Poststructuralism, hegemonies and other big fancy words

 If two cities had comparable terrain, bicycling infrastructure, public transport, affluence, and density, there is no evidence to suggest bicycle commuting would be equally common in one as the other. The literature quoted in an article I just read (Xing points to numerous cases where the popularity of cycling defied physical obstacles, or where a physical environment that was conducive to cycling did not lead to a proportionate uptake of this means of commuting. Another article, (Smart, 2010) reports that Chinese immigrants to the US are more likely to cycle than their American born neighbours with similar incomes; they brought the habit with them from China and weren’t too concerned that in America there wasn’t the same cycling infrastructure, or critical mass. Clearly, cultural attitudes have as great an influence as physical infrastructure on rates of bicycle commuting in various cities.
However, there is a dearth of research into the cultural factors that inspire people in some cities, more than others, to take trips by bicycle rather than other available means. I’ve thus far not found any research undertaken along the lines of research into comparable cultural fields, where much rests with what Pierre Bourdieu calls "Cultural Capital", meaning the status one can attract through an activity like cycling to work. Similar loci of status include fashionable clothing, or favouring buildings rich in architectural character. Much scholarly discourse in the field of architecture (the field I touch base with because it’s the field I know personally), is undertaken from a poststructuralist standpoint. That is a fancy way of saying that architectural researchers (the poststructuralist ones), try to be mindful of their own cultural biases when looking at buildings or architects, and where possible give voice to the voiceless. If a poststructuralist approach was taken in analyzing the ascendancy of cycling culture that we are presently witnessing, it would recognize that some points of view have received plenty of airplay already, especially those of environmentalists, planners and health professionals. Precedence would be given to voices in the debate that are not aligned with recognised causes. 

We’ve all heard environmentalists, for instance, talking about the fossil fuels and CO2 emissions that might be saved if more people cycled. We’ve heard from the planners (who I can only assume must all drive to work) saying that more cycling could alleviated traffic congestion and parking (presumably so that planners can keep driving to work). The health professionals have told us how cyclists stave off morbidity. But should we take from this, that cyclists are by definition greenies, sympathetic to drivers’ concerns with congestion, or paranoid about morbidity in their old age? Of course not. These are the researchers’ concerns, not necessarily those of the people who cycle.

The environmentalists’ positions, planners’ positions, and health researchers’ positions could fairly be called hegemonic. Their power comes from the journals and forums publishing their work, and their employers and in turn their funding bodies. From their positions of relative power, each group asks: "How does cycling fit our agenda? What can having more people cycling, achieve for our cause?" They might talk to cyclists who might tell them why they actually cycle, but in the process of filtering the answers back through to their peers, researchers whose concern is congestion, the environment, or public health, will become ineffectual. They will not really be learning from people who currently cycle, or speaking to people who might do.

This is a shame, because if a piece of research actually did lead to a policy change that actually stimulated cycling from a cultural perspective, the impact would likely be drastic. With the exception of cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where an absence of car parking has created a strong physical incentive to cycle, the percentage by trip of cycling journeys in industrialised countries is down around the 1 or 2 percent mark. That’s a low baseline from which to start. In a small city, changing the behaviour of just a few hundred daily commuters could double the number of cyclists!

A fair portion of bicycle commuters only ride because they are poor, meaning the quickest way to boost cycling (short of turning parking spots into parks) would be to fuck up the economy. A poor country with nowhere to park: hardly a vote winning vision! What governments need to know, is why those cyclists who could afford to use cars, would rather ride bikes. We are looking now at factors influencing the choices of as little as 1% of the developed world’s population.

A mistake made by those with an interest in cycling culture, is allowing themselves to be seduced by the undoubtedly marvelous cultures in existence in places like Amsterdam. Their rates are 15 to 20 times higher than the rest of the world’s, not for cultural, but physical reasons. Buildings and streets their ancestors planned around waterways, could not be retrofitted for cars in the 50s like our streets all were. Where do we look then?

People’s aspirations are often reflected in the ways they spend money, something keen cyclists do with aplomb. Anyone who has stood aghast at a 20K bike behind glass in a bike shop, might be more shocked to know there are actually buyers for such state of the art gear. Such a bike will go no faster than one one-tenth its cost, but it will be sold nonetheless, not to a pro rider, but a club level racer who is proud to race it on weekends, or just sit beside it at some outdoor cafe table. That 1% of cyclists whose numbers governments could easily double, aspire to feel proud of themselves through their bikes. 

(to be continued when I’ll say the same goes for fixie riders etc etc etc.)

Michael Smart, US immigrants and bicycling: two-wheeled in Autopia, 2010. 

Yan Xing, Susan L. Handy, and Patricia L. Mokhtarian, Facotrs associated wit proportions and miles bicycling for transportation and recreation in six small US cities, 2009. 

Leave a Reply