Updated: Subcultural Theory and the Urban Cycling Community


Reply by Joseph Shields 7 hours ago

There is a hierarchy on the road.  Those who drive automobiles cannot complain or talk shit about anyone, because their modus of travel has the ability to kill both bicyclists and pedestrians, as well as others in automobiles.  If a car was ever inconvenienced because of someone on a bike or a pedestrian, they have no real cause to complain about.  It should be understood that they are part of the problem themselves.  Now, taking that one step further, bicyclists can talk shit about cars, because they are at a much higher risk and I can sympathize with their cause and they are generally treated poorly on the road.  But, I have also seen bicycles treat pedestrians with the same lack of consideration and lack of respect for their safety as they might equally receive from motorists.  Ultimately the pedestrian is the most “naked” and at risk individual.  So, while I agree with your cause as a bicyclist, please consider how you treat those who are simply on their feet and have to defend themselves not only from cars, but riders just as much.

ChainLink Thread

Background Reading:

behaviour 11Anne Alt presented a very thought-provoking illustration in defense of the Cycling Community. I have seen other threads and read blog entries which echo this sentiment but none as succinctly. The illustration reads:

behavioural campaigns aimed solely at cyclists only continues to marginalize them and treat them as a sub-culture.

campaigns must be aimed at all traffic users or the most dangerous/destructive users — automobiles.

She writes in her entry:

Equal treatment is where we need to be. How soon can we get there?

The illustration appears in the article Behavioural Challenges for Urban Cycling of 11 November 2009. In this article the author makes the following observations:

Behaviour is a tricky subject and getting groups of people to change their behaviour is never easy. Lately, behaviour is a hot topic in Emerging Bicycle Cultures. Many people who ride bicycles are generating bad press because of the way they’re cycling and many other cyclists are getting branded negatively by association.

Generally, bad behaviour is a sign that cyclists don’t have adequate infrastructure. Increasing cycling’s infrastructure and profile is a good way to calm the traffic in more ways than one.

We’re at an interesting point in the reestablishment of urban cycling as a norm. Bicycles have been a fad, a trend, for almost two years now. There is every indication that we are finally returning to a place where the bicycle is regarded as a respected, accepted and feasible transport form in our cities and towns.

Nevertheless, the trend nature of it all means that it could just as well disappear again, as quickly as it came. We need to accelerate the rush to mainstream urban cycling – Bicycle Culture 2.0 – before we lose it again.

The writer here is Mikael Colville-Andersen. And whether he means to or not he is venturing into the realm of subcultural theory.

The Urban Cycling Subculture

Milton Yinger definition of subculture:

”And subculture, I have suggested, is used to designate both the traditional norms of a sub-society and the emergent norms of a group caught in a frustrating and conflict-laden situation. This indicates that there are differences in the origin, function, and perpetuation of traditional and emergent norms, and suggests that the use if the concept contra-culture for the latter might improve sociological analysis.”

Segments of culture which (while reflecting the dominant aspects of the main culture) show different customs, norms, and values, due to differences in geographical areas or (within an organization) departmental goals and job requirements.

The Urban Cycling Community is in my estimation treated as a subculture largely because it wants to be. They have adopted a form of dress which is distinctive and includes more functional attire and a helmet shape that is more reminiscent of that used in the 1970s. The Urban Cycling Community is a subculture forged in the cauldron of the mean streets of urban areas where traffic congestion is the norm and counterculture survival strategies have developed as a result. Add to this subcultural development the adoption of the fixed gear brakeless bike and you have a volatile environment.

A Sub-Subculture Is Emerging

LINE OF SIGHT – Official Trailer from Zenga Bros on Vimeo.

© Jesse KFixed Gear Bike Poseur

© Jesse K
Fixed Gear Bike Poseur

The Hipster riding subculture with its origins amongst the bicycle messenger culture of places like New York. The operating methodology there is largely characterized by the Alley Cat Race which provides heart-pounding videos of the exploits of these gifted riders. But this is currently the face of urban cycling and it shouts “scofflaw” at the top of its lungs.

Meanwhile as females cyclists help dilute the testosterone-laden atmosphere of urban cycling a new paradigm for cycling has emerged. In this view of urban cycling moms and dads are pictured using cargo bikes to transport their offspring.

The pace of travel is slower and more sedate but parts of the bicycle messenger culture still survive. The most obvious remnant is the messenger bag. Chrome charges a pretty penny hawking their bags to this largely hipster community.

Going Dutch : Chuck Pengilly

Going Dutch : Chuck Pengilly

But the Dutch Bicycle is emerging as an option for the 30-something crowd that is plying the mean streets of the city these days.

Want to commute to work or run weekend errands on a bicycle without looking like a sweaty, beady-eyed bike messenger? Want to save the planet and your sport coat? Get a Dutch bike. © onewaystreet.typepad.com

Want to commute to work or run weekend errands on a bicycle without looking like a sweaty, beady-eyed bike messenger? Want to save the planet and your sport coat? Get a Dutch bike.
© onewaystreet.typepad.com

Advertising images of business men and women on Dutch Bikes are common these days. But there is a tension between the Bike Messenger Alley Cat Racing crowd’s behavior and that of the more mature family style cycling subculture.

