Is bicycling a civil rights issue?

Quick answer: Yes. But make sure your actions are actually on the side you want them to be.

I’ve been writing for some time about bicycling and gender. Being female is a condition over which I have little control, and as a result of it I’ve had some funny and tough experiences in the course of trying to do my job and get by in a bike scene that is heavily male and that places a high value on some of my least favorite trappings of masculinity. In parts of this scene, egregiously sexist language, behavior, and policies are commonplace, even rewarded.

In my writing, I’ve compared this sexism with other, non-gender-related, experiences I’ve had on the road. (The first issue of Taking the Lane zine—now only available on kindle—is pretty much entirely about this). Comparing sexism with discrimination against people who choose to bike has been an effective tool for me as a writer and activist. It helps me come to terms with my own experiences and to explain them to others in a way that makes sense and—hopefully—sparks change. The comparison makes both experiences more relatable to men as well as women. We all know it sucks when someone leans on their horn and swerves their car at you, but it’s a greater leap to realize that it’s a systemic problem that’s built into our laws, culture, and landscape, and that solving it requires getting organized on a number of levels.

Here’s the thing. If someone else—of any gender—were to draw the same comparison, I’d be thrilled. But if a man were to say “I know what it’s like to be a woman, and I think the bicycling movement is the new women’s movement, so here’s how we should go about it,” I’d be ready to tear him a new one.

Actually, this happens a lot—in the form of the short skirt analogy. You know: The metaphor about short skirts and sexual assault and “asking for it.” When a cyclist gets blamed for being involved in—or killed by—a crash they did not cause, it’s only a matter of minutes before someone with a user name like “Bob R” brings up short skirts.

The comparison is technically correct; both are examples of blaming someone for what somebody else does for them. But it fails because it takes power away from the thing being compared. Using this metaphor in the context of commenting on a blog post about a bicycle issue does not help women in the slightest. If you’re not a woman, then you’re essentially appropriating someone else’s harrowing experience to explain the problem with a different situation that you fear might happen to you.

The catch is that much of bicycle advocacy in the last forty years has been geared (statistically speaking) to the needs of men. I’ve written a lot about this as well; but persistent gender inequality puts women in a double bind. I’ll never forget speaking in Atlanta two years ago and asking what the barriers to bicycling were and people brought up a ton—fast, unfriendly roads, smog, distance—but nearly every woman in the room added “and harassment.” It’s harder for women to choose bicycling, especially if they have kids and do the lion’s share of their household’s unpaid labor; and then when we do get out there, we get treated not just in the shoddy way that people on bikes often are, but also in the shoddy way that women are often treated.

If that short skirt metaphor has ever occurred to you, I urge you to do whatever you can to work against sexual assault. Check your own privilege and actions first. Then donate to the women’s crisis line, speak up when someone makes a sexist comment, lobby to make your workplace, organization, or favorite event more equitable, intervene when you see someone being harassed or worse, raise your kids to respect themselves and others.

But if you aren’t willing to actively fight the culture and laws that make women less equal and thus less able to benefit from whatever bike activism you’re doing, then you’re part of the problem—so please get your hands off our metaphors. If you want to be an ally you have to put skin in the game—and, as with bicycle advocacy, you do this stuff not to get credit or personal glory, but just because it’s the right thing to do.

Finally, let’s talk about race and ethnicity for a minute. I frequently hear other people who I assume to be white drawing comparisons between civil rights, liberation theory, or other struggles that occur along lines of racial or ethnic privilege.

The comparison is tempting—I should know, I’ve done it myself. I’m white and have all sorts of privileges as a result. Getting involved in bike activism gave me my first major taste of what it felt like to be treated as less-than, targeted by the police, and threatened with physical assault by strangers. This shook my world to its core; but the fact remains that, unlike my gender, bicycling is something I can walk away from at any time, for a few hours or for the rest of my life.

I can imagine that in many places if you are a person of color, when you get on a bike you risk an even more egregious version of the double bind that women do when bicycling—not to mention the potential for the triple helping waiting out on the roads for women of color. Worse, communities of color are all too frequently passed over when it comes to street redesigns that make bicycling easier and safer, access to advocacy initiatives, and programs like bike share. If mainstream bike advocacy continues to focus on raising property values in and attracting “creative professionals” (all too often code for “white”) to gentrifying neighborhoods, then bicycling isn’t a civil rights struggle, it’s a powerful symbol of an economic process that many people are going to rightly feel like they need to struggle against.

