Posts Tagged ‘cultural politics of cycling’

A cultural politics of cycling, 2

May 29, 2011

For more than half a century cycling has been marginalised. Marginalised practices tend to produce marginalised identities. To be a cyclist puts you on the edge.

And we develop attachments to, and build cultures around, our marginalised identities. We own and cherish them. But at our forthcoming event in Leicester, Building Cycling Cultures, these identities become stakes in the struggle to push cycling into the heart of future sustainable cities.

How do we simultaneously preserve what’s important about our cycling identities, practices and cultures, which are to some extent currently marginal and discriminated against, at the same time as attempting to extend those identities, practices and cultures so they become less marginal, less discriminated against?

How in other words, do we negotiate the tension between a gain for cycling (becoming more mainstream) and a potential loss for ourselves and the identities, practices and cultures which we’ve over the past half-century developed, and developed in part as strategies to enable cycling to survive?

Must we sacrifice the cyclings we’ve built and which we love at the altar of a vision for mass cycling?

No doubt other sub-cultures have faced this dilemma – of how you democratise a desired practice without jeopardising the identities which have been co-produced alongside that practice, and which – like all identities – now form a crucial component of individual subjectivities; you can’t strip someone of an identity without doing violence to their self; you can’t challenge an identity without potentially destabilising the person’s (always to some degree precarious) sense of self.

This dilemma was evident during the research I conducted towards my PhD, over a decade ago now. There I explored the everyday lives of environmental activists, myself and Sue (my partner) included.

Through a range of ‘ordinary’ practices (shopping, cooking and eating habits, recycling, ‘work’/’leisure’ practices, transport …) environmental activists contribute to a radically transformed (relatively ‘local’, remarkably ‘low consumption’ and ‘green’) everyday life which could – when aggregated – help build a culture of sustainability. But the re-orienting work (away from ‘unsustainable’ practices of the dominant culture and towards an alternative range of sub-cultural and ‘sustainable’ practices) required to develop such a ‘green’ everyday life tends simultaneously to build cultural identities which are marginal, elite (at least from an ‘outside’ perspective, which tends also to view such cultural identities as ‘self-righteous’), and difficult to popularise.

It’s a terrible dilemma – you want other people to do something you do, but the road which you’ve made to get to there looks, to those who you want to follow you, full of obstacles.

We also develop attachments to our marginal identities, and the urge to democratise those identities must struggle with an opposite urge, to preserve their exclusiveness. This tension, between the urge to proselytize your privileged practice on the one hand, and to preserve its exclusiveness on the other, exists in cycling today. As people who love cycling we’re initiates, part of a small, select club. Together we produce distinctive cultures, and like all cultures these cycling cultures value particular ways of being, talking, doing and dressing more than others.

There’s nothing wrong in this. It’s what people always and inevitably do. But we should recognise that the knowledge, skills, competencies and tastes we’ve acquired through participation in cycling have been earned gradually, over time. And at the collective level our continuous investments in cycling have produced cultures which can then appear to ‘outsiders’ to be difficult to penetrate, or worse, ‘elite’.

All cultures and sub-cultures produce, distribute and value what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘cultural capital’. The various cycling cultures we have built all have their own distinctive forms of cultural capital. (Which partly explains why I wear a helmet when out with fellow ‘roadies’ but not when cycling in town, or cycle-touring anywhere; or why my cycling campaigner chums aren’t particularly interested in my 10 mile time trial times, whilst some of my fellow racers aren’t perhaps too bothered about the introduction of specific ‘cycle-friendly’ facilities in town, or the social and/or ecological impacts of some of their own cycling practices.)

Cultures and sub-cultures tend to develop strategies for dealing dismissively with those trying to take short-cuts to accrue the kinds of capital on which they trade. The ‘nouveau riche’ provoke disdain amongst those who consider themselves ‘properly monied’ and more ‘culturally sophisticated’. Similar strategies go on in cycling, and I leave you to think of examples based on your own experiences. My point is that, if we want to democratise our practice rather than build barriers to it, we’d do well to reflect critically on our own attitudes and practices here. Because if cultures (and particularly sub-cultures) inevitably create boundaries to ‘outsiders’ during the continuous process of their production and re-production, they can also develop strategies to facilitate and enable others – ‘outsiders’ – to become involved. And if we want to popularise cycling, this is something we must do.

Now I think both cycling in general and individual cyclists in particular already do this very well. We do try to encourage and embrace outsiders. (Though one potential danger is that we leave it for paid cycling professionals to encourage and embrace ‘hard to reach’ ‘outsiders’ whose involvement in cycling over the medium to longer term may prove less durable than the people who we ‘ordinary’ cyclists can influence, encourage and enthuse as a small but significant contribution to cycling as part of our own everyday lives …)

Should you have read this far you might (quite fairly) think I’m being overly earnest about all this. I’d respond by asking you to take a look outside.

