Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Biking While White

Three days a week, I ride my privilege to work.  The five mile trip, from one side of New Haven to the other, takes about 30 minutes. Although the route is flat and not particularly strenuous, I still get sweaty and a little gross, so I wear my old yellow t-shirt and jeans. Riding through Fair Haven, Downtown, and then Beaver Hill, no one gives me a second glance. Sure, I look shabby in my messy, sweaty clothes, but my race and class privilege still come shining through. Stopped at a light on Ferry and Grand today, an older woman at the bus stop waved and shouted out to me, "Americana!"  Yup, that's me - the middle-aged, middle class White lady on her bike. No one thinks I am loitering or going to hurt them.  People generally smile or ignore me.

My class and professional position also facilitate this mode of transportation because I have a job with a very flexible schedule - I can basically start and stop when I want, insuring that I am on the road before it gets dark and not bothered if I come a little late. At work, I have my own office and access to a clean bathroom, so I have plenty of space to store my stuff and get settled.

So, to be clear, I fully appreciate that my ability to bike peacefully to work each day is a reflection of my socio-economic and racial privilege. Still, it occurred to me this morning, that biking does de-stabilize this privilege in some ways by moving me from the driver's seat of the steel machines around which our entire society has been built, to another more precarious space - the bike. This morning, I began to wonder how biking can help me to understand the lived experience of Black and Hispanic people in this country.

Can I ever know what it feels like to be a Black person in America? Of course not. But I can listen, hear, imagine. Last weekend, the Arresting Patterns conference in New Haven engaged artists, writers and thinkers in a process of building expression of and understanding about criminal justice systems in American, with a particular focus on  the experience of African-Americans.  

Words, images and ideas from this conference echoed in my head as a drove cautiously through the streets of New Haven this morning. I enjoy the ride, but am very conscious of the fact that I could die at any time.  I ride on high alert, watching ever car door, trying to anticipate the changing landscape, watching the trucks. Especially the trucks. I know that one wrong move, one shift, and the trucks will run me over, kill me. They'll run me over because they don't see me, because they don't understand what I am doing, because their desire to get where they want to go quickly is their main motivation. One could argue that it's not really their fault, it's the system. It's the roads that are too tight, the bad mirrors, the lack of drivers' education about biking and how to share the road. But even without an articulated sense of malice, the big trucks can kill me and most people will probably assume it was my fault. I was where I shouldn't have been, my clothes were too dark, the truck thought I was stopping. People on bikes get hit all the time, it's not really news, it's just something that happens. Given all the bike related accidents, you'd think things might change, but the political will to make the streets safe for all is not there. 

It's really great to see other bikers when I am on the road, especially at unfriendly intersections. An exchange of smiles, a nod, a knowing. Also happy to see the walkers, and even skateboarders! Honestly, I don't feel I have a lot in common with skateboarders, but I recognize that they are allies: they are riding in the open without a steel shell. Also key is the support of my biker friends and family. My car-driving peeps are great, they appreciate and respect the biking community, but it's not the same. It's the bikers who teach me what to wear, introduce me to the guys at Devil's Gear, laugh about their flat tire stories. Show me where to lock my bike. Really understand when I tell them the story about hitting a pothole. 

There's a section of my ride home that really is not designed for bikes.  Merging from Goffe Street onto Elm in front of the Broadway shops is a confusing intersection of one way streets. The cars go really fast. There is no bike path. The sidewalks are disconnected.  Where does the bike rider fit in? So I just get in the middle of the lane, ride as fast as I can, and hope the trucks don't kill me.  Sometimes, I will avoid that intersection, even though it is the most direct path home, and drive in a big circle all around it just to avoid that one dangerous place.  The detour is an inconvenient waste of time, but at least I won't get killed.

Just beyond that intersection, there are a few blocks of thick green bike lanes, recently installed by the City.  Here I ride in supported safety, sometimes as fast as the cars. Why are these lanes only near Yale and not everywhere across the city? Glad to see the Yale bikers are safe, but what about the rest of us?  Planners may argue that the special green lanes are too expensive to install.  The old city streets aren't wide enough. The car people complain, they say it unnecessary and unfair to build protected lanes. It slows down their traffic, gives them less room to park.  But cars are already going 45 miles an hour down Elm!  How fast do they want to go?