Cultural Studies of Bicycling and Transportation

Cultural Studies of Bicycling (including articles and books)

How bicycles are socially constructed technologies that contribute to social power dynamics in a variety of ways.


Bicycles and Gender

Much (though not all) of the bicycling and politics research that doesn’t have to do with technology per se focuses on the relationship between bicycling and the early women’s movement.  Although I plan to focus on present-day Austin, I do like how Bijker, Boothroyd, and Furness situate bicycling within political discourse – not just by looking critically at the voluminous written record the bicycle has created, but by placing the act of riding itself within the realm of discourse and thus within the realm of language and ideology.  The early feminists, the bicycle, and the rational dress movement constitute an important historical precedent of the inquiry into social difference that started with Frances Willard and the bicycle.


Willard, Frances E. How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle: Reflections of an Influential 19th Century Woman. Edited by Carol O'Hare. Sunnyvale, CA: Fair Oaks Publishing, 1991(1894): This tiny book is probably one of the most-cited works on women and bicycling.  In it, Willard, a prominent suffragist, women’s rights activist, temperance crusader and vocal proponent of rational dress reform, uses the story of her learning to ride the bicycle (at the age of fifty-three!) as a thinly veiled allegory intended to motivate woman readers to more actively advocate for their rights.  Yet despite its obvious intent, the book is an important one for bicycle politics as well.  Willard really did learn how to ride, and she did so at a time when few women would have dreamed of doing something so daring.  She also tightly wove the bicycle in with her own political agenda, arguing that the bicycle sees no differences of class or gender; in truly “democratic” fashion, it requires everyone to learn to balance and ride it.  The reverberations of this argument can be felt in Donna Haraway’s meditations on a technologically mediated cyborg utopia, as well as in bicycling practices like Critical Mass (below.)


Riegel, Robert.  “Women’s Clothes and Women’s Rights.” American Quarterly, Vol 15, No 3 (Autumn 1963), pp 390-401: Though Riegel’s piece is not exactly groundbreaking today, it is the earliest piece published in American Quarterly on gender and bicycling that I could find.  Riegel takes a narrow look at dress reform, arguing (somewhat erroneously, I think) that dress reform did not and could not have led to “feminine emancipation,” but that emancipation led to dress reform.  While the flappers of the 1920s certainly wore skimpier clothes than the cyclists of Willard’s day, one might argue that revealing clothing is more a sign of co-optation than of emancipation (Angela McRobbie, 2008.)  We can’t exactly blame him, though: the article was published in 1963, well before the revolutionary uprisings of the late 1960s, and to his credit he does map out a possible connection between bicycling, dress reform, and “emancipation” that has been taken up many times since.


Strange, Lisa S., and Robert S. Brown. "The Bicycle, Women's Rights, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton." Women's Studies 31, no. 5 (2002): 609-26:  Strange and Brown’s piece serves a similar function to Riegel’s piece in that the authors link feminism and cycling, though they take a less reductive approach and thus come up with a less nonsensical conclusion than Riegel does.  The authors argue, with ample historical evidence, that the bicycle was in fact intimately connected with women’s rights, and that this connection had a lot to do with the close friendship between Stanton and Willard.  Willard was the more avid cyclist, but both women saw the emancipatory potential of the bicycle, not least because it enabled women to travel beyond walking range of their homes without chaperones. 


Zheutlin, Peter. "Women on Wheels: The Bicycle and the Women's Movement of the 1890s." Annie Londonderry, Zheutlin’s article, part of his series on Annie Londonderry, a woman who rode an Ordinary (a high-wheeled bicycle) around the world in 1894, elaborates on the connection between cycling and women’s rights.  In addition to linking Susan B. Anthony to the cyclists’ push for rational dress reform, he also shows how the bicycle flouted Victorian cultural norms for women and points to some of the arguments against female cycling, which run the gamut from hypersexualization to supposed adverse health risks to the (horror!) of young women cycling unaccompanied by young men.

Bicycles and Technology
Bijker, Wiebe.  Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997.

