Below is a paper I will present to the Healthy Cities Conference in Brisbane this coming July, based on an earlier post. Eventually this and other essays started on the blog, will find their way here. Suffice to say, the blog is being used to get comments from readers, whose opinions make as much sense as reviewers’.
Abstract (from an earlier entry)
From studies into the physical factors effecting bicycle commuting, we know cities with comparable terrain, density, bicycling infrastructure and deterrents to driving, can have varying numbers of cyclists. Given cultural factors must be at play, what social advantage belongs to that tiny fraction of commuters, who by choice cycle when they could easily drive?
The topic cannot be approached from the hegemonic standpoints of environmentalists, health policy makers, traffic engineers or others with agendas extrinsic to those of actual cyclists, as cyclists can’t be presumed to care for the planet, morbid illness, or the fact they are abating congestion for drivers. Neither can the topic be understood by studying cycling culture in atypical cities like Amsterdam, where retrofitting for driving proved difficult, and cycling thus flourished. Likewise, reasons why the poor cycle don’t count here, as increasing their numbers is not something governments are planning to do!
From the premise that cyclists seek what Bourdieu terms "Cultural Capital", the paper examines the connection between cyclists’ motivations and messages conveyed through their choice of equipment. As a prosthesis, fashion statement and emblem of taste, bicycles are the status symbols cars can no longer be. Cultural aspirations, pretensions, and tribal affiliations can be relayed by what one commutes on, be it a "fixie", "Dutch" bike, road bike, “training” bike, mountain bike (further divided by degrees of suspension), utility bike, or a bike from the emerging minimalist art niche. Understanding these choices, is key to understanding how cycling subcultures might be fostered and grown.
It would be disingenuous not to make clear from the outset, that this work has grown out of the author’s enthusiasm for cycling. Cycling has been my primary means of transportation since around 1990, when living on Austudy meant even bus fares were more than I could afford. Pride in my growing fitness steered me into the club road racing scene. A desire to "keep my miles up" in order that I might be race fit on the weekends, motivated me to always commute on a bicycle, often via decidedly indirect routes.
In 2000 I moved with my young family into a house near the surf, only to watch our "rust-protected" Subaru rusting to bits. Rather than replacing it with the Mercedes my wife and I always said some day we would buy, only to watch that rust as well, I am in the process of collecting a bike for every occasion—shopping, nights out, commuting, racing, touring, overseas trips—so in time I might demonstrate to my wife that we don’t need a car. Documenting this mission via my blog (http://behoovingmoving.livejournal.com/) has led to some fun tangents, like a weekly bike polo match, plus some meaningful discussion with a core group of regular readers, via emails and comments posted after blog entries.
The central question arising, is how can a collection bikes, provide not only the convenience, but the esteem one enjoys through owning a new German car? I am a middle class man, with too entrenched a liking for clothes, imported beers, and international travel, to hope I would ever earn esteem, much less credibility, as a champion for the environment. I am out to show off my bike collection and leg muscles, not some concocted zealotry with regards to ecological footprints and so forth. I want a stable of head turning, prestigious bicycles, not a bank of solar cells on my roof, a worm farm and a beard—stereotypes purely in the interest of humour.
Searching the web for the world’s best and thus most prestigious cargo bike, city bike, tandem, etcetera, quickly immersed me in a range of the cycling world’s subcultures. As an academic whose PhD and subsequent research has been in the field of architectural history and theory, I was struck by similarities I kept seeing between the messages people were conveying with their bikes, and those architects attempt to convey for their clients when designing their buildings. High end bicycles and works of architecture, like fashion, prestige cars, art, and various other symbols of status, embody what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls cultural capital. Key to Bourdieu’s thinking, is the way cultural capital can be exchanged for economic capital, and visa versa. A familiar example in my field, is the sophisticated well spoken architect, perhaps with publications and awards to his or her credit, exchanging their cultural capital for fees from a client, who may have money but no sophistication aside from what they can buy, through being a patron.
Bianchi is a brand with a great deal of cache, which they are able to translate into high prices and a high volume of sales. Thanks to clever ventures like teaming with a fashion label to make the Emporio Armani Sportbike, and sponsoring the champion climber Marco Pantani, for whom a light weight bike was essential to win, Bianchi can produce bikes that to buyers connote qualities that are quite remote from most of their range. Bianchi’s Milano Cafe Racer, for example, is a Taiwanese made town bike, with low end Japanese components by Shimano. Yet Bianchi decals and the company’s trademark turquoise (or "bianchi green", as it is called) mean these bikes retail for $800 in Australia, where a comparable Mongoose or Giant would sell for $500. $300 buys the sense that this bike rolled from the factory that helped Pantani to victory, when in fact the closest a Milano Cafe Racer bought from a shop in Australia, has ever been to Italy, is Taiwan, where it was made.
