Spring Dreams of Bike Lanes
This is the first in a series on biking and infrastructure. Please email your thoughts and questions if you would like to contribute or have comments or particular issues you would like us to tackle.
Early this snowy, windy, and rainy spring in Edmonton, the city began to install its long awaited downtown bike network, along with sections of the bike boulevard along 83rd Avenue in old Strathcona and the bike network improvement and renewal in Queen Alexandra. These much anticipated and contentious bike lanes are incredibly exciting, not only for their promise of getting more people safely on the roads, but for the overall positive impact of an increasingly bikeable and walkable city. When wading through my personal feelings about the impact of these bike lanes I recalled a Facebook post that I had shared near the end of last summer that recounted multiple incidents: “[t]his week cycling in Edmonton, I got called a “dumb fuck” after almost being killed crossing a cross walk, a pickup truck forced me off the road while I was signalling to turn, and another pickup truck driver came dangerously close to me to yell “ride on the side walk.” The same week a driver buzzed past me to yell “nice ass,” presumably disinterested in the possibility that driving dangerously close to me might harm that body that he felt so empowered to comment on. This Facebook post reflected an impression that I know is shared by many in Edmonton’s cycling community: cycling in this city can sometimes feel like a perilous, hostile experience.
While many of those who responded to my post were fellow cyclists and expressed sympathy and support for my frustration, a number of friends and family articulated their concern in such a manner that questioned my right to be on the road or even suggested that I return to driving rather than cycle. Instead of expressing outrage at these hazardous drivers they warned me of the danger of cycling, implicitly reminding me that our roads are designed with cars in mind and that as a cyclist I am not welcome to share them. This victim blaming discourse was not reserved for my family and friends; Edmonton officials have repeatedly responded to pedestrian deaths with victim-blaming public education campaigns despite the recent Paths for the People study that showed that majority of pedestrians killed had the right of way. To a certain degree, the improvement of bike infrastructure shows at least a partial acknowledgement that the city and its roads are also for pedestrians and cyclists; it is a slight move away from the idea of a city solely navigated from behind the steering wheel of a car.
Those who argue for bike infrastructure in Edmonton are careful to couch their arguments in unthreatening liberal accounts of public good, often calling bike infrastructure “a question of public health.” In Edmonton, where hopes and dreams still hang on a fuel and extraction-centric economy, few note the paradox of bike lanes downtown that are partially aimed at young executives and engineers working at ATCO Gas or Enbridge Place. While bike advocates are, by necessity, intent on speaking about bike infrastructure in unthreatening terms—public health, safety, and watered-down environmentalism—those who oppose bike lanes or write angry messages in The Metro’s comment section characterize bike infrastructure as a problem of fiscal responsibility. These irate commenters imagine cyclists as privileged, see cycling is a hobby or leisure activity, and characterize cyclists as lazy millennials who want to slow down traffic and don’t pay taxes. Of course, people do cycle for pleasure, and as a white geriatric millennial I might fit rather neatly into this caricature of the prospective bike lane user as I ride my customised single-speed to gastropubs and music concerts. Nevertheless, as a year-round cyclist who has let my South African driver’s licence expire, cycling is essential to my ability to work, to get to the doctor, and to socialize. This dependence on my bicycle as a necessity to my ability to thrive is mirrored in my experiences volunteering at my community bike workshop where I have encountered an array of people who use their bikes for leisure—to bomb down hills or tour the rocky mountains—as well as those for whom a car might be an unimaginable and unrealizable option. For many, a bike can be an inexpensive lifeline, a means to get to work, or to school.
My experiences as a woman volunteering in my local bike co-op and my excitement about new infrastructure in the city has caused me to pause and pose a series of questions that I hope to explore in the upcoming months as the new bike lanes are installed and the downtown bike grid opens up to increased use. While the new bike lanes provide a promising move towards making the city more accessible to cyclists, infrastructure is not the only barrier to entry for bike commuters. A recent study conducted by Rutgers academics Charles Brown and James Sinclair showed that barriers to entry for cycling for people of colour are more complex than merely infrastructural and include higher concerns over physical vulnerability, being profiled by the police, and harassment. These concerns are exemplified here by an encounter between a young black cyclist and a motorist in Edmonton last year, in which hostility towards cyclists and overt racism intersected. Similarly, in a context where Indigenous and Black people are disproportionately stopped and questioned by Edmonton police in non-criminal encounters, questions of whom bike lanes will service and whom they are for are important to ask. Conversations about bike lanes and infrastructure, especially in public and by those who advocate for them, fail to acknowledge race and gender as important concerns for a walkable and bikeable city. Even if a city provides the infrastructure for pedestrian safety, will women and gender non-binary persons feel safe walking alone? If the city provides bike lanes will Indigenous, brown, and black folk feel safe using that infrastructure if they run the risk of being targeted by police? In a recent piece, Sanjida Rangwala asked who gets to be consulted when we plan changes to infrastructure and, importantly, who gets left out? In each of these cases I am interested in what is dismissed or overlooked when we talk about bike lanes and a more accessible city. For a long time the history of bicycles has been associated with a certain kind of white feminism, in which references to bikes as freedom machines hark back to Susan B. Anthony’s claim that the bicycle was a device for women’s emancipation. Just as 19th-century anxiety over cycling focused on middle-class white women and policing femininity, contemporary bike advocacy tends to focus on the middle-class cyclist to the exclusion of everyone else. While I appreciate the necessary and expedient manoeuvres made by advocates for a more bike-friendly city, I wonder what could be accomplished by taking these conversations further by questioning who gets included in them, and who gets to have a voice? I would like to think through these issues together with readers of Pyriscence and the larger community.
Helen Frost is a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, where she works on the representation of sexual violence in South African print culture. More broadly she is interested in the cultural politics of emotion, the media’s representation of sexual violence, and the politics of race. Outside the university, Helen is passionate about talking about women’s sexual health and infrastructure. She is an amateur bike mechanic and an enthusiastically terrible rock climber. Most importantly she is the proud parent to one awesome three-legged pup.