It’s no small task to be a bicyclist or pedestrian in Los Angeles. Motorists don’t expect you. Many get angry when they’re inconvenienced and have to brake.
Last July 4th, Christopher Thompson of Brentwood, an emergency room physician, deliberately swerved his car onto the path of two cyclists, then slammed on his brakes. One cyclist crashed head-first through Thomson’s car window; the other was flung to the pavement. Both sustained serious injuries. The doctor now faces felony charges, thanks in large part to the actions of bicycling activists.
Road rage assaults are the reason why I’d much rather run the trails, where you only have to worry about coyotes, pumas, and rattlesnakes.
But there’s a whole group of Los Angeles bicyclists who do not have that choice or privilege. They don’t ride for recreation or exercise. They ride those heavy no-name bikes from Walmart. They can’t afford helmets, reflectors, or other safety gear.
They are day laborers, immigrants, people of color for whom bicycles are an expensive necessity, the only way to get to work.
They’re called the invisible riders.
Two years ago, Dan Koeppel wrote a feature for Bicycling magazine on the “invisible riders” of Los Angeles. Many of them pedal ten miles (one way) to day labor centers. If they’re lucky, their names are picked out of a hat and they get work for the day. The rest ride on to a Home Depot, to other street corners. If that fails, they ride home and hope for better luck the next day. Koeppel writes:
I can’t think of a harder cycling life. I saw young men lugging heavy bikes to elevated rail stations, wheeling them into trains and keeping one eye on them as they sat, exhausted from a 12-hour day at a downtown factory, anticipating another 5 miles of riding after exiting at the stop nearest their home. I heard a story about a rider in the relatively calm, upscale suburb of Glendale who was hit by a car as he rode to work–after traversing the more dangerous streets early in his commute. The accident happened in front of a hospital, but because the rider had no insurance, he was taken by ambulance to the county emergency room 10 miles away.
This article is about two years old and if anything, there are even more “invisible riders” today. In the past few months, the number of men riding beaters has increased. One morning at our bus stop, an older gentleman on an old steel bike paused to say hello. He used to ride the bus with us, but said he had to cut expenses. He hurried off, because his commute now takes longer.
The bus came and I saw him again a few minutes later, a small figure balanced in the fragile sphere between rush hour traffic and parked cars.
In Los Angeles, a Metro daypass costs $5.
The activism of local cycling groups contributed in a major way towards the subsequent arrest and felony charges filed against Christopher Thomspon. These activists were also instrumental in the expansion of bike lanes around Los Angeles (thank you!). Such advocacy is even more vital for the invisible riders.
There are no bicycle paths or dedicated bicycle lanes at the area where I catch my connecting bus. It’s a predominantly immigrant area of Los Angeles, with a lot of renters and recent immigrants. The many early morning bicyclists don’t even hope for a bike lane. They just hope to get to work without accidents, because even minor ones will bring them unwanted attention. They are largely voiceless, unable to join community actions calling for safer cycling conditions in their neighborhoods.
And yet, a survey conducted by the Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition has shown that these invisible riders of Los Angeles rode more often and much farther than most “serious” cyclists. The results are hardly surprising, considering how the day laborers have to ride to find work every weekday. And they have to do so in neighborhoods with rougher road conditions, and across bridge spans where cars rush by at freeway speeds. While riding heavier, older bikes with less maneuverability.
In the Bicycling magazine article, Kastle Lund of the Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition asks:
“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?”
Good question. The invisible riders will only remain unseen if we continue refusing to see them.