Bicycles and privilege

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.

This is an expensive bike, but it cost less than half of what we got when we sold our car.

This is an expensive bike, but it cost less than half of what we got when we sold our car.

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.

These are some of the ways parents like us get to school (at Rosa Parks Elementary).

These are some of the ways parents like us get to school (at Rosa Parks Elementary).

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.


Filed under advocacy, car-free, commuting, family biking, San Francisco

7 responses to “Bicycles and privilege

  1. Susanne

    Right On! (or should I say, Ride On!) So appreciate your efforts on behalf of all of us. I got flipped off the other day on a country road by a driver in the opposite lane! He saw me on my bike and instantly thought to (not to wave) flip me off. It made me realize we’ve made excellent progress but have a ways to go. I love your well balanced, experience and strong voice for the biking community and our world. Thank you. –Susanne

  2. meikasuzanne

    Yes! The people who bike year-round in my area (in Michigan) are almost exclusively the guys from the rescue mission who don’t have another way to get around – even bus fare is too much. They put bike-loving yakkety-yakkers like me to shame easily. It’s beginning to thaw and the beautiful bikes are starting to emerge… but it’s just too easy for us to see bike lanes as a luxury here, when in reality they’re precisely the opposite.

  3. Jonathan

    This is very insightful. The whole point of “privileged” bicyclists is to establish motoring as the default mode, that people like you and me are really motorists at heart, just using bicycles on a whim.

  4. Melissa @ HerGreenLife

    Well said! I am a cycling instructor, and just this morning, I was thinking about ways to bring our classes to those who ride bikes by necessity.

    Traveling by bike is not strictly “necessary” for me, as our family does have a car. However, given the mental health benefits I’ve derived from cycling in dealing with post-partum depression, especially the liberation I feel in discovering that, yes, I can still live a car-lite life with a little one in tow, I might argue otherwise.

  5. Jen

    Well said! I work for a company that maintains a large warehouse – I ride to work and am the only management person who does – I have a car – but the bicycle is my choice. There are about 10 people who work in our warehouse who rides bikes daily to work – they do not own cars and cannot be acoused of being “privledged” – this is how they roll (literally :).

  6. Lee

    Your last paragraph is gold. I recently went to a LBS in the Fort Lauderdale area that specializes in electric bikes of various assortment. Out of curiosity I asked about their typical customer. They told me their biggest groups consisted of older people who can no longer drive but want freedom of mobility (e-trikes), people (generally men) who have lost their license due to DUI or other violations, and the homeless who depend on them for being so kind in helping maintain their beaten down bikes if they should be so “privileged” to have one.

  7. And then there are the people with developmental disabilities that have not lost licenses, but can’t get one. (Don’t get me wrong; I’m not telling anyone to assume that someone with a developmental disability cannot get a driver’s license.) They are mostly on transit from what I’ve seen, but I didn’t start paying attention until we moved to Portland. Still, it’s a big deal to move yourself about with freedom from transit’s schedules whether it’s by bike or by car. I hate the thought that my son could work his butt off to learn to ride and learn the rules of the road and some jerk could flip him off or scream at him. Privileged? Yeeeeaaah.

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