Invisible Labor & The Commute Challenge

Along with many other Seattle folks, I’ve been enjoying the commute challenge through Cascade Bike Club. It is interesting what I am learning through this experience. I also have the unique lens of a bicycle ambassador, where I get to interact with many of the people participating in the commute challenge at various Energizer Stations around the city. Perhaps you chatted with me at Beacon Hill, UW or by the Sculpture Park… I wanted to share with you some of my observations and thoughts.

As a bike ambassador I have had the chance to ask a lot of people about biking to work in celebration of bike month. For awhile I was asking people “Do you bike to work?” This turned out to be not the most productive conversation starter. If you bike to work you might just say “Yes.” But if you don’t bike to work there wasn’t much room to expand the conversation about bike riding. Several people also reminded me that not everyone works. Some people are unemployed, stay at home parents or retired. I have become more aware of is how the focus on commuting, while very important, leaves out a particular populations of bike riders.

Since I am logging specifically work miles, I’ve started to pay attention to when I am riding for work, when I am riding for fun and when I am running an errand. Something about this struck me. Biking errands, sounds kinda like work to me. It is unpaid, but it needs to get done. Someone needs to pick up groceries or drop packages off at the Post office. This kind of work is often called invisible labor. It is often these kind of chores that can easily be done on a bike, but do take time and often require hphoto(10)auling stuff. As Elly Blue explains in this column in this great article:

If you only need to go to work and come home again, with little to carry and no stops along the way, then riding fast on fast roads is fine — maybe even a welcome release from the stresses of the day. But whether you’re male or female, when you add a kid or two and a stop for groceries and the need to arrive at the other end smelling okay, you’d better believe you’re going to take a mellower route if there is one, and the car if there isn’t.

How can we offer more incentives to bike everywhere? As we start to see bikes shift from a niche, recreational market to an everyday means of getting around we need to encourage biking anywhere you go, not just to work. Bike month is not all about commuting, there are ways to get involved and support bike riding in many forms. It also includes biking to school, and just in case you haven’t seen this Bike to School Revolution video check it out. No matter how many miles you ride, where you ride or even why you ride, we have something to celebrate at the Ballard Street Party at the end of the month. See you on the bike path soon!

8 responses to “Invisible Labor & The Commute Challenge

  1. Great observations. One way to think about the Commute Challenge is to see it as a gateway activity to running bike errands. People change their behavior if they get into a pattern. So if the Commute Challenge helps (some) people get into the pattern of turning to the bike, they’ll — perhaps — be more likely to choose a bike for non-commuting trips.

    The Commute Challenge shouldn’t try to be all things to all people, but should do a great job at the niche it serves. There was a more inclusive Summer Bike League a few years ago that didn’t find much success for the effort: Perhaps it was before its time.

    Change takes time. At this point, we have the workplace lever going fairly strong, though it wasn’t always that way. The school lever is excitingly hot after how many years of teaching in schools? Eight? What lever is ripe to pull next? IMO, the pending shift in thinking about infrastructure and Bike Share are the next BIG things on the horizon. What do you see?

    • Thank you for commenting! I also really feel that commuting is a great access point into cycling and it is habit forming. Who knows what incredible shifts Seattle can make when bicycling is made even more accessible through bike share and improved infrastructure.

  2. What’s interesting to me is how the commute challenge makes commuting into a competitive thing. Obviously that’s appealing to lots of people, but it also ties into an older conception of bicycling as a recreational activity rather than a utilitarian one. For me, the challenge is in making my everyday life work around being carfree. I don’t really care how many miles that does/ doesn’t put on my bicycle. It’s such a fetishized object, ya know?

  3. What’s interesting to me is how the commute challenge makes commuting into a competitive thing. Obviously that’s appealing to lots of people, but it also ties into an older conception of bicycling as a recreational activity rather than a utilitarian one. For me, the challenge is in making my everyday life work around being carfree. I don’t really care how many miles that does/ doesn’t put on my bicycle. It’s such a fetishized object, ya know?

