Car Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Trunk
When I started riding my bike again two years ago, I expected to have a few scary traffic moments and a little bit of awkwardness changing out of sweaty clothes at work. What I did not expect was that people would start complaining to me about other bicyclists they’d seen on the road – sometimes because they’d done something genuinely stupid or jerkfaced, sometimes because they’d done something completely legal – in a way that people seldom ever complained to me about other drivers: “If cyclists want my respect, they should act like it.”
Sometimes people are stupid jerks. Jeez. What do you want from me?
When this many people are asking me to defend the behavior of wholly separate unrelated individuals with whom I have only one thing in common… well, there’s clearly something going on. And I went back and forth over whether to use the word “privilege” to describe it. “Privilege” is a bit of progressive jargon – I’m using it here to describe a manifestation of a particular kind of social hierarchy, with cars on top as both the assumed default and the most prestigious mode of transportation. If you would rather think about this as “structural advantage” or “being in the majority”, or whatever, feel free to mentally substitute your favorite phrase as needed.
The overwhelming majority of cyclists in this country are also drivers; there aren’t really any widely recognized entrenched social hierarchies (“isms”) where so many people are able to move at will between “privileged” and “disprivileged” status several times over the course of a day. This list is not intended to establish a comparison between car privilege and white privilege (or male privilege, or any other systems of power and oppression). I don’t think car privilege is comparable to other systems of privilege in the magnitude of its effects, the extent to which it is entrenched in cultural institutions, or any other way, really.
I do, however, think four things:
- Human beings aren’t hugely creative about the ways in which we think about social minorities and/or exercise social power; we tend to reuse and repurpose a limited set of strategies that we carry from one set of majority/minority or privileged/disempowered groups to the next.
- U.S. culture and infrastructure provide many amenities for car drivers, often at the expense of other modes of transportation.
- Privilege checklists like this one can be useful ways to think about the ways society makes your life easier, that you might otherwise not notice.
- The overwhelming dominance of single-occupancy automobiles is an ecological disaster.
Finally, this list is blatantly U.S.-centric, because that’s where I ride my bike. Some items don’t apply to all of the U.S., either – Seattle has been pretty good about installing bike sensors at traffic lights, for example.
Okay, that was a long preamble. Onto the list.As a driver:
- I can typically get where I am going without spending time in traffic with vehicles that move much faster than mine.
- Traffic-sensing stoplights will sense my vehicle and cycle the signal appropriately in response.
- Traffic signals are timed to maximize the smooth flow of vehicles moving at my typical speed.
- The roads I use have lane markings that are designed for my vehicle’s width and speed.
- The part of the road I use is typically kept clear of snow and debris.
- During major road construction, detours for my mode of transportation are clearly marked.
- New buildings are required to include parking designed specifically for my type of vehicle.
- The laws and customs governing my mode of transportation are widely understood, even by people who do not use it. If I am using the road in a legal and customary manner I will not be told by other road users that my behavior is unacceptable.
- The dangers I face on the road are widely understood, even by people who do not use my form of transportation. If I take evasive or preventive action, I can expect other road users to understand what I am doing and why.
- If I fear for my life during a traffic situation, I can expect that the other people involved will recognize the gravity of the situation and understand my fear; I will not have to explain to them how a situation they experienced as a minor annoyance could have been life-threatening to me.
- Other road users have been trained to carefully watch for my type of vehicle on the road.
- When I use additional safety features for my mode of transportation, it does not cause other road users to behave more recklessly towards me.
- Places I want to visit – museums, restaurants, etc. – usually provide directions and parking information pertinent to my mode of transportation on their website.
- When I ask someone for directions, they will start by giving me directions appropriate to my mode of transportation.
- I can easily find movies, TV, and books where gaining access to my mode of transportation is depicted as an important rite of passage.
- I can easily find movies in which lack of access to my mode of transportation is depicted as a sign of loserdom.
- If I’m criticized for my unprofessional appearance at work, I can be sure that it’s not because of my mode of transportation (unlike this guy).
- If I’m not offered a job after a promising interview, I can be reasonably sure that it’s not because I discussed the mode of transportation I would use for my potential new commute.
- I am not asked to explain the behavior of other people who use the same mode of transportation as me.
- If I do something boneheaded or discourteous in traffic, people won’t attribute it to my mode of transportation.
- When people talk about “traffic” they are usually talking about people using my mode of transportation.
- If I am not in a convertible or classic car, people assume I’m on the road because I am trying to get from Point A to Point B, and not because I am out for a leisurely pleasure ride.
I’ll be interested to hear from people about where I’ve gotten things wrong, and what should be on this list that I’ve missed.