Saturday, June 23, 2007

Big ass vs. big-ass car

Tonight, for about the five-millionth time, someone honked at me as I rode my bike down the dreaded Milwaukie Ave on my commute home from work. Depending on what kind of day I've had, my reaction to this varies. Often, I just boil. After all, it's not my fault that busy Milwaukie Ave is the only street that goes through, or that its flow is congealed by parked cars, or that the sidewalks are virtually unusable. I avoid it as much as I can, detouring onto side streets, but there is one quarter-mile section I have no choice but to use.

Today, I was in a philosophical mood. I'd just finished a proposal at work, and had that nice cat-just-out-of-the-litterbox feeling (frisky and fine). So when some asshole in a lumbering 'light' truck decided to school me (i.e. place my life in jeopardy to teach me a lesson, the object of which was 'you don't belong here'), first I was furious, then I started thinking. How nice for this rat-bastard to feel so entitled to all the space on this, the only road for five miles in either direction that crosses the ugly freeway I'd rather weren't there. How nice for her that she feels not a drop of guilt for trying to run someone off the road who takes up a fraction of the space she does, causes no wear and tear on the pavement and puts in taxes each year to help repair the damage her snow tires create every winter.

Mid-rant, something occurred to me. I sounded just like an anti-obesity apologist - only for cars. Isn't it interesting how sometimes it's okay to take up more than 'your share' of space and sometimes it's not? Even the most fluffed-up figures on the supposed cost of the obesity crisis are nothing compared to what we, as a nation have paid for the privilege of being able to go virtually anywhere in a huge, heavy, stinking vehicle. Gas is approaching $4 a gallon, greenhouse gases are destroying the planet, highways are falling into disrepair from overuse and hundreds of thousands of people have died through our efforts to secure a steady supply of oil. What dollar amount can you place on all that?

I am well aware that it is almost impossible to conduct a normal life in the U.S. without a car, especially if you have kids, or more than one job, or live in a neighborhood where you can afford to buy a house. I don't consider it the fault of individuals that the roads are clogged with cars - that's an infrastructure problem. If it were easier/more appealing to get around other ways, and maybe a little less appealing to drive, I think people would respond to that. But until that day, it's really not fair to fault people for taking advantage of the convenience of auto travel, while turning a blind eye to the human, economic and environmental costs.

I've been a bike commuter for almost 10 years now, and was a transit junkie before that (I had a car once, from 1988-89, when I was living with my mom up the mountain and driving an hour and a half every day to get to school). My whole life, at this point, is shaped in a way that makes this workable for me. When I bought a house, I bought within easy biking distance of the city. A whole room in my tiny house is full of bikes, trailers, racks, bike repair stuff and gear for various kinds of weather. I have no children and only one job, and I am relatively young and healthy. I also have the privilege of living in super-casual Portland, Oregon, where 'formal wear' means a clean t-shirt with no slogans on it and no holes, and of working in an office where people sometimes go all day without putting on any shoes. I never wear makeup or complicated hairstyles that wouldn't survive crushing by a helmet.

In short, I think it would be difficult, and in many cases impossible, for many people to get rid of their cars and live like me. Besides the monster stumbling blocks, like getting the kids from place to place or negotiating routes that are miles and miles long and friendly only to cars, there are the small things: women I know who would rather die than go without makeup, or have flat hair, or get sweaty on the way to work. Men who wouldn't be caught dead in those bike pants (so ass-saving those pants). Then there's the vulnerability factor - it's frightening having impatient people in cars gunning for you because they don't realize you have no choice but to get in their way (even for only a quarter of a mile).

In fact, giving up driving in America is a spot-on perfect analogy for losing weight and keeping it off. Next time someone tells me 'it can be done, fatty - so do it!' I plan to say to them: 'Okay. I will lose 30 pounds in the next five months if you will leave your car in the garage for that entire time.'

