People suffer when the horrors of our transport system are obscured by well meaning activists
A friend of mine- Janel Sterbentz- recently volunteered to be featured on the San Francisco based Bike NOPA blog in their “Women who Bike” series. She submitted her responses to the questions, but the editor of Bike NOPA, Michael Helquist (also the winner of the SF Bike Coalition’s 2010 Golden Wheel Award), didn’t like her answer to question number 2, and requested that she change it if the piece was to be published.
This was the question:
2. How often do you bike and what for?
And this was her answer:
“I bike every day to stay mentally and physically fit. I don’t want anything to do with the oil industry’s wars, carnage from motorists hitting pedestrians/cyclists, or the air and noise pollution. To me cycling leads to a positive future and pleasant street environment while driving leaves destruction and unpleasantness in its path. Also, it is just so much fun to bike.”
She declined to remove the offending paragraph and now her interview won’t be published as a result.
When viewpoints like Janel’s are intentionally kept out of public discourse, it does a major disservice to the political debate around our transport policies. First, it allows people who habitually drive to continue to insulate themselves from the very real impacts of their mode choice on other people, particularly vulnerable road users. Second, erasing voices like this one leaves the impression that if you are irritated by the noise, air pollution and danger caused by car traffic then you are somehow unusual, marginalized, or radical in some way. A fear of marginalizing oneself actually helps perpetuate that marginalization.
The reality is that millions of regular people around the world- people who drive, cycle, walk, take the bus, or whatever- are irritated and their quality of life is diminished by transport policies that make car traffic- not human life or the environment- the primary consideration.
It’s no surprise that people wrongly believe that they are alone in these feelings or that there is no recourse within acceptable political debate to resolve them, when even bicycle advocates are afraid to reflect the truth about the environmental and social devastation caused by motor vehicle dependence.
The bicycle is wonderful for what it is (a liberating, fun, and healthy vehicle for the masses), but it is also wonderful for what it is not (a car) . As the bicycle increases in popularity and organizations that promote its use gain political clout, they should not fail to remind people of the facts of car and fossil fuel dependence in some misplaced politeness or reluctance to confront. Yes we need carrots- they are sweet, succulent, and attractive. And god knows the bike is that. But we also need the sticks of reality to wake people up who have been driven to excess by an insane, motorized world.
This is what the editor of Bike NOPA- Michael Helquist- told On the Level when reached for comment:
“I felt that a few of the comments made in this one submission were a bit doctrinaire and negative (with descriptions of the “carnage from motorists hitting pedestrians and bicyclists” and the “destruction” that comes with driving), and these were not a good fit for the series. As I mentioned to Janel Sterbentz today if I was interviewing her about larger transportation issues, about hazards that accompany biking, and the serious impacts of people relying solely on individual automobiles when other options are feasible, then her comments would certainly fit the context as reflecting her personal opinion.“
I’m sure this wasn’t the way it was consciously intended, but effectively what Michael is saying is that he wanted to run a happy-go-lucky series about smiling women on bikes. Forget that there are often complex reasons why women ride, or that women suffer disproportionately from car culture or that cycling itself might be a deeply political statement against the pain and destruction caused by cars. When those issues arise, they are too often erased from the record because they might make people feel uncomfortable. This is not an isolated incident, but a reflection of the larger dilution and creeping corporatization of the cycling movement and society at large.
We didn’t make smoking socially unacceptable by tip-toeing around the feelings of nicotine addicts- we showed them diseased lungs and confronted them with the scientific research. What makes those who purport to seek social change in the transport arena so afraid of leveraging the growing body of evidence of the catastrophe of car addiction in order to change behavior?
Put simply, individuals are not going to make the right decisions about their transport habits or support sensible transport policies if they don’t have the facts. And where are they going to get those facts if they aren’t disseminated by bike advocates and organizations dedicated to sustainable transportation?