An updated version of this post appears on the Washington Bikes blog, Personal Privileges and Biking: It Takes More than a Bike Lane to Start Riding
A few weeks ago I had the wonderful opportunity to give the luncheon keynote address at a conference on Equity and Health in Transportation, put on by the Seattle-King County Public Health District and held in Tacoma. This came at a good time, as it let me express some ideas that have been crystallizing in my mind for some time now and that were reinforced when I went to the Alliance for Biking and Walking Leadership Retreat, Pro Walk/Bike/Place, and the National Women’s Bicycling Summit, all within one week.
The way I used to tell the story of how I started bike commuting, it was an infrastructure story: I started riding because the city put a bike lane in front of my house. Short, sweet, simple–and grossly oversimplified.
Granted, infrastructure and other visual cues are incredibly important tools to build bicycling, and more so for women than for men because of the greater attentiveness to possible risk that shows up in studies of women across many realms.
But when I started unpacking the invisible bag that I carry with me through life I found many other factors beyond infrastructure that made it possible for me to get on two wheels.
- I already owned a working bike. Simple, right? But the #1 reason people don’t ride a bike is that they don’t own one. In some cities a program like Pedals2People makes it possible for people to learn how to build and maintain their own bikes but that wouldn’t have interested me at that point.
- I knew how to ride because my parents taught me when I was a little kid–when I also had bikes that they provided for me, moving me up to bigger bikes as I grew so I went from tricycle to banana bike to 10-speed.
- Physically, I was completely capable of riding a bike, with no disabilities that would prevent me from riding or make it more difficult to find a special bike.
- I already had a regular exercise habit (yoga); getting on a bike did not mean stepping very far outside my normal range of exertion, as I was already reasonably fit.
- I was of average size so if I wanted to purchase any bike-specific clothing it would be easy to find it at a local bike shop.
- I lived close enough to work (3.5 miles) that a ride was pretty simple, because I hadn’t purchased a house in the “drive until you qualify” outskirts and suburbs.
- I had chosen that house specifically for its location on a transit line so I had a fallback transportation option available.
- I also had the ultimate fallback: A partner with a motor vehicle who would come pick me up if anything went really wrong.
- I worked in an executive-level position with enough flexibility that if I ended up 15 minutes late to work because I had to fix a flat, I wouldn’t get fired. Everyone would accept my apologies and take my explanation at face value, not question it as perhaps a lie or something indicative of a fundamental character flaw, like laziness.
- In fact, my employer took part in Commute Trip Reduction, had a guaranteed ride home program, and would give me a reduction in the cost of my parking pass for every day that I rode my bike, took the bus, or walked to work (a funny incentive system when you think about it, but still).
- If anything went wrong with the bike, thanks to that job I had the resources to pay for repairs, since at that time I lacked the ability to so much as fix a flat tire.
- I had the money to acquire bike gear such as a headlight (required by law) and a better bike when I was ready for it.
- I felt confident enough about my personal safety along the route between home and work that I wasn’t afraid to set off that first day.
- Should anything happen along my route despite my sense of confidence, I could count on law enforcement to be reasonably accepting of my explanation of what happened since I am of the predominant skin color in my community and the predominant skin color of most (probably almost all) of the officers I might encounter.
- I had personal motivations for riding like environmental concerns and personal health that are highly correlated with educational attainment, and I had two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree, and some doctoral-level coursework then under way.
- Becoming a Bike Commuter, Part I: It’s Easy, One Mile at a Time
- Becoming a Bike Commuter, Part II: A Few More Miles
- Have you ever thought about the barriers–and lack of barriers–that made a difference in your decision to ride?
- Can you do anything to decrease the barriers for someone else to make it possible for her or him to consider riding?