March 29th, 2010

intellectual pretensions stepped up a notch

It was inevitable, that my blogging would eventually see me going off to air my wisdoms at some scholarly forum. Below is an abstract that, straight after I have posted it here, will be sent for refereeing by the committee in charge of the healthy cities conference in Brisbane this coming July. 
 


The subcultures behind the cultural ascension of cycling and commuting by bike

Research aimed at increasing bicycle commuting, has focused on physical factors. From such work it has become increasingly clear that cities with comparable terrain, density, bicycling infrastructure and deterrents to driving, do not necessarily have the same numbers of cyclists. Only so much can be learned from physical studies. The need now is for research into bicycling culture. Specifically, we need to know what satisfaction is derived by 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 the motivations of actual cyclists, as this would be to presume that cyclists too are environmentalists, excessively fearful of morbidity, or inexplicably pleased that their pedaling might be abating congestion for drivers. Neither would it be terribly useful to focus on cycling culture in old European cities, that were spared car dominance because they could not be so thoroughly retrofitted for driving as cities in countries like Australia were. It would be similarly fruitless to study what motivates the poor to ride bikes, at least while plans aren't afoot to increase the size of that demographic. If we are to encourage drivers to switch to cycle commuting, we need to know the culture of affluent cyclists in typical cities where driving is likely to remain a viable option.

Starting from the premise that middle class cyclists seek what Pierre Bourdieu has termed "Cultural Capital", the paper examines the connection between cyclists' motivation to cycle, and the messages they convey to each other through their careful choices with regards to equipment. As a prosthesis, fashion statement and emblem of ones aesthetic values, 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 lugged and braised "fixie", a "Dutch" city bike, a new road bike, an old road bike, a mountain bike (further divided by degrees of suspension), a utility bike, or a bike from the emerging minimalist art niche. Understanding cyclists' subcultures, is key to understanding how each might be given opportunities to grow.
 


or, the 250 word version that I actually submitted:

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 might strive toward.

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.