So if you want to say that bicycling is a civil rights issue, or that violence against cyclists is similar to violence against women, then you’d better be prepared to make sure that these are exactly the battles you are fighting. Otherwise you’re just appropriating someone else’s struggle for a cause that helps you and makes you feel great but may actually be hindering them. And what side of history does that put you on?

I ran this by my friend Adonia Lugo, who’s a bicycle anthropologist who studies these issues. “The key is that transportation IS a civil rights issue,” she responded, “in that it has been recognized as such for some time by transit justice activists; do bike advocates who use civil rights language recognize that, or do think they’re coming up with a novel comparison when they call themselves “second-class citizens”? We’re just getting started with making a case for bicycling being part of the environmental justice framework too.”

Whatever your privileges—be they the way you look, your gender or sexual identity, your mental or physical health, your income and the amenities it buys you, or the way you move around in the world—they are often invisible until you suddenly find you don’t have them. Bicycling has been eye opening for many of us in this way. Instead of focusing on our own narrow experience, why not take the injustices we find as an opportunity for empathy, listening, and action? There are a lot of equity initiatives going on right now in the bicycle movement; here’s a good overview to get you started.


Update: Charlotte Fagan, who blogs about her world travels and bike activism at Woman on a Wheel wrote a response to this post that I liked so much I want to append it here:

I’m still processing how I feel about comparing and appropriating other civil rights struggles to biking. Personally, I don’t feel comfortable comparing different types of violence or trying to say that because I experience one type of exclusion or prejudice that I then understand other forms of violence and oppression. I’m afraid that that sort of claim trivializes the experience I’m appropriating, and that it’s a way to take power away from that experience.

I personally prefer to phrase bike activism in terms of citizenship and democracy (the logic being that all people should have equal access to the street regardless of the economic resources that they have – walking, biking, driving, etc – and that as part of a democracy all transportation users should have an equal voice). Yes, it’s pretty much two sides of the same coin, but for me I feel more comfortable with using the language of democracy, while in my actions trying to fight against oppression and for civil rights. I think this way I’m not claiming to understand someone else’s experience, but instead am using language that is meant to be as inclusive as possible and trying to act in solidarity.

I love the way she puts this. And I agree in general that positive phrasing and thinking causes more progress and less trouble. At the same time, though, the motivation and entry points for bike activism are often either terrifying or tragic experiences that are punctuated by either complete indifference from authorities and media or, worse, by blaming and prosecution of the injured party…just because they happened to be on a bike. We need—well, I know I need—a framework for resistance and indignation just as much as one for progress and power.

(You can read more about equity and bicycling issues, including a number of positive examples in the new Bikenomics book)

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14 Responses to “Is bicycling a civil rights issue?”

  1. Carolyn Bys November 1, 2013 at 2:21 am #

    Interesting post, Ellie!! Funny enough, I have a variant of this argument I use in human rights/non-discrimination trainings. It always gets people talking.

    In previous lives, I was a criminal defense attorney in Oregon before moving abroad studying international human rights law in the Netherlands and then working for an intergovernmental organization. In that last capacity, I focused on “hate crime”, which included delivering trainings on the topic to various audiences, from NGO activists to criminal justice professionals across Central and Eastern Europe.

    One aspect of the “hate crime” issue (and by extension, civil rights/non-discrimination issues) that was always in contention was what types of groups should be protected. It is not uncommon to consider “political opinion” or “social group” as protected groups in some countries. The problem with that is that it moves away from the true core concept of equality enshrined in international human rights principles– based on fundamental and immutable characteristics like race, ethnicity, religion, etc. (Of course you can debate about religion, but because you are protected from being forced to change it, I keep it in there.)

    So to illustrate my point, I give my own personal example and ask if I was a victim of a hate crime. I tell my own background of being from PDX, bicycle city USA, being a bicycle advocate, not owning a car, traveling everywhere by bicycle and that being a cyclist is fundamental to my identity as a person. (Which, of course, it is ; ) Then one day as my boyfriend and I were riding down the street, a car whizzes too close for comfort by us and we give him one of those “what-for” shoulder shrugs. We meet up with him at the red light and he jumps out of his car, takes out a metal pipe and swings it us shouting ” you stupid cyclists!”. Luckily, he aimed at the bikes and not our bodies, although we still went tumbling down and had damage to the bikes and some scrapes and bruises.