If where you live and work is anything like where I do, you’ll see many cars – both parked and moving – but few, if any, bicycles.

How great is our task depends on how seriously we take the need to turn this situation around. Or, to use the terms I’ve been using thus far, the extent to which we’d like to make the dominant mobility (the car) sub-cultural, and the sub-cultural mobility (the bicycle) dominant.

If you’re anything like me, the drive (?!) to promote cycling is almost an instinct, by which I mean something which feels right to do and which happens almost automatically, of its own volition. I rarely if ever stop to think why I want more cycling. After all, couldn’t it equally be the case that – much like driving – by democratising it you simultaneously start to erode some of the benefits it currently provides?

So what’s behind the impulse to popularise cycling? What happens if we seek to prise open, in order to examine and explain, this democratising instinct?

  • It might be because we believe the consequences of anthropogenic climate change to be catastrophic;
  • Or because we believe oil to be running out;
  • Or perhaps we find the dominance of our streets, neighbourhoods, towns and cities by dangerous metal objects quite irrational and/or unbearable;
  • Or we might refuse to implicitly condone the generally taken-for-granted and so submerged (from the popular conscience) damage and destruction which motorised vehicles wreak.

Whatever our reasons for seeking change, as people who (I’m assuming) cycle and love cycling, we have an additional and important vantage point – we have direct personal experience of a vehicle that is an obvious but more perfect substitute to the car. We know the bicycle can replace the car, because much of our own everyday lives demonstrates that fact.

If there’s an urgency to getting people out of cars and onto bikes, to effect a necessary and dramatic change in the world, then a set of questions potentially emerges:

  1. What’s our specific role, as people who love cycling?
  2. Do we have a privileged position, in effecting change?
  3. What do our experiences as cyclists tell us needs to change?
  4. In effecting change what’s the significance and value, if any, of our skills, competencies, knowledge, enthusiasms, energies, convictions, imaginations and visions?

These are some of the questions we might think about as we attempt to move cycling from a minor to a major mode of mobility. They’re questions which have to do with not just practice, identity and culture, but also with politics, social change and transformation.

Cycling is cultural, and there’s a cultural politics of cycling. I think it’s worth sketching the contours of this cultural politics of cycling because, if we know the terrain better, it might help us articulate a more powerful and persuasive politics of cycling.

So the questions above are the sort which I hope we’ll explore at Building Cycling Cultures next weekend in Leicester. They’re certainly questions which I think are important to think about as we – and by ‘we’ I mean mainly those of us already passionate about and in various ways involved – continue and develop a project of building out from a range of vibrant but still small cycling sub-cultures towards an equally vibrant but qualitatively different and really massive cycling culture.

A cultural politics of cycling, 1

May 20, 2011

Over the next week or so, and ahead of the Building Cycling Cultures event I’m helping organise in Leicester next month, I’m assembling a few still sketchy thoughts with the hope of developing a cultural politics of cycling. Here’s the first part, with at least one more to follow …

There’s a real tension in the concept of building cycling culture/s. I think that such a tension is good, because it can be productive, but only if we work with and on  it ….

Britain undoubtedly has a myriad of variously well established cycling cultures, from the recent (re)turn to fixed-gear urban riding, to club-oriented cycle-tourists, to competitive cycle sport, to cycle campaigners, to BMX …. you get the picture.

I’m not especially well embedded in any, but I flirt with and love them all. I also think we should celebrate such cycling cultures – after all, they have, perhaps more than anything else, kept the idea of cycling in Britain alive across the past half century which has otherwise been steadfastly and furiously committed to stifling the desire to cycle, and extinguishing cycling’s existence completely.

It’s as if from sometime during the 1950s, cycling was forced underground, and what was once a cultural practice became a range of sub-cultural practices. (There remains a rich language waiting to be unearthed here, both in order to explore and understand cycling’s descent into the abyss and in order to build a cultural politics of cycling which can help bring it back again – I’m mining one set of metaphors, but others have to do with edges and margins, still others with conquest and colony, or with oppression, discrimination and resistance …)

But now, just perhaps, there are signs of the aggressive and increasingly institutionalised repression of cycling finally lifting. Cycling is coming up for air. And we lovers of cycling can look around, not just over our shoulders but also ahead. For the first time in almost a century we can broaden our gaze, we can look beyond the horizon in the knowledge we’ll be pedalling all the way. We can simultaneously sigh with relief and dig in, thinking about the way forward for cycling now that it’s no longer quite so clearly something to be simply trashed.