Are we to be critical of this though, if the end result is more people cycling? If allusions to an Italian fashion label, and the glamour of The Tour de France conferred on a Taiwanese piece of aluminium tubing, succeeds in getting a few people to take trips with their bikes, that they otherwise might have taken by car, then surely we shouldn’t object, even if some of our leftist suspicions are piqued. The danger though, is that ideologues among us would use our political power, and access to funding for research, to promote a narrow vision of cycling, and in the process make cycling even less attractive to those who will continue to drive, while ever driving serves their pride more.
This leads to a key point I would like to make with this essay, and that is that cycling stands to be hindered by researchers coming at the subject with ideological or political agendas extrinsic to cyclists’ own motivations. Sure, some people cycle out of a concern for the planet. Some people cycle to fend off morbid illness. (Nobody cycles to relieve congestion for drivers). However, cyclists who stick with it long term, tend to be the ones who find the cycling itself, in some way, rewarding. The elegance and quite often the cultural capital embodied in their expensive equipment, for many cyclists, is integral to that enjoyment.
A guiding principle for historians, comes from poststructuralism, and tells us to be leery of the influence of hegemonies when doing research. While environmentalists, health policy makers and planners might find it frustrating that their advice is not always heeded, they are nonetheless better organized to get funding, convene conferences, and influence policy makers, than are cycling commuters. In car dependent cities as we find in Australia, less than 2% of all trips are taken by bicycle. That tiny minority who choose to cycle, when they might otherwise drive, are further divided into tribes with horizontal rivalries. Cyclists are the epitome of a voiceless minority. Their concerns can easily be buried beneath those of groups whose interest in cycling, is purely to do with what cyclists can be doing for them: relieving congestion, reducing morbidity, saving the planet, etcetera. Researchers with these kinds of agendas are prone to forget that cyclists themselves may feel no personal debt to global warming or public health, and certainly not to the problem of traffic congestion.
So what does motivate cyclists? Taking clipboards to the street and asking them would be methodologically fraught. Cyclists are all too aware of the polarizing debates that they are frequently asked to take sides on. Should they ride slow or fast? Sit up or lean forward? Where lycra or jeans? Always wear helmets? Be licensed? Pay road tax? Often debates of this kind have such gravity that new lines of inquiry get drawn in and subsumed. Just knowing they are speaking to an interviewer, and that these debates are still being contested, would skew cyclists’ responses.
My approach with this paper has been to examine the market niches represented in specialist bike stores, and accompanying advertising material, and use that as my primary data. An unaffected and clear picture of numerous motivations to cycle, quickly emerges.
The picture can’t be seen though, until a few prejudices and debates are pushed to the side. First, the idea that certain styles of cycling are not really commuting, has to be jettisoned from our thinking entirely. A rider kitted up as though for a downhill mountain bike world record attempt, if he or she is riding to work, or to pick up some milk at the shop, is making a trip they might otherwise have made using a car. On the main bicycling corridor into my city (Honeysuckle Drive, Newcastle), every style of bike is represented in the rush hour procession—save perhaps trick bikes and trials bikes. As well as upright city bikes with components ideal for city commuting, I see people on mountain bikes, road bikes, fixies, beach cruisers, and so on, essentially doing the same thing: pedaling a pushbike to work.
On many fronts the motivations for cycling would be the same for all of these people. All of them are saving considerable money, especially if their decision to cycle means their household can own one less car than it otherwise might. Any of them with an interest in fitness, is saving time in their day, by marrying their exercise time with time they would have needed to spend getting to work anyway. Most are enjoying the invigoration that comes with being outdoors. What the multitude of bike styles is telling us though, is that many too are indulging a mental image they have of themselves.
Some probity can be gained here by referring to the concept of hyperreality, as the sociologist Jean Baudrillard has explained it. As Baudrillard sees it, the physical world from which our ancestors reaped crops, or walked in the rain, has been so thoroughly overlain with media images and associated fantasies, that the "real" world of our ancestors is barely perceived. It is the hyperreal world that we inhabit. To be sure, cyclists’ bodies are quite often accosted by nature, their physical legs feel real aches, and they skirt very real dangers that really could kill them. Yet there is overwhelming evidence of a hyperreal dimension to what cyclists are doing.
We can start with the example above, of The Bianchi Milano Cafe racer, and how it can sell for $300 more than a comparable bike with a different brand name displayed on the down tube. The $300 is the value of associations with The Tour de France, the romance of Italy, and for those who know of the link, the fashion designer Giorgio Armani and his glamourous lifestyle. Someone riding along a suburban street in Australia, can imagine they are racing to a cafe in Milan, on a Milano Cafe Racer. For $15000, the price of a Bianchi 928 with top of the range components and wheels, they might imagine they’re racing on the pro circuit.
