on the bicycle as a vehicle to understand marginalizaton


if you're able-bodied enough to ride a bike and otherwise have trouble understanding, from a visceral perspective, the terminology of feminist and antioppression discourse, i have a concrete recommendation: ride a bicycle as your primary means of transportation in a city where this is not the norm.

i don't claim this is a way to automatically transport the experiences of others into your head, and obviously like all analogies it's imperfect, possibly even treading on "oppression tourism" territory, but as a set of concrete experiences to discuss, i think it can help establish some common ground for the sake of getting basic terminology. by way of example, i give the following glossary.

marginalization: when riding a bike you are literally pushed to the margins of the road. if you assert yourself and drive in the middle of the lane, you are constantly put on the defensive and have to ward off motorists challenging your audacity to be there -- even when in fact it's completely legal and the place where you are safest.

victim blaming: people will constantly question your decision to go out, saying "it's too dangerous" and concluding that therefore you just shouldn't do it; anyone who does is taking an unnecessary risk, and if they get hurt, they "should have known better." what you wear (helmet? light/reflective clothing?) will get you further blamed in the case of a traumatizing accident.

[white/male]-as-default, [hetero/cis]normativity: by analogy, car-as-default. if feminism is "the radical idea that women are people," bike advocacy is "the radical idea that bicycles are means of transport." underlying assumptions in personal conversation, marketing, business planning, and urban planning, frequently make the assumption that "transportation = car", and you'll find yourself repeatedly having to think (or say) "hey, what about me?" furthermore, the fact that personal motorized vehicles are the default thing-for-going-on-roads in cities is more historical accident than the "natural" order of things.

microagression: one or two little things that happen (someone honking or yelling at you, someone passing too close or cutting you off) might be shakeable, but if you keep this activity up and endure it constantly, day after day, i guarantee it will wear on you. the person you wind up snapping at might not have even been the most egregious instance, and they may come away with the impression that cyclists are irrationally aggressive people -- because they don't have the context of every other tiny aggression you encountered across the history of your riding, making you constantly defensive and volatile.

intersectionality: it's entirely too easy to think that the issues you have a window onto as a cyclist only pertain to cyclists. and then you start catching yourself doing the same shit to pedestrians (turning in front of them, not stopping at stop signs) that you're upset when drivers do to you, and you start hearing about cyclists being dicks to other cyclists and pedestrians, or you hear a cyclist wonder why everyone doesn't just ride a bike (including the poor, elderly, and disabled?) and you (hopefully!) start to realize that getting around the city sucks for a lot of people and is a way bigger problem than just your subjective view. this is related to the idea that a workable feminism necessarily incorporates all axes of systematic oppression, not just those that incongruently affect women.

on the bicycle as a tool of autonomy


on the flip side of all this, for me personally, the bicycle has been a hugely, astoundingly critical component of my own sense of autonomy and independence. i mean, okay, in some ways it still represents a dependence, but it's a dependence on something i own and control, rather than a dependence on male friends to wait with me at bus stops at night or on someone to give me a ride home -- in other words, having my location be subject to the whims of unreliable external factors. i don't have a sense for how this would compare to just owning a car, but honestly i think it would still win, because of the increased flexibility (ability to stop on a whim, don't have to hunt as hard for parking, can go on trails, gives access to open air/adrenaline from exercise, etc).

in that sense, i think it's an incredible instrument of feminism, and certainly of my own happiness.

Date: 2013-05-24 10:58 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] balseraph.livejournal.com
Devils advocate, for the sake of discussion (because discussion is fun!)

There is another side to this that, perhaps, you are not considering.

In the event of a slight bump between two cars, then there might be some minor fender damage, and some yelling, but no real harm. If, on the other hand, a car slightly bumps a person on a bicycle, the potential damage is catastrophic. Take that fact, and now combine it with the fact that bicyles are unquestionably of lower visibility than another car.