So whilst we still might whisper it, one day soon I hope it’ll feel safe to declare – loudly and to anyone at anytime and anywhere – oneself to be a cyclist. We have survived the storm and although another one (climate change) is coming we can pedal towards it safe in the knowledge that at least our vehicle is right.

Given cycling’s potential resuscitation it seems obvious that we should now work hard to promote these existing cycling cultures, to make them bigger than they already are. So that more and more people discover the pleasures of commuter cycling, or cycle-touring, or cycle-racing, or BMX, or mountain biking …. This is what those of us who love cycling, myself of course included, tend to do. And I think we’re right to do so.

But although I perhaps would like to, I can’t deny a dilemma here. I guess at heart I’m not just a lover of cycling, but also a sociologist committed to what I see as ‘the public good’. So there’s a set of questions which trouble me, and which I feel ought to be asked:

1. Do existing and often remarkably resilient cycling cultures represent the seeds from which mass cycling will grow?

Can we harness the undoubted enthusiasms, energies, commitments and imaginations of people who are currently if in different ways passionate about cycling, in order to broaden cycling’s cultural appeal, and transform it back from a range of sub-cultures to an important and normal part of the dominant culture? And if so, how do we do so?

2. Or instead, are existing cycling cultures obstacles, in the way and to be left behind as we attempt to push cycling into a new golden age?

This attitude appears to be on the rise. It’s certainly apparent amongst many champions of ‘ordinary’, ‘everyday’ cycling who tend to see strong cycling sub-cultures as an impediment to cycling becoming regarded as ‘normal’, a practice which just anyone can do. I’m suspicious of this antagonism towards certain sorts of cycling/cyclists amongst people who profess to like cycling. I also resent it. We’re now in the position to resuscitate cycling only because it has been kept alive and meaningful for many groups of people in many different ways. Why on earth should those of us who love cycling, who have cycled all our lives, and who might sometimes wear lycra or like to ride fast, or do things which most people would consider difficult if not impossible, why should we be sacrificial lambs to the slaughter at the altar of mass cycling? The suggestion that wearing lycra is bad for cycling is preposterous and I think belies a disturbing way of thinking.

However, this defence of cycling cultures shouldn’t stop us from asking important questions. Does, for example, the current dominance of cycling by people who are clearly fit and committed somehow prevent it from being embraced by those who are neither? And if so how, and what might we do about it? What strategies might be adopted in seeking to transform the sub-cultural into the mainstream?

3. Finally, is there a synthesis? Can the old cycling sub-cultures and the new culture of mass cycling co-exist and co-evolve, each feeding the other?

This is obviously the ideal outcome, so I desperately want the answer to be ‘yes’. And what I have said up until now I hope suggests that, with appropriate thought and strategising, the answer can be ‘yes’. Existing cycling cultures can inform and boost attempts to build a broader, more inclusive, mass culture of cycling in Britain.

An important test here might be whether we can detect democratising impulses within the sensibilities and practices of actually-existing cycling sub-cultures. So can we? I think we can. I see this democratising impulse every Thursday evening, when with my family I ride out to Salt Ayre cycle track, half way between Lancaster and Morecambe. Lancaster Cycling Club has come together with the local children’s cycling club, Salt Ayre Cog Set, to put on time trials which cater for everyone. My daughter Flo is 7 and rides a 2 mile time trial. My son Bobby is 9 and rides 6 miles, whilst my partner Sue and I ride the 10 mile version. Both clubs are extending themselves, in a bid to make cycling more accessible to all.

Another example is provided by the bike co-ops emerging across Britain. To give just one example, Oxford Cycle Workshop is committed to enabling more people to take up cycling. Through recycling bikes, providing people with the skills they need to maintain and build bikes, and through nurturing an inclusive space which welcomes everyone, Oxford Cycle Workshop and similar enterprises are committed to building a mass cycling culture. Such enterprises form an essential part of the bike system which we’re now developing as a replacement to the increasingly defunct car system.

And the same democratic, inclusive impulse is at work in the Building Cycling Cultures event. We want to recognise and celebrate what we already have, whilst working together to get more. Inevitably, as gains are made in terms of bums on saddles, some losses will also be incurred – some of what we currently hold dear might have to go. Some of what makes cycling special will for all of us have to change. (How many times, as I pedal peacefully along an empty cycle track through a special place, have I questioned why I spend my life working to get many more people riding alongside me through such personally precious places?)

But for me anyway, this is one of the main things which our forthcoming Leicester event is about. By bringing together a broad range of people with different involvements in cycling, we can discuss and develop strategies for how best to push cycling towards the next level – everyday, popular, mass cycling.