Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

15 September 2016

Justice: It's Bigger Than Bikes

In previous posts, you might say that I've touched upon the sociology and demographics of cycling.  What I wrote in those posts was not confirmed by empirical data; rather, it was based on my observations.

I realize now that, in one way or another, all of those posts relate to this question:  Who cycles out of necessity, and who cycles by choice?

In one sense, you might say that I'm a cyclist of necessity:  I can't imagine my life without riding.  There is also another way in which I'm that sort of rider:  I not only don't own a car; I also don't have a driver's license.

Those circumstances, however, are a result of choices I've made:  Through most of my adult life, I have lived in large cities.  When I haven't, I still managed--whether through choice or chance--to be in situations where I could get to work, school or wherever else I needed or wanted to be without having to drive. 




Now, I must admit that I had the opportunity to make such choices.  While I have never been rich (at least not by the standards of any developed country), I have education and skills--and, at times, have had the connections--that have allowed me some leeway in my choice of jobs and living arrangements. I have been able to turn down jobs, or leave one job for another, in order to have manageable (i.e., an hour or so on my bike or mass transit) commute--and to have time to ride my bike for fun.

It's also not hard to believe that my race and my former gender had something to do with my ability to base much in my life around cycling.  After all, as I've recounted in some of my earlier posts, nearly all of the "serious" and recreational cyclists I used to see while riding during my youth were male.  Even though I see increasing numbers of female cyclists (including sometime riding partners of mine), the vast majority are still male. 



While there isn't a law prohibiting women from cycling, I think there are (yes, still are) some cultural deterrents, especially for women of certain backgrounds.  Let's face it:  Unless you have exceptionally thick skin, or are just extraordinary in some way, you aren't likely to do something unless you see someone who's like you, in whatever way, doing it.  And unless you have an unusually independent sort of spirit, you probably won't do something if people around you give subtle (or not-so-subtle) cues not to do it.  Just ask any woman who wanted to be an engineer but got steered into nursing or elementary school teaching--or being a stay-at-home mother.

(Mind you:  I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with a woman working as a nurse or teacher, or staying at home with her children.  If a woman is going to choose such a career, I want her to do exactly that:  choose.)

Would I be a dedicated cyclist--one who takes day trips to neighboring states and tours in other parts of this country and the world-- today if I had grown up as a girl named Justine instead of a boy named Nicholas? Of course, I have no way of knowing the answer to that.  I can't help but to think, though, given the milieu in which I, and other women my age were reared, that it would be less likely.

Likewise, I have to wonder whether I'd be riding because I can and because I want to had I grown up in a lower socio-economic class (You might say that I was blue collar-near the-threshold-of-middle class.) and not had the opportunities to expand my horizons (if not my bank account) that came my way.  And, of course, I have to wonder whether those opportunities would have come to someone of my background had I been living in the gender I am now.  Or if my skin had been darker.  Or I spoke another language as my first, or had a different cultural or religious background from mine.

Jenna Burton



I found myself thinking about those questions a few days ago, when I wrote about the folks who are trying to make Reading, Pennsylvania more hospitable for those who ride because they have no other means of transportation:  the very sorts of riders of whom most urban planners and cycling advocates are unaware.  I am thinking about them, again, after coming across this article describing the work of Jenna Burton, one of the co-founders of Red, Bike and Green (RBG), as well as other community activists and groups who are working to not only get more people of color and women on bikes, but also to bring more cycling infrastructure to neighborhoods that are poorer and darker than the ones that usually get the bike lanes and bike-share ports.

An RBG ride in Atlanta



RBG has expanded from Ms. Burton's adopted hometown of Oakland, California into other cities.  With a slogan of "It's bigger than bikes!", the group aims to use bikes as tools to improve the health of Black people, support Black-owned businesses and to work on reducing pollution and other environmental problems that disproportionately affect Black and other "minority" communities. 

Even more important, people like Ms. Burton and groups like the Ovarian PsychoCycles are trying to address some of the inequalities that accompany bicycle infrastructure inequalities. A Black or Hispanic cyclist has a 25 percent greater chance than a White cyclist of being killed while riding.  That is, at least in part, a result of another disturbing reality:  low-income areas (which are most likely to be Black or Hispanic) are where the most crashes involving cyclists and pedestrians take place.  That, in spite of the fact that those are the places where people are least likely to walk or cycle (unless they have no other choice), or to do any other kind of exercise.  Those neighborhoods are also where the most dangerous streets, with the highest rates of crashes, are found.  That, along with other factors endemic to such communities--like high levels of noise and low air quality--tend to deter people from cycling, or engaging in other kinds of exercise or outdoor activities.

Ovarian Psycho-Cycles


So, perhaps, it's not an exaggeration to say that environmental, racial and economic justice, as well as gender equality, will be furthered by making it easier, more practical and more affordable for people from every sort of background to ride bicycles, for transportation and for recreation.  In other words, it's not a stretch to say that if we want a better world, we can't leave it all up to white guys in spandex, though they can be valuable partners--and can even be a lot of fun. And I'm not saying that because I once was a white guy in Spandex!)

3 comments:

  1. A few things about this post -- Love that old photo. Can't tell exactly when that would have been taken (30s? 40s?) but I'll bet those gals were cutting edge for their time. I'm sure they raised some disapproving eyebrows, and more power to them. I wonder whatever became of them?

    The organizations you mention to encourage minorities to cycle sound great - it would be great to see them succeed.

    About the higher fatalities among cycling minorities in poorer areas - No doubt that lack of cycling-specific infrastructure is a part of that. Also, the fact that cycling is "rarer" in those areas works against those that ride, because as we know, cyclists are safest when there are more of us -- that is, the more drivers encounter cyclists on the road, the more they learn to expect them and how to interact. But also, in my own experience, and living in an urban area myself, often when I see lower-income people riding, it's often they don't own a car (or the car is no longer functioning - or they've lost their license . . .) and they are usually the ones riding the wrong way on the road, apparently unaware or ignorant of how traffic laws apply to cyclists, and (if it's dark out) no lights or anything. Lack of cycling education really works against them. Occasionally, I've mentioned to such riders when I've encountered them that they should ride with traffic, and the reaction is almost as if they think I'm insane to ride that way.

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  2. A few things about this post -- Love that old photo. Can't tell exactly when that would have been taken (30s? 40s?) but I'll bet those gals were cutting edge for their time. I'm sure they raised some disapproving eyebrows, and more power to them. I wonder whatever became of them?

    The organizations you mention to encourage minorities to cycle sound great - it would be great to see them succeed.

    About the higher fatalities among cycling minorities in poorer areas - No doubt that lack of cycling-specific infrastructure is a part of that. Also, the fact that cycling is "rarer" in those areas works against those that ride, because as we know, cyclists are safest when there are more of us -- that is, the more drivers encounter cyclists on the road, the more they learn to expect them and how to interact. But also, in my own experience, and living in an urban area myself, often when I see lower-income people riding, it's often they don't own a car (or the car is no longer functioning - or they've lost their license . . .) and they are usually the ones riding the wrong way on the road, apparently unaware or ignorant of how traffic laws apply to cyclists, and (if it's dark out) no lights or anything. Lack of cycling education really works against them. Occasionally, I've mentioned to such riders when I've encountered them that they should ride with traffic, and the reaction is almost as if they think I'm insane to ride that way.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Brooks--You make a great point about safety in numbers. Now that I think about it, I could say that my own experience bears out what you say: All except one of my accidents, or near-accidents, took place in areas where not only were there few or no other cyclists on the street, but where few or no people ride--and they would probably ride only if economic circumstances forced them to do so.

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