Skip to main content

Bicycles and the 'Immigrant Effect'

Finally, some research that may have positive public health implications for minorities! (Or at least recent immigrants.)

Immigrants tend to be healthier than native-born Americans when they arrive in the United States, but within a generation that advantage is lost. A new study by UCLA doctoral candidate Michael Smart suggests one reason why. In the May issue of Transportation Policy he describes findings that new immigrants — legal or not — are twice as likely to travel by bicycle than native-born Americans.

The group most likely to bike? Low-income immigrants living in dense urban areas.

Using the U.S.-based 2001 National Household Travel Survey, Smart analyzed the ridership rates for the small portion of trips Americans make by bike.

Although in the National Household Travel Survey more foreign-born immigrants over the age of 26 had graduate or professional degrees than native-born Americans, there were also many more immigrants without a high school degree or equivalent than native-born respondents. (It is important to note that the survey did not distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants.) Smart recognizes the need to be careful when studying "immigrants," as they are clearly a diverse group.

Previous research found that, although Latino immigrants in California have similar travel needs to the native-born, they are more likely to use alternative modes of transportation — primarily ride giving and receiving — because many have limited access to a car.

Other factors promoting pedaling among immigrants might include living in compact neighborhoods or being comfortable as a two-wheel commuter in their homeland. Plus, illegal immigrants may choose a bicycle to avoid the contact with law enforcement officials that cars may bring. But even when Smart accounted for these variables, he found a significant "immigrant effect" on bicycle use for all immigrant groups.

Smart argues that a better understanding of the benign factors responsible for immigrants' bicycle use, like cultural affinity for cycling, environmentalism, health concerns, thrift or fashion, could help identify ways to encourage cycling in the population at large. Any factors that don't "force" individuals to cycle could be exploited to increase the number of bikes on the road, which could improve public health as well as the safety of cyclists.

"Increased physical activity among any group is surely a good thing for public health, though bicycling itself is a somewhat risky mode of transportation, and collisions with automobiles frequently result in serious injuries and fatalities," he says. "However, there's a large new scholarly literature that shows that there's a nonlinear positive relationship between the number of cyclists on the road and the safety of cycling — this is the 'safety in numbers' hypothesis."

In other words, getting more cyclists on the road could decrease the number of cycling fatalities, which in turn would see more people’s health improving from the exercise.

Smart believes that transportation planning agencies should include immigrant communities when planning bicycle networks and facilities. Pointing to the example of the Los Angeles Bicycle Master Plan Update, he argues that this is not currently a priority. Although L.A. County has the largest concentration of immigrants in the U.S., immigrant community outreach has not been incorporated into city planning. In fact, an Internet survey was the most significant element of the public participation process for the bike plan revision.

"While the survey did not ask respondents questions related to immigration, the public participation process on the whole does not appear to include input from low-income individuals such as low-income immigrants," Smart writes. "In fact, the opposite appears to be the case, with nearly 85 percent of all respondents to the survey having had a college degree — and nearly half of those respondents had post-graduate degrees."

He believes that typical public participation processes grab the attention of special-interest groups but fail to garner input from unorganized individuals, even those most affected by the issue. Ultimately, he concludes that transportation planning agencies should reach out to immigrant cyclists for their input on bike-related issues, since they are most likely to be, as he puts it, "two-wheeled in Autopia."