Can We Allow a Bigger Tent for Women in Bicycle Advocacy?

Image: 123rf. Blog updated 10/01/12

Part I in a new series of blogs engaging a series of bicycle advocates in a conversation on new ways forward for bicycle advocacy.

I am dismayed by the news that Governor Jerry Brown decided, at what seemed like the very last minute, to veto the 3' bill or SB 1464.  Rather than restate my frustration here right now (as I'm still ruminating and digesting this challenge and formulating ideas for action) I'd like to point readers to this excellent blog by Ted Rogers of Biking in L.A., including the disheartening news that Brown has not responded to the California Bicycle Coalition's repeated attempts to engage him on the issues of bicyclists to find out where the heck his philosophy is even at.

The news of Brown's veto is even more heartbreaking in the aftermath of the deaths of two female bicyclists in Newport Beach from collisions with cars earlier this month. A memorial ride will take place on October 28th - please click here to learn more: http://www.newportbeachmemorialride.com/index.html

How are bicyclists to become a powerful enough voice to create safer conditions not only here in California but in the nation as a whole? By becoming a stronger and more united voice. we have to see the forest for the trees. We need to build our numbers in advocacy so that they include everyone who not only already rides, but who wants to ride.

Yesterday there was a very lively conversation stream on twitter about the different "styles" of bike riding, the pro's and con's of Cycle Chic, and those who were both delighted and dismayed by the New York Times article "To Encourage Biking, Cities Lose the Helmets" by Elizabeth Rosenthal. I shared this blog into the mix as my hope that being a bit more open minded and less critical could be a way for the female focused bicycle advocacy movement to thrive. Again Ted Rogers came forward today with another excellent blog today called "The terrible tyranny of the two-wheel tribal wear."

What struck me as I read Ted's piece is how unaware we are as humans of our impact on others by how we dress and how we behave. I am pretty sure the majority of men and women who have worked hard on their bodies so they can suit up proudly in lyrca don't do so thinking "boy am I going to make others feel bad today!" Neither does the woman who is delighted she has found a way around the serious financial challenge of ever increasing gas prices by riding a beautiful and comfortable new vintage inspired bike to work. She loves to wear dresses and heels, she loves the idea she can walk out the door dressed for the office, and the 200 blogs of the Cycle Chic movement have empowered her to do so. Her own ride is not so arduous or lengthy that she feels the need to have special gear to address it. She probably gives no thought to the person who rides by her wearing clothing to deal with a longer commute being made to feel "less than" because she has chosen to dress in professional attire.

As a child I was an ardent equestrian. What does that tell you about me? Yep, I was a horse snob. We even had a word for those who were not professionally trained in riding the way we were - river bed riders. I cringe at the thought of how arrogant that sounds now. We were so sure that those who rode their horses only on trail rides somehow loved their horses less, cared less about their well-being.

We humans love to belong to clubs. We love to feel special, on the inside. I have certainly done my share of wanting to feel like a valued member of a special tribe, and because of that desire I have made others feel left out, uninvited. Not intentionally, but it happened. A decade+ of dealing with ill health and financial challenges have helped me to see that perhaps this is a limited approach to living.

In the wake of the veto, and over the past couple of weeks since  the Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place conference, the first national Women's Bicycling Summit and the Cycle Chic: Past, Present & Future fall fashion show, I have been reflecting and ruminating on just why I've become a bike advocate. Especially as I reflect back on the criticism of both the Women's Summit and our own Cycle Chic show (the harshest criticism was for the fashion show but there was some tough feedback of the summit as well) and think about how to move forward best in my new role on the steering committee for Women Bike. It is a great honor to be asked. So how can I best approach the position? How can I bring my best to the table with women who may have a very different take on the best expression of advocacy than I do? How can I recognize that we all view the world through our own lens, but invite others to step back with me and take a bigger view?

The toughness of some of the critics of the summit and fashion show (apparently giving no allowance for a first time attempt - and why should they really?) reminds me to double check, and perhaps triple check, my own words before they come out of my own mouth when voicing an opinion about another's work in bicycling advocacy. It is so easy to criticize and often so tough to actually successfully "do" something - especially for the very first time.

My own personal take on why I'm in bicycle advocacy boils down to three key reasons: health, safety and equity. We are a nation and a world faced with a completely preventable and completely reversible pandemic with our current sedentary disease challenges (I have been very very surprised that the health of our entire human population is not more in the forefront of bicycle advocacy). Secondly I want our streets to be safe for all citizens whether you're in a car, ride a skateboard, roller skate, ride a bike, walk, run, skip, take transit or a combination of all. Thirdly I want those who cannot drive a car, or choose not to drive a car, NOT to feel less than because of it - but neither do I want to demonize motorists.

