Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Biking may not be "elitist" but it is Privileged

A classmate of mine posted this article on facebook responding to charges biking, vegetarianism, and other "progressive" causes in living a more sustainable life as elitist. While I'm sympathetic to the goal there are some problematic aspects to this post.

Choosing to bike in our auto-centric world is certainly a sacrifice. It dictates where you decide you'll live, work, shop, and play. Making and committing to that choice, especially going so far as to not own a motor vehicle at all is admirable. But it is still a choice. And it is the recognition that is a choice that places the choice in a position of privilege. In a country where the built environment worships at the altar of the car, committing to bicycling as your primary mode of transit is largely the province of those who choose to bike for cultural/political reasons and those who bike by necessity.

As mentioned earlier, we live in a society where our built environment is designed for automobile travel. We still have metropolitan areas defined by commercial and industrial districts that are commuted to, primarily by automobile, over relatively long distances from residential areas. Being able to live close enough to your work that you can comfortably bike there is not something that all people have access to. It's awesome that you can bike to work, but what do you say to a worker who lives across town in a cheaper neighborhood because that's the section of the city where he or she can afford to stay? Not everyone can live close enough to their place of employment to make biking a primary mode of commuting transit. The same critique holds for access to grocery stores, community centers, or houses of worship. All of these things exist within space and access to these areas is limited by income. It may not be feasible or desirable to bike to these spaces. Simply because you choose to do so doesn't make you a martyr. It means you have the power to decide. Many people do not. Not recognizing that is indeed an issue of privilege, and yes, in certain respects, elitism.

We should also recognize that there are different cultural and professional expectations that people have to meet and biking may not be amenable to these. For example, many black women in professional or service occupations would go out of their way to NOT bike for hair-care reasons. In many professional and service areas black women are expected to wear their hair straightened or in some cases in braids or other labor-intensive ways. Sweating out your new do by biking in the heat or in the rain is a no-go AND incredibly expensive. The fact that you can go to work in an environment where you aren't particularly judged on your appearance is, again, a position of privilege. We can attack a system that judges women on their appearance and reinforces white beauty standards, but to not recognize them as mitigating factors in travel mode choice is, again, a privileged position.

Succinctly, biking may not be elitist, but to not explicitly recognize it as a choice that incurs social and economic cost just as you lambast driving as a choice, places you in a position of privilege. People may counter that the saved income people have from not owning a car will mitigate those costs. To a certain extent this is true, but that still does not address cultural issues and expectations, like the hair issue, or presenting a certain kind of appearance at a house of worship or place of work. We should absolutely work on normalizing bicycling as a primary means of transport, but articles like this that do not recognize that there are legitimate reasons why people choose not to are not only privileged, but they do make certain bicycling advocates elitist.


moody said...

Dear sir,

White the economic means point is well understood, the socio-cultural one requires clarification. I offer the following point as an illustration:

White men in middle management at Fortune 500 companies probably don't bike for the same cultural and professional reasons that, in your example, black women in the service industry don't. Biking to the country for a round of golf with a potential client is difficult with a (organic-cotton) golf bag, it might ruin the (up-cycled) clothing, and having the appearance of arriving sweaty from bike commuting has professional consequences (damn liberals). Further, the cultural differences between road-cycling and bike commuting are in fact large. It is likely that this professional has a road bike and goes for long bike rides, but is unlikely that they would bike commute, for what I would argue, the same socio-cultural reasons you outlined.

In both cases, there are economic, cultural, and social consequences to bike commuting. The systemic problems of urban infrastructure should not be confused with the socio-cultural choices associated with bike commuting. Surely, bike commuting cannot replace the affordances, socio-cultural and environmental, that we've come accustomed to by driving: namely, being able to drive across town for work and having an labor-intensive hair-do for a social group. Bike commuting means leading a local lifestyle. It means living where you work, shopping where you work and, in most groups (outside Portland's graduate students) being a social or cultural outcast. Many people still refuse to give-up their luxuries that are affording by our car-dependent urban infrastructure: air-conditioning, long-distance commuting, and social status. In fact, in many social groups, the model/make of your car is a social status.

