Want to understand more about what it means to think about and practice bicycling as a continuum made up of many overlapping cultures? So do we! This is a literature review of (mostly) scholarly articles and books that focus on bicycle users, bicycle advocates and activists, and bicycle meanings. It is arranged in four sections:
What Does Biking Mean?
Multiple meanings of bicycling exist.
Understanding the contours of the bike group you are studying can start with learning what role culture plays in accessing bicycling. That bicycling can represent different things for different people resonates as a common theme in many of the projects featured here. The following books and articles all study bicycling’s multiple meanings.
Cycling and Society edited by Dave Horton, Paul Rosen, and Peter Cox (2007)
This groundbreaking collection gathers mostly UK-based case studies analyzing bicycle users and what meanings and values they attach to bikes in different times and places. As the editors put it, “the term ‘cycling’ tends to homogenize a remarkable plurality of lifewords, histories, structures and cultures, and a vast range of sometimes parallel and sometimes interwoven activities.” The book started the project of demonstrating this diversity with essays on bike subcultures, gender, the qualitative experience of riding, social network effects on bike technology, and many other topics. The editors also created an email listserv called Cycling and Society and started holding annual conferences where interdisciplinary bike research is presented and discussed.
Journal of Transport Geography Special Section on Cycling and Society edited by Rachel Aldred (2013)
This collection updates the research direction started by the 2007 book Cycling and Society, gathering case studies that had been presented at the Cycling and Society Symposium in London in 2012. Topics covered include sustainable mobility policy that promotes an end to car dependence, what it feels like to bike in particular places, advocacy campaigns, and the ciclovía model. Sociologist Rachel Aldred has made open access versions of the papers available here.
Reconsidering the Bicycle: An Anthropological Perspective on a New (Old) Thing by Luis Vivanco (2013)
This book makes the case for analyzing bicycles, bicycling, and bicycle users through the lens of cultural anthropology, a field that studies how our everyday lives shape our ideas about what is normal. Taking the current growth of bicycling as a starting point, Vivanco uses urban bicycling cultures in cities around the world to document that people expect bicycling to solve a wide range of social problems.
“Letter-Writing, Nursing Men and Bicycles in the Belgian Congo: Notes Towards the Social Identity of a Colonial Category” by Nancy Rose-Hunt (1994)
In this essay, anthropologist Nancy Hunt explores the meanings attached to bicycling in 1930s Congo. She analyzed letters written by nurses who used bicycles to travel around and found that this mobility symbolized a colonial divide between natives and “civilized” Europeans.
“Cycles of Empowerment? The Bicycle and Everyday Technology in Colonial India and Vietnam” by David Arnold and Erich DeWald (2011)
This historical essay examines the varying social status conveyed by bicycling in two places shaped by European colonialism. Sometimes the bicycle was a symbol of modernity, and sometimes it was a symbol of backwardness, they found.
“The Pedestrian and Bicyclist Highway Safety Problem as it Relates to the Hispanic Population in the United States” U.S. Department of Transportation (2004)
This report was based on information gathered from community-based organizations around the U.S. who worked with Hispanic/Latino populations, and documented the lack of any significant Hispanic community-based local efforts related to pedestrian and bicycle safety. The researchers also found that Latino and Black populations have disproportionately high rates of bike fatalities, and they called for targeted research on these populations to learn why.
“Invisible Riders” by Dan Koeppel (2005)
In this article from Bicycling magazine, the author coined the term “invisible rider” to describe low-income, Latino bike users in Los Angeles that seemed very disconnected from his own recreational cycling subculture. “Invisible cyclist” has come into circulation as a term to refer to groups of bike users that have been underrepresented in bike advocacy.
“Cycling and the City: A Case Study of How Gendered, Ethnic, and Class Identities Can Shape Healthy Transport Choices” by Rebecca Steinbach, Judith Green, Jessica Datta, and Phil Edwards (2011)
Using interviews with Londoners as a sample, the authors examine how daily routines and group identity can shape attitudes toward biking. They found that bicycling takes on symbolic meanings that reflect users’ class status and their desire to show they know cultural norms. If the prevailing image of bicycling does not accommodate these norms, it can seem like a bad idea.
Cycling Philosophy for Everyone, edited by Jesús Illundáin-Agurruza and Michael W. Austin is a collection of essays by “cyclophilosophers.”
A Journey Around Our America: A Memoir on Cycling, Immigration, and the Latinoization of the U.S. by Louis Mendoza (2012)
Though he wasn’t an avid cyclist, sociologist Mendoza decided to embark on a cross-country bike tour and use it as an opportunity to learn about immigration experiences and everyday life in Latino communities around the United States. The book uses a journal format to explore themes and situations where Mendoza’s bike took him places that might have been overlooked by other modes.
