When Erasto Perez moved to Philadelphia from Puebla, Mexico, a dozen years ago, he traveled everywhere by bike. It made sense. Most places he needed to go — to work, to get a haircut, to do laundry — were within two miles. A runner, he liked sneaking in some extra exercise. And, perhaps above all else, a bike was much cheaper to purchase than a car, required no insurance, and was free to park.
“Most of [the immigrants] who come here come to save money. You need a lot of money for rent and you don’t have money for transportation,” says Perez, a 44-year-old restaurant worker who has a green card and is applying for full citizenship. “Bikes for us are serious, very important. People use them for transportation and not just for fun.”
For many immigrants and new Americans, using a bicycle is far more than a lifestyle choice. A bike helps them establish new lives. The money they don’t spend on car insurance or bus fare can be sent back home to family or tucked away as a nest egg. Law enforcement is less likely to stop someone on a bike than someone behind the wheel of a car, a bonus for those lacking proper immigration papers or who have fled countries with overbearing police agencies.
“The finances for refugees are incredibly tight at the beginning. Even SEPTA tokens are a budget item,” says Rona Buchalter, director of refugee programming and planning for HIAS Pennsylvania, which provides legal and supportive services to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. “Having a bike to get around, to get to the grocery store, to work, to appointments, is huge. It gives them a certain amount of freedom.”
“It’s critical to their survival,” she adds.
A 2010 UCLA study found that recent arrivals to the U.S. are 41 percent more likely than native-born residents to commute to work by bike. In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau found that biking was the fastest-growing commuting mode in the country and, with the exception of those from Africa and the Caribbean, immigrants are more likely to bike to work than the average American.
Further, a 2015 article published by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research — headlined “Most Cyclists Are Working-Class Immigrants, Not Hipsters” — noted that the largest percentage of bicyclists come from the lower-income brackets. Nationwide, the article said, 49 percent of people who regularly bike earn less than $25,000.
Immigrants, then, account for a disproportionate share of cyclists in the U.S. Here in Philadelphia, immigrant life is in many ways organized around the bike as a necessary tool for transportation. But this large, robust community generally doesn’t intersect with the city’s broader cycling scene and largely remains invisible — even though its cyclists are among the most vulnerable people on the road.
Father Hugh Shields leads St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic church at 17th and Morris streets. The church proudly boasts that it serves “the immigrant and the stranger in South Philadelphia” and offers weekly services in Vietnamese, Spanish and Indonesian. The majority of its congregants rely on bicycles to get around.
“Our people don’t have cars,” Shields says. “When we have meetings here, it’s not cars parked. It’s bikes chained.”
Shields says his parishioners find that biking is not only cheaper, but also safer. With parking always a challenge in the neighborhood, some worry about having to park far from their front doors. “They’re worried about having problems while walking home,” he says.
Even when on their bikes, though, immigrants face a greater risk of injury or death than native-born Americans. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Urban Health concluded that immigrants are disproportionately the victims of bike or pedestrian crashes. Another study, carried out by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Highway Administration in 2004, noted the “significant cultural differences that affect how Hispanics behave as pedestrians and cyclists in the United States.” In parts of Central America, for instance, riding a bike into oncoming traffic is normal.
“A lot of the Latino population didn’t know there were laws with bicycles or that bicycles are considered vehicles,” says Brenda Hernandez-Torres, community liaison for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. “We provide education and safety lessons, primarily focusing on using helmets and going with the flow of traffic and not the other way around.”
Hernandez-Torres notes a belief in the local Spanish-speaking community that “biking for recreation is only for white males and white females.” The Coalition is trying to change this perception, she says, by partnering with neighborhood organizations and the communities they serve to promote bicycling and bike safety. For example, it will join Asociación de Puertorriqueños en Marcha, a North Philly-based health and human services group for Latinos, in hosting a future meeting on how to make the intersection of Lehigh Avenue and North 5th Street safer for all who pass through.
“The finances for refugees are incredibly tight at the beginning. Even SEPTA tokens are a budget item.”
In the meantime, small businesses catering to the needs of immigrant cyclists have sprung up in Philadelphia, providing spaces for a nascent community. Maria Lozano opened her shop, Mexibike, on South 9th Street with her now-deceased husband seven years ago. Lozano’s husband had worked in a bike shop in their native Puebla and taught his wife the trade.
