Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2021/ Bike Privileged

Bike Privileged

When it comes to cycling, I can be pretty condescending. "I am a fat old slow guy," I sniff, "and yet I am able to walk or ride my bike almost anywhere I want to go." Then I look down my nose at everybody else and loudly wonder why everybody else can't do the same.

As usual, I am oblivious to my privilege. A lot of things had to go right in order for me to be able to ride my bicycle or walk to my destinations. Lately I have been reflecting on a few of these factors, and lucky you gets now gets to wade through them.

Unleaded Gasoline and Cleanish Air

This entry was prompted by an episode of the Memory Palace that documented the history of leaded gasoline. It is a shame that lead is such a useful material, because healthwise it is awful. Injesting lead causes all kinds of problems, including reduced intelligence. But until 1990 leaded gasoline was legal, and stinky cars routinely burned it. If I had advocated for riding a bicycle before 1990, I would also have been advocating breathing in all those lead fumes.

I am not trying to argue that internal combustion engines are great now, or that breathing in car exhaust is particularly healthy, but it is much better than when we were breathing in leaded gasoline fumes. You can immediately tell when a lovingly-restored classic car drives by, because such cars stink to high heaven. Thank goodness for catalytic converters.


While on this topic I would like to express gratitude for mufflers. Cars are not particularly quiet because the tires make a lot of noise rolling on the ground, but all you need to do is listen to a fleet of Harley-Davidson motorcyles roar by to appreciate the humble muffler.

Access to Bicycles and Maintenance

When I lived in Mississauga I wanted to ride a bicycle, but I did not have access. I did not have good options for purchasing a cheap bicycle, and I did not have good options for keeping it maintained. (I have an unpleasant story about this which I will not relate in public.)

It was not until I moved to Kitchener-Waterloo that I gained access to Recycle Cycles, which offered both the opportunity to learn how to fix bikes (so I could maintain my own), cheap used bicycles, and cheap replacement parts. Without Recycle Cycles I probably would not be cycling now, and it may be one of the things I have missed most during the COVID lockdowns. Thank goodness I had the privilege of limited access to parts and tools in other ways, but I still felt the absence of Recycle Cycles acutely.


Related to the above, although cycling is a relatively cheap form of transportation (especially when compared to public transit or car ownership) it is not free. Spare parts cost money. Bike helmets cost money. When my bicycle is stolen, new bicycles and lost cost a lot of money. I probably average at least $100 in bicycle-related expenses each year, and some years it can be several times that. Not everybody has access to this much disposable income.

Bike Storage

I have lived in one place that had indoor bike storage. That was a real treat. Other than that I have had to park my bike outside. But for the most part my bike parking has been safe enough that I do not worry about theft. That is not true for everybody.

Pavement and Traffic

I complain a lot about the bike infrastructure in Waterloo Region, and I continue to feel that many of my complaints are justified. Having said that, Waterloo Region is a reasonable place to ride a bicycle. The quality of the pavement is good. Many rural routes -- even some sideroads -- are paved and quiet, which makes for much more pleasant riding. Often roads have either a paved shoulder or a bike lane, which makes me feel much more secure. Most of all, there are often parallel routes to the same destination, which means that if a particular route is too busy or closed due to construction, I have other options.

This is not true everywhere. It is not even true everywhere in Waterloo Region. There are roads (Ottawa, Homer Watson Boulevard) which are usually busy, have narrow lanes that make side-by-side coexistence with cars difficult, and have utterly treacherous bike infrastructure. Fortunately I am able to avoid many of these roads.

In addition, many roads in Waterloo Region are fairly quiet outside of rush hour, and as a burden on society I usually do not have to ride my bikes during those busy hours. Quieter roads that are direct are great, and I prefer them even when they do not have bike lanes.

Courteous Drivers

As a grumpy old man I feel this is changing for the worse, but overall drivers in Waterloo Region know how to drive around cyclists, and do not squeeze me off the road. Again, I give credit to the Mennonites for this -- decades of driving around buggies have trained drivers to deal with cyclists as well.

Unfortunately as the region grows and lots of people move here from the GTA, it feels that drivers are getting more aggressive. I am getting cut off a lot more, and of course I got hit this year. But this is not yet Boston; drivers are not actively trying to kill me.

