Cycle commuting in the UK at the moment is very much a male dominated mode of transport. This is often used as an argument as to why more money shouldn’t be spent on it – suddenly commentators who’ve never given even half a fuck about women and minorities decide they care when it comes to spending money on cycling – which is a really idiotic argument that ignores the fact that where you DO spend money on cycling, suddenly people who aren’t white, male young and fit join in. Hence why the Netherlands actually has more women making journeys by bike than men. A better argument would be quite the other way around- that if you have a mode of transport that only white young fit men use regularly, then there’s a big problem for access to that mode of transport that we need to fix. I mean, if only white young fit men were able to safely use buses we wouldn’t be saying BAN BUSES we’d be saying “how can we make buses safer so that everyone can use them?”
It often strikes me, in both off and online conversations about cycling and how cyclists are often framed by mass media, random internet people, gits on twitter and people psychologically* welded to their cars, that cycling and feminism have rather a lot in common.
As both a woman and a cyclist, there’s something horribly familiar about the reaction I get when I talk about experiences on my bike.
I am asked what was my road position, was I in the middle of the road, was I indicating? (was I walking home alone?)
I am asked if I was wearing lights. (Did you have your headphones on? Were you alert?)
I am asked if I was wearing a helmet, or hi-vis (what were you wearing?)
I am asked what did I do to make the driver angry, did I provoke them? (He was just saying hello, it’s a compliment, you should have said thank you)
I am asked why don’t I just get the bus, if cycling is so scary. (It’s just not safe out there. Men can’t be trusted).
I am told that it’s just a few bad drivers, that I shouldn’t tar all drivers with the same brush (not ALL men.)
Constantly, over and over, it’s deemed the responsibility of the cyclist to behave in a way that will make sure a car doesn’t hit them, just as women are constantly expected to behave in a way to make sure a man doesn’t rape them.
At the extreme ends of cycle hatred you get people talking about “anti-car agendas” and how motorists are being disadvantaged by all these concessions to cyclists; just as you get “men’s rights activists” who rail at how white men are being disadvantaged by women demanding things like equal pay and bodily autonomy. Both make the mistake of thinking that losing unearned privileges you’ve always had is the same thing as being oppressed.
The anti-cyclist rhetoric is particularly virulent in the UK at the moment, as proper cycling infrastructure is on the increase, particularly across London. With Mini Holland schemes, quietways, cycling superhighways popping up all over the place and an increasing acknowledgement that increasing cycling take up has benefits to the health of the population and the economy as well as individuals. Just as Susan Faludi’s theory was that a feminist backlash demonstrates that the women’s equality movement is making gains, people have been suggesting that a backlash against cyclists – a “bikelash” – shows that cycling is becoming more a part of the mainstream.
Cyclists and feminists both are viewed as some sort of amorpous mass, where the actions or beliefs of one is seen to reflect that of all of them. A cyclist goes through a red light, therefore ALL CYCLISTS ARE BASTARDS. A feminist writes that all penetrative sex is rape, therefore ALL FEMINISTS ARE MAN HATERS. Neither cyclists or feminists are allowed to be a collection of individuals with different thoughts, actions, motivations, behaviours or ideas. But Cyclists are not one great big united homogonous community – they are people from all walks of life with all different backgrounds, ethnicities, lives, ideas, opinions. The only thing, the ONLY thing that all cyclists have in common is that all of them for whatever reason have chosen to occasionally go somewhere on a bicycle. Cycling is a method of transport, not a religion. And feminists? Again, the only thing that ALL feminists have in common is that they all believe in, and advocate for, equal rights for women; and different feminist have different ideas on how that can be achieved, or what that means. Feminism is an ideology, not a club.
Can you imagine this happening with drivers? Where we routinely assume that all drivers believe the same thing, or becuase one driver speeds, they ALL speed, and we should therefore stop spending money on roads? Or hear a man say “I don’t like Star Wars” and then go “MEN eh? they don’t like Star Wars. WEIRD right?”. Our whole society is structured towards cars being the “default” mode of transport; being normal and mainstream, and roads being FOR them. It takes a big leap for us to think that maybe roads could be structured for all people, all road users, rather than them being an afterthought, and that other transport methods could be *equally* viable, not just an ‘alternative’ or a ‘minority’. If you’ve ever tried to get to the Chingford Hobbycraft on the bus and had to cross the A12, you’ll know what I mean. Likewise, it takes a big leap to see how society treats white men as the ‘default’ gender, and women as a minority or as something “other”.
Male cyclists experience being “othered” in the same way that women do and so I’ve noticed that on many online cycling forums there seems to be a larger number of white men that “get” concepts like this in greater numbers than they do in other spaces. This is not to say that cycling communities are safe space havens full of white male allies – they can be just as exclusionary, frustrating and full of microagressions as all other spaces can be for women. But when calling out sexist behaviour, language or assumptions I have found a larger number of men defending me and supporting me in cycling communities than I usually experience in other male-dominated spaces. On more than one occasion I have gone in to a comments section all full of rage ready to challenge an offhand “women drivers” comment only to find large numbers of men already challenging the casual sexism. Male cyclists often have a better grasp of intersectionality than some feminists – recognising that there are more barriers to women getting on bikes, that women get both cyclists abuse AND sexist abuse (from personal experience, for example, I’ve been driven at and spat at and close-passed like many other cyclists, but I’ve also been physically groped, cat called and subjected to comments like “nice bike, I want to take you both for a ride” and “I want to be your saddle hur ur”).
Of course, one big difference is that a cyclist can just stop being ‘othered’ and join the world of the not-hated by just getting off their bike. Women can’t stop being woman for a day or two just to escape the daily grind of hatred. It would be interesting, I often think, if people who struggle to grasp the concept of privilege, oppression, sexism or othering were to ride a bike around in a perfectly safe and legal manner. I suspect they would start to appreciate the concepts pretty quickly.
*I originally misspelled this so badly that spellcheck thought I meant “psychotically”. I was momentarily tempted to leave it that way.