Nov 192016
Personal Privilege and Biking: It Takes More than a Bike Lane to Start Riding (2016 update)

A 2012 version of this post appeared on this blog. I updated it in 2014 for the Washington Bikes blog. This is yet another light update with some “as of 2016” notes.

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.

Riding my bike at the official opening of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way in Spokane. The city's official plans for the opening didn't involve bikes but when I started rolling and headed past the police officers who were there, no one challenged me. That's privilege.
Riding my bike at the official opening of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way in Spokane. The city’s official plans for the opening didn’t involve bikes but when I started rolling and headed past the police officers who were there, no one challenged me. That’s privilege. If you could jump into an official event with the mayor and have no one question you, you have it too.

Infrastructure Does Matter

Granted, infrastructure and other visual cues are incredibly important tools to build bicycling — perhaps 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.

The bike lane certainly worked to suggest the idea. I bought my house on a bus line to provide transit access, I had walked the 3.5 miles to work a few times, and I occasionally rode my bike for fun on weekends. The bike lane cued me to put all that together and try biking to work. Infrastructure does matter to help people start biking on city streets — and particularly infrastructure that provides true separation such as a protected bike lane or separated trail.

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 and stay there.

[Tweet “More than bike lanes: Privilege plays roles in bicycling often not acknowledged. #bikes4all ”]

Privilege Matters

If the factors below seem like a really long list, that’s the point. If you hold privilege in this world you take a lot of things for granted that others don’t have. They can’t get the same things without thinking about it and working to overcome barriers you’ll never notice because they don’t exist for you. (You don’t need to feel personally guilty — it’s not that you deliberately set up this system — but you do need to do something about it.) If someone else gaining access to something you’ve never had to question feels like you’re losing something, what you’re saying is that you wouldn’t want to be treated the way they are. Watch this very short video and think about your answer to the question Jane Elliott poses.

A list of the advantages I have thanks to privilege (primarily arising from my race and socioeconomic status — and my economic advantages are generations in the making) that made it possible for me to start bike commuting:

