This was going to be an article about sexism, cycling, and Melbourne roads. Having returned to this city after an extended period overseas, I was going to start with this admission of my naivety:
I was totally unprepared for the level of violent hatred Melbourne drivers have for cyclists, especially female cyclists of my body shape. Germany has its fair share of sexism, but in seven years of biking in Berlin, not once did anyone ever scream ‘You fucking fat slut!’ or ‘Fuck you, you fucking BITCH!!!’ at me just for riding a bike and obeying the road rules.
My article was going to document how, within my first two weeks back on the road, I had been verbally abused on the basis of my body shape and gender no fewer than five times. I wanted to point out that in a majority of cases, it was middle-aged men in expensive cars, but that even a carload of young women had deliberately tried to scare me off my bike. When I knocked on their window at the next set of lights, they told me, ‘Fucking get over it, BITCH!’ and sped off.
To bring it into relief, I was going to do a little compare and contrast between Melbourne and Berlin. I planned to explore some of the reasons why my treatment as a cyclist could be so different in these two cities, which might have ranged from the better integration of cyclist awareness into the compulsory four-week driving theory course for prospective German licensees to differences in speed limits (30 km/h on many smaller Berlin streets), to the sheer numbers of cyclists on the roads in the more compact European city which itself must mean drivers are more accustomed to accommodating them, to the far more extensive network of both on- and off-road bike paths there.
None of this would have explained the particularly sexist character of antipodean abuse. But it might have gone some way towards explaining the level of aggression and violence evident in my Melbourne confrontations: perhaps tensions more easily explode in a higher-risk, higher-pressure environment. Some published accounts show it can easily tip over into terror tactics and victimisation.
Others have also noted the particularly gendered nature of cycling in Melbourne, with a survey of women in April 2013 noting that 60 per cent of respondents would ride more often if cycling conditions were safer. Bicycle Network Victoria has been documenting increased numbers of women cyclists since separated bike lanes were introduced. In Australia generally, moral panics about irresponsible mothers on bikes, and a macho atmosphere in the whole cycling scene, has become a bit of a ‘thing’, warranting published tips for women on how to assertively pedal their way into public acceptance.
To back all of this up, I thought I would offer some anecdotal (read: Facebook) evidence from friends who have ridden bikes in both Melbourne and Berlin. For example, the friend currently in Berlin who sent me this in a private message:
Berlin observation #27: No abuse or shaming of me as a fat person exercising/riding a bike.
Another friend with cycling experience in both cities said:
Yep. I’m really enjoying not having sexist abuse shouted at me on a regular basis. Every country I’ve been to provides relief from street harassment compared to Australia.
Kate – I forgot about this, but now I’m remembering all that verbal bullshit.
And yet another recalled that:
[I]t’s totally on another level in Aus – wouldn’t want to be dealing with it.
One friend’s experience in Brunswick – ‘I had a full glass bottle thrown at me when I was riding on Albion St once when I was still presenting as female’ – reminded me of the time many years ago, while riding down Sydney Road, a carload of twenty-something men reached out their windows and tried to grab my backside as they sped past, laughing maniacally.
The consequences of all of this were made clear in this friend’s palpable dismay:
Wow, makes me rethink riding! Just as people were starting to convince me I’d be alright!
That is, sexism on the roads makes women not want to ride bikes.
Many friends offered advice on how to respond, such as ‘spinning chariot blades on your wheels’ or the astute observation that ‘that’s what bike locks with chains are for…’ But a ‘hollaback’ approach is not always feasible, as in this example from another male friend:
I chased them with the intention of rectifying their homophobia with the progressive end of my bike lock, until I came to my senses.
A far happier and less bloody strategy focused on generating solidarity between cyclists and drivers:
I suppose these are what you might call ‘traffic trolls’ – jerks who get a perverse thrill out of abuse for the sake of it. Makes me want to yell out of my car random compliments just to even things up a bit ‘Love your cadence!’ or ‘How cool is that basket!’ etc.
