I’ve been using biking as a method of commuting and transportation for nearly 5 years now. I started in college when I didn’t have a car and, to be honest, I really only brought my bike to campus because it seemed like that’s just what you do. I didn’t think I’d really end up using it too much. The campus was easy enough to walk everywhere but I started to use my bike more and more to get to places off campus quickly, to work, and more.
Back then, I had a dark blue hybrid bike that I had used since I was a teenager. It was heavy but it worked well enough. Once I moved off campus though, the weight of the bike started to become more noticeable. I’d struggle up a hill while people on road bikes would glide past me. I would get to the end of a gear shift and realize I could have benefitted from another few gears. Because I used my bike nearly every day to get to campus in the warmer months, I started considering upgrading to a road bike.
So then, on May 30th, 2016, I got my beloved Raleigh bike.
At the time, this was one of the most expensive things I owned. The bike came in at around $800 and, even though I used my bike every day, I was nervous about having such a costly item in my possession. I was scared I wouldn’t use it and the money would go to waste or that someone would steal it. But to this day, it’s one of my favorite things I own and biking has become one of my favorite experiences to experience.
In Fort Collins, I got more involved with homelessness advocacy and attended city council meetings when they discussed homelessness policy. I can’t remember when or how, but I got connected to Chris Johnson, the director of Bike Fort Collins. Bike Fort Collins is a “Northern Colorado-based advocacy group dedicated to increasing participation in active transportation, advancing culture and policy changes to create safer streets and communities, while also creating a culture that is inclusive and empowering of all bike riders, regardless of ability or identity.” It’s wild to think about but, looking back, Chris is probably one of the key people who has significantly affected my life. Not necessarily because we were really close or similar, but because the information he gave me in the few times I was around him was so influential.
What was that info? Chris approached biking from a mobility justice aspect. By that, I mean he spoke about biking as foremost an economically, racially, ability-focused, accessible means of transportation. This wasn’t just bound to biking but also included walking, buses, and all other means of transportation that wasn’t a single-rider car.
One of the key points he emphasized was that biking is a method of transportation that low-income communities rely on because many can’t afford cars. In fact, ⅓ of all people who ride bikes are in the lower-income quartile.
When he pointed this out, it was a perspective-shifting moment for me. On an unconscious level, I knew that bikes were used by lower-income folks but I didn’t think that such a substantial percentage of bike users were from that economic quartile. Largely because when most people think of bikers, they think of young professional biking to work in their suits, college kids on cruisers, or cyclists in their spandex gear. This point opened me to bike advocacy and viewing biking as a way to a more mobile-ly just society.
I really liked the fact that Chris disliked the label “cyclist”. I never considered myself a bicyclist and still don’t. I looked at cyclists and bicycling as an elitist and ageist sport with middle-aged white men who lectured people about wearing helmets, using hand signals, wearing appropriate clothing and looking down on all those who didn’t follow their cycling culture. I disliked how similar cyclist culture seemed to NIMBY-ism (Not In My BackYard- NIMBY, or Nimby, is a characterization of opposition by residents to a proposed development in their local area. It carries the connotation that such residents are only opposing the development because it is close to them and that they would tolerate or support it if it were built farther away.).
The cycling culture didn’t include the low-income person of color who was using a bike from the thrift store to get to a from an hourly job. It didn’t include teenagers from the projects or people who were experiencing homelessness who didn’t have helmets, bike lights, or any of that other bike gear. The cycling culture, instead of embracing those bike users, tended to look down on them and advocate for biking if it only was for the cyclists, not the “others”.
And when you think about it, all those Lance Amstrong-type cyclists are usually popular in suburban affluent white neighborhoods. You don’t really see that kind of culture in lower-income communities of color.
The Gender Gap
Chris also noted gender disparity when it came to bicycling. There are different studies that have different results, but for the most part, it seems like 70-85% of bicyclists are men. There’s a couple of different factors for why that may be.
Women feel less safe to bike on unprotected streets. Back in college and to this day, I’m pretty much the only woman I know who bikes regularly. In college, I went on a bike ride on a trail with a friend and she was very nervous to bike in general, but the minute we had to cross a street, she froze. I’m comfortable at this point biking around cars and feel pretty confident just biking on the road. But many women don’t feel the same way. Chris noted that safety is a huge factor and when protected bike lanes are installed, bike usage amongst women goes up. Protected bike lanes are bike lanes that have a barrier that partially or completely separates the bike lane from the road.
There’s also the general safety of doing any activity like running, biking, walking that women tend to worry about.
It may seem silly, but appearance or vanity is an aspect of bicycling that results in fewer women biking. The appearance aspect can be related to sweat, appropriate bike apparel, helmets, and hair. This is actually something I definitely consider when biking, maybe more so than the safety aspect.
This is Texas, so I have to be mindful of how much I will sweat when I’m done with a bike ride. I carry a hand towel and travel-sized deodorant with me in my bag and usually find the nearest restroom right after a bike ride so that I can cool down, wipe down the sweat, and put on deodorant.
