Personal Privilege and Biking: It Takes More than a Bike Lane to Start Riding

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.

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.

Privilege Matters

If this seems 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 guilty — it’s not that you deliberately set up this system — but you do need to do something about it.)

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

  • I already owned a working bike. Simple, right? But the #1 reason people don’t ride a bike is that they don’t own one.
    • In some cities a community bike shop like Pedals2People in Spokane or The Recyclery in Port Townsend makes it possible for people to learn how to build and maintain their own bikes but that wouldn’t have interested me at the time I started riding.
  • 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, I was completely capable of riding a bike, with no disabilities that would prevent me from riding or make it difficult (and more expensive) to find a special bike.
  • 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. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • I had chosen that house specifically for its location on a transit line so I had a fallback transportation option available.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 gender 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. (No offense intended toward hard-working police officers — just addressing the possibility of inherent biases.)
  • 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.
    • 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).
  • 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 ramen, 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 7 years in a row), 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 an Equity Initiative led by Dr. Adonia Lugo, whose research into Seattle bike justice was supported by Bike Works and WA Bikes.

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?

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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.

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. This is an updated version of that post.

This article was posted in Advocacy, Attitudes, Equity, News, Women. Bookmark the permalink. Follow comments with the RSS feed for this post.Post a Comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

16 Comments

  1. armando
    Posted June 3, 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    barb,
    thanks for writing this. i think it will be an eye opener for a lot of people. i know i am lucky to be able to commute on a bike, mostly for a lot of the reasons you mentioned. trying to commute without these privileges makes it much more difficult, and definitely more dangerous. unfortunately, even here in portland these privileges don’t exist everywhere or for everyone. hopefully all of us can work to change this.

    • Barb Chamberlain
      Posted June 3, 2014 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

      You’re welcome, Armando. My awareness continues to evolve every day, I hope, but it’s easy to fall into one’s comfort zone. Writing something like this makes me more conscious.

  2. Posted June 4, 2014 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    Thanks so much for writing this. I posted it to my local Facebook group (Vermont Bicycle Commuters) and the members are bending themselves over backwards talking about how all the reasons people don’t bike to get places are “excuses.” In our predominantly white, liberal, middle class community, people have a hard time accepting that they might be privileged and talking about it, but it is exactly what needs to be going on. Advocacy needs to be about addressing these issues, and just going “rah rah, more butts on bikes” when the majority of those butts are white, middle class tourists using a piece of infrastructure that doesn’t get anybody to or from work, ever.

    • Barb Chamberlain
      Posted June 14, 2014 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for your comments, Matt. You’re so right that if you have a lot of these advantages you don’t have the lens through which to see how tough it is if you’re working multiple jobs or hours that make it tough to ride.

      One point to consider about trail construction and bike tourism that we use in our advocacy work: Communities and businesses gain an economic incentive to be more bike-friendly when they’re making money from tourism. If that moves them to install more bike connections, bike parking, etc., they’re making biking better for the people who live and ride in those towns every day.

      Trails need to be connected to the on-street infrastructure. When they are, they create an inviting environment for beginning riders and people with little kids in particular and can serve as a really important commuting spine depending on location. I don’t think it’s always an either/or–depends on the trail.

  3. Posted June 4, 2014 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    oops, didn’t finish my sentence. All I meant to say is that until equity is discussed front and center, much of the local advocacy rings really hollow for me.

  4. Sarah
    Posted June 4, 2014 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    This is really amazing, and I’m so glad that it is out there. Something that would be wonderful to see added in future drafts is that a lot of these modes of privilege — race, size, ability — come with the added bonus of not being harassed by either drivers, walkers, or even other bikers based on your appearance or ability. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been cat called, moo’d at, or yelled at because of my speed/perceived levels of exertion by other bicyclists, pedestrians, or drivers. I was a bicycle commuter for years but, ultimately, the negative attention that I received while bicycling outweighed all the other benefits.

    • Barb Chamberlain
      Posted June 14, 2014 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

      Great point. I thought about this very thing afterwards. I have “mainstream” appearance (although the mainstream has plenty of tributaries, side channels, and interesting little bays and eddies now). In certain situations this average appearance would make me the odd one out, but in most biking on city streets where I live, no one is going to look at me as being outside their norms in a way that will get me harassed. Whether this is a direct function of privilege or of where I ride, I don’t know.

      (Harassed because I’m a woman is a different issue; I’m happy to say I don’t encounter that often.)

  5. Posted June 5, 2014 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    I’m personally glad you mentioned ability/disability as that’s my personal soap box. We live car-free in Inner SE Portland and have a bakfiets so I’m used to people assuming we are wealthy (Ha!), and explaining there was quite a bit of frugal living done to have the funds to buy it used and quite a bit is saved by not needing to pay for a car or transit. However, when I post on Facebook about being carfree with a son with Down syndrome it is the disability that is a non-starter for many friends. What I want is for someone wishing they could do this “if only” to reach out and ask for help or advice, but what I get is the reasons why they can’t. It is assumed that I’m looking down and hating them for not finding a way to make it work, but really all I want to be is known as a touchstone and a welcoming person. I think looking at it as privilege will help me rephrase what I’ve already tried to delicately phrase in a way that gets my point across better.

