Ride like a girl

Cycling is awfully similar to being a woman

Nikki Lee


Inspired by a great chat with Andy Mangold.

Ever wanted to know what it’s like to be a woman? Go get your bike.

(I encourage you to grab a helmet, too, but there’s a surprising amount of debate about that one.)

All set? Great. Go ride to work. Ride everywhere.

Maybe you’ve noticed that cars are kind of scary. They are more or less scary depending on where you live — if you’re on a nice calm street in Seattle, drivers will give you plenty of room and wait patiently for you. Other places, drivers will try to run you off the road. And no matter where you are, you know that the cars around you could really mess you up if something went wrong.

Welcome to being vulnerable to the people around you. Welcome to being the exception, not the rule. Welcome to not being in charge.

If one of those cars does hit you, you’re probably going to get blamed. The police will assume that you were riding unsafely, and what you could have done to better protect yourself. The driver most likely won’t be punished at all. If anything, it’ll be a slap on the wrist.

When you get hurt, it’s your fault now. You should have been more careful. You should have watched where you were going. If you had just stayed in your proper place, this wouldn’t have happened. You can try to argue, but you’ll probably get brushed off. Maybe you should get a helmet cam and record every second that you’re on your bike, so that you have unrefutable proof if something happens.

Other people can hurt you and not be held accountable for their actions.

Don’t freak out, it’s not like you’re going to get in an accident every day. Maybe it’ll never happen to you! That’s not unheard of. Maybe those other cyclists, the ones who get in accidents, are just reckless and dangerous. It’s their fault. If you’re just careful enough, nothing bad will happen to you.

Make sure to distance yourself. Explain to drivers that you’re “not like most cyclists” and that you “don’t like hanging out with other bikers”. Don’t ride with other people, lest someone think that you’re one of those cyclists.

Your bike is never going to be a car, but you can pretend.

When you’re riding, little things really add up. You notice transitioning from level ground to a 2% grade. That glass in the road goes from unremarkable to a low-grade hazard. Smog, dust, and smoke choke your lungs. Sometimes cars kick up rainwater, or mud, or rocks at you. Bugs get in your nose and mouth. You don’t always trigger the sensors at traffic lights and have to wait extra cycles for your turn (or blow a red).

In places with great cycling infrastructure, it’s really easy to get around just as efficiently as driving. But most cities don’t have that. These environments aren’t just not built for you, they’re constructed in a way that actively excludes you.

These are just a few of the thousand little environmental microaggressions that you don’t have to deal with when you’re sitting behind the wheel of a car. Any individual one isn’t a big deal, and plenty of cyclists don’t pay active attention to them at all. After a while you just kind of deal with it, because listing out these small annoyances mostly serves to make you feel bad.

At the end of the day, you can always hang up your helmet and declare bike commuting “a great idea and all, but just not worth it”.

What if you didn’t have a choice?



Nikki Lee

Designer, engineer, maker-of-things. Product manager building a better government at 18F.