I’m cycling again. It’s a glorious thing. Instead of being stuck on a bus in traffic, I’m gliding through Seattle sunshine and getting to most places faster than I would otherwise.
There’s just one downfall: I have to beg drivers not to kill me.
Commuting by bicycle is an art as well as a science. Many drivers would prefer not to share the road, and some are even angry enough to try to run cyclists off it. Staying safe is about a lot more than just following the rules. You have to assume that most drivers are not actually paying attention to the turn signals or the bicycle lanes. You stay alert to parked cars to see if the driver might open a door right in front of you. You’re peering into parking garages to see if someone might dart out. Even when you have the right of way, you’re trying to make eye contact with drivers who could well turn into the intersection in front of you.
I find myself smiling, waving, or mouthing “thank you” to each and every driver who follow the law. I expect hostile behavior, so when someone treats me like a legitimate moving vehicle, I do my best to communicate gratitude. I do it for myself. I do it for other cyclists. I do it in the hope that they remember what a nice, grateful cyclist I was and treat other cyclists with kindness.
In this tiny way, I imagine, riding a bicycle through urban traffic is a lot like, well, Driving While Black. Or Walking While Brown. Or Working While Female. Or Dating While Gay. Or Getting An Education While Poor. Or Trying To Pee While Homeless. Or any other variety of being a human being trying to operate in a space that was built around the needs of other people and privileges them. You have to strike a delicate balance between being grateful for the space you are offered and continuing to advocate for your needs.
It isn’t too hard to imagine a different world. In an urban infrastructure built around bicycles, where we had the say, cars might feel the need to be obsequious when we generously share our lanes. Big-time bicycle philanthropists could pat themselves on the back for building little dedicated roadways. We could even be magnanimous and offer free bicycles to 20 motorists a year, a free entry into our club (conditional on their ability to keep up with us and our powerful legs after years of sedentary commuting). But is that what we really want, or do we want to create systems that meet everyone’s needs, allow freedom of choice, and create connections across communities?
Analogies are often ridiculous, but somehow, this one really works for me – not just because it shows how power allows groups to create a social, economic, and built infrastructure that serves their needs over those of others (the definition of privilege), but because it shows just how arbitrary that power is. Driving is not an inherently better way to get around than cycling. It’s sometimes faster and easier, and it is the only feasible way to haul really large loads, but it also costs more to the user and to society than cycling. Cycling, on the other hand, is great for your help and often a lot more fun, dangers aside. I’ve had a community of cyclists everywhere I live, and I am grateful for that connection. If someone handed me the keys to a Bentley tomorrow, I’d probably give it back. Just like, if someone told me tomorrow that I could switch genders with no consequences, I’d probably say, “no thank you” and go back to advocating for women’s rights instead.
I’d rather dance this delicate dance, slowly adding to the critical mass, advocating for increased cycling as a change that’s good for drivers, too, and trying to restructure privilege itself rather than trying to take down those who have it. And when I think about it, my approach to social change is no different. When more ways of being are accepted in the world, and when we build our systems around what all humans want and not just what those in power feel entitled to, we are all better off.