    Many people immediately come to my defense and say that, yes, this was a hate crime, I was attacked because I was a cyclist, and part of a “social group.” But, true to your point above, I emphasize that while I may think cycling is fundamental to my being, it is a choice I make. Unlike my gender or the color of my skin, it is something I can change. And if we move away from the core human rights concepts of equality, everything suddenly becomes a potential hate crime (or discrimination issue) which in turn dilutes the whole concept.

    What is interesting to me, though, is the concept of environmental justice and bicycling and the current trend of bicycle gentrification– there’s where the civil rights issues really lie! I’m going to pick up my copy of Bikenomics now to read more!! (Who-hoo–103% funded!! congrats!)

    • Elly November 1, 2013 at 6:33 am #

      Thank you, Carolyn! Your comment fills in one of the bits of the post I was struggling to articulate. And thank you for backing the book–I hope you enjoy reading it.

    • Vernon Huffman November 10, 2013 at 4:39 pm #

      Does it matter if it was a hate crime? Assault with a deadly weapon is a felony in any state. Unprovoked violence is antisocial behavior any way you slice it. Unfortunately American society is bad at dealing with such behavior. It seems unlikely the perpetrator got the therapy he obviously needs.

  2. Carolyn Bys November 1, 2013 at 10:57 am #

    I have hard time seeing any “struggling” going on in your writing, Elly ; ) (Correct spelling this time!) Just thought I would add another true story (yep, even the metal pipe guy!) to the mix.

  3. Ed Rae November 4, 2013 at 2:36 pm #

    Some years ago a female friend in Santa Fe was knocked off her bike when a car full of yahoos came alongside her and someone tried to swat her butt. Their hand got caught in the shoulder strap of her bag and pulled her over as they drove on. A cop was not far behind and stopped to “help.” She told him of the car (which was still in sight) and to please pursue. Instead he asked her where he husband was! He took the opportunity to tell her she shouldn’t be out on the roads like that alone. Not sure something if this would happen today, but illustrative of the syndrome…

  4. Erik Sandblom November 6, 2013 at 10:29 pm #

    It’s always enlightening to hear your point of view Elly.

    I don’t see bicycle advocacy as a civil rights issue because as you say, most adults have other ways of getting around. It’s more of a children’s rights issue. Kids don’t have drivers’ licenses or an income to pay for bus fare. I think it’s creepy how kids more and more are taken to school by car. Many of your readers will be familiar with the benefits of active transport, including improved concentration and ability to follow along in class.

    As Jane Jacobs is to have said, it’s not video games that are making kids stay inside, it’s cars. Here in Sweden there’s this idea that kids are biologically incapable of judging distance and speed in traffic. But since this assumes adults are good at judging traffic, why are adults running over kids?

    I found a study on this which concludes that school-age kids are perfectly fine at judging speed and distance, up to 20 mph. What they studied was when a car is coming straight at you. If a car is going across, it’s easy to judge the speed because you see it going through the landscape. When it’s coming right at you, it’s much harder to judge because the only information you have is the size of the car, or what they call looming. On top of that, if the car is going fast then it poses a danger to you even at a great distance, meaning that even this tiny dot is going to run you over pretty soon. So if I understand this correctly it’s more about geometry than biology.

    I find this upsetting and it appears to be a double standard, pure and simple.

    Traffic at 30 mph is too fast for children’s visual abilities, scientists reveal

    Reduced Sensitivity to Visual Looming Inflates the Risk Posed by Speeding Vehicles When Children Try to Cross the Road. Psychological Science 2011

  5. Charlotte November 7, 2013 at 8:50 am #

    “We need—well, I know I need—a framework for resistance and indignation just as much as one for progress and power.”

    I could not agree more!! I certainly have plenty of indignation to go around.