Most drivers have years or decades of experience in watching cars with unconscious acuity, and being able to track them without even realizing it via their peripheral vision. All of those skills go out the window when they are confronted with a bicycle on the road, and the need to constantly make conscious checks on the bicyclist generates stressors and tension that otherwise wouldn’t be there.

On top of those factors, there’s the simple reality that being behind a bicyclist is inconventient and makes every trip more time consuming. Both uphill and downhill, a person on a bicycle can’t move with the same surety, confidence, saftey, and speed of an automobile.

All of this means that the person on the bicylce, if we’re taking the same kind of reasoning and analogy that you’re applying, is being the true oppressor… they’re adopting a lifestyle choice that is actively forcing changes in behavior on everyone around them, forcing everyone else to adjust their pattern to accommodate the bike rider.

Now, I don’t ACTUALLY resent the people on the bikes, and I enjoy my bike and like to ride it… but I can’t help but feel that this analogy of yours reflects how I see most arguments of “oppression from the hetero normative white privaledged blah blah blah”. They start with the assumption that non normative behaviors are completely costless to other people, and that any efforts which aren’t made by society at large to accommodate them are a sign of diabolical oppression. Consider, instead, the possibility that the normative might be the actual, real, honest to goodness “best way to do things” for most people, and that while good faith efforts to accommodate people who choose otherwise are right and good and fair, it’s still appropriate for the society as a whole to optimize for the most normative case.

It’s unfortunate that people are fundamentally fallible, and reality forces everyone, now and then, to accept that any time the deviate from normative expectations, some people are going to get irked when pushed out of their comfort zone. Where that deviation is an elective choice, I gotta say, it’s hard to find any virtue in any attitude OTHER than accepting accepting it as just an added cost of doing it your way (or, in the terminalogy of Europe, a Value Added Tax).

ON THE OTHER HAND, when deviation isn’t a matter of choice, (‘I can’t afford a car’ doesn’t count, since that’s the end result of previous choices; ‘I was born this way’ does count, since no choices were made), a just and generous society should try to find ways to accommodate as many of its citizens as reasonably possible.

Retort! Go.

Date: 2013-05-24 11:23 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] simrob.livejournal.com
So, I'm going to break this into a couple of points to maybe try and make threading work for us.

there’s the simple reality that being behind a bicyclist is inconventient and makes every trip more time consuming

ORIGINAL PARAGRAPH BASED ON MISREADING: This is one of a couple of places where you make a lot of assumptions - about the geography of a city, about infrastructure, about where people live and work. I'm getting a bike soon because of the simple observed reality that it's faster and simper for Chris to get between campus, home, and the places where we both live and eat and shop and play because she consistently bikes and I walk or drive. Also it's easier and cheaper for her to park when she gets there. That's because we both live in a geographically dense area and tend to stay within about a two-square mile radius.

ADDED PARAGRAPH THAT MAKES SENSE: While I misread your sentence (I just totally dropped the "behind" from the sentence), the point about assumptions actually still works. While I could make your inconvenience complaint about buses, it's actually the case (I've watched) that within even the hilly parts of the city, just staying behind a biker usually has the same effect, time wise, as trying to maximise fuel efficiency by avoiding acceleration. Which is to say you that, in an area like Oakland/Shadyside/Friendship in Pittsburgh where there are lots of stop signs, it doesn't actually slow you down appreciably.

That geographical density has other consequences as well - such as the fact that it would completely overwhelm our infrastructure if everyone that had the means to drive drove everywhere. You just could never create a city like Pittsburgh (forget new york) that operated on the basis of that being "normative." So what you're describing as normative can't possibly be so...
Edited Date: 2013-05-24 11:49 pm (UTC)

Date: 2013-05-25 11:23 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] etb.livejournal.com
such as the fact that it would completely overwhelm our infrastructure if everyone that had the means to drive drove everywhere.

