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Rethinking Term ‘Invisible Cyclist’

Updated Jan. 26, 2015: Questions from webinar listeners and responses from our speakers can be found below the webinar recording.

Last Friday, the League hosted a live discussion about the term “invisible cyclist” with Dr. Stephen Zavestoski, of the University of San Francisco; Najah Shakir, of Boston Bikes; Do Lee, of the Biking Public Project; and Erick Huerta, of Multicultural Communities for Mobility.

Here is a recording of the webinar.


Questions and Comments from Listeners

Meetings and advocacy have sometimes been out of reach for people with lower incomes due to jobs, child care, etc. Creating a safe and accessible space for communication (as well as on the road) is a messaging task. I am reminded that the League used to be Wheelmen.

– Ellen in Redwood City, CA

Do’s response: I definitely agree. And all too increasingly, a lot of community groups face public participation burn out when the city or governing body asks for a lot of public input but ends up ignoring it. It’s a way to grind down opposition through fake participation.  So yes, I think it’s absolutely important to reach out and work together with communities to create safe and accessible communication spaces, but also that this communication has to have meaningful impact on what happens and is not just a checkmark off a equity or participation checklist.


Can you all come to speak on this subject at the Youth Bike Summit in Seattle in Feb. 2015?  It is hosted by Bike Works and involves youth all around the country talking about these sorts of subjects…it would be great to have your voices at the conference for them to hear as well.

– Tina in Seattle

Do’s response: Tina, I wish I could make it, it sounds like a terrific event. I’m unfortunately already committed to a couple of conferences in the spring which is all I can afford to do on a grad student budget.  But I’d be happy to keep in mind future youth bike summits.

Adonia’s response: I’ll be there!


Just make sure you discuss the gentrification issue.

– Bill in Minneapolis

Steve’s response: We did not touch on this during the webinar. It’s a complex subject that needs more attention. Many of the chapters in Incomplete Streets address the dynamics of gentrification in case studies in Minneapolis, New Orleans, Oakland, CA, and elsewhere. We also have a couple books in the works in the Equity, Justice and the Sustainable City series I co-edit with Julian Agyeman that tackle the topic head on.

Do’s response: Yeah, I’m surprised it didn’t come up.  It is, as Steve mentioned, a complex topic. But I do think that gentrification is an element of the “invisible” cyclist concept – because as many people like Adonia have talked and written about, a lot of cities are focusing their efforts on building bicycle infrastructure to attract new cyclists (aka the “creative class”) rather build it for low income folks who already bike. This promotion of the creative class cycling is definitely linked to gentrification. In this way, cities are basically saying that “invisible” cyclists do not belong within their rebranded vision of a city for and by the so-called “creative” class.


This article from Streetsblog seems relevant–wonder what the advocates here think?

– Mark in Redlands, CA

Steve’s response: Thanks for sharing this link. I hadn’t seen this article. It’s an outstanding set of recommendations for going beyond “outreach.”

Do’s response: I liked this set of recommendations. “Meet people where they are” is particularly important because setting have different meanings and power to different people. Formal meeting spaces are laden with power and privilege that not everyone feels comfortable in and so it can be really intimidating for those not used to having power or privilege. Going to where people are can help level the playing field between expert and community knowledge. These are a lot of really great recs.


The term comes from a 2006 Bicycling Magazine article, which is available here.

–  John in McAllen, TX


Should we focus on “crash sites” where people are the most vulnerable?

– Josh in Kansas City, MO

Steve’s response: Dr. Rachel Aldred in the UK has been working on an interesting “near miss” project where cyclists have been asked to document time, location and other details of near missed (cars that came dangerously close or caused a cyclist to take evasive action).

There are some obvious limitations to what the data, collected through volunteer cyclists self-reporting in a one-day diary any near misses during the day, can tell us. But I think it gives us an example of how we can be more creative in trying to understand overlooked dimensions of bicycling for transportation.


Wasn’t there also a sense of how these cyclists “want” to be invisible? to hide from the police persecution Do mentioned, and to in general stay “under the radar”. Not to say the term should still be used. Specifically I know some people who bike prefer not to have lights, because they don’t want to be seen. Not to say that all low income men of color who bike think that.

– Juana in Minneapolis

Do’s response: This is a really good point that indicates the nuanced complexity and diversity of how people can experience cycling in the street.  If certain cyclists are being profiled and targeted for over policing and surveillance, then a person could be motivated to become less visible (e.g. no lights) at the cost of decreased safety – and this might be a trade off a few might be willing to take if the consequences of policing are dire enough (e.g. documentation status, paying hefty tickets/fines, or even being arrested). This attempt to make themselves less visible does still point a problem where “invisible” cyclists are visible, but in bad ways. At least in NYC, many so-called “invisible” cyclists have been made to be more visible through a city council ordinance that requires delivery cyclists to wear bright reflector vests with identification of their employer (and they have to take safety classes too).  As far as we can tell, this ordinance has primarily targeted and been enforced with food delivery cyclists, who are often Latino and Chinese immigrants, but not other delivery cyclists (like bike messengers). The intention of this ordinance was to crack down on the “bad” cycling of delivery cyclists and make them more visible to pedestrians and drivers, but I would argue that it also makes these delivery cyclists, mostly immigrants, highly visible for surveillance and policing.  And it marks these delivery people as cyclists who need to be controlled and disciplined and hence they are different from other, more privileged cyclists. A report by Levine and Siegel (2014) that was highlighted in a recent Streetsblog article found that the NYPD were issuing high volumes of summonses for biking on sidewalks in neighborhoods of majority Black and Latino populations as compared to other neighborhoods with majority white and other populations.

I think for me, one big issue here is that the so-called “invisible” cyclists have not claimed the name for themselves as representative of their lived experience, but rather it describes how others with more privileged perspectives and power have chosen to ignore these cyclists for distributing bicycling benefits and to overlook abusive policing. 


Building the human infrastructure helps to build political will. People aren’t likely to go to a typical public meeting, but if there are enough people upset about X, they may force a change in the decision.

–  Juana in Minneapolis

Do’s response: Absolutely. And supporting the development of human infrastructure is a very different project than physical infrastructure.  I think too often we get into a mindset that physical infrastructure and design will solve everything. But design and physical infrastructure is only as good as the human infrastructure that uses these spaces and mobilizes to rethink how we can use our streets.


But in a way, don’t too many of those in political, financial, planning, DOT power (even most drivers) treat consider cyclists as invisible, until they (any cyclists) are VIEWED as an irritant?

– Scott in El Paso, TX

Do’s response: I think this is a good point – those in power won’t just open the gates to welcome outsiders just because they show up. But there are big and unequal differentials in the power and ability of people from different backgrounds to be a source of irritant that is taken as legitimate by those in power.


And here is a recap of the Twitter discussion we carried on during the webinar. Thanks for participating!

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