Is bicycling a civil rights issue?

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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)