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Cycles

Of
Contention

Brandon Rhodes
PPPM 438: Bicycle Planning
June 7, 2004
Bicycling as a Social Movement
If someone were asked fifty, or even twenty, years ago if they thought bicycling
would ever become a social movement, they would likely laugh out loud. Even today
some would gawk at the notion of something as recreational, sporty, and (frankly)
childish as bicycling being considered a social movement. Yet it is difficult to deny that
what once was leisure now is a charged political issue. For years, rallies have been held
for bicyclists, hundreds of community and nonprofit groups seek to advance any number
of bicycle-friendly agendas, federal Congresspersons are part of a Bicycling Caucus, and
campaigns have targeted nearly ever facet of society. Most generally, those participating
in any of the above courses of action seek to encourage the proliferation of bicycle
infrastructure, bikable communities, bicycle safety, and overall bicycle use.
It is evident that today, bicycling is a social movement. Cornell Professor of
Sociology Sidney Tarrow believes that social movements are a form of contentious
politics, which “occurs when ordinary people, often in league with more influential
citizens, join forces in confrontations with elites, authorities, and opponents. Such
confrontations go back to the dawn of history. But mounting, coordinating, and
sustaining them against powerful opponents are the unique contribution of the social
movement.”1 Indeed the bike movement has had its roots in the lower and middle classes
– often among those who cannot afford an automobile – and faces strong cultural,
economic, and political opponents. It has evolved from the short-term and loosely
organized realm of contentious politics and become a social movement as time has worn
on.

Forms of Expression and Organization


The success of any modern social movement hinges largely on the ability to draw
upon a broad repertoire of expression and organization. Posits Tarrow: “Social
movements are repositories of knowledge of particular routines in a society’s history,
which help them to overcome the deficits in resources and communication typically
found among the poor and disorganized.”2 It is critical that a movement be able to tap
into known, recognizable forms of contention while redefining other cultural symbols to
suit their own ends.

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Not surprisingly, the bike movement has relied on many historically successful
repertoires to further their cause. Chosen repertoires echo those of the civil rights
movement, labor movement, and “New Left” movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. They
can be placed in five primary groups: Educators, who work to instill bicycle affinity and
safety among children and adults; Policy Wonks, who lobby and educate governments
and businesses to support bicycle infrastructure and culture; Community Support Groups,
who create healthy spaces and structures to nurture bike activists and users; Celebration,
Unity, & Culture Enablers, who organize events and clubs which bring bicyclists
together; and Everyday Resisters, those who commute by bike or use their bike for extra-
leisurely utility.
Let us take a brief, closer look at these groups and excellent local examples of
each before moving on to likely future developments. It should be noted that the
following groups can have a strong overlap in function, but the outcome of which is more
akin to synergy than to toe-stepping.

Educators
Educators endeavor to rally two demographics with two goals for both:
cultivating an affinity for bicycling and developing safety skills for maneuvering the
urban cityscape in children and adults. By overcoming the initial fear and intimidation
that can come along with learning how to utilize urban bike infrastructure through lessons
and tours, Educators empower children and adults to become more independent and more
apt to bike as an alternative to driving. They are creating a community-synthesized
“Driver’s Ed” program for bicyclists.
Bicycles and Ideas for Kids’ Empowerment (b.i.k.e.) is an Educator group from
Portland, Oregon who, according to their mission statement “facilitates the development
of values and life skills essential for productive citizenship in inner-city youth through
bicycling, tutoring, year-round mentoring, and leadership training.”3 Through programs
ranging from summer camps, to sessions coordinated with Portland Public Schools, to a
program which encourages sport bicycling among teens, b.i.k.e. has successfully taught
and empowered dozens of at-risk youths. Their programs are nationally recognized as a
model practice and standard-setting for their specialty.

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It is a core goal of b.i.k.e. to reach out especially to socially and economically
disadvantaged kids; their website says that “95% of the children who participate in the
year-round program live in poverty and come only have a single parent.”4 The website
also cites general self efficacy, hopes & goals, positive peer influence, self-esteem, social
skills, self-restraint, and a tolerance for stress as key skills which help prevent 1/3rd of at-
risk youngsters from falling by the wayside in life.5 They believe b.i.k.e.’s programs help
develop these skills by “changing lives, one pedal stroke at a time.”6
Another precedent-setting Educator group is the Center for Appropriate Transport
(CAT), located in Eugene, Oregon. The CAT provides multiple services, including the
manufacturing of handcrafted bike racks and alternative bicycles. Their role as Educator
is most explicit in their Mobile School Presentations and participation with the Network
Charter School. Their “presentations can be adapted to any grade level and illustrate the
unique technical, environmental and cultural roles that bicycles play in the world, in an
interactive, seats-on experience with a diverse assortment of bicycles and other human
powered vehicles.”7
The Network Charter School provides a community-enriched education
atmosphere and works with local community groups to develop affinity-specific
curricula. CAT’s curriculum takes students through the entire process of building and
maintaining a bicycle. From frame design to welding to sewing to bike marketing, the
NCS-CAT partnership is rooted in hands-on learning and teamwork.8

