to picture the installation of a few small bike racks or the donation of shiny new tools to a workshop as major strides in a battle for social equity. But that’s exactly what those small steps may be leading toward.

At the same time, City of Lights is working at the policy level to bring the needs of lower income Angelenos into the planning rooms. But they’ve had to start from scratch to figure out how to make the case for bike equity in city planning.

For that effort, Mannos decided to target the Los Angeles Master Bike Plan. Over the past few years, Los Angeles has been refining the plan, which will create a long-term vision for developing bike infrastructure and services in the city. Mannos approached the city, saying the plan should take into consideration lower-income areas. The city was open, she says, but conceded they had no idea how to do it.

So Mannos looked for models she could follow around the country but found next to nothing. "It’s that off the radar to think about social justice with bicycles," she says. She ended up doing the legwork herself, talking to 20 urban planners and submitting recommendations for how to target bike planning to lower-income areas. She recommended that the census, transit dependence, obesity and concentration of industrial sites all to be taken into account to determine the course of the city’s bike planning. She borrowed a recommendation from Seattle’s Master Plan, which offered suggestions for targeting amenities to low-income communities.

When so much energy is spent pondering the scourge of suburban sprawl, "and no money on bike lanes in low income areas, that’s problematic," Mannos says. "It’s important to look at who’s missing and try to inject equity into transportation planning."

While bike lanes and planning equity are concrete goals, the bike-repair workshop and services offered by City of Lights have intangible benefits as well, especially for the handful of committed members who attend every week. Much like the bike co-ops that have blossomed around the country, the workshop brings together folks with similar interests who otherwise would not have a forum for connecting and who, in the case of immigrants, are acutely disconnected from organized services.

Jose Guzman has been volunteering at the workshop for a year. "We have to be open to new experiences and meeting new people. And here the medium that gives us those opportunities is the bicycle," he says. "We invite people, if they have a bike, to use it more often, or if they don’t, to come in and get one at low cost, and get repairs." Guzman comes to the day-labor center for work, but when none is available, as is often the case, he learns about bike repair from City of Lights volunteers, offers free bike help to anyone who stops in, and participates in the educational sessions.

He told the story of a woman who had stopped in unhappy with her mountain bike just the other week. Guzman adjusted his own bike’s seat, made sure it was in working order, and traded with her. The woman left happy. "We come here wanting economic compensation," he explains. "But when there are no opportunities for that, helping someone brings great satisfaction. In this time of difficulty, that’s how it should be—solidarity, understanding that even though we don’t have work, we have something to give."

Perhaps that feeling, of being able to affect others’ lives, is the root of empowerment. Recently Guzman and others day laborers have begun running the workshop even when City of Lights volunteers aren’t present. One day, they may make their own recommendations for changes to the city’s bike plan.

This story was funded through the Spot.Us community.

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