As an occasional participant in London’s Critical Mass, as a regular “it’s the best way to get around” cyclist on the streets of the British capital, and as a campaigner who thinks that cars get far, far too much consideration when it comes to town planning, when I saw One Less Car in Edinburgh’s bookshop, I just had to pick it up.
It’s the first history that I’ve seen of the politics of the bicycle, and while I know quite a bit about the late 20th century and early 21st-century campaigns around cycling, I knew little of what came before.
I now feel far more informed, although I was glad as I read of my sometimes too close knowledge of cultural studies and associated jargon, for the author, Jack Furness, his field as assistant professor of cultural studies at Columbia College Chicago, and it shows. Although to be fair, it’s pretty hard to talk about the Situationists, as Furness does, without using their jargon.
As most will know, feminists played a big part in the early period of cycling. Furnace repeats Susan B Anthony’s oft-quoted claim: “The bicycle has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” That might be going little too far, but it’s always reassuring when you find groups like the Women’s Rescue League making claims such as: “Bicycling by young women has helped more than any other media to swell the ranks of reckless schools, who finally drift into the standing army of outcast women of the United States.” (I think they meant women who were deciding where to go for themselves.)
One of the good things about this book is that its perspective is not chiefly American, but ranges broadly also across Europe. So Furness notes that Italian socialists “initially expressed deep inside about cycling due to its association with leisure culture and bourgeois values…” But other Italian socialists disagree, arguing that the bicycle was, in fact, a class level and beneficial tool for disciplining vigourous revolutionaries. Following the 1912 National Congress of Young Socialists …more than 700 anti-nationalist socialist cyclists paraded near Bologna, laying the foundations for what eventually became the Ciclisti Rosso or “Red Cyclists”.
But the primary focus of this book is the modern-day, or at least from the mid-1960s onwards. It was rather amusing to learn that the origins of London’s “Boris bikes” (so named for the bumbling Tory mayor in office when the scheme started) with a radical Dutch group called “Provo,” a term coined by an anarchist philosopher and “daunted by a boisterous group of dissidents seeking to challenge the state and the tenets of capitalist culture.” They set up the shortlived “white bicycle” scheme, that saw so-painted bikes left around Amsterdam (unfortunately they fell prey to vandals and thieves quite quickly).
Generally, this is a fascinating read although I did feel that the chapter entitled “two-wheeled terrors and 40-year-old virgins: mass media and representation of bicycling” was rather stating the obvious: that Hollywood promulgates commercial mainstream values, and mocks and denigrates anything outside them. European comparisons were clearly lacking here.
But generally, the political analysis is sophisticated, and balanced — this is no hagiography. An entire chapter is devoted to Critical Mass, celebration some of its triumphs but not uncritically:
“Massers in San Francisco struggled to dissuade the aggressive, macho behaviour of certain men who frequented rides in the 1990s. … similarly, there have been lengthy debates on the Chicago Critical Mass e-mail list about Massers drinking alcohol on rides and whether participants have the right to make informal policies about such behaviour. These dialogues reveal how power is a central concern in the organisation of Critical Mass in simultaneously show how the event is actively shaped by collaboration and discussion, not simply the ethereal whims of participants. I raise this point because masses have the tendency to uncritically equate impromptu participation with genuine democracy when there are obvious limitations to the prospect of nonhierarchical participation in an unorganised, mobile event.”
Furness is also very interesting on the cultural and political history of messengers using bicycles in United States. He notes that Caribbean immigrants made up a substantial proportion of the workforce in New York City, and they used fixed gear bikes as they had done in the countries of origin. Yet “fixies” and the whole lifestyle and “look” around them, are taking on very different meanings. Furness identifies a trend “in almost exclusively privileges the representation of bike messengers as young, tattooed, carefree white rebels… a process that … not only dehistorisizes and de-labors the profession, but also literally whitewashes – as in, Anglicizes – messenger history by negating the critical influence that people of colour had on the culture and aesthetics of bike messengering.”
His sources are also wide-ranging and fascinating. There is a whole section about the connection between punk music and cycling, not perhaps an immediately obvious linkage, and he also quotes widely from zines, such as one story that I was particularly taken by from the feminist bike zine Clitical Mass, in which one of the contributors describes appearing set of wheels of the community bike shop, where she is told “in the impatient voice of an adult speaking to a small child… ‘Re-spoking wheels is very hard. Only a couple people I know (both males, I realise as we talk) have been able to do it…”
No reader, cyclist or not, is going to agree with everything in this book. Some things you might even find infuriating. But if you’re interested in cycling or town planning for people it really is a must-read.