“U.S. Immigrants and Bicycling: Two-wheeled in Autopia” by Michael Smart (2010)
Planning scholar Smart starts from the fact that immigrant populations bicycle more than the native-born U.S. population, especially in the case of individuals who live in densely populated areas. He analyzes statistical data to find explanations for this “immigrant effect” and recommends further study of immigrant bike user populations as a means to identify new strategies for promoting bike usage for wider groups. The article has a useful review of existing research on immigrant travel behavior.
“Cycles of Investment: Bicycle Infrastructure, Gentrification, and the Restructuring of the San Francisco Bay Area” by John Stehlin (2015)
This article charts the development of the “bikes mean business” strategy that emerged in San Francisco in the 2000s and has become an influential tenet of bicycle advocacy. A geographer, Stehlin focuses on the side effects of a “spatial approach to social problems,” primarily how the ostensibly pro-social “livability” trend became a driver of rising unaffordability.
Bicycle users often express other shared identities as they ride or wrench together.
Rather than bike identity disappearing as bicycling is “normalized,” we will probably find more and more bike cultures emerging as people relate to bicycling in culturally-specific ways. Research has shown the positive health effects of “network-based activity promotion,” which is a technical way to describe events like community bike rides. The books and articles listed here give examples of flourishing bike cultures or consider what bike promotion methods would work for specific populations.
“Cycling in the African American Community Safety Training Intervention Guidelines and Findings” by Talia McCray, Teri Durden, and Eileen Schaubert (2013)
This report presents a manual the research team created as the conclusion to a project to design a bike safety campaign that would be culturally relevant to African-American communities.
“Flâneurie on Bicycles: Acquiescence to Women in Public in the 1890s” by Gordon Mackintosh and Glen Norcliffe (2006)
Using historical documents as source material, the authors found that upper class women in North America used the first bicycle boom to expand their individual mobility in unprecedented ways. On bicycles, women could go more places and play “flâneuse” (urban observer), an activity that had previously been acceptable only for men. It’s a great example of bicycle mobility being a liberating force.
“Neighborhoods of Affinity: Social Forces and Travel in Gay and Lesbian Neighborhoods” by Michael Smart and Nicholas Klein (2013)
This article uses statistical sources to analyze trends in travel behavior in neighborhoods with a high concentration of gay and lesbian couples. They found that gay men who lived in gay neighborhoods tended to have shorter trip distances, which suggests that walking and biking would be feasible trip options. They recommend that planners consider “how the social and physical environments of neighborhoods together interact to create livable, supportive, inclusive communities.”
Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant Celebration edited by Chris Carlsson (2002)
To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the monthly bike ride and political demonstration that started in San Francisco in 1992, Carlsson gathered essays written about various Critical Mass rides around the world. Most of the authors are also participants in the rides they report, and by collecting their stories, the book aims to show that “social movements don’t erupt from individuals, and individuals don’t have ideas that are solely theirs.” This populist spirit of participant-driven decisionmaking is a source of inspiration for bike equity. For a look at some ‘primary source documents’ on Critical Mass, find a copy of Anarchist Bicycle Rally.
“Centering Perspectives on Black Women, Hair Politics, and Physical Activity” by H. Shellae Versey (2014)
This article in a public health journal considers the potential for using Black women’s social networks to promote exercise. Versey argues that communities who understand each other’s concerns can do a better job of representing physical activity in ways that respect the importance of certain practices, such as with maintaining the look of hairstyles that take time and money to achieve. It’s a great explanation of why a community ride organized and attended by people you can identify with might be more successful.
Urban Flow: Bike Messengers and the City by Jeremy Kidder (2011)
Hermes on Two Wheels: The Sociology of Bike Messengers by Kevin Wehr (2009)
“Balance is Everything: Bicycle Messengers, Work and Leisure” by Ben Fincham (2008)
As participants in a longstanding and well-known urban bike culture, bike messengers have attracted more scholarly attention than any other group of modern bike users. These three books share stories about what it’s like to be a bike messenger, analyze how bike messengers express their identities, and the relationship between bike messengers’ work and their social lives.
Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-Lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today! by Chris Carlsson (2008)
Carlsson has been a bike movement thinker for many years, taking on a role as a wrangler of stories and Critical Mass historian through the multiple volumes he’s edited or co-edited about those rides. In this book, he shares examples from do-it-yourself bike spaces around the U.S. and explores how these bike “nowtopians” challenge or reinforce a consumerist framework for urban life.
The bike is socially produced.
