Uphill, Both Ways
essay by Ginger Osborne
It amuses me when I hear young cyclists complain that some car driver yelled at them while they were biking.
Yelled at them. This upsets them. Being yelled at.
I started riding a bicycle around Philadelphia in the mid 1970s. There were no bike lanes, no “Share the Road” signs (nor even the concept of such things). There were other cyclists riding around—I certainly didn’t get the idea on my own to make a bicycle my primary transportation—but I could ride all over the city all day without seeing a single other cyclist.
The best of the drivers I encountered were totally unaware that there might be two-wheeled vehicles on the street. The worst of them? They ran me off the road, threw things at me, spit on me and, sometimes, swerved their cars in such a way as to purposefully make me fall.
This was life for a cyclist in the ’70s.
It was how I learned to clearly see every little thing that was happening around me and how to fall on hard surfaces without breaking bones. I also learned to hate tinted windows.
As I’ve grown older—and don’t bounce back so easily—I’m delighted with all the amenities afforded to cyclists. I can ride just about anywhere in Center City and rarely need to be on a street without a bike lane. Where there are no lanes, or the bike lane is blocked by a car, drivers are quite courteous about letting me go in front of them. They wave me through four-way stops even when they have the right of way. Pedestrians actually stop to let me go through the green light when they’re crossing against the red.
To be fair, I know that my white hair affords me a lot more courtesy than a lot of young people. But it’s still amazing. And I love it!
Now, I don’t kid myself that it’s all sunshine and lollipops. There are still a fair number of hostile drivers and pedestrians out there. And on weekends and in the summer, we have to be especially careful of people who rarely drive in the city and aren’t used to bikes.
There are bike racks and bike parks everywhere—though never quite enough, it seems. And the powers that be are working to make life even easier for us. At the risk of being a cliche, I’ll say that if you had told my 20-something self that this would be my world in my 60s, I would have thought I had a better chance of being able to beam myself up to the moon.
The first 20 years of riding, people yelling at me was a good day on my bike. Now, well, I guess I do get pretty annoyed when it happens. Maybe I’m entering my second childhood.
Ginger Osborne is a 40-year veteran of biking in Philadelphia, a member of Women Bike PHL and the office manager for the Association for Public Art.
This piece would be far more helpful and interesting if it didn’t reek of condescension. Can we not celebrate how far the city has come in its biking policies and still recognize that we have further to go? The younger bicyclists (like me) that amuse her so with their complaining are also the ones bringing attention to problems like aggressive drivers who, yes, yell at bicyclists and make the roads less safe for all of us. There are STILL drivers today who try to run bicyclists off the road. How is it helpful to tell us to shut up about it?
Ginger says she’s a member of Women Bike PHL, which has an active Facebook group where bicycling women of all ages are able to discuss all kinds of biking-related issues. I’m grateful to that group for providing a space where we can vent about hostile drivers, but also talk with other about the need for protected bike lanes, share favorite bike hacks and products, invite each other on rides, etc.
Julie, I’m sorry I offended you. Certainly not my intention. And, if it’s any consolation, I promise you that if we ever meet face to face, I will in no way find anything about you amusing.
Ms. Osborne is clearly being playful in ribbing young cyclists who think they have it bad, and since I was definitely not on the road when she was, I am going to take her word for it that we’ve got it a lot easier. She also clearly acknowledges that despite the progress, there are still aggressive drivers out there, and she at no point tells anyone to "shut up about it." It can be hard to be a biker in Philadelphia, but misdirecting anger toward a peaceable pioneer seems pretty unhelpful. It’s also troubling to hear that you believe that it’s solely young people who are advocates for safer biking. That’s clearly not the case, and it reinforces our cultural propensity for making older women, and their past contributions, invisible.
Ginger, thank you for your look back on biking in the city (even if I’m one of the younger bikers that you find amusing). I appreciate the path that you and others forged so that I can bike to work in relative peace. I also appreciate other younger advocates who are carrying the torch, and everyone in between. It will take all of us working together to get to where we all want to go.
I think it is typical for the older generations to say that the younger ones have things better, or that the younger generation complains too much (e.g. "Kids these days"). However it’s because of the stubborn younger generations that progress happens. Ginger and her peers pioneered biking in the city and stuck to it so that our generation could feel safe enough to continue biking, and it’s the younger generation’s obstinacy that future generations will also feel safe enough to bike on (hopefully) safer streets. Our insistence that cyclists have all of the rights and privileges of drivers and our will to fight for it on our pedals makes us younger cyclists repulsed by Ginger’s description of the "amenities" and current conditions on the road. Only when there are zero casualties and zero injuries to anyone on the road will it be safe. Drivers today still do far much more than yelling, and today we have drivers with distraction machines in their palms vying for attention – smartphones.
So thank you to Ginger and her peers for making cycling as common as it is today, and thank you for bringing up the topic in a public space.