In some respects, the mechanics of branding and evocation I’m describing are as straight forward as Michael Jordan being paid to wear Nike. Like Nike, the three main manufacturers of race worthy components, SRAM, Shimano and Campagnolo, pay pro teams to use group sets designed to a price point. Components that sell for thousands less, perform just as well. The ranges only exist because one sector of the recreational market is prepared to pay triple for components they saw on TV, another double for penultimate gear, and the remainder a sensible price for components fit for the task. The beauty of the top of the range gear, for the rider who is immersed in a hyperreal world, is its ability to transform their daily commute into a stage winning breakaway. The hill between their home and work, can be a peak somewhere in the French Alps.
Granting them their fantasy, even fostering it, is consistent with our overall aim of encouraging cycling. Below I will offer suggestions as to how the joy which cycling brings, to the imagination, could be fostered in a sports loving country like Australia. First though, I need to expand my discussion of cyclists’ various motivations, beyond those Baudrillard might have observed, and the obvious ones I have mentioned, like the desire to keep fit, or to save money.
Sigmund Frued identified at least three profound motivating forces for humans, that I can see corresponding to three modes of cycling. He related each to a figure from Greek mythology: Eros emblemises the drive to have sex; Thanatos stands for our death wish; and Narcissus represents our love of ourselves. A study of advertising images used to sell European town bikes, suggests a strong connection between this style of bike, and Eros. Observers of body language know that when a person walks past someone on the street who they find attractive, they will stand taller with their shoulders back and chest out. Upright bikes encourage this pose. Images used to advertise town bikes focus as much on attractive riders and their clothes (or lack thereof) [ref Kronan’s underwear range] as on the bikes being sold. Traditional geometries and detailing betrays sensibilities more commonly associated with fashion design. One can even indulge a leather fetish with certain town bikes. Velorbis, for example, makes bikes with leather seats, grips, mud flaps, optional leather coat guards and a hook to secure ones leather brief case! Bells with novel tones, for eliciting smiles and for flirting, are standard inclusions. The fact that upright bikes don’t go as fast isn’t an issue, as the purpose of riding them is to go slow enough to be seen.
Advertising used to sell mountain bikes appeals to what Freud called our death drive, which is related to Thanatos. Photographs of riders freewheeling down very steep tracks, or flying through the air after jumps, are commonly used to extol the advantages of the latest drive train technology. Yet the riders in these kinds of photos are being captured at moments when drive trains are most often inactive. A rider would not be pedaling, or changing gears, while in the air or free falling down some embankment. The advertises’ aim though, is not so much to explain the equipment, but to show how close that equipment can bring riders to the precipice between life and death.
I would not be the first to say that cyclists who shave their legs and wear lycra are somewhat narcissistic, though I would like to take the charge a step further. Magazines and advertising targeting road racers show us just how obsessed we can be with looking back at our bodies. We keep training diaries, review data collected with heart rate monitors, consult sports physicians and massage therapists, and can talk about our red blood cells using medical jargon. On the one hand our aim is to make that state of being "in form" coincide with particular races that we are aiming to win. On the other, the obsession with bio feedback from whatever source possible, is an end in itself, an end that like leg shaving, or putting on lycra nicks with no underpants, is plainly to do with self love.
Public money should be invested to gratify all the above pleasures of cycling. Any strategy that encourages people who would otherwise drive, to ride bikes instead, serves the community as a whole, because, as we know, cycling reduces energy needs and greenhouse gasses, and frees up hospital beds and space on our roads. Of course, it brings direct joy to cyclists as well.
To date, initiatives designed to get more people cycling, have mostly been aimed at reducing physical impediments, danger for instance. Some of these initiatives have been very successful.
In Amsterdam, drivers are automatically at fault in any accident involving a car and a cyclist. The burden is on drivers to prove otherwise, which is often impossible. A similar law in Manhattan, in that case protecting pedestrians, has had a similar effect: drivers slow down in built up areas. This is only fitting, in the sense that built up areas were developed before cars were invented. Our ancestors could never have imagined the streets they were planning would some day be overran by machines capable of outrunning a horse.
Secure bicycle parking stations, with shower facilities, lockers and bicycle shops, are becoming a common response to physical impediments facing cyclists at the end of their trips. These make particular sense in low density cities, where longer commutes call for bicycles that are too expensive to simply chain to a pole, and also leave riders in need of a shower when they arrive. It behooves cyclists too, that such facilities are winning architectural awards. The Royal Brisbane Women’s Hospital Cycle Centre, designed by architects Bligh Voller Nield, is an excellent example. Another, that looks more like a contemporary museum than a bike shed, beside Union Station in Washington D.C., is even more ennobling for cyclists. The inspiration for its structure comes from a wheel rim and spokes. Much has changed since the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner could say bicycle sheds were mere buildings, not works of architecture (Pevsner, 1943).
