Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Does Culture Matter In Urban Design?

Back in the early days of my academic discipline, cultural anthropology, researchers worked to document what they saw as a rapidly vanishing diversity of cultures. Ethnographers fanned out across continents, recording ritual practices and languages, often conveniently ignoring the massive changes their interlocutors' lives had already undergone through participation in global political and economic systems. Then we realized something: culture doesn't disappear, it changes. And all cultures aren't dwindling to one, western, homogeneous hegemon. Culture isn't something bounded by an ethnicity or a location; it travels, and demonstrating one's familiarity with a particular culture can be a way of showing power across lines of race, class, and geography. Culture is a term that describes the shared systems of meaning and value that regulate our interactions with friends, family, and strangers. It can seem invisible to us, even as we deftly maneuver our way through social situations that leave people unfamiliar with the prevailing culture stumped. 

My research has focused on the immaterial phenomena that filter transportation choices; I've been trying to argue that in a given interaction between a road user and a road, there's a third element as well beyond individual-in-motion and built-environment-at-rest. There's also a scale of accepted behaviors, agreed upon uses, shared ideas about what should happen in given spaces. Other words that might describe this are manners, customs, norms. In my field we call it habitus, and I've been writing about it as human infrastructure. It seems to me, as an anthropologist, that this is precisely what drivers complain about: that bicyclists are challenging their street culture. But their concerns get dismissed as hooey by people who are accustomed to believing that the built environment is the key to determining behavior ("if you build it, they will come"). That's a conundrum to me: if we need to change the built environment to get people to change their behavior, aren't we acknowledging that changed behavior is the end goal? If we want them to come, maybe we should be thinking like them, building cultural networks of shared meanings and values rather than expecting physical changes to make the shift in transportation habits we desire.

Often I see "culture" used as a gloss to talk about identity groups, and I wonder if some of my readers will say to themselves that adding culture into urban design is accomplished through government grants going to nonprofits whose aim is to empower a particular community of color. That's not quite what I'm getting at. Actually a lot of those groups have their hands full trying to achieve American middle class status for their communities, and the bike thing, for all the aspirational aims of the cycle-chic-bikes-mean-business-biking-in-heels lobby, still looks like something for freaks or poors. If you've staked your leadership on showing the way for your constituency to get away from being seen as freaky or poor, would you choose biking as something to support? What I mean by culture is not identity politics; I mean the subtle distinctions we perform to show those around us that we "get" it, that we're normal humans complying with the standards they expect to keep them feeling like we're trustworthy individuals.
A few weeks ago, I was waiting in the Stockton, California train station, and I saw that there was a coin operated lock on the restroom. As I thought about getting out some change, a woman saw me coming and held the door open, explaining that I'd otherwise have to go get a token from a ticket agent. This door had been designed to prevent non-travelers from using the restroom, but people were using it "wrong," so to speak, keeping it open with their bodies so that others could avoid a hassle. I was an authorized customer, so I would have been given a token by the ticket agent. But why follow the door's rules when there was a person there to hold it open for me? In any case, it would have been very odd for me to refuse the lady's offer.
The tensions that we experience on city streets follow the same script: a designed environment, at least two parties, and the expectations of those parties as to how each is going to use the space. Those expectations may be based on the built environment they're inhabiting, or they might be based on some idea of courtesy that person picked up in some completely different built environment. Every bicyclist I know has a lot of stories about times they've been waved through four-way stops by drivers who thought they were doing a kindness, just as every bicyclist I know has a lot of stories about being screamed at or worse by drivers who reacted more or less violently to the fact that the bicyclist had a different idea about how to use the road than they did. People don't react in the same way to the same intersection; people enact different transportation cultures in the same spaces.

Maybe bicycling is attracting people who see change not in community but in design; maybe it is attracting people who come together around technical skills rather than identity politics. Meanwhile, "bike culture" is being trivialized, pipe cleaners poking out of a helmet, a quirky cherry on a concrete sundae. While this may feel comfortable for some folks, culture does more than decorate built environments. It is an embodied experience, reproduced through social life, that feels unchanging, even as it subtly shifts. Pierre Bourdieu likened it to "a train bringing along its own rails." We should be brainstorming more about transportation culture and how it fits in with other kinds of standards for success here in the U.S. Transportation cultures, like cultures in general, change. What might be seen as a streetcar city one decade could become a car city the next; what seemed like a terrible place to bike could spark all kinds of exciting bike life.

I've realized over my years as a bike advocate that most of my collaborators take for granted that the only way to change how people use streets is to change the street materially through infrastructure projects. Clearly some of us have figured out a different transportation culture, cause many of us are getting around on bikes by choice or by necessity, but even community projects that build human infrastructure get reduced to a call for more street redesign. CicLAvia, where tens of thousands of people come out to walk and ride bikes, gets used to say that if only there was bike infrastructure, people would ride in L.A. For example, in a piece LA Streetsblog posted last year about mayoral candidates' views toward CicLAvia, Kevin James commented that he was impressed by "the sheer size of the crowd, which I believe speaks volumes about the number of Angelenos willing to use their bicycles more often as their primary mode of transportation if the City were more bike-friendly." More recently, a friend forwarded me an article from The Atlantic that speaks positively about CicLAvia, but the author, Conor Friedersdorf, observes that "seeing the masses out on bikes hinted at how a safe system of bike lanes could improve Los Angeles, a city with temperate weather, a fitness obsession, and gridlocked traffic." It's strange to hear these "if you build it, they will come" statements from speakers who also note the tens of thousands of people around them.

Culture is playing a role in how we use and imagine our streets. Shouldn't it be something we discuss as we work to change them?