When community space becomes personal risk.

Written: January 21, 2021

Karly J Ross

Always accessible for all ages and abilities, this is the beginning but not the whole story.

How we exist and move through space is not the same from person to person. I am sure many like me can speak to uncomfortable encounters when they stopped on the bike path, not always sure if they are safe on that long lonely stretch, wondering if there is a risk to the activity that extends beyond interactions with cars and infrastructure.  How we exist in space is not always equal, and today we received a news report that once again highlights the differences of experience when existing in public space.

Today is also personally hard for me because of a loss of a loved elder in my family, who is pictured below with her bicycle. She was a person who also had strong connections to the community I live in, Thorncliffe. This loss reminded me that space is more than just the positioning of objects, it is the histories created and forgotten, it is the meanings found and it is the lives lived.

This is my grandmother as a young woman, she unable to go to high school because it was to far away from her childhood home, mobility and freedom were strongly linked themes in her life.

I spend much of my time reasonably safe in public space, while I have experienced a great deal of harassment, I also feel reasonably confident with my ability to cope with it. However, in my present state of loss I know that those walls are down, and my vulnerabilities like my heart will be exposed when I step out the door.  How I deal with grief is by biking and walking, by finding an interplay between movement and stillness and through reflections on the transient nature of place and time. I seek moments in quiet neighborhood corners to watch the sun rise or set, to cry with the sky, to reconnect with the beauty of the world.

So today, when I read that women are being attacked in my neighborhood while out walking alone, what I feel is a deepening of this grief. If I step outside, alone, a slow quiet walk or ride, a meander to the quiet places in my neighborhood, I risk targeting and this is a theft of my ability to fully participate in the space of city and community. This theft is insignificant in contrast to the theft of the safety of each person who has been attacked.

I also recognize this is a theft that others experience more than I do.  For many populations, particularly BIPOC folks there are experiences of space that I do not know, and I do not understand. In reading this report from the police I have further concerns that in calling for women to be vigilant there will be increased calls to police over innocent behavior of BIPOC men in my community.  I call on all in our community to be aware of their personal safety, and to also be aware of biases that may lead to such actions. 

What does this have to do with bikes?  We talk a lot about safety and mobility, about our need to protect cyclists when they are riding. This is not a conversation that can happen in full, in my opinion, if we do not address the fact that both gender and race-based violence continues to be part of the experience of public space for many people in active mobility communities.

I should not have to forgo a long quiet meander, or bike ride into a quiet corner of my community where I can stand and find stillness and peace. The very real threat of targeted sexual violence in participating in this active movement through space should not be part of what I must consider before I make this choice, but it is. It always is, but today, when such significant targeting is being reported, it is a reality and a choice that will keep me home, because I do not have the capacity to cope with the risk while also coping with my grief. 

One thought on “When community space becomes personal risk.

  • 2wheeler

    Thanks for a thoughtful and honest article. I hope you can soon continue to wander the neighbourhoods of our city with a reasonable feeling of confidence. That is everyone’s right.

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