Takin’ it to the Streets: Bikes, Eco-Justice, and Women's Safety

When I was in college, I decided to try my hand at being one of those too-cool-for-cars biker girls who dons a punk rock sticker-clad helmet and a rolled up right cuff—the phase lasted approximately two weeks. A friend I had a jealousy-crush on had gone out of town for the summer and when she mentioned that she needed a place to stash her ride, I heartily volunteered to keep it. I'd hoped I would become as hip as I thought she was, all critical mass and tattoos. But like most attempts at fitting in made in haste, this one wasn't entirely thought through.

My internship that summer was at the ACLU of Georgia, whose office was located in the heart of downtown Atlanta. For those who are unfamiliar with Atlanta, the downtown area is a soulless business district from whence corporate and city employees are quick to flee roundabout five o'clock. During the workday, however, there are plenty of age-spanning businessmen lingering on the street, and a sizable portion of them readily hoot and holler at any sweet young thing that happens to catch their eye. At nineteen years old, the constant awareness of my public vulnerability and male sexual scrutiny was enough to turn me from bipedal into biped and put me off urban biking for good.

To be fair, I've had an on-again, off-again relationship with bicycles, and our courtship was pretty rocky. While my younger sister learned to ride a bike in a day, it took my then awkwardly lanky self the entire summer to find the magic combination of balance and coordination that's needed to pedal and steer simultaneously. My favorite moment was when, in the panic of not being able to figure out how to properly brake, I plowed straight into an evergreen. But I wasn't going to let that tree be the end of me; I got back on the metaphorical horse determined to figure out how to ride. In the end, my tenacity paid off, and I spent numerous happy hours pedaling away my childhood.

I think that's one reason it's so damned irritating that I no longer feel like I can bike safely on the road. I worked hard to master that skill, and it's a shame I don't feel comfortable exercising it. The street isn't an inviting space for many whose frame is more step-through than truss, but I suppose I shouldn't overgeneralize. There are a hell of a lot of women who don't let concerns about their safety prevent them from pedaling to and fro, and I have mad respect for those tough cookies. The fact remains, however, that some of us haven't found that courage, or don't live in a place that affords us the luxury. And we could really use the support from those who do.

In New York City, there are several sustainable transportation organizations whose aim is to curb car culture by urging folks to ride bikes. The problem is that most of these orgs fail to include gender-specific safety concerns in their agenda, which means they don't fully cater to women's needs. (And then they dimly wonder where all the women are.)

I'll give you an example. In the mid-aughts, a program called RightRides emerged, which gives free late-night car rides to women and LGBTQ folks in order to prevent gender-based violence and sexual assault. While looking for allies with which to partner, founder Oraia Reid turned to one of these eco-justice in transportation groups to ask how they might be able to support each other's work. Reid saw their missions as complimentary; the group, however, did not. They refused a collaboration because the program uses cars.

What this group didn't seem to understand, and what Reid was unable to convince them of, is that making the streets safer for women (and LGBTQ folks) will have a positive effect on our adoption of bikes over cars. And if you want all individuals to share the privilege of indulging in one of our favorite childhood pastimes, that just happens to be excellent exercise and environmentally sound as well, then we all have to work together to ensure that bike lanes can be safely occupied by whoever chooses to use them. That means seeing the larger, complex picture of equal access as important and putting strategic alliance among issues over self-righteous, self-serving dogma.

Photo credit: d.a.n.a.

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Comments

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I cannot tell you how many

I cannot tell you how many times my roommate has come home from a bike ride angered to tears at some man following her, screaming, and/or tailing her so closely she was afraid for her life. NYC can be extremely daunting if you're a girl on a bike, and it does need to be acknowledged & dealt with.

As a major volunteer in at

As a major volunteer in at least two of NYC's bicycling organizations, I can tell you that when we talked about campaigns to improve bicycling safety, our discussions were never gender-specific - we were worried about everyone's safety. You may find it hard to believe, but 25 years ago cyclists of all genders were afraid to cross the Williamsburg Bridge after dark, or by day if they were cycling alone. You could even get robbed crossing the Brooklyn Bridge.

Based on my personal observations, bicycling by women in NYC, especially women under 30, is at an all-time high. The "bike culture" trend is part of this, but the big difference is probably the network of bike lanes and paths that have been built out in the last 10-15 years - bicycle commuting no longer has to be for "gladiators" willing to to battle with car traffic on a daily basis. And as more bicyclists go out on the streets, motorists get used to the presence of bikes and start treating everyone more politely, making room for still more bicyclists.