Bijker argues that society and technology evolve in tandem, and that technology therefore has both an internal component (how it works mechanically) and a contextual/external component.  A technology’s meaning exists not in its functioning but in how it is shaped and used within the fabric of society – both by individuals and by larger social forces.  He prefers the phrase “sociotechnical ensembles” instead of “technologies,” and he uses the evolution of the bicycle from the ordinary to the Safety bicycle and its association with the early women’s movement as one of his examples.  His analysis of technologies as being coaxed into a certain “obdurate” form by certain social actors is reminiscent of Lukacs’ theory of reification, as is his unraveling of the seemingly opaque form of ‘technology’ into a power-based ‘sociotechnical ensemble.’  His argument is also directly related to the relationship between transportation technologies and the urban landscape in that the politics of transportation (car-domination vs. multi-modal transportation models) shape the landscape in which we function.

Bicycling as Political Critique, Bike Activism (“biketivism”)


Carlsson, Chris, ed. Critical Mass: Bicycling's Defiant Celebration. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2002: AK is an anarchist press, which is rather fitting for a whole book on an anarchist event.  Though Carlsson is described elsewhere as the founder of Critical Mass, in true anarchist fashion he totally denies any association beyond collecting, compiling, and publishing the dozens of short essays that make up this volume.  Critical Mass is a once-a-month spontaneous cycling event where cyclists in cities all over the world band together and ride en masse through city streets during Friday rush hour.  As an anarchist event, it has no leader, founder, set route, or set meaning, and though the many Massers who contributed essays to this book all agree that it has something to do with a lot of people bicycling at the same time in the same place, very few agree as to why they are doing it.  This lack of agreement makes for a fascinating volume written by people of all levels of literacy and philosophical engagement and provides a lot of food for thought as to the relationship between riding/writing and doing/speaking.


Furness, Zack. "Biketivism and Technology: Historical Reflections and Appropriations." Social Epistemology 19, no. 4 (2005): 401-17: Furness is an activist and a Communication Studies professor at Columbia College in Chicago, and he is the only other scholar I can find (er, besides myself) who is studying bicycles not as an aside or an example of a larger point but as a cultural phenomenon in their own right.  This article sets out many of the key points he develops in his later work: that there is a definable bike-oriented activism, “biketivism,” whose primary focus is on protesting the hegemony of the car, that the act of bicycling constitutes activist discourse just as much as the act of speaking, and that biketivism is closely aligned with groups that include “19th century Socialists, ‘first-wave’ feminists, and 1960’s Dutch Anarchists.” (401)  He thus positions bicycling as a tool for political and cultural critique.


Furness, Zack. "Critical Mass, Urban Space and Velomobility." Mobilities 2, no. 2 (2007): 299-319:  This article builds on biketivism by focusing on the spatial politics of Critical Mass.  Using the Situationists, a 1950s group that attempted to revolutionize society by temporarily appropriating spaces and transforming them through spontaneous performative critique, he characterizes Critical Mass as a performative critique of car culture. 


Furness, Zack. One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010: Though not without its problems (thankfully), One Less Car develops Furness’ concept of bicycling as performative critique, arguing that the bicycle inherently lends itself to activism because cyclists are the Other group in a car-oriented world.  Though Furness sometimes errs on the side of polemical outbursts, this book is clearly the product of years of detailed research and dozens of interviews, punk rock shows, Critical Mass rides, and a lot of Marxist cultural critique.  His sources range from activist groups and bike punks to messengers and mechanics, and his topics include 19th century feminism, the Appropriate Technology movement, and even 40 Year Old Virgin and I Heart Huckabees.  My only difficulty with it (at the moment) is that it is written from within an activist perspective; now that Critical Mass has been all but entirely dismantled (Austin’s Thursday night social rides get far more people than does the monthly Critical Mass ride) the inherent emergent politics of the bicycle are not so clear.


Lynn, Andrew, Elizabeth Press, and Chris Ryan. "Still We Ride." United States: In Tandem Productions, 2005: Still We Ride is a film made by the NYC activist organization TimesUp! that documents the police crackdown on the Critical Mass ride during the 2004 Republican National Convention.  It is obviously biased toward showing that cyclists are not considered “traffic,” and at times those being documented seem to be actively provoking the police, but both the bias and the obvious acts of police brutality (beating cyclists, seizing bikes, etc.) make a compelling argument for how difficult it is to be a transportation minority in a car culture.  Made just six years ago, it also serves as a historical record of a car-dominant society in an increasingly multi-modal culture: just this fall, 80 of the 240 cyclists arrested that night were awarded a multi-million dollar settlement from the New York City government.