    Speaking of indignation, what I super appreciate about your article is that it got me to think about my own indignation (and at times lack of it) depending on where I was living. For example, I’d never felt a ton of indignation in the states until I moved to Boston and all of a sudden felt like I had a sign plastered to my back that said ‘Please honk at me and swerve dangerously into my path.’ I’ve lived in other cities that were far more dangerous for cycling – Quito, Ecuador and Jakarta, Indonesia particularly come to mind – but I never felt as unsafe as I probably should have. A huge part of that was because in those places I was a northerner/westerner/foreigner, which in many ways protected me from the full wrath of drivers that my friends would feel. I guess this is all to say that these issues of privilege, oppression, transportation, etc. are all intertwined, and I agree that we need paths of progress and power as well as venues to voice indignation and resistance.

  6. Richard Risemberg November 7, 2013 at 9:19 am #

    I’d say bicycling is as much a civil rights issue as religious discrimination is. Just as a cyclist can (if well-off enough) simply buy a car and become a driver, so a Jew or a Muslim or whatever can convert to the majority religion of their region. To threaten, punish, harass, or legally restrict the activities of a person who continues to practice a religion that is disfavored by the dominant culture is most definitely a civil rights issue. So with a broad range of lifestyle issues, including the oddly controversial one of bicycling for transportation.

    And it seems hard to deny that car culture is based on sensations of privilege and dominance that its participants wish to maintain through restricting, belittling, and occasionally engaging in violence against others. Cars were originally emblems of dominant social status, and the industry as well as popular car culture have reinforced this notion even a hundred years after the Model T.

    Bicycling, as we know, has effects in democratizing communities and undermining social hierarchies and categorizations by removing the literal mechanical separations cars enforce, and by leading people who ride bicycles to demand a reasonable share of road privilege that car drivers often see as accruing solely to themselves. It’s more than just reducing smog. And I believe that it is a civil rights issue.

  7. Carolyn Bys November 7, 2013 at 12:51 pm #

    Richard, as someone who has years working professionally in the human rights and non-discrimination field (and as and ardent cyclist who has suffered her fair share of harassment and bullying from drivers) I respectfully disagree. Of course someone has the ability to change their religion– but it is well recognized as a fundamental issue of human rights that no one should be forced to change one’s religion. Read that from the inverse angle and that essentially means you have fundamental right to express your religion or belief (which includes non-belief). In fact, you are legally protected in any almost any country with anti-discrimination legislation from being discriminated against because of your religion (or non-belief).

    You don’t have a fundamental right to drive a car or ride or bike– those are choices you make in the way you live your life. If we accept your position, then anything contrary to the mainstream becomes a civil rights issue. That’s confusing equal access based on fundamental characteristics with the democratic process of lobbying for change.

    I completely agree with Charlotte’s take in her blogpost. And what worries me is that Elly’s eloquent post on a complex topic is being oversimplified. She is not saying bicycling is a civil rights issue– even though it might be tempting to do so and we can see parallels to the ways dominant cultures treat “outsiders.” They key is to see how bicycling intersects with civil rights issues like gender and race/ethnicity.

    • Richard Risemberg November 7, 2013 at 6:52 pm #

      I believe that in the US at least you have a fundamental right to travel, and that cyclists have a legal right to use non-limited-access streets and roads, whereas drivers have only a revocable privilege. To discriminate against someone with a legal right to do what they are doing, whether informally or through improper laws and regulations, because of their choice to perform that action, probably can be interpreted as an insult to the victim’s civil rights.

      As for your other point bicycling has periodically been seen within a context of social justice almost from the development of the safety bicycle. Its role in late 19th and early 20th century women’s rights movements is well known. It also, being (relatively) cheap has historically allowed mobility to the working classes. Jack London, when he was very poor, traveled all around the Bay Area by bicycle.

  8. Christine Jones November 8, 2013 at 6:14 am #

    I agree, and I’ve felt this way since I rode to school on the back of my Dad’s Tandem from the age of 10. My bike has been my freedom and main choice of transportation for most of my life. It’s hard not to feel my right to travel is denied when now the 60mph roads that surround where I live in Cambridgeshire are pretty much off limits to me. I travel mostly with children and apart from never taking my kids on a 60mph road with no pavement, I have my own mortality to consider now as well.
    I think that the UK gov is denying me the right to travel with my family where I live and when I take my kids on the road by bike I’m seen as somehow abusing my kids.

