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What riding a bike taught me about prejudice, poverty, and designed exclusion

Posted on 19 February 2014

When an SUV swerved to hit me, I realized riding a bike in a car-dominated culture is an inherantly political act.

bike shadow

This post is adapated from a talk I gave at PechaKucha Prince George. I like the written version better, but you can hear the talk here.

I’ve written before about how I like to think myself as a person who rides a bike, rather than a bike rider. The distinction, in my mind, is I’m not a hobbyist fiddling with gears and multiple rides. I’m just a guy who gets from point A to point B on a bicycle.

I also never had any intention of biking to make a statement about car culture or the environment or anything along those lines. But something I’ve realized over the past four-and-a-half years of bike riding is that riding a bike in a car-dominated culture is an inherantly political act.

What do I mean by this? Well, let me tell you a story.

A couple of years ago I was riding to work, and I was doing everything right.

I had a helmet, I had a high-vis vest, I had lights on the front and back, I was fully in a bike lane- I was following all the laws and rules of safety.

And then suddenly I hear this honking and I turn my head and there’s this SUV and it swerves towards me like it’s going to hit me.

And then it drives off.

 

 

That shook me. It shook me a lot.

I’ve thought about why this moment stands out for me so much,  and it’s not just the obvious – that I could have been hit.

And it’s not just that some jerk decided to scare me, even though that’s part of it.

The reason this shook me so much is that it was one of the few times in my life I’ve been on the receiving end of prejudice.

 

And this is a weird thing for me to talk about, because I am a straight white male in North America and so prejudice is not a thing I know much about on a personal level (which is part of the reason why that moment has stuck with me so much).

The person driving that vehicle didn’t know me. They didn’t know my name or my life situation or why I was out on that road. What they knew is I was a person on a bike in a place where cars rule supreme and they knew that they could scare me if they wanted to… and so they did.

And when I think about that I think about the other times I’ve been honked at or yelled at or treated as an annoyance or obstacle by other drivers, even though the law states that as a bike rider I have a right to the road, too.

And I think about the comments on stories about bicycle riders who die after a collission and how there’s always a certain amount of people who will place blame on the bike rider for being on the road in the first place- why don’t they get in a vehicle where they belong?

And I realize: if this is what it feels like for me- as someone who could buy a car or take a taxi and blend in to the rest of our society- what must it be like to stand out and not be able to do anything about it?

And never know who’s going to be mad at you simply for being somewhere they don’t think you belong?

 

 

I was talking to a local comedian a while ago, Brian Majore. He’s First Nations and he told me that a lot of people are surprised when he gets up on a stage because they aren’t used to seeing Aboriginal people in that context. And he said being First Nations with a microphone is an inherently political act.

And it’s not a perfect analogy, but that’s why I say being a bike on the road is an inherently political act, as well. It kind of automatically challenges a lot of assumptions in our society about who belongs where and how we should all get from point A to point B. And there’s issues of class and poverty and who our society is made for all tied up in there.

I recently did some reporting on life in one of Prince George’s poorest neighbourhoods. One of the things that kept coming up is how people walked everywhere. And that comes at a real cost- one woman told me that to get her kid to daycare and then herself to university was a three-hour round trip almost every day. There’s a transit system, but it’s not always fast or even where you need it to be.

But with a bike, and I know this from personal experience, those sorts of trips can be much much faster.

When you can’t afford a car, a bike can turn a twenty minute trip to get groceries for dinner into a ten minute one. It can be the difference between being able to get to a job interview across town or not. For the price of a couple tanks of gas, you have a method of transport that can make a huge difference in your life, available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

And yet we have a road system that, while it may not be designed to DISCOURAGE bike riding, it certainly doesn’t encourage it, either.

Most of the drivers I encounter are fine.

But I still don’t feel like I belong on the road, and it’s not just because of the occassional jerk. It’s the way things are designed.

Next time you’re driving, I want to you to imagine what things would be like if you didn’t have access to a vehicle.

Or I want you to imagine someone you love riding their bike alongside you- your twelve-year-old kid, your elderly mother.

What do you think when you pull off a highway and there is no dividing line between the traffic and the narrow band of road where the bikes are supposed to be?