Yes. The biggest inconvenience to drivers is other cars. Sure, I slow down traffic when I bike on Trippstadter Straße under the viaduct (there's no room to pass me)—but I just slow it down by a few seconds, I don't turn the road into a parking lot, the way cars do. And even a single car parallel-parking can back up traffic (e.g. Murray Avenue in Pittsburgh, or Park Avenue in Montreal), which is a genuine inconvenience. But I suppose that's okay since it's being perpetrated by people who are ~normal~ (since they drive cars) and are thus entitled to impose the costs of their choices on everyone else.

Date: 2013-05-24 11:36 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] simrob.livejournal.com
Some points that are both about your statement about bikes and the way it relates to Chris's analogy: you're begging the question to say that bike riders "start with the assumption that non normative behaviors are completely costless to other people." With that, you're instantly focusing narrowly on the costs that a marginal biker - right now - imposes on all drivers. Why is that the right group to focus on? Well, because you declared driving normative. Which, I said before, doesn't ring true for my experience for what it's worth.

That's a natural first reaction, but it absolves you of having to think about how an even slightly different world would work by focusing on the individual's behavior and their consequences exclusively. (If there are lots of bikers, the marginal inconvenience of a biker goes down, if there have been bikers for a long time, the marginal inconvenience of a biker goes down, and there's no reason to believe that historical path dependence leaves society at a global or even local maximum). It also takes focus away from any other costs that car drivers are imposing - on people's abilities to sleep, to breathe (During the 1996 Summer Olympics Games in Atlanta, when peak morning traffic decreased 23% and peak ozone levels decreased 28%, emergency visits for asthma events in children decreased 42%.). Normative behaviors can be highly costly to other people, and they're protected by the very perception that they're normative.

Date: 2013-05-25 12:47 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] balseraph.livejournal.com
To be certain, I don't want to come off as ever defending someone who's being a dick. If someone else responds to the unexpected / unwelcome presence of a bike or a woman or whatever in a way that endangers that cyclists / woman / whatever, and your examples strike me as dangerous situations, then that's bad, full stop. If there are laws against it, demand they be enforced. If there aren't, let's get them passed.

So, let's turn it around: what argument do you have that the strict minority has a right to demand non-proportional parity of resources? And when we're talking about a "resource" that isn't centrally managed, but is as impossible to quantify as the moment to moment decisions of every individual motorist and cyclist, what does that even mean?

Date: 2013-05-25 04:42 am (UTC)From: [personal profile] lindseykuper
lindseykuper: A figure, wearing a pink shirt decorated with a heart, looks upward from between dark shapes that suggest buildings. (Default)
I think the argument would be that the motorist puts the cyclist in harm's way much more than the cyclist puts the motorist in harm's way.

For a motorist, as you point out upthread, trying to drive when cyclists are around can be stressful and inconvenient. But for a cyclist, trying to bike when motorists are around can get you killed. Statistically speaking, several cyclists will die today in car accidents.

Another way of saying this is: we will have to inconvenience someone, so who is it more fair to inconvenience: people who are currently in harm's way, or people who aren't as much?

Date: 2013-05-24 11:38 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] simrob.livejournal.com
‘I can’t afford a car’ doesn’t count, since that’s the end result of previous choices

Okay this is maybe off topic because I just can't let it slide. I'm glad that the person who went into medical bankruptcy because of all those ER visits for severe asthma attacks can't afford a car as an end result of previous choices.

Date: 2013-05-25 12:35 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] balseraph.livejournal.com
Ummmm.... the severe asthma WOULD count. So... yeah. Maybe you should have let it slide, or something, before leaping to being offended?

Date: 2013-05-25 02:53 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] simrob.livejournal.com
Let me clarify: I am deeply bothered by presumptions that being poor is the result of choices rather than luck and built-in advantages.

Date: 2013-05-27 02:13 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] http://users.livejournal.com/_tove/
Okay, the asthma patient makes it past your personal audit. How about someone whose cozy middle-class existence was disrupted by a Walmart destroying their family business? Or someone whose possessions were all destroyed in a hurricane? Or someone who was -- wait for it -- simply born into a very poor family? (What about people who aren't too poor for a car, but are biking on a doctor's orders, to appease another audit our society loves? Or people who aren't personally too poor but worry that our planet is too resource-poor?) How do you propose to formalize this audit, so that only the people who pass are afforded common courtesy? How will we signal these differences to drivers, so they know who to avoid hitting?

