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Bicycle Infrastructure and the Culture Wars

JMaxJuly 8, 2023 bikes

On Mastodon, Mekka Okerke mused:

Do bicycles create empathy? Or do people that care about other people, tend to care about bikes?

Why is there such a big overlap between “bike infrastructure radicalized people,” and “people that care about people that are different than themselves?”

Why is there such a low overlap between “people with trash hateful takes” and “people that want more bike infrastructure?”

The thread that followed had a lot of people commenting on how cycling makes you appreciate experiences of vulnerability, otherness, diversity, and so on, supporting the idea that biking does create empathy. Personally, I’m on the side of the second version, that people who care are more likely to be cyclists, or at least care about cyclists.

What I found missing from this discussion is the “culture wars” element. I think a major piece of what’s going on here is that bikes – and the growth of bike infrastructure – represents a threat to the traditional power bargain that Western (er, white) society has been based on. Capitalism has taught us, literally for generations to desire and indeed expect greater access to power, power being articulated in a number of different ways: autonomy, mobility, security, luxury, and so on.

One of the most important examples of that is the car. Since sometime mid-20th century, the aspiration to owning a car has been central to most if not all of these articulations of power. Cars mean autonomy and independence; they mean easy mobility; they promise security (especially today, with the dominance of huge SUVs); and they confer luxury in ways that are often way beyond many people’s experience of luxury in other parts of their lives. The promise that cars make is about inclusion, status, and agency. And it’s ancient – OK, not ancient, but it’s generations old; your great-grandparents probably felt this way, and it’s still by far the mainstream way of thinking, at least in North America.

So, riding a bike has its advantages, obviously. As a four-season bike commuter, I’ll be the first to tell you that cycling is the fastest way to get around the inner city, vastly better than driving or taking public transit. Cycling infrastructure doesn’t make this true on its own, but bike lanes do make cyclists at least marginally safer; I’m happy to sign the petitions and vote for it when I can. And again, obviously, cycling has benefits for health, fitness, psychological well-being, and it’s also fun. So nobody really has to argue why riding a bike is a good thing; it just is.

But if we look at the symbolism of it… If I’m ‘bought in’ (to the tune of many tens of thousands of dollars) to my car as my way of being in the world, then bike lines are literally stealing space from me; they’re displacing me and my traditional way of being. And the cyclists – crazy arrogant jerks (I can say that 'cause I am one) who think they own the road and feel free to flout the rules – are like something from another planet. From an automobile-based worldview, it’s not obvious what the hell cyclists are on about. They’re out there wearing funny clothes, exposed to the elements, running stop signs, making me as a driver really nervous about hitting them. All in all, it’s a threat: a threat to my autonomy and my mobility, because bike infrastructure seems poised to steal the roads from me. And it’s a threat to my security, to my luxury, because if people think cycling is OK maybe they’ll think that driving isn’t OK and I’ll have to change (all that sublimated worry about climate change feeds into this too).

So we get perfect conditions for a culture war, where people dig in, look to their peers and neighbours for reassurance and common identity, and demonize the other. Politicians then can conveniently play on those divisions – as happened here in Vancouver in our last election, in which the winning party sowed fear, uncertainty, and doubt about whether cars would still be allowed in the downtown core. So now bike infrastructure, rather than being a transportation management and safety issue, becomes a weaponized cultural divide. It’s not clear how to heal this. I often feel with culture-war things that they will be resolved generationally; as Thomas Kuhn wrote about scientific paradigms, eventually enough of the defenders of the old way die off, and the new way takes over.