Sunday, November 25, 2012

Culture and Transportation in Copenhagen

In preparing to visit Copenhagen, I talked to my Danish aunt, a wonderfully energetic woman who is responsible for the fact that I associate Christmas with risalamande, marzipan pigs, and little red and white paper flags on toothpicks. I had recently decided to pronounce it Copenhawgen, as opposed to Copenhaygen, cause I thought that sounded more correct, and during our phone call Ulla interrupted me and clarified, in her spirited way, "the Germans say it Copenhawgen. In English, it's Copenhaygen!" Chagrined, I asked how the Danes say it. "København," she replied. Ah. 

This aunty anecdote has been included to make a rather obvious, but necessary, point: Copenhagen is Danish. It has Danish people, it has Danish traditions, it is the product and manifestation of Danish culture. It has Danish problems, such as a very conservative immigration policy. I will be writing about the neat things I saw in Copenhagen in other posts, but this one is more about the idea of Copenhagen as a place where there is no bike culture, as a place where bicycling is normal.

One afternoon in Copenhagen, I was sitting at a café table in a charming cobblestone alley lined with townhouses built hundreds of years ago, when a man driving a Hummer turned onto this narrow street.

Everyone stopped and stared because of the incongruity; perhaps because he noticed our attention, the driver turned on bass-heavy music that vibrated our eardrums as he drove slowly down the crowded alley. This spectacle prompted a new direction in the conversation at the table behind me, where a young man and woman were seated. The woman had a version of my own nasal, California accent, and the man flirted by talking in accented English about how many local club owners he knew, so I think he was Danish. Here's what I eavesdropped:
American Woman: I used to think Hummers were cool, but they handle so poorly
Danish Man: They're so expensive because Danish gas prices are so high. Gas prices in the U.S. are $4?
AW: Yeah, they thought they would get to $5 this summer, but fortunately they didn't. It really affects people!
DM: There isn't much public transportation there, away from the east coast.
AW: The systems are hardly usable. Maybe in New York it's possible, but the taxis there are cheap too.
DM: One time we took a men's trip to California, a week in Vegas, a week in LA, and we took a bus once.
AW: (gasps) I would never take a bus in LA.
DM: I think I sat next to two serial killers.
AW: Just the people you see at the stops look so trashy.
Then they strolled away, leaving me flabbergasted that I had come across the world to see a city where bicycling is normal only to hear people spew racist/classist bullshit about taking the bus in LA.

What I thought about later, though, was how AW framed her dislike of Hummers from the perspective that they don't drive well. DM framed it as an issue of expense. They had different ideas about what the choice to drive a Hummer would mean. The desire to make bicycling "normal" seems odd to me, when there are many existing cultural ideas about transportation. Many American bike advocates look to Copenhagen as the ideal model for our own, very different cities. When hyping Copenhagen's bike infrastructure, do they think about American diversity or the cultural meanings of transportation? I wonder if there is some vestige of a colonial worldview that makes Northern Europe something cosmopolitans aspire to emulate without wondering why they think designs from that part of the world are so cool. Copenhagen has tons of people riding bikes, but visiting made me think that when I hear about bicycling becoming something "normal," I'm hearing people sidestep the race, class, and gender realities that make each of us approach transportation differently. What's the difference between normal and normative?

Before I visited Copenhagen, I attended a bike research conference in London and heard presentations by several Danish bike researchers. One, a sociologist, started her talk by pointing out the importance of a critical approach, even when studying bicycling in Copenhagen. She said that the image of cycling in Copenhagen is aimed at a mirroring a particular elite identity, and mentioned that immigrants in Denmark use scooters more than bikes. There, too, transportation has cultural meanings. Could it be that there, too, marginalized communities have a heightened need to demonstrate social power, and, like in most of the world, bicycling might be avoided by people who don't want to seem backwards and poor?

I haven't made a point of following the Copenhagen fixation in the bike world, but it's impossible to not notice that many people think the city is a shining example of how bike infrastructure can make bicycling seem normal. What often comes to my mind when people clamor for infrastructure is that they see motorist behavior as fixed and unchangeable, and they seem to think that the only way to get more people biking is to simply remove bicyclists from interacting with motorists as much as possible. I'm pretty interested in how this elides the social participation of motorists in shared streets, as though they really are, like the car commercials would have us believe, traveling alone in a climate-controlled comfort zone. In Copenhagen, I saw this imagined automobile sovereignty clash with social reality just like I do at home.

