The narrowing eyes; the furrowed brow; "Bicycle Cultures" they say, as if tasting the two words together for the first time.
For most people, though, it is during a conversation with me that they first use the two words "bicycle" and "culture" together as a concrete concept.
"I'm studying bicycle cultures," I tell them. "Interesting," they reply. "So are you writing a thesis or something? It's like an academic thing through university?"
No....not exactly. "I'm on a fellowship, not a scholarship; so there isn't any piece of scholarly work that results from the trip. Really, the trip is more about participating in bicycle cultures that 'studying' them," I say.
Approving nods and something to the effect of "well, that's perfect!" usually follows.
"So how do you study bicycle cultures?" asked a good friend yesterday.
I hope this post might shed a bit of light on both what I'm doing and how I'm doing it....
My work is probably best described as equal parts "best practice research," "solo bicycle adventuring," and "constant networking" with individuals within bicycle communities.
The best practices part is pretty straightforward: I make appointments with bicycle advocates, as I've done in Copenhagen and Amsterdam; I talk with folks in the municipality about the history and current state of affairs regarding bicycle policy; I take photos and observe infrastructure; I read official policy documents, accounts of the bicycle culture from local observers, and I talk to people in parks and on the road about their perceptions of "the bicycle."
I really try to zone in on what is important to bicyclists in the place I'm living to get a good sense of how well the bike culture has developed.
A good example of one of these "local issues" would be bicycle parking. In both Copenhagen and Amsterdam, the municipalities are trying hard to increase the number of bike parking spots while continuing to improve bike parking facilities so as to keep bikes secure and close to the rider's destination. They take this stuff seriously. I have a 150 page manual I received from the Danish Cycling Federation (DCF) about bicycle parking, and the content is just as you might guess. Page after page of information about what works and what sucks when it comes to bike parking. The book was so sought after by municipalities around the world they had to publish it in English a couple years ago.
Speaking of the DCF:
The Danish Cycling Federation has been an active force in shaping bicycle policy and road development in Denmark since 1905. They facilitated the protest movement during the oil crisis of the early 1970s which led to an increase in bicycle tracks and dedicated bicycle infrastructure in Copenhagen. The national and local bicycle routes across Denmark are signed, mapped and maintained with the help of the DCF.
In the Netherlands,
you have the Fietsersbond, or the Dutch National Cycling Union with more than 130 branches and 33,000 members nationwide. Nationwide, by the way, means an expanse of land about twice the size of New Jersey containing approximately 16 million people. The Amsterdam branch has two paid employees and a crew of volunteers from a variety of neighborhoods across the city. These neighborhood volunteers report to the Fietsersbond any problems they see with current bicycle facilities, and the Fietsersbond lobbies the municipality to promote improvements.
The union has maintained excellent relations with the municipality since 1975, the year the Union was created, and the city continues to turn to the Fietsersbond as it expands and maintains the most bicycle friendly city in the Western world.
Solo bicycle adventuring is a wonderful way to see a country inside and out, to explore it's culture in a thoroughgoing manner. It is also a particularly nice way to gauge the bicycle friendly status of a nation. Much has been said so far about solo touring in previous posts, so take a scroll back through or see it all for the first time!
Networking within the bicycle community is perhaps the most important and the most gratifying part of my work. It is also, at times, the most difficult.
This group of guys is hard at work installing the floors at the soon to be "Pristine Fixed Gear" bike boutique. We hung out on this Friday morning and did some construction work, though we usually do more fun stuff like play bike polo. Soon, I hope to stage a flat track attack similar to the ones Cort in Memphis hosted last summer.
These are my friends from Copenhagen gathered at the Baisikeli shop three days before I left. We were out celebrating the annual "Nansensgade Festival," a yearly street party held on the road where Baiskeli runs a shop.
Networking with the bike community is hard for one obvious reasons: some people take their time warming up to a traveling stranger. A less obvious difficulty, however, is the actual process involved in finding the bike people...A process that involves maps, foreign names for "bicycle," and a lot of small talk.
I often think it's easier to understand bicycle culture through images, as thousands of bicycles locked up at the Amsterdam Centraal Station is usually enough to inspire within the average person a pretty concrete image of bicycle cultures. So here are just a few samplings of the kinds of images in a bike culture that inspire me:
It should also be said that a big piece of my work is attempting to understand the ways in which individuals are banded together into a community by the bicycle. These pictures, then, stop short of capturing the best part of my trip: making friends and finding my community amongst people who love the bicycle and recognize it's potential.
Finally, there are others attempting to define and describe "bicycle cultures." Most notably are two blogs, Copenhagenize.com and Amsterdamize.com. Mikael and Marc respectively have spent many hundreds of hours laboring over videos, photographs and articles in an effort to define and articulate the many dimensions of bicycle cultures.
Wikipedia has a pretty decent entry on bike cultures, though it is good because I suspect it was created by our friend Mikael.
What do you think a bike culture is? How do you recgonize it? How can you define it? I'm not an anthropologist, so don't come at me with anything too academic! I'm not looking to qualify bicycle culture so much as be able to point at something and say pretty definitively, "that's it!"
All gentle musings are welcome!