This isn’t about visibility in the ‘high-vis hero’ sense.
Last week’s Groundswell event left me mulling a few things over. Numerous themes were raised that I felt deserved some exploration, and one of them was the importance of being visible. Not to traffic, but to other would-be riders who may relate to you on a personal level.
Let me explain.
During the event, Joe and Elly felt it necessary to cover a few frequently asked questions, in order to save us the time of asking them ourselves. One of the timeless questions they’ve heard over and over again, is ‘how can I encourage more [women/people of colour/poorer people, etc.] to cycle?’
While well-intentioned, this question is quite a problematic one, for two reasons.
- It’s usually the result of a projection of one person’s experience, onto an entire group of people.
- They’re almost always already doing it.
This question, when asked, is usually proposed by a person who doesn’t belong to the group being discussed. A man may ask about how to encourage more women to join his local cycling club. A Caucasian person may want to diversify their local club by making it more inviting to people of colour.
There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. It’s good to want to diversify your social groups. It’s nice to want to share your experience with others. The issue arises, though, due to that person’s projection of their experience of cycling onto the group in question, despite their experiences being vastly different.
For example, a man in a male-dominated cycling club may want to encourage more women to ride with them. In his experience, the group is welcoming and friendly, the routes they take are scenic and beautiful, and generally they always have a great time. What woman wouldn’t want to join in?
But a woman’s experience of this same scenario may not be the same. She may feel intimidated, being the only woman in a large group of men. Their joviality may not resonate with her in the same way. She may feel like she doesn’t belong there. She may experience behaviours on the roads from motorists and pedestrians, that the men may have never encountered, such as cat-calling.
And it’s not just women who may have a different experience on this street. In certain areas, a person who appears to be noticeably poorer may be likely to be treated as inferior by middle class drivers. Or on a practical level, they may just not be able to afford to invest in the kit and the equipment needed to accompany a group on a long, fast ride. On the other hand, the risks are much higher for some. A person of colour, in some neighbourhoods, could be pulled over by the police on suspicion of stealing the bike.
So it’s not a bad thing to want to share your experience with others, but it is important to realise that your experience may not reflect theirs. Of course, these terrible things may not happen. But the likelihood of poor treatment can be higher for some groups, and their perception of this participation could be influenced by those fears.
They’re already riding
Just because a particular group aren’t joining in your club ride, doesn’t mean they don’t know the benefits of cycling. A white middle class male-dominated Sunday club ride may be bereft of women, for example, because those women are already off riding together, perhaps with a Breeze ride, or equivalent. A neighbourhood with a high population of people of colour may have already formed its own collective of riders.
With a little research, it’s clear that there are many lesser-known groups, clubs, and organised rides that are already catering for diverse and minority groups.
This is where I come to the point of visibility.
If you are seen by others to be riding, someone who may relate to you is more likely to see you, and be inspired to do the same. Women like to see other women riding. If poorer areas are filled with commuter cyclists, others may be inclined to sell their car, ride to work, save a lot of money and then in turn inspire others to do the same.
Being more visible – to people who can relate to you, and picture themselves in your shoes – answers the original question of how to encourage others to ride.
You don’t need to project your personal experience onto others in the hopes of actively encouraging them to immerse themselves in your idea of what cycling means. It’s likely that many of them are already riding in a way that is meaningful to them, and they’re inspiring others along the way.
This article was inspired by one of the Groundswell movies, Colour Lines and Bike Lanes: Creating a place in the movement.
You can watch the movie below, and read more about it here.