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Share the road

Posted on 16 June 2016

Bear with me, cause I’m gonna have to excerpt quite a bit here. Truth be told, you should go read the whole editorial then come back, but just in case, Neil Godbout writes:

“In the age of inclusiveness and accommodation, reconciliation and identity politics, the world is being carved up into distinct spaces. There are women’s centres, transgender bathrooms, First Nations studies and, as of this week, a New Brunswick cabinet minister responsible for ‘Celtic affairs.'”

He continues:

“These artificial distinctions are so powerful that people are blind to the frames and lenses of the glasses they’re looking through, never mind the possibilities outside of their immediate vision. The Nobel Prize winning scientist Daniel Kahneman describes this outlook as ‘what you see is all there is.’

“Worse, the current default in Canadian society has become to continuously develop more new distinctions, all in the name of progress, regardless of whether they make sense or are good for society. To oppose new distinctions, especially once they’ve received legitimacy, is to fight the tide of history, to reject modernity.”

Then, he gets to the nub of it. Just as identity politics are dividing us, so, too, are bike lanes:

“Once upon a time, cyclists rode on the street and if the road was too busy or there were vehicles parked against the curb, they rode on the sidewalk and pedestrians made way for them.

“The space was shared…

“Rebooting the timeless ideal of sharing space would bring people together, increase the sense of community and encourage residents to notice more of what they have in common with one another and less of what they don’t.

“A driver, a cyclist and a pedestrian are all just trying to get from one place to another safely.

“So why can’t we do it together in a space we can all share?”

This editorial surprised me quite a bit because Mr. Godbout has, in the past, written rather eloquently in favour of acknowledging diverse identities, most notably in an award-winning piece called “White Pride“. From that:

“We’re surrounded by so much white culture that it’s the equivalent of standing in the middle of a forest and asking where the trees are. To take the metaphor further, in that same forest, gay pride and aboriginal pride are a handful of seedlings. They are neither big enough nor plentiful enough to threaten the trees in any way but they are part of the forest nevertheless and they deserve to be there as much as the old, established trees.”

And yet here we are.

OK. So. Why do we have things like women’s centres and transgender bathrooms and bike lanes, tearing apart what was once a unified world?

Let me start by saying, as a straight white male I am wholly aware that riding a bike in no way, in any universe, comes anywhere close to having the lived experience of a woman, minority, or non-cisgendered person. At all. Not even close.

But.

Riding a bike has given me a tiny taste of what it’s like to not be privileged.

Tiny.

But still. A taste.

When you ride a bike on roads designed for cars- and to be clear, that’s most roads- you are in a space that is optimized for someone who isn’t you. Drivers may not notice your obstacles, but you sure do.

When gravel is swept to the side of the road so cars have a clear path, you are the one who has to ride over it.

At weighted intersections, your presence isn’t noticed.

When you lose your lane- which is often- it’s your responsibility to make sure you don’t get in anybody’s way. They may have to watch out for you, too, but let’s be real, who’s it gonna hurt more if one of you messes up?

And sure, “once upon a time, cyclists rode on the street and if the road was too busy or there were vehicles parked against the curb, they rode on the sidewalk and pedestrians made way for them” but here in reality when you do that you get angry drivers honking at you or, alternatively, complaining that they see cyclists riding on the sidewalk so why the heck don’t they follow the rules?

Do you see where I’m going with this?

The road isn’t really made to be shared. A shared road would be one where cyclists are given a clear path without aggressive drivers who come up behind you and honk their horns or, in what is one of the scarier experiences I’ve had, swerve towards you just to make a point: this is their space, and they can take you out if they want to.

Not all drivers.

But enough that virtually every single cyclist has experienced that fear, that feeling that they don’t belong, that it is a risk to get from point A to point B on two wheels rather than four.

But here’s where we really get into it: cyclists have a choice.

(Except for cyclists who are using a bike because they can’t afford to own a vehicle and/or the transportation system doesn’t accomodate their needs).

You know who doesn’t have a choice? Women.Transgendered people. First Nations. All these people whose special needs are dividing the world, rather than bringing it together.

Except, and I know Neil Godbout knows this because he wrote an award-winning column about it, the world isn’t really designed for all people. The dominant culture- the white culture, the male culture, the heterosexual culture- it’s everywhere. It’s the forest. It’s the road.

It’s the space that the non-straight-white-men need to navigate carefully, because even though technically it’s supposed to be shared, they know who gets in trouble if someone slips up. It’s the space where obstacles are swept into their path while the rest of us whizz by without even noticing. Or the space where they aren’t noticed at all.

It’s the space where if they ask for one tiny little slice to be theirs, the rest of the world huffily demands they stop being so divisive.

When people ask for transgender bathrooms or Pride centres or First Nations cultural spaces, they aren’t asking for special accommodation. They’re asking for what the rest of us already have: a place to feel safe.

When I’m in my car, I feel safe. Yes, I still have to be a careful driver and yes, something could still happen, but I’m on a road that is designed for me. As any engineer will tell you, a lot of thought has been put into maximizing the chances of me getting from point A to point B safely.

When I’m on a bike, they’ve taken that carefully designed road and mmmmaaaayyyybeee painted a white line that’s supposed to keep me safe. But only if it wouldn’t inconvenience the cars too much. And there are still plenty of drivers that resent it being there, especially if they’d like to park in it.

When I’m navigating this world as a straight, white, able-bodied male, I feel safe. Yes, I have to be careful, and yes, something could still happen, but I’m in a world that is designed for me. I’m in a cultural and political climate whose very roots can be traced back to a time when literally anyone who wasn’t like me wasn’t considered capable of citizenship. Over the years we’ve let more people onto the road, but the road still wasn’t really designed for them. And sometimes people swerve at them, just to remind them who it really belongs to.

Not all men. Not all white people.

But enough.

If we really want to share the road, we’re gonna need better lanes.

Filed under: bikes, misc

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