Take Back the Lane: A Guide to Street Harassment on Bicycle
For as long as I can remember, the most fear-inducing thought my mind has been able to piece together while on bicycle has very little to do with any sort of accident. I’ve become an acquaintance with “dooring”; I’ve slid atop a patch of black ice and fallen from my bike in front of a truck delaying to brake. Those fears are still palpable when revisited, but they have nothing on the recurring faux-cinematic reel ready to accompany me during rides home on darkened streets.
This is what my anxiety-riddled mind enjoys to replay on the regular: I imagine some version of a hardened body–pumping with a steady flow of machismo bullshit, lips rubbing together in an attempt at a seductive screech–running up to me as I am fixed to my saddle. I am at a red light; he grabs one of my wheels. He just wants to talk to me, you know. They always just want to talk to you. I try to ride away. He says something like he would… or he wants to… in which my only physiological response is simply a rise of bile up my digestive tract and the stiffening of my middle finger. I wonder how long it will take for me to wrap my arm around and snatch my u-lock from my bag and nail this asshole square across the knuckles to loosen his grip.
I have never worn fear well, even if people think it should fit a 4’10” body frame. I almost exclusively wear skirts when I ride. I take neighborhood routes some might advise against.
And for the most part, this thought has always simply been just that: a thought. A crazy vision propped up by years of Lifetime movies, maternal anecdotes, and firsthand experience with scumbags riding by in cars, almost swerving into me to tell me their opinions on my body, befallen to absolute cosmic tragedy when I don’t say anything remotely like “thank you” through my gritted teeth.
I always considered this vision to be a safety of mine, a thought to keep me on my guard, but something that I naively assumed I was “too smart” to actually fall prey to. It changed when I read this, about an incident that occurred on Sunday, February 24th to a young woman who rides the same exact route I ride to work every day. She was knocked off her bike, choked, and, when she finally managed to scrounge for money in her pocket to give the attacker, was kissed on the face by him. All of this happened on one of the busiest streets for cycling in the city, in a neighborhood a local would call “safe”, mere blocks from some of the most pervasive scars of gentrification in all of Chicago.
This instance has had me thinking, especially with its pertinent closeness to my every day commuting route, that my safety net, my grand (delusional) idea of how I could and would handle myself is not enough. And, with that, us Tiny Fix ladies (alongside our lady friends with additional tales of kissing noises, car honks, and close calls) have put together some semblance of strategy. Sure, maybe we can’t defeat all the unwanted sexual posturing from dudes who are trying to prove something, but you sure as hell can’t (and never should have to!) stay off your bike either.
We suggest (with late night/early morning solitary riding in mind):
1.) Center yourself in the lane. At night and in the early morning hours, you’re more likely to encounter individuals of the inebriated variety—on car, on bike, and on foot. By moving to the middle, you’re lessening the chance of a driver overestimating space and hitting you as you hug the right, you are positioned to better gauge someone’s approach to you while on bike, and have a larger peripheral grasp on what is going on around you. There’s also more grit and glass by the curb, and obviously keeping from a flat is a priority at that hour, too.
2.) Logic > rules of the road. Yeah, I do my part to respect the laws of the road. On occasion, I feel like I am the only cyclist who stops at literally. all. of. the. red. lights. But, at night time, when traffic is lessened, your priority should be getting from point a to point b post-haste. Sure, this may seem pretty clear to most cyclists, but anecdotes I’ve heard suggest that a great deal of assaults on bike happen when an individual is at a complete stop, or just came to/from one.
3.) Remove distractions. Perhaps this is pretty superfluous, but on account that I see at least half of the people I ride alongside on the regular with headphones in their ears, I feel it warrants a mention: nighttime is a pretty damn good time to take off your headphones. Your Robyn dance party in your brain can resume when you arrive to your destination safely, and I swear you can ride just as fast without a soundtrack.
4.) Arm yourself. This can mean a variety of things depending on what you feel comfortable with (and there will be a post detailing recommended pepper sprays and repellants in full to follow this very one should that be your next form of protection of choice). For some, the trusty u-lock is as good a weapon as any. I know people who bungee it to a front rack, dangle it from the handle bars, or keep it one awkwardly twisted elbow’s reach away from them on late-night rides.
I tend to keep my lock in my messenger bag or pannier (an easy fool if you’re pretending to go for your wallet), and I keep my keys clipped to my chest, should I need to use those in a pinch (or a punch, you know, whatever). Some ladies I know (including Tiny Fix member, Cupcake) own a kubotan. There are a few different types out there, but this one seems to be popular. And, shit, look there is literally everything out there—even “hand-sized paperweights” made from bike chains. Ridiculous.
5.) Know your route, trust your intuition. You can’t apply daytime routine to nighttime comfort. However, when able to do so, it is great to get out and explore your community—taking notes of/being aware of traffic patterns, quantity of pedestrians out, the quality of lighting and even the presence of cameras. Are you passing homes or store-fronts? Busy intersections or neighborhood 4-way stops? In cities like Chicago, a neighborhood can drastically differ in the matter of one block. While I am not a fan of slighting or spiting a neighborhood based on its perceived level of “safety”–and there are a shit ton of implications that float in the waters surrounding that very point of contention to me–I do think it’s crucial to look things up before assuming parameters. Treat Yo Self 2013. Use local bike forums to find additional input about how a street might change from the sunset changeover.
So maybe you’re a dude reading this far and you have an assorted amount of feels, though a limited amount of experience, about the topic. Maybe you’ve heard your friends talk about being cat-called via bicycle and felt some pangs of guilt, or a desire to do something, but couldn’t pinpoint what. Well, guys, there’s even a step for you. Hell, this step is for everyone really.
1.) Dismantle the culture. Okay, okay, so maybe that sounds intimidating, but step to my level and let’s get reasonable here.
Safety on the road (specifically from street harassment) can’t and shouldn’t be a “woman’s issue” because the implication of something being a woman’s issue is that the actual perpetrators of offenses are left with limited or lessened responsibility. It’s when victim blaming comes into the fold, and it’s when the trite “you should have known better than to ride alone/so late/in an outfit that was comfortable for you that could attract the male gaze” falls on ears unwelcome to the sound.
If you have any friends or family members who have attempted to hoot and/or holler at some girl rolling around just doing her own damn thing, say something to them. Explain why it’s an asshole move. Explain why beeping a horn at a girl isn’t a modern day mating call, but immediately triggers a fear that you might get hit by a car. And if you don’t feel like you’ve got the tools to check them completely, refer them over to someone who does.
Fine, okay, maybe you don’t know people that do that and that’s why you’re reading a feminist-leaning, lady-friendly bike blog in the first place—then check people on the street. Every time you ignore or dismiss another’s abuse, is a time you are complicit in it.
Cycling is already a vulnerable activity through which many people still find and source a great deal of strength. You don’t have a protective shell around you, but goddamnit you are powered by your own body.
So, a simple request to all the people acting like puberty is a lifelong battle for them, or that they weren’t raised with mothers, sisters, or (damn) daughters: don’t make women wish that they could take their body out of that very precious and beloved equation, okay?