On a Friday night, I saw a car parked partially on the slightly grade-separated bike path next to a busy street. Several bicyclists tapped the car as they rode past, out of annoyance I assume. Suddenly the passenger slammed his door open, into the body of a passing bicyclist. The man on the bike fell over in slow motion, stunned, knocking over several bikes parked on the sidewalk while I heard sickening crunching sounds. The passenger got out of the car and put his hand on the man he had doored, but then he ran off to try and catch one of the people who had tapped the car. Maybe separating transport modes helps maintain hostility between road users; rather than forcing them to face each other as social equals it keeps them apart.

After I left Copenhagen, I traveled to the Netherlands to attend another bike research conference. During the Q&A after my presentation, a Danish bike researcher suggested that bike advocates in LA and other U.S. cities should just ride normal bikes; this would show people that biking does not have to be something extreme. I knew that he meant the heavy cruisers that fill Danish and Dutch bike paths, and I told him that bike advocates do, in fact, ride these, making a big deal out of how un-sporty they are and filling their symbolic baskets with symbolic flowers, popping off briefcase panniers and wearing suits and heels to make a statement. The thing is, I tried to explain, this does not look "normal" to everyone; it's pretty noticeably playing into a particular idea of what it is to be cosmopolitan.

My perspective as a bike advocate is that we need to flood the world with images of diversity in bicycling. We need to change the idea that you have to look "normal" (read: Northern European) to ride a bicycle. I don't know what bicycling will look like when it becomes unexceptional in the United States, but my guess it that it will look like lots of things because Americans look like lots of things. I think we're in a pretty good position to contribute some ideas about promoting diversity in bicycling, actually, but first we have to admit that design should take culture into account.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Irish Infrastructure

When I talk about "infrastructure," I'm kind of loosey goosey as to what I mean. Sometimes I'm referring to straightforward examples of infrastructure, like highways or bike paths or power distribution. Other times I'm talking about something that facilitates something else in a more metaphorical sense, like social networks and individuals within them. For this post, I've been thinking about infrastructure as something that tells you where you are.

This is the sound you hear when the luggage hatch opens on a Bus Éireann motorcoach.

In the U.S., the national bus service has a greyhound as its symbol. In Ireland, it's an Irish setter.

When we visited Donegal Castle, I thought about castles as a form of security infrastructure. These hanging fireplaces show how stone walls endure longer than wooden floors.

On this back street in Dublin, double yellow lines mean no parking.

Here's what it looks like when you sit upstairs on a double decker Dublin bus.

In Dublin's Kimmage neighborhood, glowing bollards light up a dark roundabout.

Across the city, an empty commuter train travels toward Dún Laoghaire.

The outlets can be switched on and off individually. I liked the way this made me think about energy efficiency, and how you could leave a charger plugged in but switched off. And switching those little buttons had a satisfying feel.

Towers for communications, towers for spectacle. Although I suppose radio towers are a form of spectacle in themselves, showing technological rather than architectural prowess.

More castles, this time on Dublin's city crest. 

A railway bridge in central Dublin carries travelers over the complex system of curving roads.

I get a kick out of how many competing designs there are for hand dryers in the world.

On board an Irish ferry named after James Joyce's Ulysses, a plastic tube protects a neon tube from Irish Sea spray. Nesting tubes.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Another Auto Factory Job, or Less Dependence on Foreign Oil?

Last night, as thrilled as I was to hear a commitment to social equality and an acknowledgement that climate change affects us all, I couldn't ignore a contradictory theme in President Obama's acceptance speech.

"We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."

"You’ll hear the pride in the voice of a volunteer who’s going door to door because her brother was finally hired when the local auto plant added another shift."

"And in the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together. Reducing our deficit. Reforming our tax code. Fixing our immigration system. Freeing ourselves from foreign oil."

