Privilege and rights in our communities and on our roads

A couple of weeks ago, I finally got around to reading Jeremy Dowsett’s post, “What My Bike has Taught Me about White Privilege.”  I’d been seeing links to the post on FB for a week or two, and I resisted clicking.  I had a pretty good idea what his argument would be, and, while I thought he had a point, I also thought the argument was a bit of a stretch.

When I finally got around to reading it, I found a thoughtful, well-written piece.  I particularly enjoyed the way Dowsett looked at the idea of white privilege (emphasis mine):

But privilege talk is not intended to make a moral assessment or a moral claim about the privileged at all. It is about systemic imbalance. It is about injustices that have arisen because of the history of racism that birthed the way things are now. It’s not saying, “You’re a bad person because you’re white.” It’s saying, “The system is skewed in ways that you maybe haven’t realized or had to think about precisely because it’s skewed in YOUR favor.”

As a bicyclist, Dorsett explores this imbalance from a number of angles: access; road conditions; the often unintentional, but potentially quite damaging behavior of “privileged” motorists; and unjust laws.  In the interest of not recapping his entire post here, I’ll let you read it for yourself.

This is not the first time I’ve read or heard bicyclists’ rights being compared to civil rights.  I get the analogy.  Bicyclists are often treated as second class citizens.  Even motorists who don’t have bad intentions don’t really get it, and often behave in ways that endanger us.  (I don’t agree with everything he says — while I share some of his experience, and frustrations, my experience on the bicycle, the story I tell, is often different because of the way I ride.)

Part of where this argument/analogy breaks down for me is that skin color is not something you choose.  It’s something you’re born with.  And everyday, people in this country, people in my city, are treated differently because their skin is darker than mine.

On the other hand, most people who ride bikes are choosing to do so.  Even if you eliminate the recreational riders from that equation, and just look at people who are using bicycles for transportation, for most of them, most of the time, it is still a choice.  They can afford to own and operate a motor vehicle (though the cost of this is not negligible).  For whatever reasons (health, money savings, environmental reasons, etc.), they are choosing to ride a bike.

And it’s not okay to be discriminated against, harassed, or endangered for your transportation choices, but it is also not the same as facing those same challenges and built-in biases because of a physical characteristic you can’t control.  (Also, for bicyclists, these experiences happen when they are on the bicycle; people of color can’t just “get off the bicycle.”)

But what about the people who don’t have much choice about being on a bike?  What about people like Cherokee Schill, a single mother who rides her bike to work every day?  A woman who was first dragged to court, and has now been arrested, because she is using her bike to get to work and support her family?  A person who’s riding her bike so she can save her money for groceries and housing rather than gas and car maintenance?

Schill, 41, said if there were an easier way to get to work, she would take it. Her [car] is not dependable. To be able to afford housing and food for herself and two teenagers, the divorced mother said commuting by bike keeps her household afloat.

“I’m not putting myself here because I think it’s fun or exciting,” Schill said of the commute. “I’m here because I’ve got two kids to feed and a roof to put over their head. … I’ve got to pay rent, pay bills and buy groceries.”

The only route between Ms. Schill’s home and her workplace is a U.S. highway (the article I linked to above makes it clear that she explored other options for getting to work; none of them get her to work in time for her 6am shift).  This is not an interstate, with posted minimum speeds.  The shoulders on the highway are filled with debris (as are most shoulders), not to mention rife with turning conflicts that make “far to the right” a very dangerous place to be.  So Ms. Schill rides in the right traffic lane and practices defensive bicycle driving.

This is a 4-lane road, so when Ms. Schill is operating her bicycle in the right lane, motorists can freely change lanes to pass her in the left lane.  It is that simple.  Might they have to take their foot off the gas pedal and slow down a bit when they approach her?  Yes, just as you would for any slower moving vehicle.  The “delay” this would cause any single person is minimal.

The county prosecutor and law enforcement have chosen to challenge Ms. Schill’s right to operate her bicycle on this road.  Through all the citations and press, Ms. Schill had continued riding, continued going to work and supporting her family, despite harassment from [a select few] motorists and local law enforcement.  Instead of focusing on the people who were threatening and harassing Ms. Schill, with their vehicles, they chose to focus on the “danger” she posed to motorists.  To focus on how she doesn’t belong on that road, because she is slower and smaller.

After reading about Ms. Schill’s conviction last week, and her arrest yesterday, the parallels between the different struggles for rights ring more true than ever.  I will not claim they are identical (nor does Mr. Dowsett, as explained in his follow-up post).  But the similarities, and possible implications, are frightening.