    Many of the other points made me stop and pause. Thank you.

    • Barb Chamberlain
      Posted June 14, 2014 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

      Thanks so much for sharing your story, Kath. You must be inspiring people along the way even if their first response is to identify barriers rather than opportunities to grow in what they believe they can do.

  6. Dave
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    “Living close enough.” This is why we need, as a country, to get serious about rent control and even an absolute limit to the selling price of property. I’m thinking of this as an energy use, national security (hint–we don’t buy lettuce from the Saudis) and climate change issue; “drive until you qualify” has to be put in the past as rapidly as possible. Property owners’ rights have to suck hind tit to housing affordability.

  7. Dave
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    A couple of other things–we need labor laws that bar firing due to punctuality or the lack of it. We need both racial quotas in our police departments as well as residency requirements. Seattle cops have to live in Seattle, etc. Landlords and home sellers must be compelled to sell or rent to the protectors of property if they want said property protected.

  8. Suzanne
    Posted June 11, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Thank you!! I am sending this to every member of the Portland Bicycle Advisory committee and posting it on facebook.

    • Barb Chamberlain
      Posted June 14, 2014 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

      Thanks so much, Suzanne! Glad you appreciated and shared the post.

  9. Posted June 24, 2014 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this and the barriers associated with becoming a bike commuter. I find myself having some problems in fully adapting to this change in transportation. I work as a professional stagehand at a theatre in Downtown Seattle and commute there from Ballard. This job has the potential to be very physically demanding with heavy lifting, moving in confined spaces, and climbing. As well I often have to carry tools and equipment when I work at other theatres. and that extra weight can be felt when climbing the few Hills on my commute.
    Yet at other times I sit in a chair and point a light at a stage for a few hours and go home. So there is some balance.
    Then there is my schedule.
    Many days are 4-8 hours long starting some time when the evening rush hour begins and ending before midnight but there are those longer days of tech rehearsal, or preview with work calls, or load in or out that have run long. All of these can become long days going from 8am until nearly midnight and having to be back at 8am the next day. To ride on those days seems a little fool hardy.
    Doable, sure, but I only know this because I know people that have or currently do just that. And these are the people that inspire me. But the reality of trying to commute in during those hours seems so demanding and far to easy to over exert myself and be useless the next day.
    Still I love riding my bike to work.
    Last week I rode at 4:30 am to the Paramount Theatre to get to work by 6am. I had a breakfast burrito in my bag and cold brew coffee in my water bottle. Sitting by Lake Union I ate breakfast and watched the world wake up.
    Then 11am I rode through Myrtle Edwards enjoying the sun and salt air as I headed home for a nap and refresh before biking in for an evening show. At no point did I worry about parking and only a little about traffic. I could enjoy my ride home and the good night’s sleep that awaited me.
    My job is a barrier. A barrier that other people have found ways to overcome but it is not easy. It is far easier to drive in or bus (as I had done for years) then it is to climb onto a bike and pedal in for what could be a long day of humping feeder or throwing iron or any other physically demanding jobs I may be called onto to do.
    But I’m still going to try to overcome.

    • Barb Chamberlain
      Posted June 24, 2014 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for sharing your story and for riding. A tough schedule to plan for, for sure! Maybe on occasion a bike/bus combo can help you balance the loads (mental as well as physical).

  10. Andrea Rainey
    Posted July 2, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Excellent article that points out many things that are overlooked regarding cycling. And I had to giggle a little when the author said her parents were financially able to buy her a progression of bikes — I had to buy my own 10-speed back in the day (a blue Shimano). That took a lot of babysitting…

5 Trackbacks

  1. By Friday Link Love | Woman On a Wheel on June 6, 2014 at 10:12 am

    […] favorite bike article I read this week came out of Seattle entitled ‘Personal Privilege and Biking: It Takes More than a Bike Lane to Start Riding,’ discussing equity and privilege when in comes to biking. The author talks about the […]

  2. […] We need to be proactive in supporting places where people cannot afford to drive or take the bus – places where people have no way to afford or store even a bicycle. Barb Chamberlain, Executive Director of Washington Bikes wrote a beautiful editorial about privilege and entitlement embedded in owning and using a bicycle. […]

  3. […] will do that. I believe that people are fairly well informed about the options they have, and that what Chamberlain calls privileges that they do not have are apparent to them. In other words, there isn’t much that simple […]

  4. […] Personal Privilege and Biking: It Takes More than a Bike Lane to Start Riding | Washington Bikes […]

  5. […] An updated version of this post appears on the Washington Bikes blog, Personal Privileges and Biking: It Takes More than a Bike Lane to Start Riding […]

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