what is bicycle culture?

I am trying to think through what bicycle culture means, mostly because my dissertation demands a working definition. Here is a crude draft of my thoughts. 

The term “bicycle culture” attempts to be an all-inclusive descriptor of everyone who rides a bicycle. But it is more commonly and erroneously used to describe a very specific type of cyclist. She is a very visible cyclist. The bicycle is her main form of transportation. She is usually white and comes from a middle-to-upper class background. This cyclist finds her usage of the bicycle to be political. She has not been driven to use the bicycle for economic reasons, but rather actively chooses to sell her car as an enviromentally political move. She knows of her legal right to ride on the street with traffic, and may inform aggressive automobile drivers of this right. She may demand space on the road and expect city planners to integrate bicycle infrastructure with repaving of roads and new pathways throughout the city. She usually socializes with other visible cyclists like herself. She may participate in “bicycle culture” events such as Critical Mass and alleycats. She may dress in clothes that are designed for cyclists, such as sturdy canvas shoes, tight legged pants, and a coat made for winter cyclists. She typically uses a backpack designed by and for cyclists. These clothes and accessories are not cheap, but are often the focal point of her consumption. She may have more than one bike for different types of cycling and weather. She is overtly proud of her cycling and overtly angry by the car traffic that impedes her travel time. She actively encourages other people in her peer group to ride a bicycle. She does not buy any excuses to not ride a bicycle.

(she is me, not hiding that fact)

This is the “bicycle culture” people research, write, praise, and complain about. When studies forecast an upswing in daily bike trips, they are talking about the type of cyclist I describe here. Is there an upswing of day laborer cyclists, too poor to even afford bus fare? Who knows. No one researches them. They are the “invisible cyclists” (see: Invisible Riders by D. Koeppel).  They often ride on department store bikes, travel on sidewalks and down the wrong way in bike lanes, and wear clothes that can hinder the cyclist (or so the dominate bicycle culture would say). They literally try to stay invisible, unlikely to use bicycle lanes and off-road paths like the more vocal and visible cyclists do. You can find invisible cyclists in the poor areas of town and are disproportionately people of color. They do not participate in bicycle culture events, buy expensive bicycle clothes, or attend city planning meetings about bicycle infrastructure. They appear to be uneducated about their rights to the road or choose not to exercise that right. They are even the neighborhood kids riding about on their bikes. They certainly are not “bicycle culture,” right?

Thus, we have a problem. How can we talk about “bicycle culture” when the very term denotes some fairly racist and classist assumptions? How can we applaud the increase of women cyclists in Minneapolis when we are really just talking about white, middle-class women? Yet simultaneously the very people who are known as the invisible cyclists are the demographic targeted by community bicycle shops and rental programs (no, not the tourist-friendly Nice Ride. Think the Sibley Bicycle Library). These community spaces yearn to use the bicycle to teach people specific skills and values. They may employ homeless youth, encourage participation of people who have never ridden a bicycle before, or use the bicycle to get youth out of problematic urban spaces (gangs, drug circles). They use the bicycle in political ways, albeit in ways that divert from those that demand bicycle lanes and the abolishment of freeways. The collusion and collision of these two spaces: bicycle culture and community-bicycle culture (if you will) will be the driving narrative of this dissertation. I believe that important cultural and political moments have emerged from both spaces, and certainly these spaces are not binary. But when you are writing a non-post-structuralist dissertation, it is good to have terms, definitions, and boundaries.


Helmets, M.

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