“Is that a child with you? Then you need to DRIVE.”
I stared in stunned disbelief at the woman who said those words to me, before she and her SUV screeched away. I admit, in the aftermath I yelled something rather unpleasant to her. It was so shocking, so unexpected, to have someone yell at me for daring to do something as mundane as biking with my toddler.
You can't ever win as a parent, but if you're a parent who bikes, then I've learned that you're perceived as one of the lowest of the low. You're someone who doesn't look out for their own child's safety.
What I really wanted to say to this woman wasn't what I yelled. In the quiet moments I've had to reflect on it since then, I really do wish I could take it back, which is usually the case when I say something in the heat and shock of such a moment. Not that I think a well-reasoned argument would have helped, either. I could have pointed out to her that she, in her giant single-occupant vehicle, was the single greatest threat to my and my child's safety. By concerning herself more with judging me as an unsafe parent than with watching the road, by blocking other drivers' view of us, and by spewing out all of that pollution in our faces, she was making our trip that much more unsafe. But I doubt she would have heard or believed me, if I'd told her.
I wish I could point out to her that she has a very skewed sense of what's dangerous. I don't necessarily blame her for that, since it's a national attitude. We view cars as such a right that taking someone's driver's license away is only for the truly heinous vehicular crimes. And not always even then, since a suspended license is more the norm. (How much does it take for drunk drivers to get their licenses permanently removed?) Getting a driver's license is a “right of passage”, rather than a privilege. Owning a car is seen as almost a moral duty, and the rest of the world rightly considers that a rather strange attitude.
In a country where killing a cyclist is not really considered a crime, it's easy to see why so many people think that cycling is dangerous. However, to think so is also to ignore the fact that it is cars and drivers which are so fatal to cyclists, not the bicycle itself. Automobile accidents, whether a person was in the car or merely a pedestrian, is a leading cause of death among all age groups. It is a particularly prominent cause of death for children between the ages of one to eighteen, topped in the early years only by birth defects. When you give your teenager access to your car, do you think about the fact that they might die in it each time you see them off? Do you kiss your spouse in the morning hoping and praying that they're not one of the more than 33,000 road fatalities in this country every year?
When we add in the number of children who are injured in or by cars each year, biking seems comparatively safe. With its slower speeds, greater maneuverability, and the ability to stop frequently to check on your children, I always wonder why more parents don't choose that option for short trips. Biking to the grocery store is one of my life's greatest luxuries and pleasures.
The statistics about childhood obesity in this country are hard to miss, and while there are many contributing factors, one thing everyone agrees on is that children need to get more exercise. What most people miss is that telling your child to get outside while you're sitting in front of the television is not going to work. We, as parents, need to model the lifestyle we want our kids to have. We need to show them what getting exercise and being healthy means. Bicycling is not the only thing parents can do, of course, but it is one strong component, particularly for those who moan that they don't have enough time to exercise. Biking for transportation, while it seems scary at first, can bridge that time gap. Who doesn't like to get two things done at once? Even if you bike solo, you are still showing your children that it can be done, and that is crucial.
The number one thing I wish I could tell that rude woman, and really make her understand, is how much fun I have biking with my toddler. Yes, there are dangers and, believe me, I am very well aware of them. If she'd known how my heart was racing already that day, not from exertion but from the number of cars and people I suddenly had to navigate through, then perhaps she might have felt slightly less self-righteous. If she'd known how my brain was racing, trying to take in every potential threat, then she might have felt some empathy for me. But even with those heart-in-my-throat moments, biking with my child is truly a pleasure. She sings for me while I ride. We get to have conversations which are as great as one can have with a two-year-old. Almost always, we both show up at our destination cheerful and full of energy. Can anyone reading this honestly say that most car trips with their children are pleasant or fun? Or is it just one more chore?
I read recently about a school which has outlawed kids from walking or biking, or from parents trying to pick up or drop off their children that way. It makes me unutterably sad, that there are people out there with such narrow-minded focus on a car-centric culture that any other model seems crazy and dangerous to them. The damage they are doing those children by forcing them to be in and around cars so much is what seems crazy to me.
I have been a cyclist all of my life, and I will remain one until I'm forced by age and infirmity to give up my bike. It is my preferred method of transportation, and one of my favorite recreational outlets. One silly and ill-informed remark by someone who needs to learn to mind her own business will not make me quit, but I admit that it put a damper on what should have been a milestone. The day she made that comment to me, I was celebrating the fact that it was my longest bike ride with my daughter, over twelve miles round trip. I was feeling strong and content, halfway through, even a little virtuous, and one stinging comment took much of my euphoria away. It often works out that way. Even the man who told me, “You rock!” as he saw me climbing the big hill toward home couldn't lift my spirits, because it's the negative comments we remember much better.
Even if most people who drive are never going to get the courage to get on a bike themselves (although I highly encourage everyone who can to try), why can drivers not seem to contain their anger at cyclists? Why is it acceptable to yell at us, to disparage us, or even to injure us? Why do drivers claim the moral superiority, despite the proven dangers of cars and driving? Why is cycling seen as such a threat to driving? I don't have the answers to those questions, so all I can do is fight back, one smiling, happy bike ride at a time.
It's bike month. Get out there and ride.