    • Yeah, it’s part of our American culture to embrace competition. Competition is certainly still a current concept. The Commute Challenge has shifted to emphasizing trips over distance. Those women and men who bike extraordinary distances are the outliers. Love them, but it’s not really how most people roll. I’m with you on not caring about miles. I can’t hit 100% due to other demands, and that’s my personal challenge.

      The great news is that year after year, team captains and the more experienced riders are extending a friendly hand and inviting new people to ride. That personal touch makes SUCH a difference. Check out Melissa’s story:

  4. Pingback: Bike News Roundup: ‘When I’m in my car, I have a different set of values’ | Seattle Bike Blog

  5. I started the Bike to Work promotional efforts in Spokane with help from the Bicycle Alliance of Washington (so it was very cool to come full circle when I became the executive director at the Bicycle Alliance last August) and chaired it for several years. We ran into several things that this post reminds me of–the idea of invisible labor is a really important point and I’m glad you raised it. What we learned:

    – People who didn’t work, whether because they were unemployed, going to school, or retired, still very much wanted to be counted as bicyclists because they knew there was a lot of power in that for us to be recognized by city leaders. It’s especially painful to have to say you have no job to ride to when you really, really want one.

    – We ended up changing our mileage definition so that it was “vehicle miles avoided”, meaning that we counted any bicycling for something that would otherwise have involved using a vehicle. This could be miles to work, school, the grocery store, the dentist, or anywhere else. We didn’t include recreational/health/competition miles–you wouldn’t go out and drive your car for the cardio–because we wanted to make the policy point that we were keeping cars off the road.

    – We also ended up changing our name as a campaign from Bike to Work Spokane to Spokane Bikes to reflect that more inclusive definition.

    – To Adonia’s point, we tried to change the competition one year from total miles ridden–which really just rewards the uber riders who are going to ride with or without any kind of challenge or event–to “how many people did you help get started riding?” so we could reward what we were really after: getting new people riding. Failed utterly. Altruism just didn’t seem to motivate the way racking up the miles did, which saddened me. I do think there’s a way to do this but it would take more than we were able to accomplish with our volunteer effort.

    – The Commute Challenges everywhere absolutely DO get people riding. They know they’ll see more riders on the street, they have the safety-in-numbers feeling, they want to be part of a larger effort. But in general as a point of entry I think it’s easier for people to try riding for an errand or a social engagement on a weekend than to have the time pressure of needing to be at a particular place by a particular time with a particular type of clothing. I usually advise people to try their work commute first on a Saturday or Sunday if they’re really new so they can see how long it takes, get used to some of the decision points that feel different on a bike, and so forth.

    And then there’s the National Bike Challenge (, which runs through September and counts ALL kinds of riding, whether it’s mountain biking, commuting, tooling around, or sprinting around the finish line. You can sign up for both the local commute challenge and the national one (yes, two log-ins/double entry–can’t help that part) and have the chance to win prizes. That’s especially nice because it runs longer so people who have travel conflicts or bad weather during May still have the chance to get in some miles that count, and it makes a national statement.

    Happy pedaling, all!

  6. i love this post, and I love its comments.

    I think I might have been logging the wrong miles this year, as I incuded any miles ridden for my two primary jobs, opening a new bike shop, (lots of miles scouting locations and transporting stuff) and parenting, (I included school commutes and family errands that I took with Little Oil on the bike, actually a lot of miles). Maybe I, as someone without a “place of business” to ride to every day, was actually not eligible for the commute challenge? I never considered that…

    As a man, but one who does a lot of the kid-hauling and almost all of the food and other crap-getting errands in my family and does it all by bike, I am reminded of my relative privilege with regards to vehicel miles traveled all the time. I do think that the focus on commuting to and from work is potentially a little sexist and we advocates should be careful not too exclude moms and their miles. Moms are fierce, moms want to ride, moms CAN ride.

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