  9. Stephen Zavestoski November 8, 2013 at 9:15 pm #

    Interesting discussion. I wonder if whether or not one’s choice to move about by bicycle warrants the same legal protections as other civil rights might be less relevant than how one experiences the harassment and other struggles that come with her/his choice. I say this because I suspect that how we experience the harassment often heaped on cyclists shapes what we do about it. And how we experience the harassment is likely a function of our status in society.

    I say this as a white male trying to be conscious of the privileges my race and sex carry. From my place of privilege, being honked at, threatened, or physically driven off the road because I am on a bicycle might evoke a greater sense of loss of privilege than for someone lacking privilege to begin with. The sense of loss of privilege might result in the kind of indignation Charlotte described, which in turn may motivate me to join a bicycle coalition, write a letter to an elected official, file a complaint with the police, or take other “corrective” action. In other words, perhaps I am motivated to engage in bicycle advocacy because from my place of privilege the treatment I receive as a bicyclist might feel like a violation of my (perceived) right to choose a bicycle for transportation.

    If my reasoning is at all correct (and I admit it is based on a sample size of one and a lot of conjecture), then it becomes apparent why, until recently, most bicycle advocacy work seemed to cater to the needs of a rather narrow, and privileged, demographic. What does bicycle advocacy look like when it has a different locus?

    What’s exciting is that we have an opportunity to answer this question now as women and people of color are increasingly stepping into leadership roles in the bicycle advocacy movement. Bicycle advocates with privileged statuses and an often narrowly defined goal of enhancing bicycle infrastructure can now see how movement organizing—from mobilization, to setting of goals, to selection of tactics—is done by those with different experiences on bicycles in our auto-centric society.

    I suspect that keen observation and respectful collaboration can result in a stronger, bolder and more equitable and just bicycle advocacy movement. I’m curious what others in this discussion, and beyond, think might be the obstacles to such a mutually beneficial outcome?

  10. Vernon Huffman November 10, 2013 at 4:59 pm #

    The Public Right of Way can only be restricted when the chosen mode of use presents a threat to others. This is why motor vehicles and their operators are licensed and regulated in every state, but the courts will not allow any jurisdiction to require bicycle licenses, although bikes can be prohibited on downtown sidewalks.

    I hope I haven’t been insensitive when using the rape analogy for blaming the victim. I’ll admit that I’ve been trying to piggyback on the good work feminists have done educating civic leaders. If there were a rash of rapes in the area, they wouldn’t dare suggest that the solution is to teach women to alter their behavior. They’d catch the rapist. But when we note that too many cyclists get hit, the solution always seems to be safety training for bicyclists.

    Maybe I’ll have to stick with my other analogy and keep demanding safety training for deer. Damn things are so unpredictable. They act like they’ve got a prior right to be here. No wonder so many get killed.

  11. marcos January 12, 2014 at 12:19 pm #

    Civil rights and transportation are inextricably intertwined. Rosa Parks, the Pullman Coaches, Freedom Riders come to mind.

    Civil rights law arose in England after the legal authority of the king and nobility were replaced by parliamentary democracy and subjects began to act as autonomous economic entities. The right to equal access to public accommodations, the thoroughfares and carriers and inns in order to move freely about the territory to conduct commerce is the lynchpin of civil rights legal thought.

    Yes, in the US women, queers and people of color have fought civil rights battles to be guaranteed equal participation in economic life free from discrimination and harassment, but that does not mean that civil rights remedies and protections are only available to them or that protections are only available for immutable characteristics like queer, gender or ethnicity. Nor does it mean that other groups fighting for equal access in any deny established civil rights claimants legitimacy or civil rights. Civil rights is not a zero sum game, there are plenty to go around.

    As far as cyclists go, we ride under threat of violence at all times. We are considered vehicles under the law and are subject to all burdens and responsibilities of a vehicle but enjoy none of the benefits and privileges of status as vehicle. In many cases, law enforcement aids and abets if not engages themselves in those threats of violence. This all adds up to a systemic deprivation of cyclists’ civil rights in that we are unable to reliably conduct ourselves through the public thoroughfares and accommodations without threat of motorists and the police physically abrogating our right to the road.

    Civil rights of cyclists will not be in place until we can conduct ourselves through the roadways without fear of being suffering discrimination and violence for our mode of travel.

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