Guys: what the hell?

Last week a local bicyclist reached out on facebook and shared this story:

I rode on Bike to Work day and it was awful. People treated it like a race. I was one of 3 women out of the at least 35 people on the trail (Mt VernonTrail) into the city, both to and from work.

My pannier came unhooked and bounced off my bike that day and instead of anyone stopping to see if everything was fine, some jersey-wearing man yelled “GET A BACKPACK” while a peloton of jerks rode by.

Then again on Monday—in the rain—my foot slipped off my pedal and I swerved for a second and a man passing by yells “GET OFF YOUR BIKE”.

These are not ways to build camaraderie or boost ridership. These are reasons so many women or minorities don’t ride, or don’t ride safely. It really really bothers me that there is a very deliberate blind eye turned towards this macho attitude. It sucks.

She’s right. This sucks. This sort of behavior is totally unacceptable.

As your regional bike advocates, we are obliged to point out that to a certain extent, this is an infrastructure problem—the Mount Vernon Trail is narrow and bumpy and not really equipped to handle the number of people that use it every day.

But let’s be crystal clear here: this is mostly a jerk problem.

Inadequate infrastructure doesn’t make it OK to be a jerk.

So let’s remind ourselves of some basic principles for riding our bikes on a busy trail:

  • It’s nobody’s job to get out of your way. When you pass someone, it’s your responsibility to negotiate that space in a way that is comfortable and safe, both for you and for the person you are passing. This might mean slowing down and waiting for an opportunity to pass with enough space. This is not an infringement on your rights as a bicyclist, it’s a basic precept of sharing public space. As the bigger, faster moving entity on a trail, it’s your job to make sure the slower, more vulnerable people around you are safe and feel safe.
  • More importantly, you should expect to negotiate this space. An unimpeded 14mph ride from Alexandria to Arlington on the Mount Vernon Trail is not a reasonable expectation, any more than hitting every green light on Glebe Road is. You might get lucky every once in awhile, but you need to plan time into your commute to pass slower riders, runners, children chasing soccer balls, in-line skaters, whoever. Make sure you’ve had whatever coffee or breakfast you need to be polite, patient, and kind with your fellow trail users.
  • A multi-use path in not an appropriate place for a paceline. Period.
  • Don’t compete. What feels to you like a friendly sprint with your buddies feels to everyone else like a bunch of aggressive jerks in lycra riding inconsiderately. There are plenty of great opportunities to ride fast and be competitive, but a multi-use path is not one of them.
  • And just to cover the basics: ride right and pass left, ride single file, pull off the trail to stop, and angle your lights down.

One of the wonderful things about biking is that it creates community. We’re not encased in 2,000 lbs of car, which means we can see each other’s faces, we can talk to each other, we can interact as people rather than as metal boxes that only communicate with blinking lights. But the flip side is also true. Being harassed by someone else on a bike feels a lot more unwelcoming than the semiotic scattershot of a car horn.

Let’s talk about sexism.

Resist the temptation to ascribe this rider’s experience to some sort of equal-opportunity jerkitude. Women make up about a quarter of the people who ride bikes in the region. That’s a problem for everyone. There are a number of systemic reasons for this imbalance, from social structures to infrastructure, but the entitled macho nonsense described above is a very real barrier to biking. Here are a few simple ways to avoid perpetuating systemic gender discrimination while riding your bike:

  • Don’t shout stuff at women.
  • Don’t ding  your bell repeatedly, or snap your brakes, or sigh loudly at people going slower than you.  If you’re late or bored or just want to go faster, wait for an opportunity to pass, announce your intentions politely, negotiate the space you need to pass safely, and do so without fanfare.
  • Don’t shout stuff at women.
  • Don’t assume that a person with a flat tire is clueless. “Do you have all the tools you need?” is a way to offer help without being condescending. Phrases like “You look like you need help” or “Do you know what you’re doing?” make unwarranted assumptions about competence.
  • Don’t shout stuff at women.
  • Don’t offer unsolicited advice: mechanical diagnoses, bike fit suggestions, clothing tips, whatever. If someone asks your opinion, fine. If someone is in immediate danger of hurting themselves, fine. “Excuse me I can’t help but notice your quick release is open and your rear wheel is about to fall off” is fine, “you’d be more comfortable if you raised your saddle” is not.
  • Don’t shout stuff at women.

Call it out when you see it.

Toxic behavior like this won’t stop unless men call each other out on it. If someone you’re riding with (or a total stranger) is being a sexist jackass, don’t let it slide. You know the social nuances of your peer group best, but here are some things you might say:

  • “Um, not cool, man.”
  • “Hey, that’s sexist.” (or rude/unacceptable/privileged/abelist)
  • “Don’t shout stuff at women.”
  • “Way to perpetuate the kyriarchy, you ass.”

Why are we highlighting this?

We’re sharing this story because it’s depressingly familiar. We hear stories like it every single week.  Sexism and harassment are barriers to biking, just like unsafe intersections or FedEx trucks in the bike lane.

WABA works to make our roads and trails safe for all users, and that includes safety from harassment by other bicyclists. This type of work is harder than educating police, harder than testifying before lawmakers, and yes, harder than removing a parking space to make room for a bike lane. It means having tough conversations with friends and neighbors, and sometimes taking a long look at ourselves. But it’s necessary to create the kind of community that we want to bike in.