(Krista Leaders image of seeing the Share Our Streets wrapped bus. So cool! Both Krista Leaders and Tony Cruz are riders in this image as well as Geraldine Knatz Director of the Port of Los Angeles. I need to find out who the other two riders are - there's a story here. Images had to be reshot so that all of the bicyclists had helmets.)

Indeed, when Georgia Case and I began our work on the multi-media road safety campaign for Bike Long Beach (which became the "Share Our Streets" campaign coming out now) we were advised very strongly not to demonize motorists. The entire campaign has been designed to be extremely friendly and engaging. I must say I was pretty thrilled yesterday when twice I saw a bus pass me on the street that had Share Our Streets messaging on it.

Courtesy counts is one of our key messages for the Share Our Streets campaign, and that is what I am going to do my best to keep putting into play with my own bicycle advocacy outreach.

So here's my question - is it possible to allow a bigger tent for the voices and the opinions of women in bicycling advocacy so we can truly address the needs and wants of women who not only already bicycle, but are interested in bicycling in the future? Is it possible to allow more open minded nuanced conversation without hardening into our opinions and beliefs?

If we don't agree with one and other's approach could we step back and and try and understand where she is coming from rather than attacking first? Is there something we could learn from each other? Could we find the places where we agree and be cordial in our agreeing-to-disagree where we disagree? If we become known as a movement of great diversity yet united in our good will towards getting women and girls on bikes won't we be much much stronger and powerful for it?

I do get that the phrase Cycle Chic is hitting an unhappy nerve for some. From my reading and conversations with fellow bike advocates (female and male) it appears there are those who feel really judged by the chic aspect, that the movement is only interested in the pretty, the young, the new, the modern, or the vintage polished to perfection, and that you'll be looked down upon if you ride an old bike, and don't always dress at your best.

My take on the movement is very different. I see it as a permission slip to be a normal person riding the sort of bike that most appeals to you (and that you can afford) in the clothes you wear to do whatever it is you want to do that day. And from my conversations with Mikael Colville-Andersen that seems to be very much what he means the movement to be about. I came away from spending time with him during the Pro Bike summit an even bigger fan of his work than when I started. 

But, you say, the images on these cycle Chic websites are only of attractive slender people! They often ride in what I think are really uncomfortable looking high heeled shoes! Ok we hear you on your taste - but are these blogs telling you that you HAVE to ride this way as well? Not that I've seen. What excites me about the movement is that it's a movement, a world-wide movement. Can we celebrate that, even if personally we have a different taste for our own bicycle riding and advocacy approach?

Let's set the chic conversation aside now and take a look at the term cycle, or cyclist, shall we? Even Randy Neufeld of SRAM warned of using the term "cyclist" when talking about bicycling when he addressed attendees at the California Bicycle Summit last year. He advised it makes people feel left out. In the U.S. in many people's minds the terms "cycling" and "cyclist" only mean sport riding, and there are many many people who would like to ride a bike that want nothing to do with the sport of cycling (I had no idea the venom that drips from many at the word "lycra" when I first became a bike advocate).

When Georgia and I did our pre-survey for the "Share Our Streets" muti-media road safety campaign we found out that most people who took the survey don't identify themselves as cyclists or bicyclists, they consider themselves "people who like to ride a bike." I have heard that the San Francisco bicycle coalition has come to the same conclusion and is moving to different language, and I would love to speak with the Executive Director and find out if this is true.

For a long time after hearing Randy and finding out our survey results, I went around mentioning this (and even sort of correcting peopel, ack!) to every person I encountered who used the term cycling and cyclist. I've decided to stop doing that. Why? Because it's another way to make someone else in bicycling advocacy wrong in their language and their approach. If I am asked to write an article, blog, give a presentation, or asked outright my thoughts on the subject  I will mention it, the rest of the time I'm going to try and limit my thoughts in this direction on it to this website.

I have become very wary of being a purist in my approach over the past year. Oh sure I'd love hard core female bicycling/cycling advocates to appreciate and/or accept what we're trying to do with Women on Bikes SoCal, but they aren't the audience we're trying to connect and inspire with this website. We want the newbies and the timid. We want the frightened but curious. We're aiming for those who have begun to notice bikes becoming more popular and can imagine themselves cruising to the beach with the wind in their hair, if they can get over their fear of traffic, feeling silly, and getting up the nerve to walk into a bike shop and ask for what they want. We want the women who think they're only riding a bike again because we're offering an excellent wine tour/architectural tour/foodie tour.

When I'm out and about speaking and doing outreach I'm interested in women of all ages who remember the joy of riding as a child but are worried they aren't strong or fit enough to ride - that's where my own personal story of dealing with chronic fatigue and pain has some value. I'm interested in the woman who has never learned to ride and now wants to be able to ride with her children. I'm interested in women, like myself, who have had to give up so much to survive financially and want to feel just fine that a bike and the bus and walking are the ways they can afford to get about now.

How about you?