In my little corner of the cycling world, we have a great organization called Mass Bike— they do the usual advocacy and education things related to biking, like lobby for more bike lanes in Boston, sponsor educational sessions on cycling, and host social events and volunteer opportunities. I’m a member and get their newsletter, which is informative if not compelling.
Except for this week. The executive director of Mass Bike, Galen Mook, responded to a recent Facebook post by the city of Springfield, MA about a “crackdown on renegade dirt bike and bicycle riders”. Here’s the post:
Galen highlights the use of inflammatory language in his letter this week:
The City uses phrases like “miscreant” and “negative individuals” to describe the riders, instead of calling the riders what they are, which are kids riding bikes. This is followed by the Police Commissioner freely using words like “aggressive plan of attack” to “crackdown” and “eradicate this issue.”
What issue are we talking about here? Kids are riding bicycles (and dirt bikes) around town, and not obeying traffic laws all the time. People riding bikes to and from work sometimes run red lights or change lanes a lot in traffic. We know all about this– we’ve seen it from our bikes and cars, and sometimes we have done this ourselves. Galen notes that this can and has resulted in drivers considering all people riding bikes as the “other”, or “the problem”, which needs to be “eradicated”. This is bad, very bad for all of us. Galen says it this way:
… the point that sticks with me is how people who bike are commonly grouped together, and thus can be collectively “otherized” so one bad action by an errant rider puts all bikers in a negative light.
I’ve also been thinking about how we advocates group people together: “those cyclists,” “those bike partiers,” “those mountain bikers,” “those e-bikers,” “those darn kids…” And how these groupings separate people, and incorrectly assumes that we have intrinsic differences. Though we may tie our identity to our bike riding styles, in reality we’re just people who bike. We are people who bike fast, people who slow roll, people who bike in the woods, people who bike in spandex, people who bike in nothing (um, World Naked Bike Ride!), and people who ride in groups to blow off steam. This may be obvious but it must be stated: Even among all the tribalism in bicycling culture, we are all just people riding bikes.
Language matters. We’ve written about this a lot on the blog. Samantha has written recently about being a person who rides a bike and a cyclist, and how these names have effects– on her, on others who rides bikes, and on the community.
In medicine, there’s something called “people first language”. Instead of saying a person is “a diebetic”, saying “person with diabetes” is more humanizing. Galen is saying we are all “people riding bikes”. I agree. We are all people riding bikes, no matter what we are wearing, what bike we are riding, or how fast or slow or far we are going. I, for one, take on different cycling identities depending on which bike I’m on, what I’m wearing, and where I’m going. What’s important is that the community (especially those behind the wheel of a car) see my humanity regardless. We can start by calling me what I am– a person who rides a bike.