Roman’s take on bicycling in Issue #111 of Slingshot
I have not driven a car in over ten years. This has been difficult as I was brought up in a car-worshipping society. While some people had photos of cars (and Alyssa MIlano) on the walls of their room; I opted for glam metal boys with long hair and makeup, completely vehicle-free. From the time I was a child, I was engulfed in apprehension of cars, from crossing the street in the suburbs to being a passenger.
Although I wanted to achieve the maturity and independence I imagined driving a car would bring me, the stress of being behind the wheel of a metal box that runs on gas felt unnatural. I was often nervous in the few years I drove. There was the fear of hurting others or miscommunicating with other drivers on the road; often the fear of not making it to where I needed to be on time. It was difficult to be present given all the stimuli and “power” I had simply by the pressure of my foot on a the pedal.
Rushing from place to place seems to be commonplace. After living in New York City for nine years (where thankfully it was easy to be car-less) I found the constant busyness to be draining. How many people have been injured or killed simply because others behind the wheel were rushing to get to/from work? This saddens me given that so many people do not find their jobs fulfilling. In a race to support ourselves, we end up hurting others before even getting to the office.
I’ve been able to make it where I needed to go via bike, public transportation, hitchhiking or finding folks who were already heading the same way. While this might not be an option for everyone, beginning to bike – or simply biking more has made my life that much better, healthier, less stressful and I encourage all who are able to do the same. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, even biking one way or one day a week can
help. And just as with anything else, the more practice you have the more confident you will become.
At around eight years old I began bicycling with friend of mine, Miriam, in the Chicago suburbs. It was wonderful to have the independence; to choose when and where we could go and explore. After moving and outgrowing my childhood bike, I entered middle school and high school years. My feelings of isolation were certainly impacted by lack of getting my body where I needed or wanted to go. As a young queer-identified person my search for community went far beyond a gay/straight alliance I founded at my high school. I drove when only necessary going between work, school and home. I was always happiest after I’d parked and gotten out of the car.
It wasn’t until 2009, roughly twenty years after I’d began to bike that I began bicycling in New York after my friend, Tom, who had a knack for finding abandoned bikes, encouraged me start up again. I was terrified, of course. It’s a very fast city, sidewalks, streets, buildings, non-stop motion, frequent crowds. There are a lot of people, and an overwhelming intensity is a permanent resident of the city; it’s in the air. I wouldn’t say people in New York are mean, just frequently in a hurry which is often interpreted as being unkind.
While many people bike in New York, it still wasn’t ideal. The bike lanes were few and far between. I remember being excited to find them, though often they were filled with potholes and occasionally oblivious pedestrians Sometimes they would often be blocked by taxis or the triple threat of bike lane blocking police on horses (gross/infuriating for multiple reasons), but it still became the quickest, most affordable way to get around.
Months before I started biking in NY I pictured myself arriving at a theater I frequented via bike. Perhaps it’s how some people see themselves in fantasies of arriving on the red carpet getting out of a
limo, mine was simply arriving outside an improv theater on a bicycle. Maybe I should have aimed higher – but you know. every time I pulled up I felt magical for doing something I was afraid of, becoming the person I wanted to be.
It’d been years since I rode, and certainly a different terrain than the suburbs. My anger towards the corrupt MTA which had been steadily raising fares and decreasing service on subway and buses lead to much frustration. And “frustration” is putting it kindly. I won’t go into detail about abuses I’ve witnessed committed by MTA cops. That’s another article for another time. The MTA seemed notoriously un-bike friendly; I will say that here in the Bay Area I do not take the comparative bike friendliness of BART for granted.
As a child of the 80’s I felt I was brainwashed into thinking I had to live a certain way, depend on those in “power” for my well-being. I was taught I had to look and be a certain way to be acceptable, this was often tied into giving money to corporations (those running them, not the workers). The are options to live more sustainably, yet I know it’s easier said than done.
One strength has been acknowledging the products they are selling will not bring us joy. If someone GAVE me a brand new car I wouldn’t drive it. Because I know by doing so I would not become the attractive, polished actor from the commercial wearing fancy clothes, listening to whatever band accepted the offer of money/attention by licensing their song to the commercial. It would not be the key to land me the “woman of my dreams” because a) i’m more into dudes at this juncture and b) one does not need a fucking car for others to find them attractive.
No, if I were behind the wheel I would still be me – nervous and, thinking to myself, what the fuck am I doing driving this SUV? And where is my bike?? Still, as much as I try to avoid advertisements, they find their way to me. The message is clear; Conform, conform, conform (or die trying)! Especially if it lines wealthy people’s pockets.
One reason bicycling is still looked at in many places as merely an “alternative” is because there is less profit to be made. Sure, there are the overpriced high end bike stores that are more concerned with making money than getting more people to safely bike – and they can go fuck themselves, yet there is not the weekly trip to the gas station, the insurance, the smog checks.
I think of how many people whose lives have been lost because greedy people want to make money by selling oil. Just because we don’t see the violence firsthand, doesn’t mean it’s not connected.
Imagine if even 10% of the cars were off the road what kind of a change we would see. Hitchhiking and ridesharing, especially with the advancement of social networking, should be commonplace. Spend an hour on the freeway and see how many cars with extra seats pass you by. I did! It sucked. Folks did stop, but they were in the minority. I feel humans have more than enough to share, yet I everyone has their private metal boxes. So many people are going the same direction, yet separately.
I understand wanting alone time, I understand fear of others, yet look at what this fear of change and lack of trust amounts to — the unnecessary heartbreaking pollution of our fierce planet. And one of my favorite sayings – every time you complain about being in traffic – remember you ARE traffic.
This is not a car v. bike argument, because there is no need — obviously bikes win. This is more a call for those of us on two wheels to remember it is worth it, despite aggressive drivers, getting doored, unfriendly bike and subway compatibility, lack of bike lanes (compared to cars – hello, how about a freeway for bikes? One can bike down the side of the 101 – why not have it elsewhere?). Minneapolis had something to this; it was great. Copenhagen is building one, too.
There is enough antagonism out there. The more bicyclists there are on the road the more confident we can become. Simply because cars rule the road and are larger and louder (and smellier) does not mean bicycles deserve less room and less safety.
As my friend, Nogga told me, as I struggled to follow him weaving in and out of car traffic on DeKalb, a busy street in downtown Brooklyn, “You have to be aggressive. You have every right to be here.” True on a bike, as well as other situations. Everyone has a right to be here, even those without the ability, financial or otherwise, to be behind a wheel.
Finally, this is a call for those who are scared or don’t know how to ride- I was once there, too. I look forward to riding alongside you wherever and whenever that may be.