If you don't feel safe bicycling on the road, you should try out the free safety classes offered by Bike New York, at http://bikenewyork.org/education/ . Other bicycling organizations, like the Five Borough Bicycle Club (www.5bbc.org) and Times Up (www.times-up.org) also hold group rides, safety classes, commuter how-tos, and bike repair classes (including ladies-only classes at Times Up). You don't need tattoos or a radical haircut to mix with traffic, you need solid drivers' education, practice, and eventually some self-confidence, just like what you have to do before driving a car.

Being male, I have no idea whether sexual harassment of women using bicycles in NYC is any worse than the sexual harassment of women in general. But my impression is that the traffic safety issues and mainstream society's overall disapproval of cycling (which you unconsciously buy into by characterizing cycling as a "childhood pastime") are the biggest obstacles to getting people of all genders to ride more.

I could not have asked for a better...

example of how gender-specific public safety concerns are downplayed and ignored by pro-bike organizations such as these. Thanks for this, Ed! I mean that sincerely.

Anyone else want to jump in to address Ed's argument that women's increased presence in public space over time is a result of better road safety and not, say, changing gender norms in social structures, such as the family and the workplace?

I suppose there are also a number of things to be said about the implicit victim blaming, the multiple readings of biking as a "childhood pastime," and the female experience vs. male impression of sexual harassment faced by women--biking or not--on the street.

Who wants to start?

bicyclists are equal opportunity harassment targets

All bicyclists, regardless of gender, are routinely harassed by motorists. We're also occasionally injured, maimed, or murdered by them. When I started in bike activism 25 years ago, we did not focus on gender-specific issues because the gun was aimed at everyone's head. If you want to read that as "downplaying and ignoring" gender issues, well, I don't know what to say. Your other example is also very strained - if RightRides insists on using cars for their program, it's not surprising that an anti-car organization was reluctant to participate.

Here's a link to why the best way to improve conditions for bicyclists is for more people to start bicycling:
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080903112034.htm .

Here's a article from Transportation Alternatives on women in cycling that describes that advocacy group's position that everyone should be able to bicycle on NYC streets:
http://transalt.org/newsroom/magazine/2010/Fall/1

StreetFilms interviewing NYC women cyclists:
http://www.streetfilms.org/women-in-motion-new-lady-riders-reflect-on-ny...

And a reminder that bicycling from the very beginning has been a tool in the struggle for gender equality:
http://streetsblog.net/2011/01/27/the-long-and-triumphant-history-of-wom...

I don't know anything about

I don't know anything about bikes (I'm 24 and can't ride one. I used to when I was little, but I never got into the habit and forgot. That's right. I forgot how to ride a bike. You can forget.), but I'd be loath to state that female (and trans* and intersex) cyclists get harassed in the same way that males do. Harassment of cyclists might be routine, but based on what other people have said on this post, it doesn't seem to be equal. If the amount of harassment is the same, the kind of harassment might not be. A male cyclist might be yelled and/or cursed at, but few are going to tell him to take his clothes off or make a lewd sexual comment. If women are routinely harassed more than men while walking and driving (and they are, I speak from experience) there's no reason to assume they'd be harassed equally to or less than men while cycling.

I'll bite

I'm the uber-privileged gal who's been getting comfy on my bicycle seat for the last three years in Copenhagen, home to insanely wide bike lanes that are elevated above auto traffic and a step down from the sidewalks, so wide I can pass front-bucket cargo bikes full of kids waving their arms out the sides, so wide I'm not afraid of mopeds that sometimes race by. If anyone had asked me to ride my bicycle somewhere -- anywhere -- when I lived in Boston, I'd have laughed right in their face, all up close and uncomfortable. Some parts of Beantown are rad for cycling, namely Somerville and Cambridge (which aren't actually Boston but whatevs). Where I lived, in Allston Rock City, it was straight up never going to happen. In the heart of Allston Village, you're fighting above-ground subway trains, two-lane traffic on both sides, and carriage lanes. Hells no.

So my opinion on this is super skewed because like Mandy, I sort of learned to ride as a kid but didn't get back in the saddle until my bike-loving Scandinavian partner showed me the light. (My mother-in-law also randomly gave me money for a helmet because that's how their family rolls.) I love riding my bike. I've totally embraced it, and now I'm the woman who rides extra fast, dinging my bell at slow folks and racing around town like a bat out of hell. But the truth is, when we move back to the States later this summer, I highly doubt my bike commuting will be even remotely similar. Why? Because public space in the States has been, in my experience, a clusterfuck. I used to be followed and screamed at driving around in my car. IN MY CAR. I got to the point where I hated to take a freaking walk (though thankfully I still also loved it enough to keep it up). But am I really going to deal with aggressive men in cars while I'm precariously balanced between side mirrors and whizzing traffic? It doesn't seem like an enticing prospect. In my opinion, Mandy's characterization of cycling as a childhood pastime speaks to the very real anxiety many women have about riding in traffic, in public, on crowded streets. If we don't have some eco-dreamland like that one I've been living in, how in the world can we even begin to learn to balance, let alone cycle quickly and with confidence?

