climate change · cycling · fitness

Why Kim Rides, pt 2: thinking about cycling and social justice

Here on Fit is a Feminist Issue, we’re big cyclists – that’s hardly news. But lately we’ve been having a moment of connecting our cycling to issues of disability and access (Sam, Natalie), social and political justice (Susan), and personal resilience and grit in the face of unfathomable challenges (Cate).

My last post in this space talked about the reasons I cycle. While that post was comprehensive, I realized not long after it was published (and, honestly, thanks to Susan’s brilliant post on sweeping and the public good) that I had missed out a key – really key – reason I ride. And it’s a reason that deserves its own post.

Here it is:

I ride to keep myself grounded and in touch with our planet earth, the other humans on it, and the things we are doing to it every day.

I ride in order to know my own body and its connections to that earth.

I ride as much as I can in order not to drive quite as much as I have been driving.

[Let me note here that I drive a lot. I commute 125km to my job, twice a week, and at least 40% of that commute, still, is driving. I’m not anti-car; I think modest driving in the right vehicles will be part of a sustainable future. But I’m hyper-aware that our planet cannot survive if everyone’s lives look like mine, right now. And I’m striving to change that. Stay tuned for an upcoming post about my new folding bicycle and its role in my commute-in-progress.]

What do I mean that riding keeps me grounded, connected? Let me unpack this a bit.

A wooden boardwalk runs toward a marshland, surrounded by green wild grasses and trees. This is my home, in Cootes Paradise. Photo by the Royal Botanical Gardens, Hamilton.

The first thing any cyclist will tell you is that, when you ride on roads that were built for cars, with a tiny slice of sidewalk attached aimed at pedestrians, you become instantly aware that you are an interloper. You’re in a space that was not designed with your needs in mind, and one that often works actively against your safety. If there’s no bike lane, take your chances with the cars in the curb lane. Or hop onto the sidewalk a bit, being super-mindful of walkers. (I did this last week in the eastern suburbs of Toronto, and it was humbling – there was just no place anywhere on the paved street for me. IN TORONTO! IN 2019!) If there is a bike lane, well that’s lovely, but let’s face it. In many places, still, the bike lane is an afterthought, a political tack-on. It’s painted green or blue. It *may* be *somewhat* separated from traffic. And it’s in the gutter, so cyclists are the first to get whacked by cracked, broken pavement. Plus it’s about as wide as a road bike plus rider – not exactly your average cyclist.

A busy city street with lanes of traffic interrupted by a painted bicycle lane. It looks very pretty and promising but does nothing to protect cyclists from the dangers cars pose to them physically.

Cycling in such spaces, you learn quickly that it’s your job to be aware of everyone around you. To take everyone else’s needs into account, and to guess their potential actions too. This is perhaps more onerous than it needs to be, but I also think it’s a good thing.

Imagine our world if EVERYONE on the road felt like the road needed to be adequately shared, and EVERYONE on the road (or the sidewalk) paid attention to the potential needs of the different users around them. Imagine that. It would be a world in which compassion and recognition, rather than antagonism and hate, were the default settings.

So riding in town can be a challenge – and we know well that it’s a challenge that keeps a lot of people off two wheels, to everyone’s detriment. But what about other places? I mean, road cyclists ride in crazy rugged and isolated places, yes? (Newfoundland, you are amazing.)

For me, riding outside the city is when I feel most connected to, and aware of, space. My home terrain is a deep valley, connected to a looming escarpment (also Susan’s terrain – we are on opposite sides of the same escarpment), and atop that escarpment is exceptional, lush farmland. When I ride through these precious landscapes I feel in my body, ricocheting up from the road through my wheels and saddle, the rich beauty of my and my neighbours’ shared home.

A view from atop the Niagara Escarpment, which Susan and I share as our home. Here, sharp limestone cliff walls boast rich greenery, cascading down into miles of trees under a blue sky.