Jackson, Shelley Lynn, and Ethan Clark. The Chainbreaker Bike Book. Bloomington: Microcosm Publishing, 2008: Part zine, part bike manual, Jackson and Clark’s book situates bike repair squarely within a DIY ethos.  The authors are (obviously) not the first folks to do this; Yellow Bikes, Working Bikes, and other bike co-ops (as well as more than a few bike shops) are founded on the anti-consumerist premise that bikes don’t need to be fancy, they just need to work, and knowing how to fix your bike means more power over your own locomotion for you.  Further, the authors are as explicit about their gender politics as they are about their social politics.  The book is co-written and illustrated by a male-female team of former bike mechanics, and though they do discuss instances where customers would treat them differently, they echo Willard in their insistence that the bicycle is the great equalizer and that a woman is able to fix one just as easily as a man can.  The book thus presents a glimpse into a subculture in which human interaction with bicycling technology could potentially lead to a radical reconfiguration of social difference.


Mapes, Jeff. Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2009: Mapes is a bike activist with a journalism background, and his book is a combination of both.  The meat of it is a series of case studies of the bicycle networks in four different cities, but the framing of those case studies is in explicitly activist terms.  Mapes positions the bicycle as the solution to the fuel crisis, as a way of combating the obesity epidemic, as an inexpensive solution to traffic congestion, as a way to help people reconnect with one another, and as a way to break ties with the “auto-industrial complex” (Sheller and Urry, below.)  Further, he links bicycles to the “new mobility”: a kind of urban mobility that depends not on cars but on increased electronic connectivity and access – a reinvention of the movement of people that involves more information and less waste.  Bicycling, then, allows for a much more direct connection between people and information, and bicyclists are more cutting-edge than throwbacks to another time.


Sano, Rev Phil, and Joe Biel. "A Post-Critical Mass Portland: Living in a Post-Revolutionary Bicycle Age." United States: Microcosm Publishing, 2009: This short video examines the reasons why Critical Mass in Portland no longer has the revolutionary (velorutionary) power it had in the early 2000s.  Its conclusion that Portland would rather spend thousands of dollars silencing Critical Mass than allow traffic to be impeded is similar to the TimesUp! argument in “Still We Ride,” but with an important caveat: unlike New York, Portland has been named the most Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists for several years and boasts not only hundreds of miles of bike friendly infrastructure but a significant modal split and a thriving bike culture and bike industry.  Though the filmmakers do not suggest this, the end of Critical Mass in Portland may mean a silencing of cyclists, but it may also indicate that Critical Mass has served its purpose and made its voice heard, and that it was in its death throes, anyway.
Bicycle Messengers


Fincham, Ben. " 'Generally Speaking People Are in It for the Cycling and the Beer': Bicycle Couriers, Subculture and Enjoyment." Sociological Review 55, no. 2 (2007): 189-202, and "Balance Is Everything: Bicycle Messengers, Work and Leisure." Sociology 42, no. 4 (2008): 618-34: Fincham is a UK-based sociologist who spent several years doing ethnographic research among bike messengers in London.  While bike messengers have occupied a semi-cult status in popular culture since the early 2000s, Fincham’s are the only scholarly studies I could find that specifically concern this group.  Fincham argues that while messengering can be just a job, messengers have their own distinct subculture that is built around their jobs, complete with dress (bike shoes, loose layers, and relative unconcern with personal cleanliness), music (messenger bands), and social events (alleycat races, heavy drinking and substance abuse combined with strenuous physical activity) that are built around messengering.  These folks also often argue that they have chosen to be messengers because they do not want to work in an office, because they disagree with capitalist society, or because they like working with their bodies.  Fincham’s work thus characterizes messengers as using their bicycles to deviate from mainstream culture.