How do you feel about bike lanes full of loose gravel in the spring, and snow in the winter?

How comfortable are you with the fact that at any time, a handslip on a steering wheel or a small wipeout could mean tons of metal moving at high speed colliding with a fragile human body sitting on an aluminum frame?

One of the most fundamental way most of us move around our lives, our cities, is on the roads.

And one of the things I’ve realized riding a bike for the past four years is that no matter what the laws are, the roads I’m riding on belong to people in cars.

And what that really means is that roads aren’t for kids, they aren’t for students… they aren’t for the poor.

When roads belong to people in cars, what that really means is roads belong to people who can afford them.

When you ride your bike, you are making a statement, whether you like it or not.

You’re saying the road belongs to me, too.

The road belongs to everyone.

 

 

This post was adapted from a talk I gave at the first ever PechaKucha Prince George with the theme “The Power to Move You.” To take part in future events, visit the PechaKucha Prince George page.

Brian Majore is a pretty funny guy. You can find him at thebloodysavage.com.

Filed under: Best Of, bikes, cities, design

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8 Comments

[…] my post on bike riding and designed exclusion (aka what I learnt about prejudice after an SUV swerved to hit me), I was alerted to a few other […]

Posted by How cycling can save lives, motordom, and is it O.K. to kill cyclists? | AndrewKurjata.ca on 21 February 2014 @ 8am

Great post, and I can equate that with my own realization as a straight, white, middle-class male in Toronto.

I never understood why my wife, sister-in-law, or female friends would express varying amounts of concern with walking alone, at night or in daylight. To me, the chances of being randomly assaulted or attacked in public (especially in broad daylight) were extremely low. But to them there is always that chance, always that fear, and they would always have to stay on their guard.

The closest situation that I would personally experience is when being trailed by a motorist in situations where I have to “take the lane” as a cyclist. On a few occasions I may be honked at or harassed, but even when I’m not the idea that a 2000 lb vehicle is cruising behind me by just a few metres can put me on edge. I know the chance is almost zero that someone is going to hit me from behind, but that does very little to shake the underlying fear.

Still, not the same as being a woman living everyday in our society, but it’s the closest I can come to figuratively walking in their shoes.

Posted by Joebyer on 22 February 2014 @ 6pm

That’s interesting. I have a fairly early workday now and so am usually on the road alone now. But for a while there was a woman who was out walking her dog. Every morning as I approached she would head across the street or out of the way. I didn’t really know why until after this event… I sort of realized, she doesn’t know that I’m not a threat. It was the first time I had sort of seen myself through the lens of someone else in such a way… I’m just some random guy, and usually some random guy is OK, but some random guy is a problem often enough for a woman crossing the road when she sees me coming to not be an entirely irrational behaviour. It was a jarring realization.

Posted by Andrew on 22 February 2014 @ 7pm

One think I noticed a lot from white bike activists, was how for many street harassment increased when they started riding a bike. It is not something I consciously think about on a bike, because to be honest, it has been a semi regular occurrence since I was about 10. So I’ve had 25 years of comments, I am not really going to differentiate from ones that happen while walking of biking. It comes with the territory of being a black woman. Happily, I have actually found the comments are much better than the ones I hear while walking.

It is nice to hear others taking a step back to put yourself in that other context, where things aren’t always comfortable and you aren’t always welcome, and using that to shape your interactions and advocacy.

Posted by Jame on 10 March 2014 @ 9pm

I was just alerted to this comment– sorry for not replying sooner. Basically all I have to add is thank you for sharing, and I am sorry to hear that you have to deal with any comments at all.

Posted by Andrew on 19 March 2014 @ 2pm

Thanks! Some of these things are complex issues. And it’ll take a good bit of effort from multiple angles to solve. One thing that is easier, is making biking advocacy inclusionary. So the new infrastructure benefits everyone, not just those with choices and alternatives.

Posted by Jame on 20 March 2014 @ 10am

[…] Essay: What riding a bike taught me about prejucide, poverty and designed exclusion. […]

Posted by Cyclelicious » Dust off your fenders Bay Area on 24 February 2014 @ 1pm

Awesome post Andrew!

Posted by Carolyn on 1 March 2014 @ 8pm

No more than once a week, promise.


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