What riding a bike taught me about prejudice, poverty, and designed exclusion

When an SUV swerved to hit me, I realized riding a bike in a car-dominated culture is an inherantly political act.

I’ve written before about how I like to think myself as a person who rides a bike, rather than a bike rider. The distinction, in my mind, is I’m not a hobbyist fiddling with gears and multiple rides. I’m just a guy who gets from point A to point B on a bicycle.

I also never had any intention of biking to make a statement about car culture or the environment or anything along those lines. But something I’ve realized over the past four-and-a-half years of bike riding is that riding a bike in a car-dominated culture is an inherantly political act.

What do I mean by this? Well, let me tell you a story.

A couple of years ago I was riding to work, and I was doing everything right.

I had a helmet, I had a high-vis vest, I had lights on the front and back, I was fully in a bike lane- I was following all the laws and rules of safety.

And then suddenly I hear this honking and I turn my head and there’s this SUV and it swerves towards me like it’s going to hit me.

And then it drives off.

That shook me. It shook me a lot.

I’ve thought about why this moment stands out for me so much, and it’s not just the obvious — that I could have been hit.

And it’s not just that some jerk decided to scare me, even though that’s part of it.

The reason this shook me so much is that it was one of the few times in my life I’ve been on the receiving end of prejudice.

And this is a weird thing for me to talk about, because I am a straight white male in North America and so prejudice is not a thing I know much about on a personal level (which is part of the reason why that moment has stuck with me so much).

The person driving that vehicle didn’t know me. They didn’t know my name or my life situation or why I was out on that road. What they knew is I was a person on a bike in a place where cars rule supreme and they knew that they could scare me if they wanted to… and so they did.

And when I think about that I think about the other times I’ve been honked at or yelled at or treated as an annoyance or obstacle by other drivers, even though the law states that as a bike rider I have a right to the road, too.

And I think about the comments on stories about bicycle riders who die after a collission and how there’s always a certain amount of people who will place blame on the bike rider for being on the road in the first place- why don’t they get in a vehicle where they belong?

And I realize: if this is what it feels like for me- as someone who could buy a car or take a taxi and blend in to the rest of our society- what must it be like to stand out and not be able to do anything about it?

And never know who’s going to be mad at you simply for being somewhere they don’t think you belong?

I was talking to a local comedian a while ago, Brian Majore. He’s First Nations and he told me that a lot of people are surprised when he gets up on a stage because they aren’t used to seeing Aboriginal people in that context. And he said being First Nations with a microphone is an inherently political act.

And it’s not a perfect analogy, but that’s why I say being a bike on the road is an inherently political act, as well. It kind of automatically challenges a lot of assumptions in our society about who belongs where and how we should all get from point A to point B. And there’s issues of class and poverty and who our society is made for all tied up in there.

I recently did some reporting on life in one of Prince George’s poorest neighbourhoods. One of the things that kept coming up is how people walked everywhere. And that comes at a real cost- one woman told me that to get her kid to daycare and then herself to university was a three-hour round trip almost every day. There’s a transit system, but it’s not always fast or even where you need it to be.

But with a bike, and I know this from personal experience, those sorts of trips can be much much faster.

When you can’t afford a car, a bike can turn a twenty minute trip to get groceries for dinner into a ten minute one. It can be the difference between being able to get to a job interview across town or not. For the price of a couple tanks of gas, you have a method of transport that can make a huge difference in your life, available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

And yet we have a road system that, while it may not be designed to DISCOURAGE bike riding, it certainly doesn’t encourage it, either.

Most of the drivers I encounter are fine.

But I still don’t feel like I belong on the road, and it’s not just because of the occassional jerk. It’s the way things are designed.

Next time you’re driving, I want to you to imagine what things would be like if you didn’t have access to a vehicle.

Or I want you to imagine someone you love riding their bike alongside you- your twelve-year-old kid, your elderly mother.

What do you think when you pull off a highway and there is no dividing line between the traffic and the narrow band of road where the bikes are supposed to be?

How do you feel about bike lanes full of loose gravel in the spring, and snow in the winter?

How comfortable are you with the fact that at any time, a handslip on a steering wheel or a small wipeout could mean tons of metal moving at high speed colliding with a fragile human body sitting on an aluminum frame?

One of the most fundamental way most of us move around our lives, our cities, is on the roads.

And one of the things I’ve realized riding a bike for the past four years is that no matter what the laws are, the roads I’m riding on belong to people in cars.

And what that really means is that roads aren’t for kids, they aren’t for students… they aren’t for the poor.

When roads belong to people in cars, what that really means is roads belong to people who can afford them.

When you ride your bike, you are making a statement, whether you like it or not.

You’re saying the road belongs to me, too.

The road belongs to everyone.

This post was adapted from a talk I gave at the first ever PechaKucha Prince George with the theme “The Power to Move You.” To take part in future events, visit the PechaKucha Prince George page.

Brian Majore is a pretty funny guy. You can find him at thebloodysavage.com.