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Making Invisible Riders Visible: Motivations for Bicycling and Public Transit Use among Latino Immigrants


Immigrants now comprise the largest share of the population of the United States since 1850, with continued increases projected into the foreseeable future. Most foreign-born residents come from Latin America and other developing countries. Nationwide, they tend to travel by cheaper and more sustainable modes of transportation upon arrival, gradually adopting American habits of driving over time. A challenge for planners concerned with reducing the impact of automobile travel and providing an equitable transportation system is to understand and capitalize on the motivations for immigrant travel that would allow them to meet their travel needs without relying on cars. In this mixed-methods dissertation, I investigate three questions about the nature of how immigrants travel in the San Francisco Bay Area, a fairly transit- and bicycle-friendly metropolitan region, with these sustainability and equity questions in mind:

1. How do travel patterns differ between low-income immigrants and other population subgroups?

2. What influences cycling among immigrants and non-immigrants? More specifically, to what extent do individual factors, the social environment, and the built environment predict bicycling, and how do their effects differ between immigrants and non-immigrants?

3. What factors contribute to the cycling experience for low-income Latino immigrants?

First, how do travel patterns differ between low-income immigrants and other population subgroups? I use a custom-designed intercept survey to describe the frequency of travel by each mode of transportation, in addition to individual perceptions and personal experiences related to public transit and bicycling. I find fairly small but statistically significant differences in mode use between immigrants and non-immigrants: immigrants travel up to a day per week less frequently than non-immigrants by each mode of transportation except walking. When controlling for socioeconomic and certain built environment characteristics, many differences between immigrants and non-immigrants diminish. Most significantly, however, Latin American immigrants substantially reduce their transit use as incomes rise, while Latina women of all income groups very rarely ride a bicycle. Certain perceptions and attitudes about transportation also differ significantly among nativity groups. Low-income immigrants are least likely to perceive bicycling as an option to meet their travel needs. They are also less likely to take transit or ride a bicycle when they have an option to drive.

Second, to what extent do individual factors, the social environment, and the built environment predict bicycling, and do their effects differ between immigrants and non-immigrants? This question uses the dissertation conceptual framework to test how each of those three factors influence one another, and how they affect cycling. Relying on a subset of the same survey results as in the previous chapter, I use a set of structural equations models to estimate the likelihood of bicycling based on socioeconomic characteristics, including nativity, perceptions and attitudes, social networks, and urban form, accounting for the endogeneity of these influences. I find many similarities in what influences cycling among immigrants and non-immigrants. Unexpectedly, once perceptions and social factors are accounted for, objective measures of the built environment matter little in predicting bicycling. However, cycling is associated with positive perceptions of how the built environment supports cycling. Bicycling itself influences both perceptions of the difficulty of cycling and cycling social networks. Findings suggest two keys to supporting cycling: addressing how people view neighborhood safety and how well infrastructure meets cyclists' needs.

Third, what factors contribute to the cycling experience for low-income Latino immigrants? Interviews with about two dozen Latino immigrants reveal that a number of factors beyond cost, safety, and urban form encourage people to bicycle. People described cycling emotionally, empowering in the face of life obstacles. New immigrants can use bicycling as a means to learn their way around a new city, though some find it difficult to navigate when directions and information are not readily available in their native languages. But more than anything, benefits of bicycling were tied to certain social values that many interviewees held, such as a desire to protect future generations by traveling more sustainably. Some have the perception that bicycle planning has been fundamentally unfair to their community and other communities of color. Cycling investments that tie into social networks present in immigrant neighborhoods may motivate others to establish a bicycling habit.

Each chapter of this dissertation contributes to a different component of the literature on immigrants and travel. As a whole, the dissertation leads readers from a discrete choice view of travel behavior to one influenced by psychology and social and cultural elements of human environments. I argue that planning for sustainability and equity in transportation requires adoption of measures that address the soft influences on travel. While investing in infrastructure is important, it is not enough: increasing neighborhood and traffic safety and improving perceptions of transit and cycling relative to driving will help facilitate immigrant travel.

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