When the shop first opened, Lozano says, it averaged two customers a day. Now it serves 10-15 people a day. “Our customers are from everywhere: Mexicans, Americans, Asians,” she says. “Bikes are better because they’re cheaper and it’s easier to find parking. It’s also more healthy.”
Fabian Castellanos, 38, has used a bike as his primary mode of transportation since he immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico about 12 years ago. The decision was an obvious one, he says. Bikes cost less, are easier to park, and are more reliable than public transportation. He only recently purchased his first car.
“A few years ago, on freezing days, I took the bus, but sometimes it’s late and you wait forever and then it makes you late,” says Castellanos, who works as a butcher and lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He is in the process of applying for citizenship, but bureaucracy moves slowly. It took him more than a decade to get a work permit.
Castellanos is comfortable on a bike. “I grew up riding a bicycle to school, a trip three miles each way,” he says, which may be one reason why he wasn’t seriously injured when a driver opened a car door directly in his path a few years ago.
“I hit the door, but I know how to fall,” Castellanos says.
It was a scary moment, but not one that derailed his family’s love of biking. All five members have their own bikes, Castellanos says. His wife, Marisol Benito, never learned to drive a car and commutes to the homes of her house-cleaning clients via bike.
Most of the community members Castellanos knows have their own bicycles. He is also a fan of Indego, the city’s bike share program. Launched in 2015, the program set high diversity goals, targeting immigrants and those less financially secure. It offers reduced monthly fees for users on government assistance, and is trying to grow steadily out from Center City into underserved neighborhoods.
One of the southernmost bike share stations is located outside St. Thomas Aquinas church, which the Castellanos family attends.
For many immigrants, cycling can be a reminder of a far-away home. In some countries — and particularly in city and town centers — bicycling is the preferred form of transportation, says Christiaan Morssink, executive director of the United Nations Association of Greater Philadelphia.
“Biking is not a weird culture for them,” says Morssink, a native of bicycle-friendly Holland. In many cities outside the U.S., he explains, cars are only one transportation option among many.
Alicia Kerber Palma, the consul of Mexico in Philadelphia, says Mexican immigrants who come from small towns are used to having bikes at the centers of their lives. “They even sell tamales on bicycles,” she says.
One reason immigrants may actually shun automobiles is because they can’t obtain insurance without proper documentation. That could change if Mayor Jim Kenney supports a proposal to issue identification cards to city residents, Kerber Palma says. City Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez introduced legislation to create a municipal-ID program last year. At the time Kenney signaled his support for the bill, but he recently put his plans to pursue the effort on hold amid privacy concerns, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Local groups are also looking at programs like the Bicycle Coalition of Maine’s “Bikes for All Mainers.” Launched in 2013, the program offers free nine-hour courses in bike safety. Adults who complete the classes receive a used bike, a helmet, lights, a lock, and a $50 giftcard for bike repairs.
“I hit the door, but I know how to fall.”
Last December, after Lower Merion resident David Broida became familiar with HIAS Pennsylvania’s work, he learned how important bicycles are to refugee families. In the last year, he took it upon himself to give away 15 bikes to HIAS clients. Purchasing some and accepting others as donations, he took the used bikes to a shop that did repairs and only charged him for the cost of the parts.
“These families need bikes for utilitarian purposes, not just riding around the neighborhoods,” Broida says. “Kids need a bike to get to school and sometimes adults need a bike to get to work.”
Hernandez-Torres, of the Bicycle Coalition, recruits community members as bike ambassadors. One of them is Erasto Perez, who says that biking in Philadelphia is very different from biking in his Mexican hometown.
“Me or someone else from a small town, we don’t know how to use a bike properly,” he says, noting that where he comes from, “there are no lights, no signs. There are only one or two cars around. We don’t have helmets or certain streets we can use. When you come here, you just don’t know the rules.”
“When you come here, you just don’t know the rules.”
When Perez leads safety classes, some students are surprised to learn the dos and don’ts of American streets. He can relate. Before coming here, he never knew what a huge risk he was taking by riding without a helmet. He wasn’t in the habit of giving his bike a quick once-over before a ride. He didn’t know the proper ways to signal turns.
What he did know was that he needed cheap, reliable transportation to navigate his new country, and that a bike fit all of his needs. It still does, even now that he’s been in the city for more than a decade. When he meets new arrivals to the U.S., he suggests that they, too, start building their new lives on two wheels.
“Once you are established, you can use both [a car and a bike],” Perez says. “But starting out, you use a bike.” ◆