Policy Wonks
An integral part of the bike movement is that of the Policy Wonk. They often act
as diplomats, lobbyists, policy sponsors, researchers, and legal advocates for the
movement at large. As diplomats, they are frequently the faces media and government
types become most accustomed to encountering. As lobbyists and policy sponsors, they
fight to incorporate bike-friendly infrastructure in future transportation projects and
business buildings. As researchers, they seek to understand what motivates which people
to commute by bicycle, and which projects to lobby hardest for. As legal advocates, they
struggle to ensure bicyclists’ rights in legislation and keeping cyclists informed of
relevant rights and rules.

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In Portland, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) functions as an
outstanding model of the Policy Wonk, and has developed a reputation in the state
legislature as “Oregon’s “bicycle people,””9 The BTA works “in partnership with
citizens, businesses, community groups, government agencies and elected officials to
create healthy, sustainable communities by making bicycling safer, more convenient and
more accessible.”10
BTA’s victories since 1990 include better incorporation of bicycles with
Portland’s light-rail and bus system, protecting the state’s Bicycle Bill which stipulates a
minimum of 1% spending by the DOT on walkways and bikeways, incorporating bike-
friendly design into a renovation of the Hawthorne Bridge, and successfully passing Safe
Routes to School law “requiring cities, counties and school districts to plan for bicycling
and walking routes to school.”11

Community Support Groups


An issue encountered in all social movements is the need to organize and create
spaces for the dissident subculture in which the movement is rooted. These organizations
or spaces ought to be accessible, inviting, and democratic. They provide community for
groups of like affinity, social status, or economic status. Before the labor union or
grange, this function was found in bars and pubs for working classes and peasants; the
southern civil rights movement found this space in churches. As Yale professor James C.
Scott notes,
“The importance of the tavern or its equivalent as a site of antihegemonic
discourse lay less in the drinking it fostered or in its relative insulation from
surveillance than in the fact that it was the main point of unauthorized assembly
for lower-class neighbors and workers. …[The] tavern was the closest thing to a
neighborhood meeting of subordinates.”12
Even the middle classes find similar spaces in coffee houses and clubrooms. Scott
continues: “Each site, owing to the social position of its habitués, generated a distinctive
culture and pattern of discourse.”13 Today working class persons experience this in
similar spaces, and find a more organized form of it crystallized in the shape of trade and
labor unions.

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While the bike movement transcends the lines of color, power, caste, and class
Scott’s discussion was confined to, this need for organizations and spaces that foster a
dissident subculture is still vibrantly present for any movement seeking long-term
change. Bicycle activists, sympathizers, and users must have networks and spaces they
can exchange ideas, spread bicycle culture, work to inspire change and generally plug in
to. They ought to offer resources and culture.
Consider the office clerk who normally commutes by car, but participated in Bike
to Work Day, and now wishes to make a habit of it. Such a person ought to have a place
where she can be informed and mentally equipped to begin such a radical shift. Even
adults can need to have their hands held at times. A lack of widespread awareness of
such organizations could well be a large reason why so few Americans commute by bike.
An inspiring example is Portland’s Lloyd District Transportation Management
Association (LDTMA), which “is an action-oriented association working with businesses
and public agencies in the Lloyd District to improve access and mobility for those who
work, reside, shop and commute in and to the Lloyd District. The Lloyd District TMA's
focus includes programs for improved public transit, ride sharing, alternative work hour
programs and programs promoting parking management, bicycle and pedestrian
measures.”14 LDTMA’s website and online forum is an excellent place to discover
alternative transportation options available in the area, connect with like-minded folks,
and contribute to lowering automobile use in the district.
The Lloyd District TMA is, in essence, a bridge between the (semi-) professional
Policy Wonks and those in the next group: Celebration, Unity, and Culture Enablers. By
being geared towards commuters of all genres and all employers within the district,
LDTMA has become a nationally recognized and award-winning Community Support
Group.15

Celebration, Unity, & Culture Enablers


While Policy Wonks and Community Support Groups are utilitarian and goal-
oriented in function, Celebration, Unity, & Culture Enablers serve to bring bicyclists of
all stripes together under the banner of positive attitudes, solidarity, and fun.

