On Feeling “Safe” Traveling

Andando en bicicleta en San Francisco

Andando en bicicleta en San Francisco

Bicycling goes hand in hand with empowerment in my life. Whether I’m coming home alone, late after a night out with friends, commuting or heading somewhere I have never been before, my mode of transportation—my blue Cannondale roadbike Baby affords me a sense of safety and freedom that I have been taking for granted the past two years.

Whenever I’ve talked about how “safe” San Francisco is, my opinion has been that it is a very friendly, safe place for anyone in comparison to other places.

It wasn’t until I decided to go visit New York City in September that I realized just how scary being a pedestrian female traveler can be. First I had to find accomodations in a city where I have no connections—my family is all on the West Coast. Luckily I found Pink Hostels, a new hostel for women travelers in Harlem. The place has the right idea—yes, women want to travel alone with a rucksack and a map, we want the liberty of the open road and a welcoming place that responds to the hesitance of solo travel some of us have. If there were a women’s hostel in every city, how much more likely would you be to travel alone?

The folks I met there were communicative and welcoming community attitude.  My first night there restored in me a feeling of independence: a feeling that Hell yes! I can do anything! I CAN go anywhere just how I’ve always hoped.

On part of the New York trip a friend and I rented bikes and I got to see so much of that amazing place, as well as Brooklyn via the Brooklyn Bridge with a carefree attitude.

Waiting for a train in NYC

Waiting for a train in NYC

It was the feeling of exposure walking around NYC by myself and taking trains late in the evening that situated my privilege as a year-round cyclist in San Francisco. I got cat-calls, men were hollering at me and trying to talk to me as I walked through Harlem trying to get back to the hostel from the train. And what really could I do to avoid these situations? As a pedestrian one is sharing community space with whoever else is around, moving at a slow pace where anyone is free to confront you. There is no shield from receiving any sort of interaction.

As a cyclist, I generally do not have to deal with these situations because if I am stationary I can always pedal away at 10-15 mph and forget about cat-calling within thirty seconds. I get the occasional cat-call from a car window but that effects me so little when I know on my bike I can propel myself to a safer space. This level of empowerment and privilege has pretty much perpetuated my high sense of safety, a carry-over from my car-driving days in SoCal.

Which brings me to those of you who drive a vehicle and your privilege. Even moreso than biking, having a car is a huge leap in feeling secure. If you are cat-called on the freeway, how much does that really affect how and where you travel, if you go solo or stay out late? The car is even more a shield of glass and steel that women depend on to give them mobility and independence. I think we really need to consider what level of privilege we get from where we live, how we travel and commute when we think about the safety of women (and all people since we are all subject to violence, crime, harassment).

Before I say my piece about whether I think my city is “safe”, whether my neighbhorhood is better than another and how safe it is for a woman, a Latina, etc to travel in general, I must look at  how I travel regularly and understand what the limitations of my perspective are.

When I returned from NYC, I started working the opening shift at my job: at 5:00am I roll out to the Mission District from the Portola where I live with my granny (its about a 3 mile, 20 minute ride). The ride is a refreshing pre-sunrise jaunt but once I dismount, the Mission District east of South Van Ness can feel a little sketchy. It seems every morning I see the same “types” of folks— the homeless, random middle-aged men waiting around for rides, buses or just loitering and yelling at cars or people, Latino couples quickly walking towards BART or their jobs and a sprinkle of the young white urban professionals that live in the neighbhorhood eyes focused dead-ahead, earbuds shielding them from our surroundings. I am generally alone at this time locking my bike outside, unlocking the cafe doors and setting up for about ten minutes before a barista shows up to start the show with me. It is in those ten minutes alone that I often get talked at to my chagrin, cat-called and asked random inane questions, I imagine sometimes to make me uncomfortable and perhaps sometimes out of loneliness or boredom.

It is at these times that I really question safety, its subjectiveness and my hard-headed fearlessness the other 23:50 hours of the day.

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2 Responses to On Feeling “Safe” Traveling

  1. alinabp says:

    What a great perspective on privilege. I never thought how my means of transport reflected my privilege as a woman, or didn’t. Great insight. I’m loving this blog ladies!

  2. Judith says:

    Great point, Mary! I’m glad that feminists are really starting to latch onto the cause of safe and available public transportation and minimizing street harassment (lots of great urban projects springing up lately) because this is a huge issue. I’ve been meaning to post about it, just thinking about how being a woman really limits me as I’m walking home from work at night. It’s nine pm, and every night I’m rehearsing in my head what to do if I’m followed, or attacked, or if someone speaks to me. I always have one hand on my keys, one on my phone, and when I get to the front door I always am speed-unlocking it like the victim in a movie, afraid of what happens if the keys fall from my fingers. Of course, a lot of that danger is imagined, but I don’t live in a neighborhood where it’s safe to be out alone at night (male or female, really). And I do make considerations for how fast I can move – always wearing shoes I can run in if I need to, for example. I could describe for you about a three mile radius of Baltimore in detail in terms of what streets are safe, what’s badly lit, where there are lots of people and where there aren’t, etc. I definitely plan my routes with these things in mind, and I never leave the apartment after ten.

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