As an aside, your commentary lacks the option of public transit.


Jamaal said...

i was addressing the issue of biking, specifically...clearly transit has a huge stake here, but i wanted to focus particularly on issues of privilege that some bike proponents don't recognize.

the cultural/economic one has multiple options. in that i agree. but again, we must be careful when we talk living a "local lifestyle". it's not necessarily a lifestyle that, at minimum, is affordable to everyone. many new mixed-use developments don't offer adequate affordable housing and the jobs-housing mismatch is still huge.

i appreciate the feedback, moody

Chris Collision said...

Yeah, I'm really making the "choice" to not be able to afford a car. It wasn't my best "choice", but I tried to make the best of it by buying a bike to get to work and the grocery store.

Sure, my bike cost about 100 bucks up front, and probably costs me about twice that much on a yearly basis in maintenance, tires, lube, etc., but I'm privileged enough to have 200 bucks a year to spend on my basic transportation needs.

I think your assumption that one has to choose to opt out of car-centric ways of being is entirely incorrect. In fact, there are substantial bars to entry to car culture, including high up-front costs, maintenance, fuel, insurance, and the licensing/driver education apparatus. Cars enter human lives as a result of choice--and, usually, sacrifice. While you aptly and usefully list some overlooked-by-some forces that drive people to make the sacrifice/choice to acquire a car, pretending that they didn't do so doesn't do anybody any good.

Jamaal said...

I respectfully disagree, especially when you think about living at different scales. It's hard to live a non car-centric life out in the burbs or, heaven forbid, rural areas or even in poorer areas of cities that are next to major highways. Yes, there are barriers to car ownership, there is a privilege that car users ALSO have.

But my point is that there is also privilege from those who repeatedly attack those who drive or own cars that do not recognize the LEGITIMATE reasons why people would want to own a car and why they would prefer having one. I think there are many barriers to getting people to ride bikes that many bicycle advocates do not address at all.

My point is that we need to address some of these reasons in order to move forward. Simply lambasting those who drive as being "unsustainable" or praising one's self for living a "local-centered" lifestyle is counterproductive and comes from a position of privilege.

Me said...

This post, for me, is all about this:

The fact that you can go to work in an environment where you aren't particularly judged on your appearance is, again, a position of privilege. We can attack a system that judges women on their appearance and reinforces white beauty standards, but to not recognize them as mitigating factors in travel mode choice is, again, a privileged position.

Good stuff. Do it again.

Karen said...

I think biking may become a necessity in many poor urban neighborhoods. In Pittsburgh, the transit cuts are ongoing and deep. We are about to witness our 3rd route cut in 2 years and a fare increase along with it. We will have the second most expensive fares in the country, without nearly the service. This along with the sure rise in gas prices means that many people in my city may not be able to ride transit or drive to work (and let's not forget about the cost of parking). I argue that biking will be the most economical option for many poor urban workers to and from work and extra-curricular activities.

Surly Urbanist said...


My post does not really speak to those folks who have to bike out of necessity. I understand that. But what we do see is that the way that biking rhetoric is often pushed is a very middle-class, white-centered point of view that does not reflect the needs and attributes of people of color or poor people. But your point still rings very true when you talk about access to transit and affordability. Transportation touches all of our lives in multiple ways and simply favoring one mode over another, especially through disinvestment is problematic all the way through.

skram0331 said...

no one "lambastes" at people with cars. Ever heard of hybrid and electric aka "green" cars? It's very asinine and ignorant for you to attack bikers in calling them "privileged." Your attack reminds me of wall street republicans lambasting the "Limousine liberals" for refusing to live every day in the impoverished standards of those they want to help.

skram0331 said...

no one "lambastes" at people with cars. Ever heard of hybrid and electric aka "green" cars? It's very asinine and ignorant for you to attack bikers in calling them "privileged." Your attack reminds me of wall street republicans lambasting the "Limousine liberals" for refusing to live every day in the impoverished standards of those they want to help.

skram0331 said...

no one "lambastes" at people with cars. Ever heard of hybrid and electric aka "green" cars? It's very asinine and ignorant for you to attack bikers in calling them "privileged." Your attack reminds me of wall street republicans lambasting the "Limousine liberals" for refusing to live every day in the impoverished standards of those they want to help.

