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:
- What’s our specific role, as people who love cycling?
- Do we have a privileged position, in effecting change?
- What do our experiences as cyclists tell us needs to change?
- 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.