Many of the skirts and dresses I buy are specifically at a length where I’d be able to ride my bike in them. I have always been firm that I bike in whatever I want to bike in. I’ve had men comment that I’m not wearing the “right” clothes for biking when I show up in sandals, heeled boots, or a dress. Which I find pretty ridiculous because if I showed up in a dress and sandals on my bike and was able to get there without an issue, it’s obviously perfectly fine clothing to bike in. And when you look to places like Copenhagen, people bike in whatever works for them.
And then there’s the big controversial helmet issue. Helmets do mess up hair for men and women. They make the heat hotter, sweat accumulates on the forehead and on the head which is why the term “helmet-head” exists. That can be a much harder thing to try and “correct” because it is just much harder to duck into a bathroom and wash your hair of sweat. And so the conflict for men and women who want or need to maintain a clean head of hair is either to somehow find a way to do their hair post-biking or to go helmet-less. Additionally, helmets usually accelerate forehead acne because it traps heat, sweat, and bacteria on the head. What a bummer! For women who already have a large safety concern, the prospect of biking without a helmet may just make them choose to forgo biking altogether.
As someone who sometimes wears and helmet and sometimes doesn’t, I liked how Chris also sometimes didn’t wear a helmet. There were a couple of factors why he didn’t think helmets were 100% necessary.
- Cars give helmet-less bikers more space. When a driver sees a bicyclist without a helmet, they tend to be more cautious around them. Whereas when they see a bicyclist wearing a helmet, they tend to think they are more experienced and therefore don’t give them as much space on the road.
- Bicyclists who do wear helmets tend to engage in riskier behavior because they think they are protected with their helmet.
- “…modern helmets are designed to protect against skull fractures, but don’t do much for preventing traumatic brain injuries, such as concussion.”
- In places where there are higher rates of bicycling, like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, a majority of the users do not wear helmets or any other cycling-specific apparel.
- When bicycling advocates equate bicycling and mandatory helmet usage, it deters people from biking. In other words, if the bicycling community said, “you can only ride a bike if you wear a helmet,” there would be a good amount of people who just choose to not bike then. That could be because they maybe don’t have a helmet, can’t afford a good quality one, or just because they don’t want to.
Now, and then, I sometimes wear a helmet but I sometimes don’t. If I’m biking to the grocery store that is a mile away and I take a bike path all the way there, I don’t wear a helmet. If I know I’m going on city streets and long distances, I put on my helmet. And, in my mind, both are okay!
When it comes to bike advocacy, the ultimate goal is just to get people out of cars and into alternative modes of transportation. Therefore, putting barriers upon any kind of transportation, whether that’s walking, biking, scootering, or taking the bus, is counter to achieving overall street safety.
Obviously, I want to promote safe biking so I do use hand signals, I deck my bike out in lights (fun rainbow lights!), I use bike lanes or the road and not the sidewalks, etc. But it’s counterproductive and elitist to say that you can only bike if you use the right gear, wear the right clothes, or look the part. This all spoke to me because it shifted my perspective of biking and it opened up an avenue of justice and activism that I could work for.
It was also a lane of justice that impacted kids. A lot of young kinds in lower-income neighborhoods use buses, bikes, skateboards, or scooters to get to school or around the neighborhood. Their parents are busy with work or maybe their family doesn’t have a car and I found that advocating for these alternative methods of transportation could impact people across the socio-economic board. And an added bonus was that it was inherently environmental advocacy but, to be quite honest, that was not really the main appeal.
Bike Fort Collins also focused on general street safety. That meant making walking safer and using a model called 8 to 80 which I had first heard about when I traveled to Colombia. The 8 to 80 model was about making streets safe and walkable for someone who was 8 years old to someone who was 80 years old. Colombia was looking towards that 8 to 80 model to make their streets safer, more accessible, and overall better for everyone. Bike Fort Collins knew this model and worked towards it by advocating for street lights in a low-income neighborhood so that those residents felt safer to walk at night. Also, advocating for better sidewalks that were ADA compliant and installing better sidewalks in low-income neighborhoods.
Moving to Texas, I was pretty appalled at how sidewalks just ended here. There’s a lot of streets that don’t have sidewalks and so many that don’t have ramps or the tactile paving bumps. There are houses that will have a sidewalk in front of their house, but the second you move to the house next door, the sidewalk will abruptly end once the new property starts. Walkability and accessibility were clearly not in developers’ minds when Austin was built.
That means walking is not really commonplace here. Pretty much every time I walk or run here in Texas, I come across a car that breaks the right-of-way rule. I’ll be waiting at an intersection, the walk sign will turn on and, as a pedestrian, I now have the right of way and cars will literally just keep going and not even attempt to stop or let me go. They ignore the walk signs and I’ve been at intersections where there’s multiple other pedestrians and we share this same exasperated, “What are these cars doing? They should be yielding to us!”