Surly Urbanist said...


I don't think you fully understood what I was saying when I was referring to "privilege" here. There is a strong history of forceful rhetoric from biking communities that DO attack people for not biking and for driving. Those statements often come from a position of privilege because they do not recognize that the choices people make regarding their transportation choices are NOT the same as theirs and they have other priorities and limitations.

To not recognize that deciding NOT to bike may indeed be rational and preferable given a person's background or economic/cultural situation is a privileged position. I'm not speaking about people who cannot afford a car or who bike out of necessity. Also, it would be good to note that many bicycling advocates that push such views would still attack people for driving electric or hybrid vehicles.

Fern in the corner said...

Ironic and sad that your critique paints with just as broad a brush, and just as narrow a view as those you challenge.

Reading through your responses to the comments below, I'm left with the unfortunate impression that your chosen tack was purposeful, as you later backtrack on or caveat a few points (e.g., "[. . .] but i wanted to focus particularly on issues of privilege that some bike proponents don't recognize; My post does not really speak to those folks who have to bike out of necessity."). More on that later; for now, to the substance of your post.

Do some biking proponents unfairly challenge those whose particular socioeconomic circumstances prevent them from adopting a non-autocentric transportation lifestyle? Sure. Does that unfair challenge stem from a position of ignorant privilege? At least in some cases, undoubtedly.

But the biggest problem I have with your post is your equally over-broad and ignorant assumption that all biking enthusiasts/proponents are indiscriminately targeting their message to people that don't have the means to heed it. The truth of the matter is that for most, the message is targeted at people who are privileged enough to make the choice. I guarantee you that if you approached any biking proponent, and asked if they felt the same way about someone who couldn't afford to bike (for example, b/c they don't and can't live close enough to do so), they'd be quick to tell you that that's not who they're trying to talk to. They're targeting those that -- like them -- can afford to do so, but choose not to because of mere convenience, not necessity.

Nor is this less true because they don't announce their target audience when they issue their plea to bike. The "if you're able" part is, again, for most, implicit. The same way that a generic Surgeon General's counsel to "walk more" isn't expressly caveated to make clear it wasn't intended for paraplegics. The "if you're able" for most rational people is implied.

The real meat of the argument is who, indeed, is actually "able?" At what point is it merely difficult to adopt such an alternative lifestyle, and at what point is the line crossed into "not realistically feasible?" Then, to what extent is it desirable? To what lengths should we go? But camping out at the irrational extremes helps no one ("Bike proponents are all yuppies who don't get that not all people can bike" v. "Everyone can bike, and those who say differently are just making excuses"). Instead, it just pisses people off.

Fern in the corner said...

Forgive me for dividing my response, but the hosting site insisted it had too many characters. The remainder....

To return to my earlier point, I suspect you know this, and indeed your responses to the comments increase my suspicion of the same. I'd implore you in the future to forgo the sensationalist tactic of issuing an invective with an overly broad brush for the sake of getting hits, or getting a rise out of people. If I mistake your intent, then I ask that you consider your points more carefully.

Your twitter feed suggests you like the phrase "a hit dog will holler." As a Southerner (yes, with a capital S), I feel compelled to remind you that all the phrase means is that when you hit an animal, it is not unusual for it to voice its displeasure. But pity the man who mistakes the holler as validation that he was right to hit the dog. Put bluntly, if you call my mother a whore and I shout angrily and punch you in the mouth, it doesn't mean you were right that my mother was a whore. It means you insulted me and provoked a reaction, nothing less, and nothing more.