Architect designed bicycle stations, that are infused with cultural capital, elevate cycling in a way that makes it appealing to the middle classes. Granted, people who cycle because they are poor, are unlikely to pay a few hundred dollars for a yearly subscription to use such a station. However, no one is planning to promote cycling by swelling the ranks of the poor! The point of architect designed bicycle parking stations, with showers, club memberships, fresh towels and so forth, is to make cycling more appealing to middle class commuters, who might otherwise drive.
Cycle paths, shared paths, and safer on-road conditions, plus secure parking and showers, address cyclists’ physical needs. Suggestions I am about to offer, address some cultural and psychological motivations for cycling. My recommendations are in the grain of motivators evidenced by advertising material produced by the bicycle industry, where it is freely acknowledged that cycling can be prestigious, hyperreal, sexy, thrilling and narcissistic—excesses, I should add, that car buyers may freely indulge, without raising an eyebrow.(1)
One of the joys of riding European style city bikes, is these bikes give riders an opportunity to sit up, and display themselves, sexually. It follows that owners of bikes of this kind would be happiest riding beside alfresco dining areas, along waterfront promenades, through pedestrian malls, or any place where people might see them. From one stage-set to the next, they would no doubt appreciate a fast cycle lane, but when they reach the next populated zone, they would want to slow down. Neither would they be bothered if bollards were placed in their way, forcing them to ride closer to walking pace when near potentially admiring pedestrians.
For the mountain bike enthusiast, the opportunity to take in some trails between home and work, could be relished. Expediency of course, would see many use sealed routes where available, but if jumps, berms, drops, water challenges, and other thrills were provided, we can easily imagine mountain bike riders taking unsealed side routes, purely for fun. A network of mountain bike specific cycleways, through gullies, providing shortcuts and/or excitement, could increase the uptake of cycle commuting by mountain bike. The risk to life posed, is no different to the risk mountain bike riders seek on their weekends regardless.
Increasing the number of people who race road bikes on the weekend, and who would thus want to commute rather than drive, to keep themselves race-fit, could be as simple as providing public support for the sport. At present, virtually no assistance is given to bicycle road racing clubs, beyond granting them permission to use semi-redundant public roads for their races. One kilometer bitumen loops are all such clubs need to run criterion races. Every oval could have such a loop wrapped around the outside. More substantial loops could be built on crown land and large parks. Government funds could help chambers of commerce host early morning criterion races along main shopping streets. Universities could be rewarded, via funding, for hosting weekend bike races on roads on their campuses. Every new rider attracted to the sport by these measures, is someone who will now seriously consider commuting by bike.
Bicycle polo is proving popular, especially among riders of fixies, but finding suitable hard courts to play on can be impossible. BMX circuits have appealed, to young riders especially, for thirty years now, though very few exist, and fewer still exist that aren’t fenced. Secure bike parking at pools would give recreational triathaletes opportunities to swim, cycle and run all in the same training session. In all these cases, it is fair to assume that public funds spent to support sporting uses for bikes, would translate into more people commuting by bike. More people would have bikes to commute on, more would want to stay race fit, and more would have the fitness required to commute via bike.
That few of these recommendations will ever be rolled out en masse, should not be discouraging, given the vastness of the bicycling playgrounds being built, right now, in post industrial cities all over the world. I am talking about the harbour fronts, high lines, carriage yards, skip lines and other spaces which cities no longer need in their post industrial phase, that are being turned into parks. These are parks that are sometimes too vast, and almost always too long, be to be enjoyed terribly well by pedestrians; the doctrine that public space should not be developed guarantees pedestrians lonely times in these parks they demand. The undoubted winners are cyclists, the de facto heirs to spaces not intimate enough for pedestrians, not open to cars, but just right for a leisurely ride. A further step in exploring this topic, would be a study of spaces like these, as they are understood and experienced by cyclists, along the lines of Iain Borden’s study of urban space as used by riders of skateboards.
(1) As is the case with persecuted minorities generally, higher moral standards are expected of cyclists than drivers. Cyclists who flout road rules are often accused of "not helping their cause", a specific charge that is not leveled at miscreant drivers. Criminals on bicycles tarnish cycling, in a way criminals using cars, to ram raid banks for example, do not tarnish driving. Falicitous assumptions about them are another tell tale sign that cyclists are a persecuted minority. Because some cyclists are environmentalists, does not mean all are, or that cyclists cannot tie plastic shopping bags to their panniers and not be betraying some cause. It would be a fallacy likewise to presume cyclists don’t smoke. One need only look to Denmark, where large numbers do both.
(2) Iain Borden, Skateboarding, Space and the City: Architecture and the Body, Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2001.