Riding a bike in North America is confusing. If you express a desire to feel safer while riding a bike, you’re expected to back that up with strong opinions on how exactly to make that happen. This blog has featured many of those hot topics, including bike lanes this week. People in this part of the world also seem to have strong opinions about cyclists themselves. Wading through this on a bike leaves me with a load of questions.
I’ve been riding bikes since I can remember. Until two years ago, my bikes were always hand-me-downs from the brothers or cheap old rentals that got me from point A to B. Today, I own my first two bikes of choice and every time I ride them, there’s a little jingle that goes off in my head: “I love my bicycle,” on repeat.
Back when I was riding whatever bike I could access, I didn’t feel like a “cyclist” because my bike was a tool, not an identity. In the same way, renting a car and getting a Jetta does not make me feel any kinship to other people on the road in a Volkswagen. But you know how intentional Jeep owners do that wave and nod to each other when they drive by? Well, I think I’ve been inducted into some Jeep-ish bike club and I feel conflicted about it.
First I’ll explain that my two bikes take me to different worlds. It’s like I have a Jekyll & Hyde cycling persona. (Keep in mind that I live in a small city with little to no urban/commuter bike infrastructure or culture.)
Usually, I am a jolly cycling lady on a cruiser bicycle laden high with bags, groceries, and camera equipment. My front basket has a tacky velcro reflector on it. My backrack is wound up with stretchy ties to secure whatever I’m carting around that day. I ride my bike wearing dresses and nice shoes, pedalling slow, dinging my green bell. I’ll often dismount at hairy intersections and walk my bike through the crosswalk. Motorists are generally quite respectful of my space. People sometimes even smile at me. I imagine them thinking, "she's one of the good ones." If only they knew...
I have a confession. This summer, I purchased a set of those spandex, squashy-butt cycling shorts. And I wear them regularly as I ride my other bike - a firetruck red, drop-handle cyclocross. Sometimes I ride it as fast as I can carrying as little cargo as possible. I’m no less courteous a person on this bike than I am on my cruiser or on foot but people do not smile at me… except other cyclists. My drop-handle was the ticket into the bike club - I officially feel like a cyclist now - but I don’t know that I want to be in the club. I keep my bike club membership on the down-low because a lot of people spontaneously tell me how much they disapprove of “those cyclists”. I don’t often have the heart to break it to them that I am probably one of the people they arbitrarily hate.
I sort of get why people tease and resent the fast-bike club. Biking for sport can snowball into something so expensive, exclusive, and ridiculous that you have to laugh.
I understand the fear of sharing the road that motorists may feel when they are not used to cyclists but also aware that they can kill them with the slightest mistake. It's a street design problem, not just a driver awareness problem.
I understand that people (or their friend, or coworker, or uncle whoever told the story) have had traumatic near-misses with cyclists in the past that make them nervous around people on bikes that remind them of said incident.
Finally, I understand that the growing number of cyclists represents change and a future that may arrive painfully.
Now for my load of questions.
What I don’t understand is why cycling feels so different politically, culturally, and viscerally (vehicles seem to whip by a lot closer) depending on what kind of bike you ride. How do we achieve bike infrastructure here when people have such strong reservations around the kind of “good” or “bad” cyclists it favours? What are people really trying to say when they divide cyclists into the good ones and the bad ones?
I am both the friendly European-style cyclist and the hated drop-handle, spandex wearing cyclist. Same person, same courteous behaviour, different bike. How do other people experience these two personas?
Can we move things forward without also politicizing the cruiser cyclists, since they don't seem to ignite the same fury in people that the bike club does? Did Europe go through these same growing pains long ago?
GRACEN JOHNSON works as an urban strategist and communications professional in The Maritimes. Despite finishing her MPhil in Planning, Growth, and Regeneration in 2013, she has never stopped studying the city. Gracen thinks of her day-to-day as participatory action research, diving into the question of how Strong Citizenship can transform a city. She wears many hats exploring that herself, including as the creator and coordinator of an accelerator for small businesses that build community. She also freelances around the vision of "Projects for Places we Love" and has a video blog called Another Place for Me.
This year, Gracen is sharing field notes on her experiences with Strong Citizenship. In this regular column, you'll get snapshots of life as a friendly neighbour in a quintessential Little City that feels like a Big Town.