If your goal is to foster productive (and I can't stress that word enough) discourse, then I advise you toward more nuanced and fair critiques. If your goal is merely to start argument, then by all means carry on. But know that you will quickly lose whatever non-flame-war-seeking audience you might have gained. It doesn't take much intellectual heft to challenge or insult someone. Political radio hacks make a living of it, and it's not much to pat oneself on the back for. Strive instead to make the kind of observations that produce meaningful progress.

I wish you best in your endeavors, and good luck.

Surly Urbanist said...


Again, my point is to examine the privilege implicit in the argument that people are "able". Again, my entire point is that there are mitigating factors that go into any transportation decision. My entire point is that when people push things like bike commuting and biking as a lifestyle and attack people who are "able" but choose not to, then that comes from a position of privilege.

Again, go to my example of many black women who work in service professions. According to many unwritten (and sometimes written) workplace rules, these women are required to straighten their hair in order to be deemed hygenic and presentable. This is a sub-population that WILL NOT be very receptive to biking rhetoric because they have to adhere to a certain standard that is imposed on them. And that there are legitimate limitations to re-orienting one's life to make biking your primary mode.

If you checked the link I sent, I was responding to this idea that one can bike if they just wanna do it bad enough, and live in a mixed use area, and work in a place near home, and don't have kids or other obligations that may require you to use an automobile.

Surly Urbanist said...


Such biking proponents miss the point and wallow in their own privilege when they say, "well, it's not that hard, you just HAVE to WANT to." It's not simply a matter of wanting something bad enough.

We find these responses in multiple areas and it plays out in different arenas.

And I'm fully aware of the meaning of "hit dogs will holler". My point is that, folks have gotten upset by the post because they refuse to examine whether or not they have privilege and are imposing their own values and opportunities onto people that do not share or have access to them. The post was meant to be provocative but I also feel that it does speak to legitimate privilege and to the myriad complexities that go into something like transportation mode choice. Using biking as your primary form of transport means that you have a certain kind of job, live in a certain kind of area, and have a certain kind of lifestyle that ALLOWS you to bike as you do. Not recognizing that is a privileged position.

Fern in the corner said...

Surly Urbanist,

Points all well taken, but I'm afraid you've either missed or decided not to address mine.

I fully recognize that some proponents of biking advocate it from a position of privilege (I believe I said as much in my original reply). But my point is that many if not most of the folks those proponents target in fact are similarly privileged with respect to their socio-economic station in life.

If I read your reply correctly, you challenge the mere making of that value judgment as "privileged." That to look at another individual, decide that they appear similarly situated as you are, and to advocate to them that they should bike, rather than drive, indicates "privilege." That to do so while you may be ignorant of some other hidden/unknown constraint that influences their decision is "privileged."

But if that's all we mean by the term, how is that different from the age-old adage "don't judge a man before you've walked a mile in his shoes?" If that's all it means, then it doesn't mean very much, for every value judgment we make on any aspect of society outside of ourselves is then fraught with "privilege."

It is for precisely this reason that trumpeting this aspect of the discussion, particularly at the expense of the more important questions I alluded to earlier, strikes me as an incendiary approach to the topic -- with a provocative quotient that is utterly out of proportion with the value to be gained therefrom. But to each their own.

Surly Urbanist said...


Your summation is apt. It does boil down to don't judge without knowing. But frequently DO judge and it ends up being counter-productive and it doesn't address the many legitimate barriers that people who SEEM as if they are the same as you from taking a certain action.

Like I said, there are MANY reasons why anyone chooses to do or not do something. Especially something as complex as transportation mode choice. There are individual, cultural, political, and economic reasons why people choose to travel as they do. Not recognizing that someone may have different expectations or priorities that are EQUALLY legitimate and lambasting them is a privileged position.

Look, we all have varied forms of privilege. I carry privilege as a male in a society that has historically oppressed women and favors communication and learning styles of men. My job, ideally, is to recognize my privilege and to take that into account in class, business, community meetings etc...It's a conscious choice on my part to recognize and adjust for that. Not even making the attempt is a privileged position and you miss out on learning and getting a better understanding of other people and their views. THAT'S my primary point.