Date: 2013-05-27 02:15 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] http://users.livejournal.com/_tove/
In case that came across as overly offended, let me summarize: trying to divide people into categories of who we should care about vs who we should throw to the wolves is not just ethically shaky, it's logistically difficult.

Date: 2013-05-25 12:40 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] balseraph.livejournal.com
I'm afraid I don't see the conflict here. Because bikes aren't common in some places, people aren't comfortable riding around them. At places or events where bikes are common, they are.

I'm not sure what you mean by "making the roads safer". It's already illegal to do bad stuff to cyclists, and a legal requirement to grant them appropriate rights of way, etc. Are you suggesting more stringent enforcement of those laws? Or campaigns to increase awareness of them? Those are all well and good. Bikes are super common here in Seattle, and people seem to deal with them just fine. Carrying your examples forward, non heterosexuals are treated way better and more comfortably in San Francisco than in, say, Detroit.

But, your statement was specifically about not already bike friendly cities. Short of mandating people ride bikes (or whatever the gender equivalent would be), what are you suggesting?

Date: 2013-05-25 03:05 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] simrob.livejournal.com
At issue here is that there are always bunches of things that people do that are illegal (jaywalking, driving 10 miles above the speed limit) but that are nevertheless considered reasonable and acceptable behavior. (Conversely there are things that people usually don't do - and that are considered unreasonable - that are technically legal, like marking off one's lawn with spray-painted "do not trespass" signs, but I'm not sure that's relevant to the point at hand.)

Whose job is it to decide which if these "grey area" things are reasonable or not? The driver who passed Chris going the speed limit probably felt like they were justified in their feelings of being inconvenienced even though they were legally completely in the wrong.

Put differently: placing the onus of education on the minority bikers to explain to everyone that, no, they're legally allowed in the road and not allowed on the sidewalk etc etc etc. sets the stage for exactly the micro-aggression scenario Chris described, and certainly I think that's a place where the feminism analogy holds.

Date: 2013-05-25 09:26 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] quartzpebble.livejournal.com
Seattleite here. I still pass a white-bike memorial on the way into campus--a driver hit and killed a Jimmy John's delivery driver several months ago. Sure, better than LA or San Diego, sure. But deal with them just fine? Not entirely.

ETA: my partner bikes downtown, tells me stories about the left-side bike lane on his route, and then I try not to think too hard about the risks he takes. That is an example where busy and thoughtless drivers, rush hour and over-congested streets, and street design that puts cyclists in an unexpected location put any cyclist in danger.

There's a difference between knowing that there are laws against crowding cyclists and internalizing skills that let you do that. I would say training campaigns or mandate that everyone rides a bike on the street so they get the experience from the other side, but that's impractical (and we already don't have effectively distributed transportation funding).
Edited Date: 2013-05-25 09:31 am (UTC)

Date: 2013-05-25 04:56 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] toorsdenote.livejournal.com
I'm not sure what you mean by "making the roads safer".

Some of this is surely infrastructure, right? Protected bike lanes are much safer than unprotected ones, for example. I've been to Amsterdam, though not Copenhagen, and the intersections are engineered with bicyclists in mind, not just cars and pedestrians.

Date: 2013-05-28 12:58 am (UTC)From: [personal profile] blk
blk: (adult)
the person on the bicylce, if we’re taking the same kind of reasoning and analogy that you’re applying, is being the true oppressor… they’re adopting a lifestyle choice that is actively forcing changes in behavior on everyone around them, forcing everyone else to adjust their pattern to accommodate the bike rider.

Reduction in privilege is not the same as oppression.

