Writing on the Wall

About a week ago, I left the house in the morning to discover the wall of a nearby building covered in graffiti. Screaming for attention with its searing yellow hue and the swirly sunshine dotting the "i" the graffiti tells the residents of our little neighbourhood to "smile." Very funny, we think. Smile because they defaced property? Smile because someone will have to spend time cleaning that up in mid-summer heat and humidity? Smile because this action rubs it in our faces that we are powerless to prevent others violating our living space?

Then a funny thing happens. As we continue to live with the graffiti (the building's manager has not had time to clean it up), the initial feeling of indignation recedes and we begin to take the message literally - to respond automatically to the word's actual meaning, instead of responding intellectually to the symbolic meaning of it having been spraypainted there. Smile! The vandal (artist?) has managed to elevate our mood in spite of everything.

I am not comparing cycling to graffiti, really I am not. But it is impossible not to notice that those who don't ride bikes often feel threatened and, yes, even invaded by the appearance of bicyclists and (gasp) bike lanes in their neighbourhoods. These are strong feelings that those of us who cycle can too easily dismiss. But look at it this way: If after some time a vandalised wall can make us smile because of its sunny message, then surely the fun of cycling can be contagious enough to override any hostility toward it as well.

Along the main street around the corner from our house, from 5 pm to 6 pm on any given weekday there is a continuous parade of cyclists traveling home from work. They are all sorts, and most wear their regular clothing - including women in colourful dresses and crazy footwear. Two years ago, not nearly as many cyclists rode through that street - a quarter of the number I see today, at best. There was also a lot of honking from drivers, hostile insults exchanged as a matter of course. Now it hardly happens at all. I see business owners sitting on the front steps and watching the cyclists as the sun sets. It really is a sight when so many different people pass through on their bikes; there is a festive feel to it.

Maybe our neighbourhood has internalised the bicycle as part of its character, as opposed to thinking of it as a hostile foreign body. Maybe drivers and cyclists both have decided to lighten up and smile.


  1. How long have you lived in your neighborhood? It may be just a matter of your having become accustomed to it, and it to you.

    However, I think it's true that sometimes people "lighten up" about cyclists when enough of us do it for transportation and recreation without joining the lycra brigade (or, in my case, after dropping out of it).

    V, people will like anything if they see someone who looks as good as you doing it.

  2. "Exit Through the Gift Shop," A hoax, a howl, a hoot, a scam, a scene, a satire, a piece of celluloid graffiti. (My one sentence movie review. See it...if you want to think more about graffiti.)

  3. Justine - We moved here 4 years ago. When I began cycling for transportation in Spring 2009, I rode on this very same street and the amount of bike traffic was only a fraction of what it is now. I also witnessed a lot more driver hostility.

    Chris - Seen it. I thought it was all right, but not spectacular. It was one of my "bike trainer" movies over the winter : )

  4. Velouria,your Blog and passion for cycling has an influence on people pedaling those bikes in your area and in a lot of other towns across North America and the world,you have a special gift for writing that stirs those same emotions for our love for cycling or opens our eyes for the fist time to go out and pedal. Thanks for sharing your passion with us! Glenn in the Northwest

  5. I'm in the UK and I commute by bike for approx 50% of my week.
    I love graffiti & cycling & I can see both of forms of creativity that can be enjoyed by all.
    I used to be very much bothered by the hostility that I recieved by drivers. I found it very off-putting & sometimes confidence denting. However, I have learnt ignore & dismiss drivers insults as I realised that I am much more appreciated than I had thought.
    What helped me to do this was that as I went about daily life, shopping, library etc etc... drivers & walkers etc who may have seen me on my bicycle on the way to work ..., would come and chat to me & say some of the most encouraging things about me commuting by bicycle..... Things that just make me "Smile".
    On the days that I commute by car, I love to watch the cyclists & how they manage their journeys and to see the inventions & contraptions that they put on their bikes. My favourite is homemade baskets & crates that people make for thier bikes.

    Donna UK

  6. Whoa, not too hard on lycra, please. Sometimes it's the right clothing to wear, while it's certainly not for everyday travel.

    But as Velouria says one should just do what one feels is right and by setting the example maybe others will follow. I think that it's important to cycle in a way that shows how pleasurable it is.
    I live and cycle in a very bourgeois French town near to the Swiss (Geneva) border where people our addicted to large (often black) Mercedes 4X4's, Ferrari's, Aston Martin's and other equally daft vehicles, but as I cycle smilingly past long lines of these cars, waiting in line because of traffic density, I hope that a few of the drivers might come to realise that there is an alternative. But it's not a crusade, just pure enjoyment.

  7. I'm not a graffiti-ist but I am an artist and I really appreciate well done work even if it shouldn't have been done(Vandalism and all that). I get your comparison to Cycling, even those of us that don't do a particular thing can connect and appreciate it if we connect with it in some way. Most people like having a nice time outside, if we cyclists appear to be mostly about having a nice time outside whether were commuting, hauling groceries or out to do 50 miles as fast as we can, than most folks are going to understand. If they see us as out to change the(their) world than they probably will want to bounce bottles off our heads...


  8. MelissatheRagamuffinJuly 1, 2011 at 7:37 AM

    What I really want to know is where did you get those cream colored tires and how do you keep them so clean? I think if I had those tires around here they'd be black within a week.

