Welcome to Santa Cruz County’s Bicycle Courier Blog

I thought it would be great to have a place where Bike Couriers and Bike Riders could meet and talk, share stories, trade advice, and build an online community. I look forward to reading and writing our Courier stories, news, and comments.

Rick Graves

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Bicycle Empowerment vs. Bicycle Entitlement - an opinion piece

When I was a kid growing up in rural New Zealand our family farm was in the Waitakere mountain ranges, perched a couple of miles up a gravel road and then up a steep driveway winding through overhanging rainforest ferns dripping their big dew drops down the back of your jacket.

I thought of a bike as a tool and a toy; it was for getting around and play. Racing down that country road with the wind at my back I felt as if I was flying. It didn't matter that I was precariously balanced on the back of my older brother's bike rack on the way to school, or that he often tried to bump me off by hitting the biggest rocks as a joke. The danger only added to my exhilaration. I was always disappointed when we got to the asphalt and he would let me off like so much dead weight. As he disappeared over the next hill, his strong legs barely showing the effort of his acceleration, I marveled at the speed and grace the bicycle gave my sometimes dorky brother. It seemed to transform him with the power of movement.

When I got my own bike I was more cautious, but I was always thrilled at how far I could go up our little road without much effort, and I never tired of letting the miles of greenery just flow past as my little legs found their first tenuous cadence.

In my 'urban twenties', living in the lower east side of Manhattan, my bicycle opened up a whole new world to me. First of all, it's the only practical way to get around. If you own a car in New York you are a fool or must love paying tickets and gridlock, because that's all you get. The subway is ok, but it takes forever and is extremely claustrophobic. The bike is the complete opposite and it's a perfect tool for inner city transport; also your bike lock can serve as a handy form of self defense in a pinch. Most often my bike offered me freedom and empowerment. The freedom to leave my neighborhood and explore the madness that was New York City. Boundaries meant nothing to me, and if someone tried to corner me I could easily get away .. "Gotta go, yo!"

When I became a bike messenger in '94 it gave me an escape out of my dead end retail job where I was treated less than human. In courier work I found a merit-based career where I could move up in value and commission based on my willingness and ability to grow stronger and learn new skills.

People who rode bikes in New York came from every socio-economic background. If you looked at all the snarling and immobilized motor traffic, it just seemed that we were the locals with the most common sense and moxie. Everyone else was trapped in the grid, but not necessarily inferior or worthy of derision beyond a chuckle as you flew past.

It wasn't until I moved back to the west coast in the 2000's that I met the 'Entitled Cyclist'. You know the type.. They sit up real straight in the saddle, snoot aloft, taking up more room than they need on the road to feel comfortable - because godammit they are saving the planet with every pedal turn - and you are just going to have to wait with your carbon-spewing monstrosity. The cyclists who call themselves 'car-free' and look down on you if you drive. Ask them to say 'SUV' without making the letters drip with judgement and contempt. Also included in this category are the inconsiderate cyclists who incite road rage and confuse the flow by blowing through intersections and tearing down one-way streets the wrong way because they feel they deserve to and everyone else should be looking out for them.

I was visibly annoyed with this crowd, and still am for the most part, but I was recently illuminated by a different perspective from a friend who told me that when she first started to ride regularly, she cultivated and used that sense of entitlement to propel her up hills in the rain when really, she would have rather been in a warm, cozy car. "I'd look at these 'car-people' knowing they were fat and lazy and would never get off their asses to do what I was doing, and that made me feel great about myself, even if I was physically miserable." she admitted, adding- "As I got stronger from riding every day, I didn't need that feeling as much." In this instance she used her entitlement to empower herself, although I doubt the smug look on her face inspired many drivers to get out of their cars and into the rain.

I realize that at least half of all human endeavor is motivated by ego, and if you can feel superior to someone else, it's a great motivator. While I see the powerful drive behind such thinking in the bicycling community - and even it's positive outcome - I feel it's a double-edged sword that can create a martyr complex from a sense of sacrifice - i.e. "I'm better and give more because I'm biking versus driving."

An Entitled Cyclist lives in a world relative to the motorist. She feels good because he is lazy and polluting in comparison. In contrast, an Empowered Cyclist lives in a world relative to her better self. She feels good because with every crank she gets closer to her literal and figurative destination; as well as her goal of good health and a sense of joy through movement. The cars that cut her off are simply obstacles that she has the deftness to go around .. like water in a mountain stream flowing around rocks on it's way to the ocean.

As bicycling gains popularity you might think that more cyclists on the road is a good thing overall, but I would argue that we need all the entitled cyclists to eventually grow into a more responsible and empowered style of riding. Empowered cyclists are more desirable because they understand that survival on the road is a matter of respect. They know sharing the road means being aware of everyone's trajectory, and act as part of a system with common sense rules that apply to all. Like waiting to take your turn. Personally, I'm tired of motorists - conditioned by rude cyclists - expecting me to ignore four way stop signs, or worse, trying to wave me into situations where their well meaning but misplaced politeness would put me in danger. I'd rather give the right of way and live another day. Plus, it's less confusing for everyone involved.

I'm not advocating stupidity .. there are obviously some scenarios where it's appropriate for cyclists to bend the rules that are designed for cars. Common sense tells us though, that if you don't want to die or hurt someone (let's hope we all agree on that at least) you should be visible, slow down and look at every intersection, give the right of way, and not whip around blind corners that might have pedestrians crossing.

Empowerment is agency. It's the feeling of self-worth that comes from making yourself valuable to society and leveraging your skills towards a goal, whether it be personal or community minded. Entitlement is when you expect special treatment because of the sacrifices you have made for society, or because of your position at birth in the social strata - be it high or low.

Bicycling has brought me so much growth and empowerment in my life and career, and sometimes admittedly a sense of superiority. But I have to say that it came only after bicycling itself took over my life and made me stronger. It was something I had to do by necessity and for that I'm grateful. Perhaps if I had been given the choice I would have needed a sense of entitlement and specialness to get over those hills in the rain.


editors note: [pic is former Clutch Courier and Competitive Cyclist Nate King]


Anonymous said...

Entitlement means you should receive something by right. All people on bikes should be entitled to safe, comfortable passage.

When you say someone is "taking up more room than they need" what you really mean is "taking up more room than I think they need." As a skilled, former bike messenger, you may not understand how much space someone who is a little wobbly or carrying children needs to be safe. Maybe to you "cars that cut her off are simply obstacles that she has the deftness to go around" but to me they're physical threats that could leave my children without a father.

The Interminable Artichoke said...

Hi there! thanks for your comment. I have left my response here:


It was too long for this window. I hope you can take the time to read it.