The Unseen Bicyclist

High gas prices have put more people on bikes on the streets than ever before. But how to ensure that those who ride out of necessity, not choice, have a safe, enjoyable commute?

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It’s never been a better time to be bicyclist in many American cities. In recent years a lot of cities have taken strides toward bike-friendliness. High gasoline prices, and a growing sense of the importance of reducing carbon emissions, has put more and more people on two wheels out on city streets to take advantage of new bike lanes, paths and bike racks.

As a warm-weather bike commuter for about the last three years, I’m delighted to see biking catching on with more people. The same people who three years ago would have thought me an eccentric, or a lunatic, for riding around town now think I’m a genius. Riding has become such a pleasure that I’ve decided to “take the plunge,” as it were, and stay on the bike as far into the winter as I can muster. When winter hits, I’ll probably go back from being a genius to a nut in the eyes of my friends and colleagues. I’m already preparing myself mentally for those 10 degree mornings in January.

As a bicyclist in the city, I do everything I can to stay visible. I’d rather look like a dork and be alive than look “cool” and not. This means always wearing a helmet, bright clothes including a bright neon-colored vest, and a couple of flashing lights. I have never once had an incident on the road that was caused by a motorist not seeing me.

And I stay visible in other ways. I’m a member of my local bike advocacy group. I participate in events such as Bike to Work Week, which includes an annual ride to work with the Mayor, under police escort. And if there’s a problem with my usual route, such as a break in the pavement on a bike lane, I know who to call at the City to get the problem solved.

The Author’s pink sleeve can be seen three rows back to the left.

Like with a lot of things, however, putting a number on the increasing numbers of bicyclists is problematic. We can measure the frequency of riding through membership in clubs and participation in events like Bike to Work Week, but does that get anywhere near the actual number of regular bike commuters?

Not likely. Events like Bike to Work Week are designed around bikers like me. We’re the bikers who are counted. We have the time and the resources to seek out and join advocacy groups, to log on and register for events, to get our voices heard in the process of planning and implementing infrastructure. We know, and care, how our city ranks in terms of bike friendliness. Some of us donate to the cause, and some of us (though not me) spend thousands on bikes and gear.

In other words, biking for people like me is a choice, and a passion. I could easily afford driving to work and around town every day, but I’ve chosen not to, and have had a lot of fun and lost almost 20 pounds in the process.

But not everyone rides out of choice. For a lot of people, biking is a necessity. Rather than a source of pride, riding is often a source of shame, a visible symbol of poverty.

I encounter many of these Unseen Bicyclists in my daily travels. Usually riding without a helmet or other safety gear, these cyclists keep their heads down and go about their business, riding to work and other places where the bus routes don’t go. I often see them engaging in dangerous practices, such as riding on the sidewalk or against traffic. Their bikes are often in poor condition, with squeaky wheels and gears. With major cutbacks in transit service in recent years, and a huge increase in bus fares (and the price of gasoline), I’ve been seeing more and more of my fellow citizens biking out of necessity.

The urban poor and working class take work when and where they can get it, which often means third or second shift and far from home, out of reach of public transit. Long bike commutes in the dark, without safety gear, lead to a high rate of injuries and fatalities among low-income bikers in many cities.

With gas prices pinching the middle class commuter, more and more people are taking to the streets on bikes. Great news, to be sure, but we should work to make sure biking is safe and friendly for all bikers, including those with no alternative.

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Tags: biking

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