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Critical Mass is this group. Across the globe Critical Mass gatherings occur
monthly in urban centers where, depending on the city, dozens or hundreds or thousands
of bicyclists unite to claim the streets. Challenging the dominant notion of a “public
space,” Critical Mass revolves around creating that social space for the bike subculture
discussed earlier.
Though Critical Mass is most physically and visually similar to other social
movements, the attitudes which permeate it are far from the “Hell no we won’t go,”
“1,2,3,4, we don’t want your oil war,” “my body, my choice,” and “ain’t no power like
the power of the people” exigent in nearly all other social movements of past and present.
Rather, Critical Mass works to be about no political dogma – just fun. According to
Critical Mass’ founders, it “is many things to many people, and while many concepts
expressed may evoke memories of past political protests, Critical Mass is foremost a
celebration, not a protest.”16 People participate in Critical Mass for countless reasons,
from shedding the chains of automobile dependence to having fun to asserting bicyclists’
rights. Yet it was started in 1992 “as a way to bring these various populations together in
a festive reclaiming of public space.”17
This call for a positive attitude is not just in praise of the virtues of celebration
and unity, but in rebuke of the hypocrisy of motorist-bashing. Such a view contends that
bicycle activists must not condemn car-users because, bluntly “[car-users are us – we’re
all victims of the auto and oil industries.]”18 “Great pains have been taken to avoid the
common pitfalls of other movements, with much [leafleting] space being devoted to
arguments against moralizing attacks on motorists and other unproductive tendencies. By
presenting bicycling as a fun, positive alternative to the dreary destructiveness of car
culture, Critical Mass has gained immeasurably.”19
Taken as a tactical issue, Critical Mass as a celebratory act of civil disobedience
instead of an arrogant act of defiance and irresponsible rebellion gives it a PR appearance
strong enough to repel otherwise damaging incidents and angry citizens without
compromising it’s message or constituency. This attitude of spontaneous fun instead of a
consciously concerted political effort helped Critical Mass pull through a police brutality
incident in 1997 that even caused local papers to call the movement a “Bike Riot.”20

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Celebration, Unity, & Culture Enablers rely on this tactic of placing hope in the bicycle
instead of placing hate in the car.

Everyday Resisters
Ultimately, all bicyclists are a part of the bike movement, whether they consider
themselves that or not. Why? Because the powerbrokers of their community, state,
nation, and world see them that way. Government agencies, non-profit groups,
politicians, and large corporations all pay studious attention to how many citizens drive,
carpool, use mass transit, walk, or bike to get around. How these observers respond to
this depends on what they see. If bike commuters come out in droves, the “invisible
hand” of the commuting market will gradually allot more infrastructural advantage to the
presently disadvantaged bicyclist. By employing non-hegemonic transportation
practices, bike commuters are helping to make a vocal but often invisible minority,
visible.

Future Trends and Contextual Considerations


With this cursory overview of where the movement stands today, there is wisdom
in considering what the future may have in store for individual lifestyle issues, exigent
dynamics of those persons the bike movement is seeking to change, and bigger
geopolitical crises and courses. That said, three current and coming trends in American
society stick out as opportunities for the bike movement to begin considering: health
concerns, generational priorities, and peak oil.

Health Concerns
Poor health is becoming an epidemic in America. According to the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention, 64% of American adults are obese or overweight.21
Additionally, “[r]esearchers looking at data from 2000 found that obesity caused 400,000
U.S. deaths -- more than 16 percent of all deaths. Obesity and inactivity contribute to the
risks for some of the top killers: heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes.”22
Dieticians on “Dr Phil” claim a right diet is the answer while federal officials on
the evening news would have us believe escalators are the culprit. Yet the fact remains

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that most Americans spend hours each week sitting in traffic. Even a good diet is useless
if the subject continues to suffer prolonged inactivity. Admittedly, an increase in office
jobs and hours spent before a TV screen both contribute at least as much as long
commutes to this root cause of obesity.
Still, the unbearable irony remains that we drive cars five miles each way to ride a
stationary bicycle ten miles at a costly gym. If more people replaced some of their car
trips (even short ones) with bike rides, obesity would certainly be less out of control than
it is today. The bike movement has in recent years begun to receive government money
as a means of combating obesity.23 Educators and Community Support Groups ought to
begin forming broad coalitions with public schools, weight-loss programs, the medical
industry, and even YM/WCA’s to advocate for bicycle use – recreational and commuter.

