Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Bicicultures Project

The window display at Safety Cycle in Los Angeles
There are many kinds of bicycles on this planet, and many places to ride them. And there are many kinds of people on this planet. When people come together in social life, they create culture; they share ways of being, ways of thinking, meanings, practices. What happens when different people come together on different bikes in different places? They make different bicycle cultures.

There are more than roadies in spandex and hipsters on 1980s road bikes, there are day laborers riding mountain bikes on sidewalks, there are teenagers riding fixies in packs, there are parents riding with their kids, there are immigrants who bike in U.S. cities because they biked at home. For many people biking is one aspect of a multifaceted shift in how we live as Americans; for others, it is a toy or a temporary vehicle.
What happens when different people come together on different bikes in the same places, but we have a narrow definition of what a bicyclist can be? Some of them become invisible. An important part of promoting diversity in bicycling is recognizing that there are far more people using bikes now than fit into the types we associate with "bike culture."

I knew about bike culture before I felt like I was part of it. When I started riding in Portland in 2005, I didn't make any new friends through biking, though I saw a lot of people who seemed to know each other on bikes. On my first big group ride in Los Angeles, the Midnight Ridazz All-City Toy Ride in 2007, I remember feeling like an outsider looking in on some cool party to which I didn't have an invitation, even though I was an experienced bike commuter. These people were part of a network and I wasn't. And then, over time, I became part of a network, and I didn't feel like an outsider anymore. I felt like a bikey person.

When I started my dissertation project on bikes in Los Angeles, I thought about creating a taxonomy of bike people, but I wanted to avoid the cartoonish caricatures I'd seen, diagrams that asked, which kind of bicyclist are you? I wanted to study people who rode bikes but weren't participating in my subculture, which has been and continues to be documented and discussed by many writers and artists in zines, on websites, and in books. I was mainly interested in the contrast between what I was thinking of as "intentional" cyclists, people like me who choose to bike for eco, political, and other reasons, and "working" cyclists, people who bike out of economic necessity. Another term for the latter group is "invisible riders," which LA writer Dan Koeppel used in a 2005 article.

What I found out through ethnographic research and living in LA was that these invisible riders had a network among themselves, bike shops they frequented that my friends and I did not know about, and techniques for avoiding police harassment. I learned these things through working on the City of Lights/ Ciudad de Luces outreach project, which I co-founded with Allison Mannos and Andy Rodriguez in late 2008 to connect Latino cyclists with the bike movement in LA.

From what I've witnessed, it seems like we are still learning how to understand that there are multiple things happening on bikes, so I got together with some other bikey researchers to start the Bicicultures Project. Bicicultures aims to shed light on the many bicycling cultures taking place alongside each other in our cities and towns. It's a network of scholars who study bicycling as a social and cultural phenomenon, and many of us ride bikes too. "Bici" is Spanish for bike. We're still figuring out what shape it will take, but we plan to share our work with the public.

Since I started doing bike anthropology in 2008, I have been gathering photos that show many different contexts where people use bicycles. Some pictures show different images of bicycling than I have encountered in mainstream media and in bicycle promotional materials, and some show the DIY bike culture that's my home. Below are a few images that portray everyday bicycling as I have seen it. More pictures and information here.


  1. "Bikey" that like referring to equestrians as the "horsey set"? As an anthropologist, you look at human activities with more of a "trained eye" than the "lay person", and your observations are often quite thought provoking for those of us outside the "bikey set." And with many of us, we think of an anthropologist as someone who studies "exotic culture" in faraway places, e.g. Margaret Mead in Samoa. We forget that even "city folks" and "suburbanites" are proper subjects of study. I wonder if an anthropologist has ever studied railway enthusiasts and their subcultures....or maybe we're too weird and individualistic for scientific analysis.

    1. I believe that rail fans have been studied, but outside of the US. There are certainly lots of interesting things written about all the various rail-related subcultures. Unfortunately, most of this stuff is not easily available in the US and is often not in English. For example, there is a book about Japanese women who keep rail blogs that has never been translated into English.

    2. Ha ha, the horsey set. I do think it's analogous. And Helen, that book sounds fascinating.

  2. I had almost the same experiences around the same times! I started riding in 2006 because a friend insisted I give it a try. I did my first organized bike event (Portland Bridges) in 2007 or 2008 and felt pretty estranged from what was going on at first due to the bikes, the outfits, the talk, etc.

    I was just reading through some of your blog posts, and I really related to the gender one, too. I started wearing more exercise-y clothes for biking comfort. In Portland, I was almost always riding to someplace to meet someone, so I wore what I wanted to wear. In Seattle, more and more, it seems like I'm biking as a pastime, so I wear the clothes for biking, not for arrival at a restaurant or work or something. Biking to and from work hasn't worked out well for me here: mostly because I have a hard time waking up an hour early in the wintertime and the cold gets to me, then I get into the routine and don't change it easily come spring. I'm deeply ashamed not to be bike commuting, but at the same time, it makes me more normal at work because everyone there drives. So anyway, reading about how non-bicyclists may view bicyclists makes me wonder if I should be wearing everyday clothes as a statement.