Change society, not (only) infrastructure!

A bike lane is used for parking. Kuala Lumpur, summer 2019.

This is an essay I wrote as an exercise for the massive open online course (MOOC) “Unraveling the cycling city”, organised by the Urban Cycling Institute at the University of Amsterdam, that I recently attended in an attempt at active procrastination. I highly recommend the course to anybody who is interested in cycling, urbanism, politics, planning, environmentalism, or social geography (or in all of those, like me). Truly inspiring teachers and carefully curated content. It’s in fact so well-designed, that, that even if you only have an hour or two to invest every evening (as I did), it’s easy to finish even the non-mandatory exercises in the five week duration of the course (despite its rich and comprehensive content) and get all out of it.

It is not simple to name one key takeaway after four weeks of an inspiring course full of interesting material. I found my key takeaway only after looking closely at the notes I took: their overarching theme is the political dimension of the bicycle, of cycling, cycling culture, and cycling infrastructure. It is often argued, also in parts of this course, that for the Dutch, for instance, the bicycle is the self-evident best transport option in many of their everyday journeys. This is, though, only part of a much larger narrative, in which the power balance shifted pro-bicycle due to many favourable factors coinciding.

The success had less to do with Dutch DNA or the country’s flatness than with a combination of factors, including bicycle-friendly representatives, strong bourgeois cultures, urban-planning choices, late automobility, and governmental policies.

Oldenziel & Albert de la Bruhèze 2011:42

From the urbanist perspective, contested spaces and places are the most obvious and overt manifestation of this political dimension of the bicycle. They are indeed an important factor, and for me as a social geographer, the struggle over (re-)production of space will always be a primary theme. That said, there are other, not so inherently spatial, dimensions to it: In its very early days, bicycling was an upper class pasttime, but it quickly became a strong symbol of working class, both as a vehicle for fulfilling transport needs connected to work life, and as an enabler of freedom of mobility. In my home country, Austria, the fascist regime of the 1930s introduced harsh restrictions on bicycles in an effort to weaken the social-democrat opposition. The bicycle had become a strong political symbol.

During the interwar period, when bicycles boomed as everyday devices in the cities, the upper-middle class culturally shifted gears from cycling to promote automobile touring, while many European governments began to treat bicycle traffic as a problem to be solved rather than a solution to be embraced. At the same time, socialist, liberal, and bourgeois reformers pushed the bicycle as an instrument to uplift, discipline, and educate the working classes […].

Oldenziel & de la Bruhèze 2011:33

The Netherlands were lucky to retain a certain burgeois interest in the bicycle, with even the royal family showing themselves on bikes in public. Giselinde Kuipers (2012:25) assesses the result of decades of reproducing cycling culture: “What is most important in habitus formation, however, is that for Durch cyclists, all these associations and backgrounds are largely irrelevant. All Dutch are embedded in a network of conventions, habits and practices to do with cycling that are felt to be self-evident.” Kuipers’ quote makes it sound as if the societal background, the national habitus, formed themselves, but, looking closer, this political success story started out a political struggle with tremendous protests on the streets (cf. van der Zee, 2015).

This struggle continues today – even more so in other countries, where the power relations are not so obviously in favour of cycling. The predominant narrative in North America, as well as many European countries is that of cycling as a leisure activity which naturally should not receive as much attention as the car, the motor of busy people’s economy. The narrative further includes a notion of the cyclist as more prone to illegal activities. This is simply not true, with most of the few occasions of rule-breaking attributable to insufficient infrastructure (cf. Marshall et al. 2016). To overcome this, scholars recommend a cycling perspective in urban design and traffic planning (Forsyth & Krizek, 2011; Bertolini & le Clerq, 2002) and a turn away from copying automotive design patterns (Liu et al. 2019; te Brömmelstroet et al. 2018). These efforts, unfortunately, often have the air of preaching to the choir; they don’t seem to reach behind the windshields of decision-makers who often are within easy reach of other lobbies.

I want to argue for a change in the strategy and priorities of bicycle advocacy. The Dutch example is quite clear, in fact: first a favourable political situation emerged, that led, second, to improved infrastructure (which in turn helped further shape political and societal conditions). In Finland, where I currently live, cars are number one priority for traffic planning, and motorists think of themselves as the (only) rightful owners of the road. Shouldn’t we put much more effort into trying to change this mindset and establish a societal consense on the meaningfulness of sustainable urban transport? Advocating for cycling infrastructure in an auto society will always be politics of small steps, its results mere afterthoughts to car roads. The successful examples of sustainable urban transport are in places that managed to change the fundamental narrative: in The Netherlands and in Copenhagen, cyclists are not only sportists, hippies and radical rule-breakers.

Let’s take the auto out of auto society elsewhere, too!