Why isn't this a problem in a city like Copenhagen? In addition to luxurious bike lanes -- which I should point out are necessary in a cycle-friendly culture where more than 40 percent of commuter traffic is on two wheels -- dudes don't freaking scream at women in public. Anecdotally speaking, I haven't seen it once since I've lived here. Not a single effing time. Scandinavia seems like the one place in the world insulated from gender-based public space harassment. It does happen, of course, but when it goes from being a daily occurrence to something you can almost entirely forget about, doesn't make you alter your behavior and avoid dark alleys late at night -- well, that's about more than just bike safety.

I think what Ed is saying is tricky because it implies that he couldn't have any knowledge of what women bicyclists experience because he's a man. While true in the sense that no one can *know* another's experience, it's a frustrating admission that he's not asked women and seems forced to make assumptions instead. If a woman like me, who has so fully embraced her bicycle, is afraid to move home and ride it, it should speak volumes about just how complicated this problem really is.

Also

Mandy, are you planning to talk about how public safety impacts volunteer street campaigning? I just worked on some stuff for Greenpeace about dealing with street harassment for volunteers doing public activism and how gendered harassment seriously impacts people's ability to do outreach.

thanks

This article felt really relevant to me-- I hadn't really analyzed my abandonment of biking from a feminist perspective. I, like the author, rode my bike around the neighborhood as a kid and enjoyed the wider range or destinations it provided, not to mention the thrill of a good slope. One summer night I was biking home with a fishing buddy, and we passed through a group of older teenage boys. My friend was ahead of me; they left him alone but pursued me, yelling obscenities. I was fourteen, and I was terrified. I retired my bicycle after that incident until college, and even then my nighttime rides to the dorm from class were breathless and frantic. My hometown is particularly unwelcoming toward cyclists. Maybe if I was wealthy enough, maybe if I didn't live in a Southern city, maybe if I could get a good switchblade, maybe then I would ride my bicycle instead of carpooling.

My experience was different

Interesting take on cycling culture -- and nothing like my own experience. As a car-less female college student in a smallish town I walked, biked, and rode the bus routinely. I very occasionally felt threatened while walking or using public transportation, but I always felt like a total bad-ass while riding my bike -- even at 2 a.m. Maybe that was just cluelessness on my part, but I think the fact that the town had an extremely strong cycling community, with women participating (as far as I could tell) as enthusiastically as men, had a lot to do with it. (I heard the town's notorious hills mentioned by both women and men as a deterrent to biking, but never personal safety issues.) I reluctantly gave up biking on returning to my larger hometown, but not because I ever experienced any harassment. Like most communities designed for the comfort and convenience of automobiles, my hometown just happens to be a sucky, sucky place to get around by bike.

These days I occasionally do a bike commute to work, riding semi-rural bike trails into a city (but fortunately not through it). I fear slipping on ice, having a mechanical breakdown that makes me late for work, and getting hit by a car at the one busy left-turn intersection I have to navigate -- but I've never even considered giving up my bike because of problems caused by other people. I'm grieved to hear that other women have felt compelled to give up what should be an empowering experience because they've been harassed by jerks.

my two cents

I regret that I'm joining this conversation right now. I bike regularly in Portland, an EXTREMELY bike-friendly city. I'm very privileged to (usually) get to where I need to be without a car. Here are just some thoughts I had reading the post and the comments.

I feel safer out on the streets and the roads on a bicycle. Because my other alternative would be walking or public transportation (I don't have a car), I feel very empowered that I can control how and when I can get around. (My race, class, ability, and cis privilege definitely affects that.)

That being said, as it has been noted several times, bikers are not free from harassment, and there's plenty that I don't have control over. Just two days ago I had an egg hurled at me at extremely close range from a car at night. (it missed, btw. still scary though).

As far as some of the issues about gendered aspect of biking, I just don't think it's possible to point at one thing. Or, maybe, if you want to speak broadly about SAFETY being the number issue, you have to recognize all the things that affect that. People of color, women, poor people, gender-variant people all face different kinds (although not exclusive) forms of violence and discrimination while biking. So there might be a gun pointed at the heads of everyone on two wheels, but then there is a range of other artillery saved for different types of people.

Here's my contribution, it's an article posted on a Portland blog about disparities of women and biking. I do believe that public space and city infrastructure affect women's safety on bicycles. I also believe that gender norms do too.

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Kjerstin Johnson, editor-in-chief
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