Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Don't call me brave

When people see me pull up on my cargo bike with my two little kids, I get lots of comments. Pretty much always positive, but there's one that kind of bugs me: "Wow, you're brave!" I think it's meant to be a good thing & not a backhanded critique of my parenting, but saying, "You're brave" actually makes me a little sad. I normally say something awkward that amounts to, "No, really, it's not that bad!" & then think of a better way to put it on my way home. Classic l'esprit de l'escalier.

We all know what brave means, right? Brave means courageous, strong in the face of danger or pain. So... does this really mean people think I'm facing danger, or that cycling is difficult or painful? 

Sadly, I think that most people do perceive cycling as very risky. So let's attack the risk aspect that people worry about. If we did have a car, I think driving the eight blocks to my son's preschool would be a little silly, & I'd walk or bike anyway. So let's compare walking & cycling. In terms of risk of death--because that's what I assume people are worried about: getting killed by a driver--walking is actually more risky, more than double the risk if you look at deaths by distance travelled. But nobody perceives walking as risky like they do with cycling. There are no helmet laws for pedestrians.

When I say walking is twice as dangerous as cycling, it's still only an infinitesimal risk. We're talking 7 in 100 million (yup, that's EIGHT zeroes) vs. 3 in 100 million km, here in BC. Riding in a car carries a risk of 1 in 100 million km. So they're all in the very small neighbourhood of under 10 in 100 million. (this article unpacks the stats even further--worth a read)

On to the concept of difficulty or pain. Because I have a hip issue that often makes it painful to walk, cycling is less painful for me than walking would be. Well, it's actually not painful at all. But not everyone has hip problems, I know. Cycling is technically the most efficient form of transportation there is in terms of calories of energy used per distance travelled. It takes less energy (in the literal sense of calories eaten or calories of fuel burned in a car) than walking or driving. Walking to preschool is slower & I'd have to put Bronte in the stroller, which I'd have to lug down & up a flight of stairs. That is a pain in the neck.

I suppose there's another aspect of cycling that gets me the "brave" label: riding in the rain. Whether I walk or bike, I get equally wet, since I can't hold an umbrella while riding or pushing the stroller. But I really don't get that wet. I have a cycling poncho & gumboots; that pretty much covers me, so just my face gets wet, which isn't the end of the world. Maybe if I were wearing a bunch of makeup this would be a problem, but who has time for that with two kids under five?!?

Set aside all this talk of perceived risk & statistics to think of the usual alternative to walking or cycling: driving. It's slightly less risky in terms of your likelihood of getting killed in a car crash. However, a lifetime of sitting in a car thinking cycling is "brave" carries other major risks like obesity, heart disease, some cancers, dementia, etc. Then there are the health problems like asthma that are exacerbated by the air pollution caused by driving. When you factor how cycling (& walking) offset these health risks, it's really driving that's more dangerous.

Maybe next time someone says I'm brave for cycling, instead of trying to come up with a retort, I'll ask them why they think so. Maybe it'll spark a conversation about perceived risk & the very real benefits of active transportation.

What about you? Do you ever call people brave for cycling or get called that yourself? Do you feel it's riskier than walking?

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  1. I get called brave all the time for riding with any number of y 3 kids. I also have other parents at school use it as a gateway to a conversation about why they don't or can't cycle with their kids.

    I too have a hip issue that makes walking long distances an issue but I just plain love y bike. I rode yesterday in the rain and I actually got a horrified reaction fro someone. Baby was happy behind his windshield in his muddy buddy, big boys were toasty and dry in rain gear and I found the rain on my face refreshing.

    Cycling with y kids for me isn't bravery, it is just life. I do it for e, for my kids for the love of cycling!

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      I want cycling to become normal here like it is in the Netherlands, for instance, so I think it's important to change the perception that it's somehow superhuman to coast down a hill on a bike (& use granny gears to get back up). You're totally right that the flip side to that is that if cycling was so normal, people would feel sheepish for not doing it, like making excuses for why they threw a plastic bottle in the garbage rather than recycling it.

      That is a big part of it too--it's FUN to zoom around on a bike. Walking often feels like work, especially when children are involved!

  2. People call me "brave", "determined", "hard core", etc. It might be well-meaning and superficially complimentary, and it's certainly better than the explicitly negative comments I receive, but I find it it hurtful anyway. It's a polite, socially acceptable way of distancing themselves from me, of saying that I'm not like them. It doesn't make me feel appreciated or admired; it makes me feel alienated and misunderstood. It often comes from the people who care about me, and it hurts to think that even the people who care about me don't understand me and think of me as not really like them.

    1. Misunderstood is a good way to put it--I always feel like I immediately have to correct someone when they say I'm brave. I biked with two or three small children. For five minutes. Maybe two kilometres. How in the world is that brave? Definitely seems there's a misunderstanding... Thanks for commenting!

  3. I think signing into my account ate my comment. So if this is a repeat please delete. :)

    Thank you! Thank you!

    I am not fearless when I get on my bicycle. I am normal. I am using a legitimate means of transportation to get from point A to point B.
    The easiest response to this frequently asked question is "Why"?
    The most recent response I received was this: "Because there is a lot of crazy people out there."
    We can't live our lives in fear of what other people might do. We can only take reasonable precautions and expect others to do the same.
    I have stopped advising my cycling friends to "ride safe" but instead have started wishing them "a pleasant trip." and conversely have advised my motoring friend to "drive safe". That is more realistic per statistics.

    1. I think the media is partly to blame for the great fear of cycling. I think that every single time a cyclist gets killed here in Vancouver, it's on the news. The same can't be said for deaths in car crashes--imagine how many news stories that would be! So people have a very skewed sense that it's a lot safer to drive than bike.

      I'm with you on the de-emphasizing danger/safety. I like to say, "Have a great ride". :) Thanks for your comments!

  4. Thank you for this post! I agree with you and what other commenters have said. I think part of the issue, as Eli observed a related thread on Facebook recently, is that people tend to downplay the danger of what seems normal to them, and inflate the danger of what seems abnormal.

    I coincidentally wrote an article about cycling in a snowstorm recently. I'll admit that there is actually a somewhat elevated risk to doing that, and the adjectives applied to me escalate according, from "brave" to "crazy". :-) So I wrote this article to try to help allay their fears. Don't know if it does or not.


    1. Thanks for the link, John! That's a great list of tips. I have ridden in snow a little, because it snows so rarely here that I can just walk or bus instead on the one day the roads might be slippery.


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