Generational Priorities
Sociologists and psychologists have found remarkable underlying themes and
ideas that encapsulate entire generations. The two most recent generations, Generation X
(births 1965 to 1982) and Millenials (births 1983 to 2002), have been heavily influenced
by a fundamental rift in the nuclear family and being raised in a much more visually
immersive media-created world. These generations “live in a world that is increasingly
devoid of solid, dependable relationships. They have grown up as children of divorce,
starved for closeness and intimacy as the family has deteriorated. Abusive, neglectful,
busy, absent, non-emotional and working parents have no time for relationships.”24 They
are the embodiment of “latchkey kids.”
The most important thing to both these generations is relationships; they will do
anything to be loved.25 These generations also embrace change, value individuality, prize
pragmatism, and are adrenaline junkies. 26 What more favorable set of characteristics
could the bicycle movement look for than these? Community Support Groups serve to
provide meaning and utility for their social life and bring them into relationship with
those who share an affinity for bicycling and/or bicycling activism. Critical Mass and
similar groups provide a space for expression, optimism, and hope: all things this
generation long for.27

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Of course, the very nature of tossing the Tercel, and shifting to a bicycle fulfills
the other four mentioned characteristics. Bicycling is a radical change that creates a
sense of identity, bicycling pragmatically saves money and is great exercise, and
bicycling is a very sensuous, lively, and exciting experience.
The bike movement ought to seriously consider the demographic it is most
seeking change in. This age-range – 18 to 35 year-olds – are still in a position in which
they can begin to plan the rest of their lives very conceivably around bike commuting.
By understanding what forces shaped their development, the bicycle movement can better
anticipate the underlying needs and emotional conditions of their targets. Automobiles
sales continue because advertisers know that Gen-Xers and Millenials value identity and
image, and will go to great lengths to acquire them. Bicycle activists should take note.

Peak Oil
Falling under the category of what Donald Rumsfeld calls “known unknowns,”
peak oil is based on the theories of the late Shell geologist, Dr. M. King Hubbert, who in
1956 successfully predicted that U.S. oil production would peak in 1970, followed by a
severe oil and gas crisis. Oil production peaks when supply generated by rate of
extraction (which follows a bell curve) cannot match demand. Dr. Hubbert made his
accurate predictions solely based on geologic data, without the fuzzy logic of social
policy considerations. He also predicted that global oil production would peak around
the year 2000.21
As that year approached, academics, policy makers, and oil corporations have
begun to seriously reexamine Hubbert’s theories. Most experts from across disciplines,
ideologies, education levels, and nationalities all agree that global oil production was
likely to peak between 2000 and 2010, but that it could not be definitively observed until
3 to 5 years after it happened.22
These same experts also predict after a brief plateau of reduced supply, the world
would literally begin to bottom out as the supply bell curve dropped like a cliff at the
edge of the plateau. To say nothing of the horrors of the ensuing oil wars, oil prices
would skyrocket and nearly every economic sector would grind to a halt. 23 Nearly all
goods and foods are transferred to consumers by oil-run planes, trains, and automobiles,

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and their prices would reflect the impossibly steep increase in cost of transport. Prices
will skyrocket and America’s so-called “stock market bubble” would pop and implode.
Said former UK environmental minister Michael Meacher in a recent issue of Financial
Times: “It’s hard to envisage the effects of a radically reduced oil supply on a modern
economy or society. The implications are mind-blowing.”24
Such doomsday proclaiming can feel at times like the story of Chicken Little. Yet
it is a “known known” that oil will peak soon, if it hasn’t already. The only debate is over
precisely when that peak will happen, or happened. The ‘when,’ then, is peak oil’s most
relevant “known unknown.”
Assuming, though, that the world is in that plateau, as experts claim, what does
this mean for the bike movement? It means the costs of automobile use will become
increasingly prohibitive, among other things. People will abandon their oil-dependent
cars and SUV’s in favor of bicycles and public transit.
This plateau, then, is the bike movement’s time to shine. It’s time to begin
massive campaigns exposing how much car use costs. If today’s costs don’t shock people
out of their cars, $5 gallons of gas by next summer will. As peak oil becomes a more
accepted reality among state- and local-level policy makers, Policy Wonks can begin to
lobby with historic circumstances adding renewed validity their arguments.
Community Support Groups can begin to transition the bike culture’s presently
dissident subculture into a semi-hegemonic status. As prohibitively high transport costs
more than cancel out the comparative-advantage which gives imported food a market
edge, the availability of locally-grown food will need to increase. Ergo, many years
down the road, communities will reorient themselves to pre-industrialization status quos
of living within reasonable proximity to food sources. Indeed, perhaps a day’s travel on a
bike will determine the radius of that proximity.
Regardless of such “new dark age” speculation, the bike movement should
recognize that peak oil will drive people out of their cars. As such, all aspects of the
movement must prepare to reorganize for a strong and steady influx of participants.

