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.


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 extraleisurely 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.


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 atrisk 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.


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 bikefriendly 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.


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 goaloriented in function, Celebration, Unity, & Culture Enablers serve to bring bicyclists of all stripes together under the banner of positive attitudes, solidarity, and fun.


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


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


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


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,


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.


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 4) Ibid, 5) Ibid, 6) Ibid, 7) Center for Appropriate Transport. Viewed June 5, 2004. 8) Network Charter School. Viewed June 5, 2004. 9) Bicycle Transportation Alliance. Viewed June 5, 2004. 10) Ibid, 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. 15) Ibid,


16) How to Make a Critical Mass. Viewed June 5, 2004. 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. 20) White; 1999. 21) White House takes aim at obesity. March 12, 2004. Viewed June 5, 2004. 22) Ibid. 23) Bicycle Transportation Alliance – Advocacy. Viewed June 5, 2004. 24) Codrington, Graeme. 25 Sentences that define a generation. Viewed June 5, 2004. 25) Ibid. 26) Ibid. 27) Ibid. 28) Savinar, Matt. Life After The Oil Crash. Viewed June 5, 2004. 29) Ibid. 30) Ibid. 31) [untitled]. Meacher, Michael. Written January 5, 2004; viewed June 5, 2004.