Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Bicycling as a Civil Right

It's common for bicyclists to complain about being treated like second class citizens. We are expected to get out of the way so that motorists can pass us; we get treated like barriers to speed, not humans. I don't think anyone who has not been shouted or honked at while riding a bicycle can fully grasp the visceral combination of fear, anxiety, adrenaline, and anger that swells up in our bellies during these moments. And those of us who have been killed by drivers can't speak up at all.

Yet: second class citizens? I've been thinking for a while about bicycling as a civil right, and comparisons have been made (mostly unfavorably) between the bike movement and the civil rights movement. It seems that the issue here is race: white people should not be able to claim that their civil rights are being violated, or that their struggles warrant comparison to the historic, heroic struggles of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Oh, but wait, not all bicyclists are white.

A lot of people bike because they're too poor to drive. Guess what color they are? Guess who gets killed while biking? Does it make it more okay to talk about bicycling and carfree transportation in general as a civil right when you bring brown people into the movement? It seems like it, since the Bus Riders Union has enjoyed years of full support from academics and liberals for their fight to improve bus service for the majority-non white bus riders of Los Angeles.

So if the bike movement gets some brown people on board, and pushes them out in front of the cameras, would that make it seem more okay to call the bike movement a struggle for a basic human right?

That's bullshit. The fact that our country's roads and laws make it easier for cars to pollute our natural and human environment than for our bodies to travel safely through our cities is unfair. It is a violation of the basic human right to move freely. I don't care what color bodies we're talking about, and you'd better take off your damn blinders if you're in Southern California and you think white people are the only ones biking.

If you're a white person, maybe riding a bike gives you your first experience of being treated like a worthless individual. I wouldn't know; I'm not white. Is it a bad thing for people who we assume benefit from all kinds of unquestioned privilege to compare their struggle as cyclists to the struggle for equal rights for people of color? Doesn't it just highlight how we are all human, and we all have rights that can, unfortunately, be violated by systems of power?

Bicycling should be a right for ALL people, regardless of race. The symbolic power of car ownership as a marker of status means that the people who are working the hardest to show that they're not trapped by poverty do not want to ride bikes. Let's address this issue instead of claiming that people who are risking their lives to change the dynamics of our streets do not deserve to be associated with the civil rights movement.

Anyone who thinks that the color of their skin protects them from being involved in the disastrous effects of our society's addiction to driving needs to shake off the stupor from all those sexy car ads and pay attention to the world around us.