  9. And on a similar note, just I've just listened to a old Schumacher lecture, where he came out with the following hilarious paraprosdokian quip:
    While visiting East Germany someone commented "Western civilization is like an express train running at ever increasing speed towards an abyss; but we shall overtake it"
    There's a lesson there somewhere.

  10. I agree that if cars and cyclists travel the same route regularly, they learn to get along with each other. That is one of the reasons that rush hour is one of the safest times for both bicyclists and drivers. They know where they are going , choose the lane that will get them there and anticipate the problems ahead. I don't believe the clothing of the cyclist or the model of the car are significant factors except as they improve visibility.

  11. I don't know if it is just prejudice on my part, but I notice that I get honked at / harassed more in working class / poor neighborhoods. I think this might be because the drivers don't recognize biking as a legitimate mode of transportation (to their mind, driving a car is a step up) or because I stand out as some sort of intruder who obviously doesn't belong.
    I've also noticed that the drivers of pickup trucks and sports cars are more likely to harass me. I'm guessing this is because sports car drivers tend to be young men who are full of energy and eager to show off, while pickup truck drivers see themselves as having more legitimate rights to the road than I do -- they're on their way to work, while I'm just toodling around on a bicycle.
    This probably reflects prejudice on my part -- I'm fitting my observations into preconceived categories -- but I wonder if others have noticed the same thing.

  12. Just because someone does not like bike lanes
    does not mean that they are anti cycling. It
    could be that they realize that bike lanes
    increases the risk of bike accidents.

  13. Jon: I, too, have noticed that I'm hassled more in the working-class and poor neighborhoods, for the very reasons you cite. And, most interestingly of all, I find that I experience the worst treatment in those working-class areas that come closest to being middle-class.

    Along those lines, I find that in poor--and, to a lesser extent, working-class--neighborhoods, one almost never sees a woman on a bicycle. In fact, about 99 percent of the time I've pedalled through one of those areas, I was the only woman on a bicycle. In some cases, I was probably the only woman the residents of those neighborhoods had ever seen on a bike. Sometimes I think that has something to do with the honking, sideswiping and the come-ons and lewd comments I've experienced.

    Richard: What you say about your town is interesting. When I first cycled in France (thirty years ago), I marvelled at how many French people were cycling, even in the more bourgeois areas. However, the last time I was there (in 2004), I could have sworn that I saw more cyclists in New York the day I boarded the plane in JFK than I did during the two weeks I spent in France.

    Cliff: I've made exactly the same argument for more than three decades. Sometimes I felt as though John Forrester and I were the only ones who understood that.

  14. heh ... so in the way that events in my life are paralleling your blog posts: I got hit by a car yesterday afternoon on Broadway between Harvard Square and Prospect St. my way in to the office. Driver in the opposite lane turned left and was distracted and not looking in his direction of travel; and t-boned me.

    Fortunately, for physical injuries, I got off just with a sprained ankle and a couple of cuts on my knees from landing on the pavement. The generator wheel on the ANT is taco'ed, the left pedal is dented, and I need to put the bike up on a stand to see what else needs to go on the insurance claim. Frustrating.

    All the same ... the driver was rather contrite and was rather quite aware of being the wrong party in this scenario. Quite a nice difference from older days where they either wouldn't stop at all or start yelling about "what are you doing on the road?"

    Still a jackass though.

  15. I agree that if you create a pleasant or attractive picture of cycling it does rub off on people. I've noticed since I've been commuting to work on my bicycle that I now see more cyclist wearing regular clothing or casual riding clothing while traveling to work. There's also several Lycra clad riders that I see on a regular basis. The car drivers along this route are used to seeing all of us and the majority of the time we all receive positive, friendly, feedback from drivers. They give us room, wave, smile, and give me the right of way. The few times that I have received real hostility from drivers has been from younger crowds yelling out from their car windows. Often times their trying to show-off, or prove their manhood to their friends. At least, that's my perception. It has happened to me both when dressed in Lycra attire and regular clothes. I plan to continue to try to create a positive image of cycling for car drivers to see. Whether I'm making a difference I do not know, but I hope that I am.

  16. cris - Oh no, I am so sorry to hear that. But glad that the driver is cooperative. Hope your insurance covers everything and heal soon!

  17. cris - Did the police cite him for failing to yield? I've the impression that police don't like to cite drivers in car vs bicycle collisions even if it's a clear fault of the driver. I hope in your case this worked out fairly, but if it didn't I wonder what language one must use on the scene to prompt the officer to make this happen, and whether this is something that can be pursued after-the-fact.

  18. :) It's making me smile all the way down here in TN. And if I'm smiling while riding, then drivers tend to smile too.

  19. I'm surprised by your initial reaction to that charming graffiti... were you exaggerating to make a point?

  20. Alexandra - Not really! Finding the wall of a nice neighbourhood building covered in spraypaint was disappointing. Even if it were meant as art (which I doubt actually), violation of private property is a sign of disrespect.

  21. Hate Graffiti at all times (Banksy may be the exception). Quick question if I may? where did the co-habitant get the bottles and cages for his Roadster?

  22. This is such an interesting comparison. I actually don't mind graffiti and tend to like it, as it also represents a lived in space, a dynamic and creative space that to me looks much better than those cookie-cutter beighborhoods where everything is trimmed and manicured to be flawless. I guess this still goes with your analogy of the bike as social graffiti in that they both contribute to the making of diverse communitites.


  23. This really reminds me of the story of Arthur Stace in Sydney. He graffiti-ed the word Eternity all over the city every day.


  24. street art is not a crime


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