Andrew Ritchie’s Quest for Speed: A History of Early Bicycle Racing 1868-1903 is a well-researched and wonderfully illustrated text that argues for the role of racing in early bicycling innovation.
Wiebe E. Bijker’s Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change outlines a theory on the social construction of technology with a good chapter on the social influences that produced the safety bicycle.
Paul Rosen’s Framing Production: Technology, Culture, and Change in the British Bicycling Industry analyzes the social and historical changes the British bicycling industry underwent during the interwar years and the 1980s to 1990s
Research networks also produce particular conceptions of the bicycle. In a 2014 literature review, Harry Oosterhuis problematized the lack of integration across policy-oriented bicycle research and scholars studying bicycle history. “Bicycle Research between Bicycle Policies and Bicycle Culture“ surveys hundreds of research articles and suggests that cultural and historical factors influencing bicycle use tend to be de-emphasized in research projects that use quantitative methods. Oosterhuis finds that “if you build it, they will come,” the belief that bicycle infrastructure projects will increase bicycle use, is less supported by research than he had anticipated, and calls for increased communication between bicycle scholarship fields.
What do activists/advocates who campaign for cycling take for granted?
In the rush of campaigns and responding to flare ups, bike advocates don’t always take the time to create spaces for reflection. Fortunately, a number of scholars have undertaken critical analyses of what bike advocacy does. Understanding what these advocates take for granted, and how they police their in-group boundaries, helps provincialize the bike advocacy project. The books and articles gathered here offer analyses of what bike activists and advocates have to say about their projects, what their goals are, and what bicycling realities they tend to overlook in their work.
Incomplete Streets: Processes, Practices and Possibilities edited by Stephen Zavestoski and Julian Agyeman (2014)
This collection of essays offers critical analysis of the push for Complete Streets policies, providing insight into what problems the model has and how they can be addressed to make Complete Streets serve more people.
“Regulating Inclusion: Spatial Form, Social Process, and the Normalization of Cycling Practice in the USA” by John Stehlin (2013)
In this article, geographer Stehlin compares the bike culture focus of Critical Mass and Bike Party with bicycle advocacy’s current focus on street infrastructure. Due to “racialized patterns of spatial investment,” he finds, it is impossible for changing the street to not have wider meanings for the communities living adjacent to these bike projects. Bicycle advocates should consider how bike infrastructure connects to gentrification and neighborhood change processes.
“Who is ‘World Class’? Transportation Justice and Bicycle Policy” by Melody Hoffmann and Adonia Lugo (2014)
This article by two scholar-activists who study and participate in bicycle advocacy considers the potential pitfalls of using a creative class economic growth model to promote bike infrastructure. Drawing on extensive interviews and participation in bike projects in Los Angeles and Minneapolis, they caution that the rising costs of urban living threaten to undercut low-income individuals’ access to bike friendly places.
Communications scholar Melody Hoffmann’s doctoral dissertation, “Our Bikes in the Middle of the Street: Community Building, Gentrification, and Racism in Urban Bicycle Advocacy,” is available online.
Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities by Jeff Mapes (2009)
Journalist Mapes uses extensive interviews with bike advocates around the country to provide an engaging historical overview of efforts to expand bicycling through planning and policy.
One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility by Zack Furness (2008)
Cultural studies scholar Furness’ encyclopedic book covers the history of bike advocacy in the United States, from the early days of the League of American Wheelmen to Critical Mass and the current bicycle boom. It is the most complete social history of bike advocacy and activism in the United States.
Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco by Jason Henderson (2013)
In a chapter on bike politics, geographer Henderson shares lessons from San Francisco’s bike movement and its struggle to include bicycle users in street space. Though the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition formed in 1971, it was inactive when Critical Mass took to the streets in 1992. Henderson explores the role that Critical Mass played in reinvigorating bicycle advocacy in San Francisco and the challenges for bike advocates in a city where progressive politics are the establishment.
Shift Happens! Critical Mass at 20 edited by Chris Carlsson, LisaRuth Elliott, and Adriana Camarena (2012)
Marking the ride’s 20th anniversary, this collection of essays tells stories about the effects that Critical Mass rides have had on cities around the world. The book offers critical reflection on what Critical Mass has achieved and for whom, how time spent together on bikes can impact a wider street culture, and how Critical Mass fits into larger urban change trends.
“Contesting Sustainability: Bikes, Race, and Politics in Portlandia” by Amy Lubitow and Thaddeus Miller (2013)
In this sociology article, the authors present a case study of a bike infrastructure project in Portland that stirred up community tensions about a history of disinvestment and displacement. The authors recommend that bike advocates and city planners take a hard look at community engagement practices and include neighborhood voices earlier in the planning process.