Some of this land (much, in fact – we’re lucky here) is heritage-protected; we’re part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and also the Ontario government’s “green belt”. And some of it is not. Though note: ALL of this land is the ancestral home of Indigenous peoples who were displaced or worse by European colonial enterprises. Our shared home is part of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum region; more on this at the end of this post.)

One of the things I notice when I ride in these gorgeous spaces is change over time: that suburb is really growing; that farm is no longer in operation; this pavement is breaking apart rapidly, the product of unusual freeze-and-thaw patterns that accompany global climate change. I notice land loss, change of land use, and the changing ecosystem. I also get the opportunity to revel in the stunning landscape we still enjoy, though for how much longer I’m not really sure.

Imagine if everyone who lived in the greater Toronto and Hamilton area, the “golden horseshoe” that is home to the densest population in Canada, had the chance to see their community from two wheels, at a modest speed-per-hour. Had the chance to experience the tourist draw that is Tew’s Falls, not by driving into the area and fighting for parking, but by riding the bare 10km up from Hamilton’s downtown core and witnessing the landscape and its needs alongside the waterfall wow factor.

Tew’s is a wow of a waterfall, no question. Parallel lines of rushing water cascade into a limestone bowl under autumn leaves. Most people drive to Tew’s to enjoy it, but it’s super close to thousands of homes and easily ridable from across Hamilton.

Imagine how much more we would all know, feel, think about what we stand to lose here.

Finally, to ride is to know what a threat cyclists seem to be to car drivers – and what that tells us about how much needs to change.

Think about this for a minute.

Share the road: a car, bike, and tractor can all do it together safely!

Me, a woman aged 45 bearing 175lb of fat, muscle, flesh and bone, and riding a 15lb carbon road bike, is apparently an epic threat to that guy in his F-150. That family in their Dodge Caravan. Those two joyriding teenagers who literally almost took me out when they intentionally grazed me speeding up Jerseyville Road, then laughed their mean-ass asses off.

Something about me makes all these motorists MAD AS HELL. Mad enough to not see me – to not see me as a person. Mad enough to want to risk hurting me in order to get the vitriol out, right out.

I can’t tell you how much abuse I’ve taken – ask any cyclist and hear the same. Usually I get the abuse not for doing much; mostly, just for being on the road, taking up space. Sometimes I do a thing that’s not 100% kosher – rolling through a four-way stop when I’m the first person to reach it, say, or not obeying a traffic signal at a three-way intersection, because rolling through along the curb side seems like it will be safe and fine. I’m happy to admit these are law-breaking activities and that technically I am at fault. But the rage that comes at me! That’s not anger at injustice, nowhere in proportion.

That’s rage derived from entitlement, rage bursting forth from shame.

I’m the last person on earth to lecture anyone about having an unhealthily passionate attachment to their vehicle and their right for that vehicle to occupy the road unimpeded. For years I drove an ancient BMW 535 that my dad gave me; I named it, repaired it at all costs, finally sold it reluctantly. It was a friend to me.

But cycling taught me that relationship was an unhealthy one. When I was in that lovely car the world whizzed by; cyclists jamming the curb were a pain. I didn’t stop to see, smell, think or feel about the world at modest kilometres-per-hour. I just wanted A to B. I just wanted this 4500lb of metal and engineering to somehow stand for me, prove something about myself to the world.

On the left, my former car, a 1987 BMW 535is, one of only 1000 ever produced. On the right, Freddie, my Cervelo R2 road bike. Both are pretty. I love them both. Only one is the future.

We live in a community of human beings, animals, plant life, and micro-organisms that is under grave threat right now. We also just live in a community. How can we be kinder and more compassionate toward one another? Getting on a bike is a great way to find out.

As I noted earlier, I am lucky to live in a beautiful ecosystem that is part of the Indigenous territory covered by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum: that’s a historical agreement that simply says, when you come here to this beautiful place, we all eat with the same spoon. Take what you need but not too much and please, please share. Be mindful of others all the time; we are all in this together.

Cycling taught me that.

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