Oct 122011
Spokane County Commute Trip Reduction poster showing Barb Chamberlain as Most Valuable Commuter, August 2011; Po Campo purse; Ana Nichoola bike gloves.
As I said, poster girl!

Back in 2007-2008 when I worked with a bunch of outstanding volunteers to launch major annual celebration of Bike to Work Week and founded what became Spokane Bikes, I became a highly visible poster girl for biking. (So much so that when I started my personal blog I named it Bike to Work Barb. I simply succumb to the allure of alliteration.)

And I bike pretty much everywhere, in all kinds of clothes, which maintains the visibility.

So now I don’t just get the confessions of guilty non-cyclists. Oh, no indeedy—I get every story of anyone’s encounter with a thoughtless cyclist.

You know the ones I mean: they don’t stop for stop signs, they don’t signal, they ride the wrong way against traffic, they jump sidewalks and cross mid-block, and they never, ever wear a helmet.

It’s funny, or it’s sad, that one bad cyclist paints us all bad.

When I have an encounter with a bad motorist—the ones who don’t look before starting to turn or change lanes, the ones who come unnecessarily close to me in a wide lane to “prove” I don’t belong there, the ones who yell at me to “get off the road!”, the ones who plain old aren’t paying attention to anyone else on the road, the ones who park on bike lanes—that doesn’t make all motorists bad.

Nor do four high school kids I saw jaywalking between the Lewis & Clark High School fieldhouse and the main building make all pedestrians bad. (I played mom/street cop and yelled, “Hey hey hey! Jiminy Christmas!” when they stepped out in front of me as I came down Washington at 30 mph, wearing can’t-miss lime green. That’s a great hill and when the lights are with you it’s a fun ride unless you have to swerve around the freshmen.)

Without over-dramatizing too much–and I’m certainly not claiming any martyr robes–this seeming need others have to tell me about the biker they saw doing something wrong or stupid reminds me of the historical pattern that so many underrepresented groups have experienced.

The first one to do something “out of place” is mocked as ridiculous–or is vilified, threatened, and attacked, depending on how close to the halls of power the activity comes.

Then a few more of “those people” do something. It’s no longer unusual. They might be serious. They may not go away. Perhaps we can’t just ignore them.

It gets bigger. It gets more common and less unusual. It’s in all the newspapers (and blogs). They really want something. This means resources. The pushback may take the form of violence. (Google “bike rage” and you’ll see hostile interactions with plenty of fault to go around.)

The activity escalates. The more common it becomes the less newsworthy it is. The resource allocations become commonplace and everyone adjusts. The struggles are now those of the last generation–and then, the one before that.

And then one day, it’s not news any more. Happens all the time. No big deal.

The activity may get subjected to some historical or statistical analysis–and it probably still has a commemorative day, week, and month–but any attention no longer has to do with the mere fact that the activity occurs. (When was the last time you saw a headline that read, “Women vote” or “African American children attend school with white children”? Or, for that matter, “People drive cars”? Once upon a time, that was newsworthy.)

A few old-timers may still carry the mistaken notion that one person’s actions are somehow representative of an entire category of people–“All those X are Y”–but everyone else recognizes, at long last, that every person is an individual with a complex mix of motivators, habits, quirks, and shortcomings.

And here’s the really big secret–some people on bikes are jerks. Just like some people on foot. And some people in vehicles. The jerk factor doesn’t stem from your choice of transportation mode or any other group we can use to categorize you–it stems from being people.

I don’t speak for or represent all white women any more than I speak for or represent all women who ride bikes, or all native Idahoans, or any of the myriad other categories into which you can place me.

Nor am I responsible for the behavior of all those various “groups” that aren’t necessarily groups at all–they’re ways of putting people into categories and then grossly overgeneralizing.

So you don’t need to complain to me–I can’t do anything about “those people.”

You may as well get used to interacting with people on bikes.

And one day you won’t notice the activity as unusual any more. Maybe then we can all just get along. No big deal.

Related Reading

Your Turn

  • What do people assume about you because you ride a bike?
  • Where do you think we are in the historical arc of bike riding as an everyday activity?
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Reader Comments

  1. Great post, and true that cyclists are put in the often awkward and unfair position of having to represent all cyclists. Particular like this line: “The jerk factor doesn’t stem from your choice of transportation mode or any other group we can use to categorize you–it stems from being people.”

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