Sometimes The Onion says it best: there is a vocal contingent of people who claim that only privileged, able-bodied, middle class people ride bikes. I am usually dumbfounded when I hear this.
“We don’t need more bike lanes for trust-fund hipsters in San Francisco!” they fume. “Families can’t ride bikes! They need cars! We need to make it easier for families to drive in this city.”
When I tell them that I ride with my kids, as do many of the parents at our kids’ schools, they look aghast. “How can you risk your kids’ safety that way?” they say. “It’s not safe to ride a bike with kids in San Francisco.”
“I hope you’ll support more separated bike lanes, then,” I say. Then they stomp away.
I think it’s easy to confuse people who ride bikes with people who write about riding bikes. Am I privileged, able-bodied, and middle class? You betcha. But that’s basically what defines a blogger, not what defines a bike rider. If you look at blogs, everything from riding bikes to dumpster diving to gardening to worrying about money looks middle class. Talking about ourselves and our first-world problems is just what we privileged, able-bodied, middle class people do. It’s appalling, I know.
Who do I see riding bikes in San Francisco? I see families like ours, and road racers, and homeless guys carrying giant bags stuffed with aluminum cans on their shoulders, and men in suits going to work in the Financial District, and last week, a dad in a security guard uniform with his son balanced on a pillow over the top tube. I see the man with no legs passing me when I ride along the Panhandle, and the grandfather with his oxygen tank in his trike on the Embarcadero. I’m least likely to see other moms with kids, but we’re out there too.
I like that when I ride my bike I’m part of a community that isn’t defined by privilege. I work with surgeons who complain about how poor they are, even though a first year surgeon at my university earns (much) more than my husband and I do together. They’re comparing themselves to investment bankers at their kids’ private schools and they feel poor. But riding around the city I see how lucky we are.
At our son’s school I was talking with a friend who just started riding her daughter to school last year. Like us, she sold her car when she bought a cargo bike. Unlike us, they are a one-income family, which is painfully difficult in San Francisco (except for investment bankers). “I’m so happy now,” she said. “We maxed out the credit card trying to maintain that car. For the last repair before we sold it, we had to pull money from the savings we’d managed to put away for our daughter. Now we’re paying off our debt and I finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.” Matt and I both work, and we’re not that close to the edge. We’re lucky! But there’s no question that getting rid of our car made it easier to live in San Francisco, where even surgeons feel poor. Owning cars is expensive, and especially so in San Francisco. It’s not something you can afford if you’re not privileged.
Bicycles aren’t just for the middle class, or even just for the able-bodied. However, for now at least, they are still just for people willing to look at the world a little differently, whether by choice or by necessity. We chose to ride bikes when we could drive, and being able to make that choice is what makes us privileged. But when we chose, we joined the legions of people who have no choice but to ride bikes or transit. When we ask for more support of alternative transportation, we’re asking to make their lives better too.