In between these two subcultures is a third one populated largely by single males and females who are usually in their mid-20s to mid-30s and are still sporting skin tight jeans, body tattoos and piercings and whose most cherished activity is pub crawling.

This group is bridging the gap between those with parental responsibilities who hold down mid-level jobs and the bike messengers who are a law unto themselves and are the cycling equivalent of taxi drivers.

Exchanges like this one from the Chicago ChainLink Forum indicate that members of this group are more concerned about performance than perhaps safety:

Reply by Lisa Curcio 4.0 mi on December 15, 2012 at 7:59pm

The entire run from Polk to Kinzie is 1.2 miles.  If you rode the entire length at an average of 10 mph it would take about 10.5 minutes.  If you rode the entire length at an average of 15 mph it would take about 7 minutes.  In the broad scheme of things, if a two and a half minutes makes a difference in one’s life, one should leave earlier!

The lights for cars are not coordinated.  If you were riding and stopping for lights, as required by law, it would not be any different.  The lanes are not intended to make it faster for bikes; they are intended to make it safer for bikes.

Shaun Jacobsen said:

10mph, in my opinion, isn’t “speedy.” Signals for cars are different that signals for bikes: drivers don’t exert a lot of energy to start moving after being stopped, people on bikes do. It would have been nice to have at least a few blocks worth of greens at a certain speed to at least move quickly through the Loop.

What is important to note here is that this is evidence that the Urban Cycling Community is comfortable with seeing its use of the roadways as distinct from that of motorists. This is one place where I have to point out that the deeper controversy is whether this kind of subcultural view which is anti-Vehicular Cycling by definition is useful in the long run for cycling as a whole.

Anne Alt wants to see the kind of equal treatment of cyclists that “does not marginalize them and treat them as a sub-culture“. But quite frankly the mindset of the Urban Cycling Community encourages the formation of a subcultural view which is what I rail against at every opportunity.

If we are ever going to be taken out of the subcultural category we are going to need to become structurally integrated into the traffic population. We say that infrastructure is supposed to help with bad behavior amongst cyclists, but frankly that is doubtful if the cyclists are intent on propagating their subcultural views despite the increase in cycling infrastructure. We need to see a more mature notion of what is important about traveling on the roadways alongside cars. And that should first and foremost revolve around safety and not green waves.

Viewing Integration As The Goal

Pearls Before Swine Comics

Pearls Before Swine Comics

Sadly far too many urban cyclists are content with their “bad boy” image. They want to have the luxury of appearing to be Alley Cat Racer types while enjoying the benefits of newbie style protected bike lanes. But they are finding that a traveling at the speeds of Dutch Bikes (i.e. 10 MPH) is not emotionally satisfying. When Mikael Colville-Andersen talks about his vision for urban cycling it is largely constructed around the bicycle seen as an appliance.

Those lumbering Dutch Bikes are the “stock and trade” of urban cyclists in the Netherlands and Copenhagen. Europeans do not enjoy a bicycle fetish so common to the urban cyclists here. Bikes are so numerous there that special parking lots are designated for them on floating barges. You ride into the inner city and then walk the remainder of the way to your office.

Chicago cyclists find this sort of thing (having to walk 5 blocks onerous). Here for example is one of many ChainLinkers complaining about this sort of thing:

Reply by Liz on January 14, 2011 at 8:55am

my building has a bike room in the loading dock, but it is “full” and they have not been distributing new keys for years, so I park outside.  Since the room is “full” the 2 dozen regular cyclists who aren’t in the room in my building have been trying to get another room to no avail, even after saying we are willing to pay.  Also the racks outside the building are in short supply in the summer.  No showers.

I’ll probably start using millenium park mostly for the shower, I wouldn’t mind paying a fee, I just don’t want to have to walk the extra bit from millenium park.

Coming to grips what it really means to have a version of Bicycle Heaven transported to our shores might surprise and disappoint a great number of people. I have no idea what will happen when the volume of bicycle traffic reaches the predicted 300-500% increase predicted by Gabe Klein. But the problems cyclists are having right now finding suitable parking spots and dealing with multi-modal transportation issues tells me that things will have to change fairly drastically to keep tempers from flaring.

With increased numbers of cyclists comes the broadening of the spectrum of individuals. Hipster types who need to travel at speeds in excess of 10 MPH will suddenly have to deal with senior citizens on heavy rental bikes plying the bike lanes along Milwaukee Avenue and learn to be patient of choose an alternate route.

If and when cycling is returned to the mainstream and is no longer a subculture some of the current crop of riders may choose to move on to something else that better allows them to express their individuality and their flair for subcultural expression. When that happens and Dutch Bikes are as numerous as skinny-jeaned hipsters with tattoos and nose rings are now cycling will have found itself adapted to the vision expressed by Anne Alt.