It can be done. You can get rid of your car forever. Look at me: I did it! But look at what I had to do. My life is drastically different now than it would have been had I spent most of my adult life driving a car instead of riding a bike. I would be a different person. I would look different, I'd probably dress better, I'd go different places, maybe even with different people. I might have a different job, and a pretty guest room in my house instead of a muddy, greasy bike room - though I would never have been able to afford a house. I would probably have more credit card debt. My health and strength would be nowhere near as good. And what if I had a baby, or married a man who didn't ride a bike? Well, I, personally, would figure out a way to deal with it without getting a car - this is the only life I know - but it would be punishingly hard in all kinds of ways, great and small.

The thing is, though I would be thrilled for anyone who took up a biker's life and gained the benefits I've gained, I certainly don't think other people are inferior to me because their legs aren't as strong, or they can't get past wanting to have nice hair. Sure, we'd all be healthier if we had bikers' legs, but so the hell what?

So after your friend, who has kindly pointed out to you that you just aren't trying hard enough, has chewed on this for a minute or so, calmly advise her to multiply the sheer enormity of going without her car (forever) by 10. Then she will have some inkling of what she is expecting you to do.


Blogger littlem said...


You know, there is a theory in some circles of the blogosphere (Fatosphere? Body Acceptance-o-sphere? OK, I will stop now) that a lot of fat hatred is guilt displacement over what we, as a society, consume in other areas of our lives -- clothes and toys and other stuff that makes unrecyclable garbage, but most pointedly, fossil fuel and SUVs.

I can't remember where I saw it first, but I can't help but think they've got something there.

6:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Small world.

I found your blog through a random set of links (comments over on BFD, I think) and was surprised to read about you living in Portland (my town, too) and cycling home form work on Milwaukie Ave. (my street!)

I'm also a full-time bike commuter and ride Milwaukie frequently. I'm also an athlete and very thin. I never get honked at. Ever.

I know how awful that sounds, but hear me out. Your post got me started thinking about how it seems, anecdotally at least, that we are being treated differently out there on our bikes, perhaps because of appearance. I wonder if the reason for this is that my thinness somehow falsely legitimizes my presence on the road as a cyclist in the eyes of the folks driving by. They perceive my appearance as license to be there, perhaps even related to my "taking up less space" in the same light as you're talking about in your post; they might even notice me less.

It's terrible that you get honked at-- it's terrible that any of us get harrassed for being thoughtful and diligent in how we get around. It is, however, awesome that you're living car-free and helping to further the cause of decreasing the city's need for even more auto-specific infrastructure.

See you out on the road!

8:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had another thought...

(please excuse this influx of comments-- your post just really got me thinking)

...that being, you not being a waif but riding your bike might force the SUV-driving jerks out there to confront the fact that they have no physical impediment that keeps them from also giving up their car. I imagine that might make some folks pretty irked on a visceral level. You're out there using your bike to actually get places instead of being a spandexed roadie and that, in addition to being wonderful and admirable, smacks drivers in the face who justify their refusal to bike based on their physical state.

You're a marvelous writer, by the way. And now I will stop commenting. :)

9:08 PM  
Blogger Mary Garden said...

Thanks for stopping by, fellow PDX biker! And thanks for the lovely compliments!

Oh, I totally agree with you. Size does matter. I get a lot more hassling now than I did before I gained my weight back (about 70 lbs). On the other hand, I am also slower now (my muscles haven't caught up with my weight gain yet) - so don't know if that's a contributing factor. Either way, it's nasty and it stinks.

Sadly, I've seen little evidence that drivers see any of us cyclists (fat or thin) as anything but obstacles or road hazards. Honestly (and from my own driving experience back when), I think cars, like any other form of power, bring out the worst in people. It's very easy to forget that that thing that is impeding your progress is a human being, who is actually moving pretty fast given that her motor is her legs.

Kudos to you too for bike commuting! All my complaining aside, I am well aware of how spoiled we are here in Portland. Also, that motorists here are generally kinder and more bike savvy than anywhere else in the US.

5:22 PM  

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