In this vein, my article was then going to marvel excitedly at initiatives like the Pushy Women discussion event at Melbourne Bike Fest earlier this year, which has led to the launch of a four-week feminist, participatory cycling extravaganza tour, starting on Sunday 27 October. Or the grassroots initiative Frocks on Bikes from across the water in NZ, which now has a Melbourne chapter. Such initiatives are clearly needed, and need our support.
In my article, I was going to link all of this together with the general atmosphere of sexism, which seems to have been running rampant in Australian public life of late, but also join it to more material and economic issues, like the car politics and road-building lobby dominating Victorian politics at the moment. This is obvious in the debates over bike-lane infrastructure, but also in the proposed $8 billion East West Link motorway which has so far trumped an extension of the public transport system for half the cost and the retention of vital green lungs like Royal Park.
I was going to write all this and I was fired up about it. Sexism! Cycling! Melbourne! Rah!
So there I was, riding home after a lovely picnic dinner in Fitzroy Gardens, thinking about my article (which I was supposed to write the week before). But as I glided down Flemington Road, pondering with bitter sadness how much pleasanter it would be to ride through Royal Park (while we still have it) and how as a woman I would never do this alone at night, my reverie was brought to an abrupt end when I stopped at a red light.
Two pedestrians stood at the curb shouting at a taxi. ‘Not working?! Slack bastard!’ The driver had turned down the fare, explaining that he had finished work and was on the way home after a long Sunday shift.
Green light. I slowly moved off, and the taxi had too, when the male pedestrian ran onto the road and started kicking the vehicle. The taxi driver stopped immediately and got out. ‘I told you I’m not working!’ This prompted a torrent of abuse from the curb. ‘Fucking black cunt!’ The pedestrian woman pulled what looked like a long, sharp, metal object from her bag and made towards the driver: ‘Typical, not working, Paki bastard! Go back to where you came from!’ And then, with all the menace she could muster, ‘YOU FUCKING NIGGER.’
Was I about to witness the next racist hate crime? I had to intervene, foolhardy though it felt.
I don’t mind admitting that my intervention left a lot to be desired: ‘Hey’, I yelled. ‘That’s racist.’ Bam! That’ll show ’em.
It wasn’t the most effectively communicated critique, under the circumstances. But who cares? The message was one of solidarity, and its intended recipient was the taxi driver, not his attackers. I didn’t want him driving off and sliding into demoralised despair because, yet again, no one had stood with him in the face of racism, with his only consolation being that he had stood up for himself and said something in his own defence. Hollaback. It’s not much to hold on to, not when you’re trying to cling to the hope that human society can be something other than a cesspit of insult and oppression (a feeling of isolation I have felt too many times when confronted with sexism or homophobia).
Naturally, the pedestrians turned their attention on me. ‘Mind your own business!’ In a rush of adrenalin I threw all caution to the wind. ‘Are you going to bash me now?’ Yes, screamed the man in so many words, moving towards me. But his companion got to me first, screaming repeatedly in my face, topped off with the stinger, ‘GET BACK ON YOUR BIKE AND MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS YOU FAT BITCH.’
The taxi driver was long gone. Traffic continued to stream past, oblivious.
Luckily for me, two sporty looking joggers paused their inner-city fitness routine to look on. Outnumbered, the pedestrians slinked away. ‘We couldn’t just leave you here alone,’ said the joggers. ‘Good on you for standing up to them.’ I thanked them for sticking around.
As a parting gesture, in an aside full of the most lustrous of golden intentions – though tragically missing the act of pure irony she was about to commit – the female jogger turned to me with a sympathetic smile. ‘You’re not fat’, she whispered.
Three lessons I have learned:
1) Bike lanes are important, but it’s going to take more than some cycling-friendly infrastructure to end sexist abuse on Melbourne streets.
2) The weight and power of a motorised vehicle cannot protect other road users from racial abuse, so the roads aren’t the key problem there either.
3) Solidarity is important, and it can be surprising and unexpected, but should be exercised with caution.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!