Non-fiction

Bicyclists Are A Minority, If You Want To Go There

ImageToday was an exquisitely beautiful day. I was riding my bike home in the bright, warm sunlight of a slowly warming spring.

The mild weather had everyone being mild, even happy. They waved to eat other out of their passing moving trucks. Mothers laughed with their children.

I was riding along on my bike. It was a pleasure to ride–light and effortless. At a quiet red light in Bed-Stuy, I turned in tight circles in front of an idling UPS truck.

I thought about a comment I had seen on the Gothamist, under an article about people jogging in bike lanes or something. In the comment in question, Cetrile was sarcastically saying,

Image

in reply to commenter fartatthemoon‘s opinion on bicyclists, for whom he has some rather forceful suggestions.

Cetrile‘s comment intrigued me. As a white, straight man in America, I didn’t think I had ever been a minority. I suppose, for some time, I was a child, and children are sometimes referred to as minorities. Still, I was a straight white male child, which is a fairly advantaged minority, if even if you count children. I’m even Protestant.

So I thought that Certile was just being cheeky, along with being sarcastic. Fartatthemoon was saying some pretty extreme things, and I can see how in the heat of the argument you might say something to make fartatthemoon even angrier, or whatever. Trolling, I guess they call that.

But, I looked online, and sure enough, bicyclists are calling themselves a “disadvantaged” and “oppressed” minority, even outside of surly commenting threads.

In a statistical or numerical sense, there are more cars than bicycles on the roads, but I can’t help but suspect that Certile and her ilk mean more than that. Defining “minority”  like they do in the social sciences–in terms of power dynamics–cars have very tangible power of being both more numerous and much, much heavier than bikes.

It just seems like an unnecessarily loaded manner to describe your chosen means of transportation.

But the Internet is full of think pieces on the question of identity, and while the arguments that ensue in the comments sections are rarely very sophisticated, they are invariably well-populated. These are terms that people think in, so that rubric and vocabulary is bound to pop-up elsewhere. But when it comes describing bicyclists as a minority, the shared terminology invites some very odd comparisons.

Family Fun in Nassau January 6, 1958X 2258credit:  Toni Frissell - assignOne of the strangest is also one of the oldest, from an article published in Sports Illustrated on January 6, 1958. The author of the piece, a self-identified adult male, wrote, “I’m learning what it is to be a member of a minority group. I’ve experienced all the reactions—from oppression to pity to reluctant tolerance.”

Jones’s reaction to riding his bike through Minneapolis in the late ’50s seems so strange, given that it was written against a backdrop of the Civil Rights movement.

On the site “Bicycle Life,fartatthemoon‘s basic argument–that bicyclists break the law and therefore are not worthy of respect–is called a myth and the comparison is made:

“Car drivers break laws too, yet are not subject to this frequent rationale used to oppress minorities: “You are responsible for the behaviour of others of your kind.”  Every person is responsible for their own behaviour. Every driver is responsible for sharing the road safely with other road users.

So bicyclists feel unfairly judged by a majority group who seem to be understanding their group selectively.

There are other ways that bicyclists see themselves as oppressed. Bicyclists often feel like they are unfairly targeted, if not by the laws on the books, then by how laws are enforced on the streets.

In New York, while 11,621 pedestrians and 3,844 cyclists were hurt in collisions with cars, the DOT has prioritized scolding bicyclists, over policing reckless drivers, even though reckless drivers actually have a body count (155 people in 2012). Gothamist also reports how police investigations following car-bike collisions are often delayed, if they are done at all, and the full extent of the law is rarely carried out against drivers who cause fatalities.

It’s sad to consider–and it either complicates the question, or simply renders it moot–but it’s unclear if these similarities exist because bicyclists qua bicyclists are a minority, or if it’s because the people at highest risk for traffic fatalities are also minorities in many other, more conventional understandings of the word.

I guess the conclusion I keep coming back is that we’re so used to the language of social sciences in our political discourse, that describing your group as a minority group is a familiar narrative and a politically savvy one. That doesn’t make any of the language inaccurate, but it might make it confusing. The language we use always has baggage and the phrase “disadvantaged minority” is indisputably evocative in 21st Century America.

Instead of risking coming off as insensitive or hyperbolic, I’d probably shy away from making the comparison myself, but maybe I’m missing the forest for the trees or something. I’d describe my college-brush with sociology to be a  negative one, so it’s possible my personal bias is missing why bicyclists describe themselves in this terminology.

At any rate, riding around on a beautiful, late April afternoon felt pretty privileged, even above the everyday good fortune I have just being me. Even as the bike lane was parked in, swerved into without signaling or checking, even as I kept silently narrating my actions as I pictured myself waking up in a hospital room–a car would approach and I would say to myself “I heard him coming up on my right…” even as I had to keep reminding myself that I was swift, graceful and hyper-aware and therefore safe, even as people honked at me for obeying traffic laws, even as pedestrians stood in bike lanes, needed to be dodged, and often didn’t even notice me at all, even as I breathed car exhaust, I felt really lucky.

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