#WednesdayWisdom: The Importance of Visibility

This isn’t about visibility in the ‘high-vis hero’ sense.

Cycling Weekly
Photo: Cycling Weekly

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.

  1. It’s usually the result of a projection of one person’s experience, onto an entire group of people.
  2. They’re almost always already doing it.

Projection

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.

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Groundswell: Bicycle Culture Rising

If you’ve not heard of them, Joe Biel and Elly Blue are two writers, filmmakers and bicycle activists. They co-own Microcosm Publishing in Portland, Oregon, and are currently touring various cities in the UK with Groundswell: Bicycle Culture Rising.

Joe Elly
Photo: pdot.org/groundswell

The event comprises of 8 short films that delve into communities using bikes for social justice, and a discussion of the boundaries which undermine them.

On Tuesday 5th September, Joe and Elly came to Bristol and presented Groundswell to a packed-out workshop at The Bristol Bike Project. The night was organised by Lucy Greaves, a mechanic at the Project, and a wonderful wordsmith in her own right.

The night was hugely insightful, providing a glimpse into other cycling communities.

On the one hand we laughed with Peatonito, a Mexico City vigilante, facing the traffic head on and using guerrilla tactics to make public spaces safe for cyclists and pedestrians alike. All while wearing a custom-made lucha libre costume. We loved him.

towardsthehumancity . org
Photo: towardsthehumancity.org

On the other hand, we shook our heads in dismay and gasped at the treatment of a single mother, who has been pulled over, ticketed, and arrested more than once, just for riding her bike to work.

Other films tackled subjects like race, poverty, gender, and social isolation. I won’t talk about them in depth, you should just watch them for yourself. What I will say, is that it was hugely thought-provoking to glimpse into other worlds. Where for some, bikes are a form of social justice, and for others, they’re simply a way to get out into the world and meet other people. For one man in particular, bicycling quite literally saved his life.

But it wasn’t just about how people are making it happen. Some of the grassroots initiatives that we saw and talked about, didn’t quite achieve their goals. The reasons why they failed were also discussed.

Joe and Elly argue that in order for a city to be able to build a thriving cycling community, they need three things:

  1. Political proponents – local politicians who support cycling infrastructure, and ideally use it.
  2. Boardroom advocates – the important folk who schmooze with various influencers and acquire vital funding.
  3. Street-level activists – those of us who ride our bikes every day, showing that there is a demand for safe cycling infrastructure, and lobbying our governing bodies for change.

This made me question whether Bristol has what it takes to become a better cycling city. Supposedly it’s one of the best cities in the UK for cycling, and in many ways I can see why. We have plenty of bike lanes, both on- and off-road, shared use paths, space for bike parking, and a wealth of beautiful Sustrans/National Cycle Network routes at our disposal.

However, while these things make it possible to cycle around Bristol, many of them were clearly not well thought through. Many bike lanes are nothing but crumbling red paint on the left side of the road. Plenty of them suddenly end, and become car parking spaces. The road surfaces can be awful in certain parts of the city.

And yet, we are the home of Sustrans. For four years, George Ferguson was our mayor. Every day, scores of people commute to work by bike. Yet, I just don’t know if I can see things improving for us.

Of course, watching these films did make me realise that we have it better than many cities, and I recognise that we’re very lucky in that respect. But it made me question, if even a city like Bristol hasn’t managed to get it right yet, then what hope do others have?

Go watch the films, and tell me what you think. There were so many thought-provoking themes that came up that night, I’ll be exploring some of them further in future posts. Stay tuned for that.