A Note on the Personal Choices Facing Women Who Bike

Women Bike Chicago 03/23/13

Editor’s note: After Michelle reported on the Women Bike Chicago Conference earlier this month, the Tiny Fix posted a critique of Cynthia Bell‘s advice to “not look too sexy” at a workshop on comfort, safety, and style. This is Michelle’s response.

The Tiny Fix article begins:

As part of a gang of female bikers, I should be … thrilled every time I hear about an event encouraging more women and girls to ride, right? But then sometimes I catch a little excerpt of something that takes all that “hey, ride a bike! It’s fun, it’s efficient, it’s good for you, and it makes you feel totally awesome” and turns it into something awfully patronizing and insulting.

Nadarine and Tiny Fix, thank you for bringing up this important issue. I’ll admit that as I sat taking notes on the event for Streetsblog, Cynthia’s words made me wince, because of the points you made in your post: Women shouldn’t have to tone down their clothing, look less feminine, and avoid drawing attention, because that makes bicycling seem dangerous, puts the blame on the victim, and in the end, it often doesn’t matter.

But you know what? I had the same reaction when I heard other topics brought up, and applied the same logic, to wearing helmets, wearing safety vests, and avoiding the criminal element.

I believe that the sight of widespread helmet use in a city is detrimental to encouraging bicycling because it sends the message that bicycling is a sport, it’s dangerous, and it requires special equipment. If a bicyclist is killed by a driver, the mainstream media often notes whether she was wearing a helmet or not – especially if she wasn’t – even if an SUV ran her over, and a little plastic on her head wouldn’t have made a shred of difference. The insinuation is: Didn’t wear a helmet? Tsk, tsk, she was asking for it.

I think that advocating for people to wear bright orange safety vests while riding their bike isn’t optimal because it puts the onus on the bicyclist to look clownlike in an attempt to be more visible, when the real responsibility is held by the people maneuvering their enormous motorized vehicles to look where they’re going.

I think it’s unfortunate that bicyclists (not just women, either) might have to ride on a stressful main arterial route and not be able to take quiet side streets because of the criminal element present in the out-of-the-way areas. So, we’re going to let violent people force us to choose between getting attacked in a quiet area, or having to mix it up with 18-wheelers on Western Avenue? And anyway, it doesn’t matter in the end even if you do choose the “safer” option, as proven by Allison Zmuda’s horrible recent experience on Milwaukee.

So, I understand Cynthia’s advice about toning down dress, in certain situations, in certain areas. It would be fantastic to live in a city where the incredibly safe bike lane infrastructure, enforcement of traffic laws, and widespread mainstream bicycling culture made helmets and safety vests completely unnecessary. But we simply don’t. It would be great to live in a city where there were no harassers lurking around, and where physical assaults were unheard of, and everyone could ride wherever they want, wearing whatever they want, without fear. But we simply don’t.

I hope no one is discouraged from supporting all the efforts underway in Chicago to address these issues, because we need all the help we can get.

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