Date: 2013-05-24 11:06 pm (UTC)From: [personal profile] lindseykuper
lindseykuper: A figure, wearing a pink shirt decorated with a heart, looks upward from between dark shapes that suggest buildings. (Default)
Nice post, Chris.

I was thinking about the post about "not-cyclists" you linked to in the context of this analogy, and this is a big can of worms, but I was wondering if you think there's a meaningful analogue here of "not-cyclists"-who-are-cyclists. Say, someone who's a woman, but for whom that fact is not necessarily a huge part of her identity, or not necessarily obvious, perhaps. And the next step, of course, is to ask if there are people thinking, "See, none of my customers are women!", when, in fact, some of them are, or would be...

Date: 2013-05-25 02:26 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] talldean.livejournal.com
Tangentially: the amount of freedom granted by ownership of the means of transport is directly related to the proportion of your disposable income it consumes.

Date: 2013-05-25 03:07 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] talldean.livejournal.com
You are correct. Oops.

Or, I feel about as liberated now by a car as I did by a bike when in college, and they're probably an equivalent amount of my disposable income at either time. I tried buying a car in college, and it was a rolling disaster; I could have used less money to travel *much* more, but I screwed up and tried to go the car route for a year.

Date: 2013-05-25 09:10 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] physics-dude.livejournal.com
Sounds like a Laffer curve. Inversely proportional implies you shouldn't buy anything and should walk.

Date: 2013-05-25 12:51 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] talldean.livejournal.com
Only if "he who dies with the most money wins" is a true statement. Disposable income is disposable, so you should - in a rational sense - spend it on whatever brings you the most utility, where utility is likely measured by subjective happiness.

Or, unless you're walking barefoot, how much did those shoes cost? ;-)

Date: 2013-05-25 08:31 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] physics-dude.livejournal.com
My derivation was not valid. But surely, your car was the cheapest category of thing to own after a bicycle?

Date: 2013-05-27 02:23 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] talldean.livejournal.com
Unfortunately, not at all; the car was in such bad shape that a *better* car would have been the next cheapest thing to own; the car I got cost me far, far, far more than sticker price, without lasting all that long, but the debt it incurred stuck with me for awhile.

Lessons were learned. :-)

Date: 2013-05-27 01:10 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] hvincent.livejournal.com
one of my problems with this analogy is that one has to choose to be a cyclist, which includes considering whether or not the benefits are worth the trade-off of having to deal with the problems. for example, one can make the decision of 'well, today i just don't really feel like being marginalized by douchebags in cars who are grumpy that i'm on the roads' and just not be a cyclist that day, but not really 'well, today i just don't really feel like being catcalled because i have tits so i guess i'll leave them at home'. and since the cyclist lifestyle can be arbitrarily shed if it becomes too taxing, a lot of the problems that come up as a result of intrinsic or long-term factors don't carry over.

and i guess this ties into my other problem with basically any discussion about oppression, in that it contributes to a conflation between being oppressed for one's identity and being oppressed for one's choices, and i feel that those are different problems that shouldn't be addressed with the same approach.

Date: 2013-05-27 01:58 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] http://users.livejournal.com/_tove/
I don't disagree, but I'd point out that the oppressors make the same conflation -- see for example the belief that being gay is a life choice, or being fat, or being poor (an example of which is upthread). All of these are used as sticks with which to beat people; at best, it's "well, if you can prove to me that your specific situation is not due to life choices, I might deign to extend you some sympathy" ("yeah, but what were you wearing?"). In the gay community, there's a debate over "born this way" rhetoric, because whether or not being gay is a choice shouldn't be the grounds on which people decide that bigotry is okay.

Date: 2013-05-27 03:16 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] hvincent.livejournal.com
right, and part of my point is that this conflation is a problem because it can obfuscate some of the issues, and thus i think it's important to try not to contribute to this conflation regardless of whether or not you're part of the oppressed or oppressing group.

bigotry isn't okay in either case (whether or not something is a choice), but bigotry over choices is different from bigotry over non-choices. it's a whole separate, and perhaps irrelevant, discussion as to what is or isn't a choice, but i am willing to stand by the statement that riding a bicycle is much more obviously a choice than being a female, and thus the sort of oppression experienced as a cyclist is very different from that as a female. specifically for me, because i deliberately choose to ride a bicycle as my primary mode of transportation, i feel much more capable of taking ownership of that decision and everything that comes with it, whereas i don't feel that way about gender.

