clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

People are not defined by what we use to get around

New, 8 comments

Transportation stereotypes can make streets more dangerous

people riding cargo bike and bike
Parents riding cargo bikes have been accused of gentrifying European neighborhoods. Tech workers riding scooters have been accused of gentrifying American ones.
Shutterstock

On a recent trip to Copenhagen with my two kids, we became mesmerized by the creative ways that families traveled using bicycles. Although we sometimes get our own kids around Los Angeles using seats on the back of our bikes, it was nothing compared to seeing the sheer inventiveness of parents of all backgrounds, in all neighborhoods, employing a parade of seats, trailers, and wagon-like buckets to move together as a family unit.

But on the second day I was there, a friend sent me a story that made me look twice at a particular family bike, known as the cargo bike, or bakfiets. “‘Cargo-bike moms’ are gentrifying the Netherlands” read the headline of the story, which I read while riding a Copenhagen bus, my jaw visibly dropping at the audacity of its thesis. (It was a bad month for transportation at The Atlantic—this was a week after publishing a story that recommended abolishing the New York City subway.)

The bakfiets—or at least the modern, kid-transporting version of it—was actually invented in a Copenhagen neighborhood near where we were staying. The idea behind it was born out of necessity, parents adapting a century-old delivery vehicle to their daily needs in an attempt to wrest their neighborhood away from what they saw to be the undesirable environmental and economic impacts of cars.

But the argument made in the story—and by an academic white paper—was that women who rode this particular type of bike were responsible for changing neighborhoods in a way that was negatively impacting longtime residents.

I’ve no doubt that the Dutch neighborhoods mentioned in the story were transforming. But to associate the changes so specifically with a certain type of bike used by a certain type of woman—who may very well have owned other bikes, cars, or strollers—seemed overly stereotypical and potentially misogynistic. Plus, bikes seemed like an unfairly visible signifier—would the academics have pinned neighborhood changes on the male drivers of a particular make and model of car, for example?

The closest American equivalent I could think of was how someone might associate trucks with rural communities or minivans with suburbia. The story was one step ahead of me: “Unlike the American soccer mom who ferries children to and from school and extracurricular activities in her minivan, her Dutch counterpart is considered more ambitious and career-driven.” Ouch.

The biggest problem with these type of generalizations is that they make two huge assumptions: One, that people exclusively dedicate themselves to a single mode of transportation, and two, that this mode is always aspirational.

Categorizing someone by the way they chose to get to work that particular day ignores unseen circumstances of financial hardship or physical ability that might force someone to use a mode that’s not their first choice.

But a growing problem with associating a person’s identity so closely with their transportation mode is this kind of rhetoric is translating to new and potentially unfamiliar modes—namely, electric scooters. And, as more people emerge from behind tinted safety glass and one-ton steel cages to get around, in an age with technology that enables more multimodal trips, modes that are more unique—at least for now—put users out in the open. And, sadly, more open to derision and ridicule.

A recent anti-scooter op-ed in the Los Angeles Times opened with the line “I am certain that people who ride Bird scooters don’t read newspapers, so we may speak freely here” and went on to innumerate the many ways that electric scooter riders are “ruining Venice,” the LA neighborhood in which the author lives (and where the biggest e-scooter company, Bird, is located).

Acceptable transportation modes for decent humans, according to the author, are not scooters: “I either drive a car, ride a bike (man-powered), or I walk,” he writes. “I find electric bikes, scooters and skateboards pathetic.” Because they’re not...man-powered?

It’s the same problem with many other scooter screeds. Even if the scooters are portrayed positively, the authors still insist on calling them “dorky,” “so lame,” or only for “tech bros.”

The unhelpful labeling of people based on their current transportation status reminds me of the invention of the term “jaywalking”—which, of course, was meant to shame and eventually criminalize people who walked, with the intention of benefitting people who drove. The fact that the behavior of people walking is far more obvious than the behavior of drivers is why the term “distracted walkers” has become so charged, although studies have shown pedestrians are likely not texting as much as drivers.

But even “pedestrian” is a dehumanizing term because it makes traveling on foot seem like something exceptional or unusual. Why not just say “people who are walking”?

The term “cyclists,” in particular, has become weaponized by groups that fight safety improvements, in an attempt to categorize people who ride bikes as different from local residents (usually painting people who ride bikes as aggressive males).

“Drivers” is similarly problematic. Yes, the U.S. could be labeled a country of “drivers”—cars are the mode that most Americans rely upon because we have for the most part designed our country around them. But one-third of Americans don’t actually drive—they’re too young, too old, unable to, or choose not to—a number that’s expected to increase. What are you supposed to call people who use cars but don’t drive them? “Passengers”?

How we choose to get around is in many ways the most personal decision we make, and one most of us have to confront in public, under dramatically different circumstances, every single day. It’s a daily calculation that takes into consideration money, safety, health, even weather conditions. But, for many of us, it’s not a lifestyle choice. It’s a matter of necessity.

A subway commuter who relies upon an under-construction train line may reluctantly become a bus-rider. A bus-rider might be saving to buy a car to avoid taking three unreliable transfers each morning. Drivers could experience health changes that might force them to use an autonomous ride-hailing service instead. Maybe even a minivan.

I certainly would not choose to push a stroller through my city, navigating cracked sidewalks and contending with broken elevators. But that’s what I do when I need to walk somewhere with two kids and a bunch of stuff—when I’m not catching a bus, taking a subway, summoning a Lyft, riding a bike, or driving a car.

By making the assumption that everyone has options, transportation stereotypes ignore greater equity issues. And perpetuating these types of stereotypes can also make streets more dangerous.

In Seattle, a group that formed to stop a bike lane from being added to a local street tweeted that “Single mothers don’t commute to work on bikes. Privileged #techbros do.” (Tech company employees—often early adopters for transportation technology—get blamed for ruining a lot of things, for better or for worse.) Dozens of single moms—some cheekily tagging their children as #techbros—chimed in disputing the stereotype and responding that they did indeed use their bikes to get to work. And their kids to school. And their groceries home from the store.

By attempting to make it seem like the bike lane would only benefit a “privileged” male few, the anti-bike lane group was playing to stereotypes—if all moms drive minivans, why do they need bike lanes? But the group was actually mobilizing against safety improvements which have been proven to make the street safer for all users—including people who aren’t on bikes at all.

The following week, an event was organized for the Seattle street in question to show how many types of riders might benefit from the safety improvements—and not just single moms. The photos show people of all backgrounds—people on bikes, people on bakfiets, people on scooters, people pushing strollers, people walking.

Or, maybe, just people.