Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Immigrant Bike Commuters

If you live in an urban environment, you've seen them. Adult immigrants (almost always Latinos) cycling in work clothes on Wal-mart bikes, too slowly, on streets that are too busy, with no helmets. Every time I see a such an immigrant commuter, I cringe, out of worry for their well-being. I know they are just trying to get to or from work in the most cost-effective way possible.

Hector Rapalo (shown at right) was killed over the Christmas holidays in Islip, NY while on a bicycle. There's not much to the story. The police report is here, and here's an editorial in the New York Times (from Jan. 11) that drew my attention to this particular incident. The editorial also mentions the cases of Santos Javier Ramos and Enrique Aguilar-Gamez. The editorial suggests that some of the hit-and-runs (and yes, there are multiple ones) are hate crimes. My general good-naturedness makes me want to doubt this, but then I went to this comments posting on the Ramos incident, and frankly, too many of the comments are pretty sickening in their xenophobia and racism.

The NYT editorial generalizes a little too much: it says, "Bicyclists and suburbs are an uneasy fit," with which I utterly disagree. More accurately, unskilled bicyclists and commuting are an uneasy fit, and it makes no difference your skin color or national origin, although (I submit) the economic status, access to Internet, and language barrier of Latino immigrants exacerbates the situation for them.

So, how can we make this situation better? I can think of several ideas, all of which are "unfunded mandates":
  1. An initiative on the part of the League of American Bicyclists to provide Spanish-language and/or bilingual versions of the "Road 1" course;
  2. Concurrent with (1) above, scholarships from HHS or INS to help legal immigrants (or for that matter, low-income Americans) to attend these classes;
  3. Since most of these bikes (I suspect) are $80-to-$100 models bought at Wal-Mart, I'd like to see Wal-Mart provide a certificate for a free or very low-cost ANSI-compliant helmet (nothing fancy, to be sure) for every bike sold;
I'm no policy whiz—I really don't know what I'm doing in this area. But there is simply no defensible reason for the the least-affluent in our society to be deprived of access to information that will make them safer as they try to use cost-effective, environmentally-friendly transport.

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