I talked to someone from Texas who told me how they just went on a stroll around their neighborhood and how they had never really done that before but they loved it. I walk a lot, in Austin and back when I was in Denver so it was just different to think that some people really don’t just take walks. Another person here always drives their car to a yoga studio that is half a mile away from their place, a 10-minute walk through a residential neighborhood, but even in good weather, they start up their car. And another person seemed confused that I chose to ride my bike to the coffee shop, which was half a mile from my place or a three-minute bike ride, even though I owned a car.
It disappoints me but I also understand it because Texas is not a walkable city and frankly the US doesn’t emphasize alternative modes of transportation. So of course, for many people, driving is the default because it’s always been the default in our culture.
I should note that I don’t advocate for completely getting rid of cars or even saying cars are bad. I’m an advocate for improved methods of transportation that are accessible to people with marginalized backgrounds (race, gender, age, income level, and ability) that make our streets safer. There are many cases where cars or ride-sharing are necessary and the best method of transportation for a person. There are also many cases where biking should be a good alternative or maybe jumping on a train or light rail would be a good choice. Maybe a nice walk to work would be the healthiest for someone. Either way, how can all those methods be better, be safer, and be more readily accessible?
It’s getting better
Austin is doing a lot and they had plans to improve mobility infrastructure around the city. Move ATX is an organization that I follow who do advertising campaigns to promote biking, scootering, or busing.
What sparked this post is that I recently moved to a neighborhood with lots of protected bike lanes and it almost made me cry. It’s beautiful smooth green lanes with concrete barriers between the bikes and the road. Even when I move closer to the interstate or less modernized roads, there are still bike lanes.
And even though scooters are controversial and I have a bit of disdain for scooter users, I support them because they get people out of cars!
If you are not aware, there are these electronic scooters popping up all across the US in most major cities. Denver has a bazillion of them and Austin has them too. It’s run by different startup companies like Bird, Lime, Uber, Lyft, etc. The anger over scooters is mostly because scooter-users are pretty… stupid. I’ve seen them going in a car lane in the opposite direction (aka riding on the road into traffic). Almost everyone who rides a scooter rides them on the sidewalks even though it’s pretty well known they should be like bike and use bike lanes. I’ve seen multiple crashes and multiple ambulances who are patching up someone who got in a crash. They get left in rivers and lakes or are just left lying on the ground, in the road, in parking spots. I’ve only ever seen one person using a helmet with them but I thought that was great!
Even with all that, I still overall support them. I’m in social biking group on Facebook and someone shared this graphic to explain why people should support scooters in the city:
Overall, the goal is to make things safer and often times that means getting cars off the street. Cars are pretty damn deadly.
For 2016 specifically, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data shows 37,461 people were killed in 34,436 motor vehicle crashes, an average of 102 per day.
In 2010, there were an estimated 5,419,000 crashes, 30,296 deadly, killing 32,999, and injuring 2,239,000. About 2,000 children under 16 die every year in traffic collisions. Source
And I’ve said that my most likely cause of death at this time of my life is being hit by a car while I’m on my bike.
From 2013 to 2017, 3,958 Cyclists have died across the U.S. (FHWA)
- 792 average for each year
- 777 of the 792 (98%) were in accidents with motor vehicles
Texas is the 16th deadliest state for bike fatalities with about 48 annual deaths. Source
But I’m not just here for bike advocacy or increasing walkability but I would love all forms of transportation to get better. Ridesharing, pedicabs, mopeds, scooters, buses, light rails, trains, carpooling, tuk-tuks, trams, motorcycles, taxis, skateboarding, segways, unicycles… At the very least it’d be entertaining to see more modes of transportation on the street.
So anyway, this was sparked by a move to a more bike-friendly neighborhood and surge in my love for my bike. It’s been cold in Texas relative to Texas weather (think 40’s-50’s and lows dipping to freezing level). I have been running a lot! Although not so much this past week just with the weather. However, I know it doesn’t compare to heaps of snow which I’m very grateful for!
Here’s my very last-minute Halloween costume:
I’m still doing lots of Texas nature drawings which I update more frequently on my Instagram.
I went to a rally to support Hong Kong at the capitol.
There’s also a new mural close to my new apartment. 我非常愛你 “I love you so much”
This is referencing the “I love you so much” mural that I do the Morning Jo run club with here in Austin. Austin also apparently hosts Eeyore’s birthday or something so Eeyore is also somewhat significant to Austin. John Oliver has a funny bit that can inform you a bit about the whole Winnie the Pooh thing and how it is mocking Xi Jing.
I’ve also experienced political disenfranchisement here! Since I recently moved to my new apartment, I missed the deadline for updating my address and therefore can’t vote in the November local elections here in Austin. You have to register at your current updated address 30 days before election day which I moved after the 30-day mark. When you think about who move frequently or who don’t have stable long-term living environments, they typically tend to be lower-income folks or younger people. Also, Austin is apparently very gerrymandered but that’s Texas (and the US) for you.
Anyway, I’ll have another post soon as I already know what I want to discuss next!