On my bike, limbs and face open to the elements, I’m slapped by untrimmed branches, scratched by overhanging shrubs, accosted by gnats, and splashed with mud.
Most of the time, I’m grateful for the smell of pine sap and jasmine on my daily commute through the Bay Area. Yet I envy the tiny mobile house called a car, its air-proof chamber, electrical outlets, drink holders, sound system, and incumbent luxury.
I arrive at school, ruffled by a rainstorm. My student wonders why I didn’t drive. When I explain that I’ve never owned a car, they insist I buy a car. Blood rises to my face, and I sputter to respond to an eight-year-old inadvertently shaming me.
Privilege tells itself it’s normal; otherwise, drivers and passengers would be aware of traveling in a bubble of protection, both literal and metaphoric. The message from the student is that I’m lacking or flawed because I don’t use a car. But it’s okay to walk or bike or take the train to work. I resist the presumption that what’s wrong with me is that I’m not more like rich, educated, suburban families. Tempted by shame, I’m also incensed by the message that being marginalized implies something is wrong with me in the first place.
Transit workers pave and repaint a stretch of boulevard near my house, the surface smooth and unbroken by potholes. White lines separating vehicles from pedestrians glow like the moon, as do neon green bike stripes. As I ride toward the port, I’m temporarily exalted, as if nothing can hamper my progress. A pothole has to be gaping for a car to bother swerving around it, more an annoyance than a threat. On a bike, it’s another story. In the industrial sections of Oakland, between antique railroad tracks and pockmarked construction zones, I routinely pop my tire. It takes hypervigilance to slam on the brakes before a hazard.
People with privilege, like those with large tires, don’t even register threats that could take down someone with a marginalized identity. They’re doubtful that “a bump in the road” could disrupt our progress. Dismissing the reality of the obstacle is another way to dismiss the anger. But I remind myself that a bump to some is a cliff to others, disproportionately affecting those who are more vulnerable.
Rules and Regulations
In Fremont, a large suburb, it’s illegal to bike on the sidewalk. However, people honk, curse, and scream, “Get off the road!” to explicitly let me know that I shouldn’t ride in traffic. More often, they accelerate to pass me with a less-than-legal margin. I’m following the law, yet I’m harassed. I fantasize about lashing out. Since I can’t threaten them physically, I imagine spitting on their windshield to show them how it feels to be targeted for no reason. Other than revenge, I don’t know how to reject their ill-placed road rage.
Entitled drivers bully cyclists just as people with white or cis privilege express microaggressions against transgender people and people of color. Positioning themselves as the authority over rules and regulations, passive aggressive (or simply aggressive) drivers chide me for asking to be accommodated, when all I want is to belong.
At major intersections, the bike lane disappears, so I sidle up to the curb protecting pedestrians about to cross from the dedicated right-turn yield lane. A triangle, like the delta from a garbage river, reaches from the crosswalk out into the intersection. Washer, hubcap, sunglasses, battery, bungee cord, hat, palm frond, broom handle, pebbles, shattered glass, bumper, dead squirrels and possums, bolts, nails, and tools—a sample of the detritus that I encounter on the edges of the street. When items hit the central part of the road, cars throw them around until they land near the curb. Crunching through this field, I’m simultaneously frustrated that the margins are structurally worse and dwarfed by the intransigence of the problem.
The nature of designing multilane roads privileges certain regions, such as the center lane, and degrades others, such as the margins and gutters. In order to create equal access to power and mobility, I begin with acknowledging structural inequality, both in the microcosm of city roadways and in the broader context of society. I might seem powerless, but my anger fuels efforts to change the structure.
In a hurry to catch the train, I pull out my phone at a stoplight. A man crossing the sidewalk quips, “Are you texting me, girl?” I’m wearing a long skirt and blouse. I flash him a dirty look, indignant that my clothing itself indicated my availability and signaled my gender. Passing as a woman is a mixed bag. Often, drivers wave me through busy crossings. This considerate treatment comes at the cost of being cast as vulnerable and in need of help, not because I’m on a bicycle, but because I’m read as female. As a sometime femme, I’m treated differently when I’m in boy-mode. A hipster guy admired my bike through the window of his muscle car, “Nice ride, dude.” When I thanked him, he said, “Oops,” as if he’d mistaken me for a man. Overwhelmingly, I fail to pass as nonbinary.
The relationship between my choices in gender presentation and the double-edged sword of privilege have helped me navigate the politics of passing. I believe I control my gender expression. However, that choice is mostly an illusion. I continually remind myself that others will render me legible in a binary gender system, with or without my consent, and being so visible on my bicycle only makes me more aware of their machinations. In these cases, anger is an antidote to embarrassment, politeness, or guilt; a way to externalize transphobia.
Taking the Lane
Although Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville, and Fremont have been dedicating bike lanes, erecting “Share the Road” signs, and increasing visibility with green paint, there are some sections of roads where I have no choice but to squeeze between parked cars and the right lane. If you don’t bike, you might not appreciate the surge of adrenaline from edging between a delivery truck stopped at the curb and a speeding SUV. The safest option is to “take the lane.” This means riding in the center of the rightmost lane so that cars must fully merge into the left lane in order to pass, as they would with any slow vehicle. Despite the legality of this move, aggrieved drivers accelerate and cut back into the right lane with little clearance.
My anxiety can either lead to giving up entirely on bicycling as too dangerous, or to fury. Anger wins out as I mutter curses at each car that takes advantage of its hugeness and fossil-fueled mobility to intentionally send the message that I don’t belong.
I’m grateful for the lens of bicycling as a way of examining the landscape of mobility and access. It’s sharpened focus on the connections between anger and marginalization. Biking on the literal margins has helped me let go of victim-blaming discourse that dictates I should work harder to get ahead and that anger is a useless, hysterical contaminant. An embodied anger, complete with white-knuckled handlebars, rapid breathing, swearing under my breath, and manic pedaling, has put me in touch with my own vulnerability without the weight of guilt or shame. Bicycling encouraged me to blame those who marginalize me instead of blaming anger itself. On the road, it’s immediate and apparent that I deserve to move safely through the world. I deserve to be accommodated relative to my circumstances. I deserve to take up space, even if it’s along the fringe.