  • I already owned a working bike. Simple, right? But the reason people don’t ride a bike is that they don’t own one.
  • I knew how to ride a bike 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.
    • We learn a lot of our outdoor activities from our families, whether it’s riding a bike, cleaning a fish, going camping, or finding the North Star. If your parents don’t ride a bike, odds are good they didn’t make sure you learned how.
  • Physically and mentally, I was completely capable of riding a bike, with no disabilities that would prevent me from riding, make it difficult (and more expensive) to find a special bike, or present challenges complying with the law or reading signs.
    • 2016 note: Since my crash in July 2016 and subsequent broken elbow, followed by a frozen shoulder, I have had physical limitations that have prevented me from riding. Riding itself hurts (arms serve as shock absorbers and any sudden move triggers agonizing shoulder pain), and with limited mobility in my shoulder I can’t easily lift my bike onto the rack on the bus. If I were to have to use any spot other than the front one I couldn’t do it at all. This is by no means permanent but it’s a reminder of how much I took for granted.
  • I’m 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, and I’m not so large that I would require a special bike built to hold my weight or fit my height.
  • I am of the predominant skin color in my community, which continued to be true as I moved from Spokane to Seattle in 2012. Should anything happen along my route, I could count on law enforcement to be reasonably accepting of my explanation of what happened. I’m the same skin color as most (probably almost all) of the officers I might encounter. This skin color also creates a presumption of my US citizenship status.
  • I speak the dominant language of American culture so all the signs are in my native language, all the materials in the traffic skills course I took later were in my language with no translation required, and I could rely on my language being spoken by almost 100% of the people I would encounter along the way if I needed to ask for help or directions.
  • My mental processing can be described as neurotypical and I have no intellectual, developmental, or mental health factors that present potential complications. From dyslexia to agoraphobia to autism, so many things others live with are not something I had to take into account in deciding whether this activity was something I could undertake. (To be clear, I am not suggesting that any of these or myriad other conditions necessarily prevent people from bicycling. I’m just saying I didn’t have to think about thinking. Given my mother’s many years with dementia this is not something I take for granted.)
    • 2016 note: I didn’t list this category as a separate one in the original 2012 post. I did refer to physical and mental health more broadly but decided this was worth calling out.
  • I lived close enough to work that a ride was pretty simple, because I hadn’t purchased a house in the “drive until you qualify” outskirts and suburbs. (My income level enabled me to purchase this home in a desirable location.)
    • 2016 note: When we moved to Seattle my commute length increased but my transit access did too, which helped offset the distance created by housing costs. I now live 18 miles from my workplace and a combination of bike + transit requires around 1.5 hours each way. I still vastly prefer this to driving; I’m either exercising on my bike, or reading/doing email on the bus or light rail, both of which are more productive than fuming at other drivers in Seattle traffic.
  • I had chosen that house specifically for its location on a transit line so I had a fallback transportation option available.
    • 2016: Still true, with transit access increasing thanks to voter support for recent funding measures.
  • 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. This goes back to my financial ability to purchase a nice home in a good neighborhood; whites have had advantages in home buying for generations.
    • My commute now includes some fairly isolated trail mileage; I noted in a post here and another on my other blog that this presents some caution around personal safety, although I feel more often threatened by distracted texting drivers on city streets.
  • I had the ultimate fallback: A partner with a motor vehicle who would come pick me up if anything went really wrong, and a cell phone to place that call immediately.
    • 2016: Our work schedules don’t give me this any more. I have friends and family with the same kinds of general privilege that I do so I’m not on my own.
  • I’m married to a man. Even with the passage of marriage equality in Washington, referring to “my husband” as a woman means I fit into the mainstream assumptions about cisgender roles. If I’m talking to a police officer after an incident and say I need to call my husband, I don’t need to worry about what the officer might be thinking and how that will affect my treatment. (The possibility of implicit biases of many kinds is always present.)
  • I’m a ciswoman (one whose gender identity matches how I was labeled at birth). Again, this puts me firmly within a set of human characteristics portrayed in the media, recognized, and protected by law.
    • 2016 note: This wasn’t on the 2012 list and should have been. In 2012 you wouldn’t have found Transparent or Sense8 on television, with strong and positive portrayals of trans characters.
  • 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 something indicative of a fundamental character flaw. My educational level makes this kind of position available to me.
    • In fact, my employer at the time I started riding (WSU Spokane) took part in Commute Trip Reduction, had a guaranteed ride home program, and gave 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 lots of workplace supports).
    • 2016: Different employer (Cascade Bicycle Club) but when you work in bike advocacy your employer always supports your two-wheeled transportation choice.
  • If anything went wrong with the bike, thanks to that job I had the resources to pay for gear and repairs, a good thing too since at that time I lacked the ability to so much as fix a flat tire. I could afford bike gear such as a headlight (required by law) and a better bike when I was ready for it. This became particularly important when I had two different bikes stolen; I could replace them.
  • 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.
    • You may not think of an exercise habit as a form of privilege, but consider that I had both leisure time and money that enabled me to take classes in the activity of my choice and my kids were old enough that I didn’t need to ensure they were directly supervised. I wasn’t working two or three jobs to feed my kids. When I was a divorced mom with a baby and a toddler, working as a freelance editor and eating a lot of top ramen with the thermostat set to 55 when the kids were with their father, I wasn’t going to yoga studios.
  • 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.

The Sixth E: Equity

When Washington ranks as the #1 Bicycle Friendly State in the US (a spot we’ve held since 2008), it’s based on the League of American Bicyclists system of looking at 5 Es: Education, Encouragement, Engineering, Enforcement, and Evaluation.

In our office and in the offices of many bicycle advocates across the country you’ll hear discussion of another E: Equity. The League has begun to embed questions related to equity in categories such as encouragement, for example, asking if a community has rides or programs designed to encourage people who are underrepresented in bicycling. Equity, diversity and inclusion continue to be challenges in the world of bike advocacy and active transportation.

In your city, in our state, and in our nation, we need to examine our transportation systems through an equity lens to see the effects of disparate access to many kinds of resources. Owning and driving a car has long been a symbol of personal financial success — how about looking at access to everything it takes to ride a bike?

[Tweet “We need to examine our transportation systems through an equity lens. #bikes4all”]

Related Reading

Your Turn

  • 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?
  • What am I missing on my list of the ways that privilege enabled me to start bicycling? I continue to learn about it and I’m sure I don’t see every form of it that benefits me.

[Tweet “After reading this I’m pledging to work on bike equity. RT if you believe in #bikes4all”]

Origins of the post: In September 2012, about a month or so after I became the executive director at Washington Bikes, I delivered the keynote address at a conference in Tacoma on Equity and Health in Transportation, put on by the Seattle-King County Public Health District. I wrote a post on my personal bike blog, Bike Style Life, to capture some of the story I told in that speech. I then updated it for the Washington Bikes blog, having realized a few more ways in which I have privilege. Since I expect to keep learning I’m guessing it will be worth revisiting again in another couple of years.

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Reader Comments

  1. Good points.
    I’ve a number of non-white women approach me over the years, in envy that I know how to bike. They wished they had learned earlier in life.

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