Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why Alternative Transportation Can Be a Form of Activism

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the intersection of the two seemingly disparate ideas of transportation and gender. Most likely, my recent interest in the two topics in conjunction with one another comes from my new-found love of cycling, but my ruminations on gender and transport don't stop with the frame of my bicycle. I began thinking about the implications of taking the subway, the bus and the train for the two years that I lived in New York City. Obviously, every person packed into a subway car or sitting on a humming crosstown bus means one less vehicle on the crowded streets of Manhattan, taking down the air and noise pollution significantly and most likely decreasing the number of collision-related injuries and deaths. But less obviously, participating in alternate forms of transportation puts one in a more vulnerable position, taking them out of the safety of their personal vehicle and placing them in contact with strangers, darkened street corners, and abandoned late-night subway stations.

It takes awareness, wherewithal and a little dose of courage for ANYONE to take the subway back to one's apartment alone at 3am, although it took me a while to admit to myself that I was vulnerable to any negative consequences by waiting alone on an almost empty subway platform. This vulnerability was palpable not just because I am a woman, but also because the reactions of my friends and family would lead one to think that my womanness somehow made me more of a target. I refuse to believe that I was any more susceptible to assault or attack because I was a woman alone on a subway platform because I believe this to be a subscription to victimhood. I understand that pleading with me to "be careful" or to "just take a cab home" were their efforts to protect me from the comfort of their own apartments and from across the country, but their attempts at protection made me feel less like a woman and more like a child that needed to be told how to function in the world. Which made me doubt my own confidence in my safety. Which, in turn, made me start taking cabs home when I had maybe had a few too many or was a little more tired than usual.

Now that I have started cycling, I'm starting to feel this same undue protectiveness coming from all directions. When my brother, a road cyclist of over 5 years, decided to bike 100 miles from Los Angeles up to Santa Barbara, almost everyone was impressed instead of worried. This could be due to his experience with road riding, but I don't think his years of riding were what made my family and his friends okay with his excursion. When my brother and my boyfriend ride their bikes to work or to do errands, friends shrug their shoulders or shake their heads in a disbelieving - albeit impressed - manner. When I decide to ride 2.5 miles to Target to run an errand, I am met with worry and hushed voices regarding my safety. I understand that my family and friends want me to be safe and want me to be aware of myself when I'm on the road, and I appreciate their concern; I do not, however, appreciate their overwrought concern that is directed only at me and not at my male friends and family who decide to employ cycling as their primary mode of transportation.

As of right now, I live in the hills. Due to my level of experience, the quality of my bicycle, and the grade of the nearby hills, cycling everywhere is totally out of the question. I'm forced to drive in order to cycle, and for now I'm okay with that. I've only had my bike for three months, and I have no desire to completely abandon my four-wheeled vehicle in favor of my two-wheeled one. I didn't begin cycling to make some grand statement about the reduction of my carbon footprint. I didn't start riding my bike to prove anything to anyone, least of all to myself. But slowly I've been realizing that cycling - and all other alternative forms of transportation, for that matter - actively takes a stand against the pervasive car culture of my hometown of Southern California, a culture that is dangerous to others, to animals, to the environment, and to the landscape and unique geography of the area. Cycling is only dangerous to me if I decide to ride in a dangerous manner, and I've been taught by experienced bikers how to obey the rules of the road. That being said, I understand that I have no control over the actions of vehicles larger than my vintage road bike, and that the unprotected state of my cycling body potentially puts me at risk for injury.

But I am beginning to realize more and more that by participating in this activity, I am also actively changing and challenging the perceptions of females and their safety when engaging in cycling and other solo, alternative transit options. This activism also comes in the form of my good female friend who chooses to take the Metro to and from work in Downtown Los Angeles alone instead of buying a car, or my closest gal pal who prefers walking to dinner in her neighborhood despite the setting sun. We may not be speaking out at rallies, but our activism in the form of alternative transportation makes me feel like I am a part of what Susan B Anthony called "free, untrammeled womanhood.” The bicycle helped to liberate women from their domestic setting and attire. That liberation became taken for granted when women preferred less strenuous activity for the sake of aesthetics. I say to hell aesthetics, and to the roads with our bodies. Transportation need not be gendered, and our gender should be no indication of our ability to travel.


Princess Leah said...

For the record, this parent worries every bit as much about her son bicycling around as her daughters. It's about the horrifyingly bad drivers, not about the cyclists. Most people behind the wheel of their cars can't or won't admit to the existence of other forms of transportation--or pedestrians, for that matter. See: Ray Bradbury.

Anonymous said...

Your brother is mad. That's a long ride. Good stuff you are writing here kj. Keep it up. Oh, and stay safe... Lol Jcb