A few months ago I was riding my bike into work and pulled up to a red light with no cars ahead of me. The bike lane peters out for the 500 feet preceding and following this intersection, so usually I move into the center of the lane–if I try to stay alongside traffic where the bike lane would be, then I get squeezed off the road on the other side of the intersection. On this day for whatever reason, probably the lack of traffic, I stayed to the right.
As I’m waiting for the light to turn green, a guy in an SUV pulls up alongside me. I look over at him–I’m sure he’s going to try and burn me off the line, which sucks because the road narrows on the other side and as I mentioned, I’ll get run off the road. If he guns it when the light turns green I’ll have to drop behind him to merge with traffic in the intersection, a dangerous maneuver.
Apparently my displeasure must have been evident on my face, because he rolled down his window and:
“Why do you have to look at me like that? Why do you have to be so unfriendly? We can share the road, man!”
I stared at him, mouth agape, and of course the light turned green right then and, sure enough, he puts the pedal down and I have to merge in behind him. As it so happens, the place he was in such a hurry to get to was a pullout a mile down the road–he was going jogging. I saw him, pulled off myself, and gave him a massive earful, explaining just how threatening and dangerous his actions were. His idea of “sharing the road” was basically that he got to do whatever he would normally do, and I had to stay the hell out of the way, and I told him as much.
I have a lot of time to think on while I’m on my bike, and one of the things I keep coming back to (especially since I was hit by a car a few months ago) is how threatened I feel by cars when I’m riding in or near traffic, and what an unusual feeling that is for me. The slightest movement or even suggestion of movement will often cause me to slam on my brakes or swerve towards the shoulder as I attempt to anticipate what the driver might do. Sudden movements by cars do not make me happy!
But, by and large, this is not the norm in my life. Whether I’m riding on a country road, hiking solo in the gorge in the summer, or walking through downtown drunk in the middle of the night, I generally feel entirely safe from others. I may be worried about weather, or how I’m getting home, or whatever, but the sense that I might be attacked or hurt by other people is just not there.
I can remember the exact conversation in college when I finally realized the background level of fear that women live with on a day to day basis. I was talking with a girlfriend who had just returned from a trip to France, and she was describing her reluctance to explore the city at night, even alongside her good friend. Wasn’t an especially bad part of town or anything, she just felt afraid. As the conversation progressed she explained that this wasn’t exclusive to foreign travel, either–she often felt that way here in the states, even in the sleepy college town we were attending school in.
I hate to say it but my initial reaction was something along the lines of “gosh, how weird, how can you live with fear like that all the time?” Her mindset was so alien to me that I thought it must be unique to her. Thank god the neurons in my brain connected to some of the shit I’d been reading online before I opened my stupid mouth. I knew on an abstract level that women are subject to all kinds of street harassment and unwanted attention, and are obviously at a much higher risk of sexual assault than men, but it wasn’t until this moment that I began to understand the impact of that unfortunate reality.
Fear. Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little, of course varying from person to person, but from what I gather, very few of my girl friends have gone through life without feeling it.
That’s something I try to understand and empathize with, but having no similar frame of reference makes it hard. I realize I’m reaching with this, but biking has given me at least some insights into what it must be like living in a world filled with potential threats. Motorists take for granted their position of privilege and power, and are totally unaware of how threatening the mass of metal they’re piloting can be to a cyclist. You have a space carved out for you in the bike lane, but often cars will move into that space, either because they don’t know or care about your presence. As a result, you can never fully count on it being safe. Drivers will frequently yell or honk at you in contexts when they hold all the power–hence my initially stunned and silent state when that SUV driver started hollering at me.
I mean, the guy was yelling at me for looking insufficiently chipper. It was a pretty close analogue of the classic “Smile for me!” line usually directed from creepy old men to young women.
As a motorist, before I started regularly riding around during rush hour, cyclists sometimes seemed paranoid to me–I got the impression from their body language and sidelong glances that they were threatened by me and my car when we were traveling alongside one another in traffic, to give one example. I’m a good driver, and I’m pretty aware of cyclists, so I didn’t totally understand this–I know they’re there, I’m not gonna swerve into them! But ultimately, it’s not about me, it’s about all the crazy shit they’ve seen other cars do. And as far as they know I’m just another lunatic.
I could easily go on and list more similarities. If nothing else, at least my time on the bike gets me thinking about these issues. I do believe, though, that it’s helped me to understand the sensation of being threatened in a more visceral way.
Of course the irony here is that I was able to jump off my bike and yell at the guy who nearly ran me off the road. For a woman that would have been a much greater risk–maybe one not worth taking, since a middle aged guy probably won’t be very receptive to you anyway. And when I get home from work, I take off my helmet and put my bike in the garage and return to my cloistered world of taking my physical safety for granted. Unfortunately, women can’t escape the context of society that creates that background fear. The only way to address it is to change the way society treats women.