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Conclusion
Bicycling as a social movement has had many successes and is growing in
strength, influences and numbers. They have implemented many successful strategies of
previous social movements with great effect. What’s more, these organizations have
overwhelmingly stood the test of time.
But in order to change the future, bicycle activists should look to history and seek
to understand what has made social movements spark, sustain, collapse, and succeed. A
key component of all social movements (and especially revolutions) that the bike
movement is still missing is having a few well-placed supporters within the elite. The
occasional sympathetic Congressperson or celebrity who bicycles competitively, while
something to be thankful for, ultimately yields few fruit to nourish the movement whole.
Until such supporters are reached, young activists must begin to seek to become
those elites and powerbrokers whose positions the bike movement is most endeavoring to
court the favor of. The movement would do better to supplant the hegemony of the
automobile with the supremacy of the bicycle by “Trojan-Horsing” themselves into the
halls of power than by hurling their bodies against its walls from the outside.

Works Cited
1) Tarrow, Sidney. Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics; 2nd Ed.. 1998.
Cambridge University Press. New York, NY. pp. 2.
2) Ibid, pp. 20.
3) b.i.k.e. – Bicycles and Ideas for Kids’ Empowerment. Viewed June 5, 2004
http://www.kidsofbike.org/index.html
4) Ibid, http://www.kidsofbike.org/About_Us/Who_are_the_children/who_are_the_children.html
5) Ibid, http://www.kidsofbike.org/About_Us/Case_Statement/case_statement.html
6) Ibid, http://www.kidsofbike.org/index.html
7) Center for Appropriate Transport. Viewed June 5, 2004.
http://members.efn.org/~cat/html/education.htm
8) Network Charter School. Viewed June 5, 2004. http://www.networkcharterschool.org/cat.htm
9) Bicycle Transportation Alliance. Viewed June 5, 2004.
http://www.bta4bikes.org/act/advocacy.html
10) Ibid, http://www.bta4bikes.org/info/about.html
11) Ibid.
12) Scott, James C.. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. Making Social Space
for a Dissident Subculture. 1990. Edwards Brothers Inc, Ann Arbor, MI. pp. 122
13) Ibid.
14) Lloyd District TMA. Viewed June 5, 2004. http://www.ldtma.com/index.html
15) Ibid, http://www.ldtma.com/accomplish.htm

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16) How to Make a Critical Mass. Viewed June 5, 2004.
http://www.scorcher.org/cmhistory/howto.html
17) Ibid.
18) White, Ted. Video:“(We aren’t blocking traffic,) We Are Traffic! A Movie about Critical Mass.”
1999.
19) How to Make a Critical Mass. Viewed June 5, 2004.
http://www.scorcher.org/cmhistory/howto.html
20) White; 1999.
21) White House takes aim at obesity. March 12, 2004. Viewed June 5, 2004.
http://www.cnn.com/2004/HEALTH/diet.fitness/03/12/obesity.campaign/index.html
22) Ibid.
23) Bicycle Transportation Alliance – Advocacy. Viewed June 5, 2004.
http://www.bta4bikes.org/act/advocacy.html
24) Codrington, Graeme. 25 Sentences that define a generation. Viewed June 5, 2004.
http://www.tomorrowtoday.biz/article/article_028.htm
25) Ibid.
26) Ibid.
27) Ibid.
28) Savinar, Matt. Life After The Oil Crash. Viewed June 5, 2004.
http://www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net/Introduction.html
29) Ibid.
30) Ibid.
31) [untitled]. Meacher, Michael. Written January 5, 2004; viewed June 5, 2004.
http://www.energycrisis.com/uk/planNow.htm

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