When I was in college, I decided to try my hand at being one of those too-cool-for-cars biker girls who dons a punk rock sticker-clad helmet and a rolled up right cuff—the phase lasted approximately two weeks. A friend I had a jealousy-crush on had gone out of town for the summer and when she mentioned that she needed a place to stash her ride, I heartily volunteered to keep it. I'd hoped I would become as hip as I thought she was, all critical mass and tattoos. But like most attempts at fitting in made in haste, this one wasn't entirely thought through.
My internship that summer was at the ACLU of Georgia, whose office was located in the heart of downtown Atlanta. For those who are unfamiliar with Atlanta, the downtown area is a soulless business district from whence corporate and city employees are quick to flee roundabout five o'clock. During the workday, however, there are plenty of age-spanning businessmen lingering on the street, and a sizable portion of them readily hoot and holler at any sweet young thing that happens to catch their eye. At nineteen years old, the constant awareness of my public vulnerability and male sexual scrutiny was enough to turn me from bipedal into biped and put me off urban biking for good.
To be fair, I've had an on-again, off-again relationship with bicycles, and our courtship was pretty rocky. While my younger sister learned to ride a bike in a day, it took my then awkwardly lanky self the entire summer to find the magic combination of balance and coordination that's needed to pedal and steer simultaneously. My favorite moment was when, in the panic of not being able to figure out how to properly brake, I plowed straight into an evergreen. But I wasn't going to let that tree be the end of me; I got back on the metaphorical horse determined to figure out how to ride. In the end, my tenacity paid off, and I spent numerous happy hours pedaling away my childhood.
I think that's one reason it's so damned irritating that I no longer feel like I can bike safely on the road. I worked hard to master that skill, and it's a shame I don't feel comfortable exercising it. The street isn't an inviting space for many whose frame is more step-through than truss, but I suppose I shouldn't overgeneralize. There are a hell of a lot of women who don't let concerns about their safety prevent them from pedaling to and fro, and I have mad respect for those tough cookies. The fact remains, however, that some of us haven't found that courage, or don't live in a place that affords us the luxury. And we could really use the support from those who do.
In New York City, there are several sustainable transportation organizations whose aim is to curb car culture by urging folks to ride bikes. The problem is that most of these orgs fail to include gender-specific safety concerns in their agenda, which means they don't fully cater to women's needs. (And then they dimly wonder where all the women are.)
I'll give you an example. In the mid-aughts, a program called RightRides emerged, which gives free late-night car rides to women and LGBTQ folks in order to prevent gender-based violence and sexual assault. While looking for allies with which to partner, founder Oraia Reid turned to one of these eco-justice in transportation groups to ask how they might be able to support each other's work. Reid saw their missions as complimentary; the group, however, did not. They refused a collaboration because the program uses cars.
What this group didn't seem to understand, and what Reid was unable to convince them of, is that making the streets safer for women (and LGBTQ folks) will have a positive effect on our adoption of bikes over cars. And if you want all individuals to share the privilege of indulging in one of our favorite childhood pastimes, that just happens to be excellent exercise and environmentally sound as well, then we all have to work together to ensure that bike lanes can be safely occupied by whoever chooses to use them. That means seeing the larger, complex picture of equal access as important and putting strategic alliance among issues over self-righteous, self-serving dogma.