Taking back the night two wheels at a time
By new dandy contributor Cayley James
I was not what you would call an athletic child. I wasn't coordinated. I wasn't fast. I wasn't a joiner...but I was a really good cyclist. Like so many people who grow up in the city I haven't learned to drive and am dependent on my bike. I’ve spent countless carefree hours on the Martin Goodman trail crossing the breadth of the city, and winding through the Don Valley to catch the skyline at sunset from the Bloor Viaduct.
I've been commuting by bicycle in Toronto for the past 10 years. When I started out I only saw a handful of like-minded folks in the morning. Things have obviously changed. This magazine is a testament to that. I can't help but laugh when I watch some thirty or forty people stream off of Bathurst to converge on to the Adelaide bike lane in the early morning crush. You're part of something vital. But there's a time and place for the school of fish mentality of daylight cycling. When the sun goes down, and the dangers of doors and collisions diminish, different paths unfold.
Like a lot of women I have an entrenched take back the night approach to the cities I live in. When I walk I stand taller. I pick my path and sing and talk to myself. Midnight rambles are something that I have been prone to for years, yet there is a very distinct power that comes from exchanging your two feet for two wheels. No matter how much confidence one may have - being a woman alone at night can be terrifying. Which is why cycling is one of the most liberating things you can do as a woman. Occupying space - especially urban space - is a defiant act.
In considering this notion of the freewheeling woman in literature and movies I came up short. Most often women are positioned against the restorative qualities of nature where they shed a skin and their woes; a la Cheryl Strayed's Wild. In the urban context, we have seen the birth of the flaneur, yet this persona is rarely inhabited by a female. In Rebecca Solnit’s fascinating history of walking Wanderlust she summarises the history of the flaneur. From the rough 19th century sketch Baudelaire invented to Walter Benjamin’s essays of the archetype. But one thing remained the same about this character. He was, “the image of an observant and solitary man strolling about Paris...it can be concluded that the flaneur was male, of some means, of a refined sensibility with little or no domestic life.” The popularity of this persona in cultural studies has buried the real life, and in this case female, experience with public space. As Solnit also reminds: “he did not exist, except as a type, an ideal, and a character in literature.”
Cycling helped elevate expectations of women in the 19th and early 20th century, giving them agency and power. The brilliant Kate Beaton comic about the Victorian Ladies who jumped onto bikes and drove the establishment insane is hilarious but grounded in fact. As the suffragette Susan B. Anthony famously said: "I think [bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”
In the 2016 documentary Ovarian Psycos highlights the incredible work the East LA bike club of the same name has done for women and female identifying persons in their community. Bucking expectations and snarling in the face of the patriarchy, they organise monthly "Luna Rides" during the full moon, champion indigenous central American traditions, and work alongside other organisers to spur change. As their mandate states:
We are an all womxn of color bicycling brigade cycling for the purpose of healing our communities physically, emotionally and spiritually by addressing pertinent issues. We envision a world where women are change agents who create and maintain holistic health in themselves and their respective communities for present and future generations.
Ovarian Psychos Official Facebook Page. Photo Cred: Michael Raines
I live near Christie Pits. In 2012 there was a spate of assaults in the area. A man would run up behind women and accost them and then take off. These incidents put the safe, family-oriented neighbourhood on guard with some residents, but one of my roommates who has lived there for years said she never once feared being out at night on account of her two wheels. Bikes give you the security and power your feet can't match. Night riding not only endows women with power and autonomy and all those delicious things, but it's fucking fun!
When the night air is sweet, there's a warm breeze, the streets are deserted, and you're sailing solo, swaddled in a green canopy there is truly no better feeling! The city becomes a cyclist’s playground, opening up like a pop-up book. I asked a friend who has recently taken up night riding, why she likes it. She said she does it for no other reason than the pure joy, and the access it grants her to the city. She started riding for the same reason as most - cheap transportation - but once she became familiar with all the angles of the city during daylight she found night riding a more meditative experience.
Speaking to Rachel Lissner, the administrator of the popular Facebook group Young Urbanists League, she cited her interest in cycling as really coming about in 2006 when she moved to Toronto for university. Originally from suburban Washington DC on the Virginia side ("Jane Jacobs said this was one of the worst examples of city planning - Mississaugua is a close second," she quickly noted,) Lissner said, "I got a bike to learn about the city. To understand how it worked." Her enthusiasm for learning how the city works has served her well as she's an active organiser working with BIAs and other urban outreach initiatives.
This January I moved back to Toronto. For the past three and a half years I had been living in Glasgow, where they have a somewhat inconsistent relationship with city cyclists. The bike lanes stop abruptly and hop onto the sidewalk. There is also a high proportion of middle aged men decked out in lycra for their twenty-minute commutes, who will muscle past anyone not riding a frame designed by aerospace engineers. There’s even a bike path through a beer patio where one has to weave through a mass of imbibing patrons to make your way to a public park. But at night there was calm.
One particular night I remember getting home from a friend's house at around midnight. As I lugged my bike up my front steps of my west-end flat I couldn't bare to go in. It was early spring and the skies had cleared after a brief rain. The streets were slick and I had that Blue Nile song, Glasgow’s nocturnal balladeers, stuck in my head. I had spent my day in meetings and in front of my computer rattling off emails and had just watched a Lars Von Trier movie at my pal’s. My brain always buzzes after his movies. So off I pedalled through the darkened streets, careening through neighbourhoods and out-of-the-way thoroughfares along the River Clyde and Govan in an effort to get lost. I get a jolt of adrenaline when I come to a crossroads I’ve never been to before. Wandering and wondering are two of my biggest past-times.
While I was living in Glasgow there was a series of attacks similar to the Christie Pitts ones. It galvanized the community it happened in. With community groups taking back the night with a series of marches. But my friends who lived there avoided certain streets at night. Refused to walk home alone at work. And found themselves denied access to their cities. On those emptied streets, on my bike, I was safer and freer. I was seeing my adopted home from a new perspective. Tracing the lines of my story on an uncharted map.
Night riding is about reordering the known. The shadows that are cast in a nocturnal setting have long been fodder for nightmares and fairy tales. Stoked by news reports and fear mongering. What can't you see in the dark? What lurks around the corner? No doubt terrible things do happen but is the monster there waiting as often as we think? Cycling grants you a special access to see what's in the darkness. It empowers and emboldens you to develop a more intimate relationship with the periphery of the world you think you know. Don't be afraid of the corners, breath in and explore. Because don't forget this is your town too.
Cayley James is an arts writer, film programmer, avid cyclist, and former baker. She has recently moved back to Toronto from Glasgow where she was the coordinator for Document Human Rights Film Festival. Having just returned to Toronto earlier this year you can find her getting reacquainted with the city on all the new bike lanes and holing up in the Lightbox to binge on movies. She also likes to eat pie in the park. Follow her on twitter @cayleybjames.
Related on the dandyBLOG:
A wee wobble on the cobbles: Edinburgh and Glasgow by foot and bike
Heels on Wheels Maggie MacDonald (from our new issue)