To learn more, and show your support for Cherokee Schill (and the rights of all bicyclists), check out the “I Support Cherokee Shill” page on FB, as well as the fundraising effort to cover Ms. Schill’s legal costs (she is planning to appeal the initial court ruling against her).





  1. Thank you, Melissa!

    As you know, I’ve been deeply involved in Ms Schill’s legal challenge for several months. I consider her a friend, and her arrest is mortifying to me.

    I’ve ridden that route with her. I’ve looked at the alternates (although from behind the windshield) with a cyclist’s eye, and I can say with all the training you and I share that US27 is really not so bad–if it weren’t for the vitriolic anti-bicycle-use crowd. The traffic count, while higher than is comfortable, is not a big problem. If you had to enure to it, you could. The terrain is not a problem, either.

    It’s the culture of bias against her mode of transportation that is the problem.

    1. Melissa @ HerGreenLife says:

      I am also very troubled by her arrest. Thank you for helping Cherokee (and by extension all bicyclists) in this matter, Tom. I’m sure the court processes are stressful and unpleasant. I can’t imagine what it’s been like for Cherokee and her family — she didn’t ask for this, and I can only imagine how much she wants it all to be behind her, so she can get on with her life (which is what she was trying to do when “the law” interfered).

  2. Great piece, but please fix the spelling of “peddle” (pedal)!

  3. While blacks in the 50s fighting for civil rights could not choose the color of their skin, they could have chosen to remain in the back of the bus, just like Cherokee could have chosen to remain on the debris-strewn conflict zone known as the shoulder. The analogy is closer than most realize.

    1. Melissa @ HerGreenLife says:

      Serge, that extension of the analogy occurred to me while I was out on my bike this afternoon (great place for thinking). Do we accept being sidelined (literally) or do we stand up for our rights? I’m glad that Cherokee is choosing to fight this (and that Tom and others are helping her)!

    2. Melissa @ HerGreenLife says:

      Unfortunately, many bicyclists seem rather content with “the back of the bus” and separate, but not equal, facilities. I was first surprised, then saddened, to see the reaction of a number of local cyclists to Cherokee’s trial (questioning her need to ride on that road, questioning her actions, etc.). Have these bicyclists internalized the messages of the majority to such an extent that this is all they can see? They’d rather not rock the boat?

      1. Again, the analogy works. It is my understanding that many blacks were initially opposed to “stirring up trouble”, if you will, and were accepting of the back of the bus treatment, literally.

        I wonder how much of that is similar to general bicyclist preference for riding on (cruddy) shoulders. That preference is clearly the result of the threat and ill treatment to which they are subjected when they ride in the roadway. Was black acceptance of back of the bus treatment also rooted in an unwillingness to be subjected to threats and ill treatments for sitting in the front?

  4. Marc Caruso says:

    This article is excellent. I have not read your blog since the publishing of the indicator species. Both that and this are outstanding. It is a relief to know that there are very intelligent people standing behind Cherokee like yourself. With the ability and articulation skills to make others see her plight. I only wish I possessed half of your skills. Thank you for this article.

  5. pmjzzz says:

    There’s a typo (a mixed-up double-paste I think) in the Jeremy Dowsett URL at the top of the page. This works:

  6. EcoCatLady says:

    Wow. I hadn’t seen Jeremy’s post before, it was great. And the case of Cherokee Schill is extremely disheartening to say the least. Colorado law is sooo ambiguous on this matter that it really makes me nervous. “… a bicyclist shall ride far enough to the right as judged safe by the bicyclist to facilitate the movement of such overtaking vehicles unless other conditions make it unsafe to do so.” Who gets to decide when “other conditions” make it unsafe to hug the right hand side of the lane or be in the shoulder? It says the bicyclist does… sorta – but as all of this points out, what is “deemed safe” by an uneducated person in a car, and what is “deemed safe” by a person on a bike can be very, VERY different.

    It will be very interesting to see how Denver deals with these sorts of issues over the coming years. The city has a goal of 10% bicycle commuting mode share by 2018 (we’re currently at 2.2%). Unfortunately, the main effort seems to be creating more bike lanes in the door zone which just seems crazy to me! I can only hope that as more people take to their bikes the attitudes will begin to change…

  7. Ken Grubb says:

    Some of us bike commute year round, 5 miles each way in my case, because we have to. I’m fortunate that I don’t have to ride on US highways, there’s a bike lane for much of my route, and the wide shoulders are generally devoid of glass and other debris. As more people “choose” to bike commute–because food and rent are more important than gas and car insurance–legislators and transportation officials will have to face this issue head on. Arrest and injunction aren’t going to hold up as an “answer” long term. I guess it’s no surprise that LAB ranks KY #48 in bike friendliness.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s