A Categorical Mistake?

Long time readers know my current obsession with how language shapes the way we view the world, especially vague language and imprecise langauge.

Previously, I have noted that there are many ways of looking at our “right to cycle.”

However, I have now realized that there is a bigger problem with cycling advocacy which is the fact that “cycling” itself if not one thing.

We all know about the two main types of cyclist in San Diego, the roadie who wears lycra and rides on bicycles that are as expensive as some cars and lighter than my rear bicycle rack. They spend most of their time on shoulders of fast paced roads, and they often ride in packs or “pelletons”.

Then there are the beachies who wear flip flops and ride beach cruisers that have less handling than a tank. They ride mainly on the boardwalk, but also on sidewalks and sometimes on bike lanes, at times, the wrong way.

The former group run the political aspect cycling in San Diego while the later have no idea that there is politics.

What they both have in common, however, is that a bicycle is merely a toy. Thus, they don’t really need to worry about getting anywhere safely or comfortably.

For those of us who are commuters, aka the third group, we need to ride on certain roads because that is where we work and shop.

When it comes to advocacy, the needs of the first and second group clash, but since the second group doesn’t care, only the first gets to speak to those in power.

Yes, there are commuters who are interested in their “rights” aka no infrstructure, but I have never seen someone ride VC, the whole way to my job. Nor have I met any VC cyclist who does not have access to a car.

But there’s more. The fourth group is the mountain bikers. They are similar to the first and second groups in that they don’t _need_ to cycle, but they tend to like infrastructure anyway just in case they want to ride to the coffee shop. Mountain bikers are probably the nicest group, from my experience, and the most conscientious of both the environment and of the average commuter’s needs. Plus mountain bikers tend to become commuters, and I call mountain biking, the “gateway” drug of cycling.

So far, I have listed four groups that have divergent needs, and there are still more such as the BMX crowd who is know for willy-nilly cycling, but if you actually talk to them, they have a method to their madness. Plus, like the commuters, BMXers are actually using their bicycle as transportation much of the time.

When one talks of cycling advocacy, whom are we talking about? Each has different needs and their views of “rights” differ greatly.

But since we use one word for all these catagories, we tend to think that our needs are the same and that any cyclist can speak for any other cyclist. Not true.

Throw religion at the mix and things get explosive with fixed beliefs that building cycle tracks will result in slower cycling, massive deaths, and the inability to ride a bike anywhere that doesn’t have Dutch inspired signage.

As I said before, unity is NOT the answer. In fact, I see the call for unity as a way of censoring people’s voices.

Here’s an example of where this “we speak for all of you” idea has gone sour.

Note, that I am highly biased as I really like San Francisco and I highly admire the people in their coalition and what they have done for cycling.

“So, seeing that the system had totally failed, Janel plans to help mobilize a protest last Friday that captures widespread media attention and galvanizes the support of motorists and cyclists alike to finally close the dangerous gas station entrances on Fell, and what does she get? Fired from her bicycle advocacy job. You heard me right.”

Should they have fired her? No. Am I surprised? No.

These things happen.

But my point is that we need to constantly speak out with our own voice without fear of “confusing people” or “diluting our message” or “showing disunity”. These are the words where people try to strong arm the rest of the group into their mold.

I do think that we need to kick our governments more to do more for cycling. We should not expect anyone else to speak for us unless they are in our group, and we can trust that they actually speak for what we want.

Thus, we must demand more specific language. No more fuzzy phrases like “rights to the road” or “more education.”

Like Janel, we need to ask for specific things to be built, for example, a cycle track from my door step to my job would be nice. 🙂

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