Good Health

This is a tricky one. I am no athlete, and all too often people use their health as an excuse for not riding a bicycle. Meanwhile, riding a bicycle is a good way to improve one's health (until you get hit by a car, at which point riding a bicycle is a great way to abruptly diminish your health).

But the fact remains that I enjoy good enough health to ride a bicycle. My legs work, for one thing. As I wrote earlier, I am grateful that the driver who hit me this year clipped my elbow and not my knee. It is really difficult to ride a bicycle if you do not have working legs.

Another advantage is that I have reasonable control of my bowels. I can usually go for hours without needing to use the washroom. I especially appreciate this when my guts are churning and I do need to use the bathroom badly.

A third factor is chronic pain. Some people have sciatica or other conditions which make sitting on a bicycle for extended periods difficult. Sometimes there are workarounds for this (such as recumbent bicycles) but these can get expensive. Meanwhile, I can get away with riding 30 year old hand-me-down bikes, provided that I can find them in my size. (Being short with stubby legs can be disadvantageous.)

There are lots of other ways in which my health is critical to cycling. "Good enough" vision is one. Having strong enough handgrips to operate brake levers and gearshifts is another. All too often I take these privileges for granted.

I worry a lot about how my diminishing health will affect my biking. At some point my body will not be able to ride a bike safely any more. Then what will I do?

Life Circumstances

Astute readers will note that I am single, have no dependents and am within walking distance of my primary shopping destinations. Of course I can cycle, right? It is easy for me, right?

Yes, these life circumstances make things easier. Because I am single, I only have to bring home food for one (gluttonous) person, instead of a family of four. Because I have no dependents, I am not responsible for chauffeuring others around town. Because many of my shopping destinations are walkable, I can carry my groceries on my back, and/or make several shopping trips a week if need be.

As usual, there are workarounds here. Some people use bike trailers for their kids, and/or a Dutch-style "bakfiets" cargo bike. Others use bicycles for daily transportation, and cars for chauffeuring and weekly shopping. Also as usual, these workarounds are more expensive than the privileges I enjoy.

Privileges vs Excuses

Even as I list my privileges I feel defensive. Yes, I have privileges that make it easier for me to ride a bicycle. But I get irritated when people use my privileges as excuses as to why they cannot cycle. I guess that this is more snooty condescension, but I think that a whole lot more people could cycle than currently do.

We can all make excuses as to why cycling is unfeasible for us. I could have made those excuses too, and for a while I did. I could have easily given up after not cycling for decades, after crashing my first bike, when I was struggling up hills, when I arrived at my destinations late and sweaty, or when I was hit by a car for the first time. But time and time again, cycling has taught me that many of my limits are self-imposed. I have learned that I can ride uphill, that I can cycle in the winter, that I can cycle over a hundred kilometres in a day, that I can ride soaking wet in the rain, that it is okay that I am so slow that other cyclists speed past me as I ride. None of these lessons have been pleasant, but they have been important. I would not have believed I was capable of these things before I started riding a bike for transportation.

Similarly, I think that there are a lot of people who don't ride bikes because they don't believe they can ride bikes. I also know at least two people who thought they could not ride bikes, but made a conscious decision to give it an honest effort. One of those people successfully rode a bike until it was stolen, and as far as I know the other is still riding today.

Yes, I have privileges, but so do many other people. Lots of us enjoy paved roads and cleanish car exhaust. Lots of us enjoy safe and effective routes to our destinations -- but discovering the routes that work for you takes time and experimentation. Even people who are not in great health can cycle enough that their health improves (provided they are not in a bad crash).

I do not believe that everybody is capable of riding a bicycle for transportation. I do believe that many more people could do so if they wanted to. (In my darker moments I am not sure I want many more people to cycle, but that is a confession for another time.) I believe that for many people the biggest barrier to cycling is not lack of sufficient privilege, but simple reluctance. Many people who can overcome this reluctance would discover that cycling is a perfectly feasible form of transportation for them. It takes some dedication, some experimentation, and some education, but it can be done and it is not that difficult.