Reilly, Rebecca “Lambchop.”  Nerves of Steel: Bike Messengers in the United States.  Spoke and Word, 2000: Reilly’s book is the culmination of 8 years of messengering in cities across the United States and collecting stories from the messengers in each city.  The book is self published (she sent me a personally autographed copy) and appears to be only lightly edited, and it is often hard to tell where one person’s story ends and another begins, but it is nevertheless incredibly engaging, a tangential, nearly stream-of-consciousness record of everyone she met and everything she did in her eight years on the road.  Of particular interest to me is her language: she refers to her sources by their working nicknames (Spider, Buffalo) and their stories are peppered in messenger slang (my favorite: “copsicle,” a cop on a bicycle.)  Also fascinating is her respected status as a female messenger in the bike community: numerous reviews of her book mention her insistence that she not receive any special treatment; she is reportedly an amazing fixed gear rider, and she only wanted to be given the same chance as a man.  (See Buffalo Bill’s 2002 article on her in Moving Target:  Combined with Shelly Jackson and Frances Willard (both above), Reilly provides not only a vast record of messenger culture in the 1990s, but a record of a particular kind of femininity associated with bicycling.

Histories of the Bicycle


Smith, Robert A. A Social History of the Bicycle: Its Early Life and Times in America. New York: American Heritage Press, 1972: Smith’s book is a meticulously researched history of the bicycle during the 1890s and the early part of the 20th century.  His sources are mostly commonly available newspapers and magazines from the period, and his focus is on the “impact of the bicycle on American life” – in other words, he looks in the cultural production around bicycles at the turn of the century to see if he can find seeds of later events.  While I’m not entirely sold on this method, and I don’t agree that the main function of the bicycle in the 1890s was to provide a precedent for car culture (the parallel between bicycles and children is rather pointed in his introduction), Smith includes reams of fascinating and well-supported details that make this book totally worthwhile.  Although Smith claims to be an impartial researcher and not an activist, his work serves an activist function in that it reinscribes the bicycle within discourses of technology, politics, and “Progress,” and thus portrays bicyclists as (one-time) agents of cultural change.


Cultural Studies of Transportation Technology More Generally (including articles and books)
Flink, James J. "Three Stages of American Automobile Consciousness." American Quarterly 24, no. 4 (October 1972): 451-73: Flink’s by-now classic Marxist interpretation of the influence of the automobile on American society divides automobility into three phases and shows how each contains the seeds of the next.  The first phase, from 1910 to World War II, involved the introduction of the car into American society and the reorientation of both landscape and culture to accommodate it; the second, in the 1940s and 1950s, constituted the American love affair with the car, and the third, which started in the late 1950s, has been the disillusionment with the car and its reconfiguration as a problem rather than the best thing ever.  Flink’s argument is a little teleological (domination by the motorcar is “inevitable”), but he does compellingly link American ideology in general and individualism in particular with personal mobility.


Sheller, Mimi, and John Urry. "The City and the Car." International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24, no. 4 (2000): 737-57: Sheller and Urry are both UK-based sociologists and both write prolifically about the technological domination of the car.  This article contains the clearest synthesis of their arguments that I have found.  They argue that although people invented the car, the car has quickly come to dominate all elements of society by orienting “automobility” around itself.  Automobility is a complex concept involving manufacturing processes (Fordism, Taylorism), consumption patterns (cars are the second most expensive thing most people will every buy), a machinic complex of roads, motels, parts manufacturers, and other businesses that only exist in the form they do because of cars, overly private mobility, a shaming of other transportation modes, and the exploitation of environmental resources.  Having built up and then deconstructed the automobilic monolith, Sheller and Urry propose a solution similar to Mapes’: multimodality and increased flows of information.


Walsh, Margaret. "Gendering Mobility: Women, Work, and Automobility in the United States." History 93, no. 311 (July 2008): 376-95: Walsh is a UK-based historian of transportation in the US.  This article focuses on the historical relationship between women and cars, and as such it provides an incredible amount of background on automobility and social difference.  It also provides a possible model for a similar study of bicycles.  In addition to tracing women’s use of cars in the US and thus intervening in arguments that posit the car as a masculine vehicle, she situates this relationship in transportation studies (Flink, Rae), feminist studies (“The Cult of True Womanhood”), economics (Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic), and reams of Federal Highway Administration and Census data.  This article is amazingly useful just for her methodology and literature alone.