Date: 2013-05-29 10:51 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] hvincent.livejournal.com
i'm not sure what you meant by the first part, that not choosing to ride a bike makes someone an asshole? i don't view car-drivers as assholes; i view people who are assholes as assholes. people shouldn't decide to do things that aren't the current best options for them. it makes sense for some people to bike, and some people to bus, and some people to walk, and some people to drive. just that not everyone is in their ideal transportation state at all times. if it doesn't make sense for someone to bike as transportation, i will judge them just as critically as someone who drives everywhere when a different means of transportation is more reasonable for their situation.

also, i'm really bad at sitting through videos on the internet, so i will admit to not watching through that link. but i have no idea what it means for other people to take ownership of their own decisions; i only know what it means when i do it myself.

Date: 2013-05-29 10:39 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] hvincent.livejournal.com
1.) i'm not saying whether or not choice changes the validity of something as a target of oppression; i'm just pointing out that i think it's a delicate difference, and i generally try to avoid conflating them. i'm almost being purely syntactic here, but i think it's worth being careful about this.

i can also raise the level of pedanticism i'm indulging in here by saying that sure, there's a choice involved in displaying parts of your identity in certain ways and contexts, but that still makes the bikes vs feminism thing separate issues to me. then i can ask things like 'am i being oppressed because this is part of who i am, or am i being oppressed because i've chosen to display part of who i am?' most of the problems i encounter as a cyclist do not affect me when i'm not sitting on my bike (which would be choosing to open display the cyclist identity). while that doesn't make the actual problems themselves go away in a global sense, it changes how i'm able to think about them.

2.) i don't think that there exist people who have absolutely no personal points of reference to understand terms describing oppression. there might be people who are unaware of certain kinds of oppression, but i think that if there exists someone who can't understand terms when explained to them, that someone is unlikely to understand by trying to do something else that is kind of similar.

now, whether or not a person is willing to express sympathy in a productive manner is a different story.

Date: 2013-05-29 11:00 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] hvincent.livejournal.com
fair enough, i guess, but i think this works better if someone is already learning to be a bikecommuter, rather than 'hey if you don't understand oppression go ride a bike', since the sort of person who will open themselves up to learning about bikecommuting probably already has some internal mechanisms in place for figuring these things out. in that sense, they have the potential for building points of reference that just needed to be found; i think everyone has those, it's just that 'try bike commuting' isn't going to work as a blanket suggestion for building those.

(which, now that i'm skimming over your original post again, i guess that's what you clarified in the second paragraph anyway, so now i feel kind of silly)

and also, i'm just offering my thoughts as a counterpoint for why this analogy doesn't work for me, since i also happen to fall into both categories that are being analogized.

Date: 2013-05-27 09:36 am (UTC)From: [personal profile] neelk
in that sense, i think it's an incredible instrument of feminism, and certainly of my own happiness.


You're in good company! Susan B. Anthony famously wrote: "Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood."

(Google supplies a number of variants of this quote -- I don't know which one is the correct one, though the Goog does assert that it was originally made in Champion of Her Sex, New York Sunday World, 2 February 1896, p. 10.)

Date: 2013-05-27 09:41 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] notyourbroom.livejournal.com
<3

I've posted this to /r/srsmen (http://www.reddit.com/r/SRSMen/comments/1f5rfp/bikes_and_feminism_on_the_bicycle_as_a_vehicle_to/) and /r/srsfeminism (http://www.reddit.com/r/SRSFeminism/comments/1f5s70/bikes_and_feminism_on_the_bicycle_as_a_vehicle_to/)

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