I feel frustrated that the auto industry remains such an important symbol of American manufacturing, even as it is incontrovertibly clear that our dependence on oil is a massive problem. I look forward to a day when there's a consensus that a large truck represents overconsumption that ultimately keeps working families underwater (maybe literally), rather than being a hearty symbol of American labor. Courtesy of Mr. Rogers, here are some videos that show other things American workers can make (or used to). The bottom line is that we need more quality manufacturing jobs in better industries. Or maybe Ford and GM can go full circle and start manufacturing bicycles. They're useful beyond nostalgia.

Penny Farthing as Nostalgic Spectacle at Henry Ford's Greenfield Village in Dearborn, MI

Monday, November 5, 2012

Carfree in Rural Ireland

At the end of August, we took a bus from Dublin to Donegal Town in northwestern Ireland. Renting a car didn't come up in trip planning, and I had some notion that there would be ancient footpaths connecting all the things we would want to see. We discovered that getting around its environs without a car was possible, but not exactly supported.

We stayed about a mile east of the town the first night. Our lovely hostess met us where the Bus Éireann motorcoach had left us, in the pedestrianized town square.

I had sent a Couchsurfing request to this particular lady because her profile said she lived in Donegal without a car. As it turned out, this did not mean that there were winding footpaths connecting all destinations; it just meant that when the sidewalk disappeared just out of the town center, we would be walking in the road.

I like inhabiting streets, but since I was in a country where I wasn't familiar with transportation etiquette, I stayed close to our hostess. There were a few spots on the beautiful country road where motorists might not see us as they came around curves. Most drivers slowed down once they saw us, which made me think that seeing pedestrians walking down roads like this must be somewhat common. I didn't see anyone else walking on the road, or riding a bicycle.

Later in the evening, we walked back into town for dinner, and I felt pretty jumpy walking back through the darkness to the house. There were no streetlights, so we used our phones to alert drivers to our presence. Each time a car's engine approached, and we saw the headlights emerging from the night around a curve, I shrunk against the forested shoulder, prepared to throw myself out of the road. Fortunately I didn't need to. Our hostess told us that rural bus service is unreliable and expensive, which means that low income people like herself can't afford to use it much. Sometimes she'll get a taxi home from town, especially if she has a lot of groceries. She said she didn't have a bike right now, I think she either sold it out of necessity or it was stolen.

She told us about the government's efforts to encourage more people in rural areas to switch to sustainable transport, which I was interested to hear about because I had learned that there is more bike commuting in Irish cities than in the countryside. I can't recall seeing any transport biking in Donegal, though I did see a regional bike map on a sign in the town center. We had a good laugh at the idea of politicians taking part in a reality show where they would live without cars to see what challenges people actually faced.

The next night we stayed at the Donegal Town Independent Hostel just north of the town center. This time we had sidewalks for most of our walk, but they were narrow and the street was wide and traffic was swift. I could see why I had heard that Donegal being spread out; there didn't seem to be much reason why there was a large gap between our hostel and the town, but houses seemed kind of scattered through the fields. This is what it looked like walking into town, crossing the River Eske.

From the hostel, there was an alternate route that took us onto a footpath into town, though you had to dash across the highway and walk down a gravel residential road to get there. The path took us along the edge of Donegal Bay.

Across the bay we could see the cemetery in the ruined abbey that had been burned around 1600. The abbey, along with Donegal Castle and a boat tour of the bay, are the town's main attractions. We took the bay tour and learned that this was a departure point for people fleeing the Great Famine of the 1840s. On the bay, we could see juxtapositions of old and new, like wind turbines on distant hills behind a tidal island surrounded by a rock wall. We did not make it out of the bay, but we did see it meet the sea.

Later on our trip, I heard a presentation by an engineer who was working for an Irish government agency that had plans to develop a countrywide bike network. They will be converting disused railways and things like that. It seems like that would be a great step toward making carfree transport in rural areas into something less invisible, and thus safer and more desirable.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Blogging about Bicycling and Anthropology

For the month of November I'm going to be guest blogging on Savage Minds, a group anthropology blog. My first post, about bicycles giving ethnographers a different perspective on urban space, is up now. I'm planning to write about promoting bicycling through positive and negative interventions in streets (like ciclovías versus a disaster), the development of a bike cultures research network in the U.S., and bike ethnography as a playful experiment.