A must-read study of cycling as a sociological phenomenon

Duncan R. Jamieson
Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio

Peter Cox
Cycling: A Sociology of Vélomobility
199 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2019 (Changing Mobilities)
ISBN 978-1-138-69187-2

Peter Cox rightfully eschews the term “bicycle” in favor of “cycle,” because of the abundance of tricycles in the nineteenth century. Though they largely disappeared in the early twentieth century, except as a children’s toy, of late they have made a remarkable comeback. In addition to my trusty two-wheelers, I now have a recumbent tricycle. Cycling: A sociology of velomobility is as the title indicates a sociological tome that will please and challenge sociologists of sport and culture, but it is far more than this. It is a must read for urban theorists and planners as well as anyone who lives in the city, regardless of their interest in or association with cycling.  The author has a strong and varied background in all aspects of cycling, from building and repairing cycles to riding them as a racer, a commuter and a journeyer. Cox brings the lie to Jerome K. Jerome’s statement in his classic Three Men on the Bummel, when Jerome had one of his characters state categorically that one had to decide if he wanted to ride or repair cycles because no-one could do both.

Sociologists have their own methodology and their own academic language, both of which Cox demonstrates. Yet as an historian with only a passing understanding of sociology, I had no difficulty following his argument. Faculty in sociology, history, geography, political science, urban planning, philosophy, sports studies and communication studies to name a few disciplines, as well as politicians, cyclists and the reading public in general, will find this both interesting and valuable. If anyone has any doubt, Cox proves cycling studies cross disciplinary lines with alacrity. This is the fifth monograph in the “Changing Mobilities” series edited by Monika Buscher and Peter Adey, and the second book with the focus on cycling. The series editors contend world citizens will travel 105 billion kilometers (65, 205, 000 miles) by 2050. “It is critical to make mobilities research and design inform each other…” (p. ii). This underscores the contention that cycling must cross disciplinary lines for the betterment of human society. Urban planners, city engineers and traffic officials, as well as politicians who fail to study this book will do so at their own peril. Cycling “is an examination of cycling practices through the lens of an academic [and from] the perspective of someone who has used bikes for a variety of purposes for more than forty years… (p. 3). In addition to traditional academic research, Cox filmed and made audio recordings of his field research and combined this with his own personal experiences over decades on the road.

Urban planners, city engineers and traffic officials, as well as politicians who fail to study this book will do so at their own peril.

For millennia, roads and highways had been used by all; in the twentieth century automobiles and trucks, aided and abetted by local, state and national governments, co-opted roadways until it became common to believe they belonged solely to them. As Carlton Reid, executive editor of BikeBiz.com, aptly puts it, Roads Were Not Built for Cars. Cox acknowledges that automobility is unavoidable but that at the same time cycling—velomobility—can and should have a place at the table. He continuously (and rightfully so) reminds the reader that his is an interest in what is and more importantly what should be. Cycling historian Laurence Finison concurs, using the term multimodality, the belief and vision that roadways belong to all, to be used equally and safely. Like Cox, Finison and Reid, as well as many others, myself included, believe in the right of the cycle to share the highways and byways should be indisputable. When it comes to transportation and roads, cyclists need to be included, not viewed as distinct or tangential.

In the United States at least, with the coming of the railroad in the mid-nineteenth century, governments lost interest in paving and maintaining roads for long distance travel. Urban governments kept roads paved and maintained only as far as the railway station where people could board trains for distant destinations. Considering the execrable conditions, in the late nineteenth century the League of American Wheelmen (now Bicyclists) began the Good Roads Movement to provide cyclists better opportunities for travel. They focused on side paths, well-graded and paved for the use of cycles, but this created a dilemma that continues to this day: should cycles have their own protected lanes or does this lead inevitably to the conclusion that cycles have no place on the nation’s highways and byways? In the United States at least, cyclists are denied access to interstate highways, even though they have wide, well-paved shoulders which oftentimes are safer and more comfortable than narrow, shoulder-less two-lane roadways.

Multimodal roadways need to consider velomobility in the planning process rather than as an afterthought. Brussels, Belgium, serves as a classic example. Rebuilt following its destruction during World War Two, it created a transit system that put the car and truck at center stage. Now in the twenty-first century, Brussels is being rebuilt with velomobility as part of the focus. Cycling cities, Amsterdam or Copenhagen for example, embrace velomobility, acknowledging an equilibrium manifesto where cycling restores balance. Many American cities, New York City and Boston, for example, are continuously adding protected lanes for cyclists which is as it should be. All well and good; however, other users must recognize and respect the rights of cyclists on all roads, especially those where protected lanes are not feasible.

It is environmentally friendly, producing no pollutants and improving the physical and psychological health of the rider who develops a greater respect for the environment because of a closer proximity.

In its broadest sense, cycling equals utility, leisure, recreation and sport. It increases the efficiency of human mobility, bringing together the rider, technology and space. The route is the journey, while the ride is the experience. Unlike automobile travel, where the destination is the goal, the cyclist is not prone to asking, “are we there yet”? The rider is always “there,” wherever “there” is, and as a result the rider always looks forward to the next opportunity. Cycle commuters may follow the same route day after day, but each ride is a new and exciting journey. While a change in route or a different cycle enhance the experience, so do changes in the weather and the seasons. Cox knows from experience that the ride often brings back memories, both pleasant and painful. Relative to the latter, “at these times the everyday journey becomes a reinscription of a series of traumas.” These are simply the “realities of everyday life as a minority,” but they are only one side of the coin. There are also “those perfect days of riding where everything appears to be in harmony. . .” (p 105).

Cycling can be done singly, with a few or several companions, or in large organized groups. Like Cox I have ridden for decades in each of these configurations. Even if it appears the rider is alone, that is not accurate as the cycle itself is a companion. From the 1930s through the 1960s the Englishman Bernard Newman cycled through every country in Europe, with a series of companions, his bicycle named George. He and George discussed the route, the weather, world affairs or whatever troubled either of them. This is only one of multiple examples proving the cycle is an actant, far more than a mere collection of tubes, tires and cables.

Today, cycling is universal, available to all. While a novelty in the early and mid-nineteenth century, the cycle quickly became so commonplace in the 1890s it no longer equaled a status symbol for the well-to-do. In the United States at least, this resulted in a decline in the cycle’s place in society, something not experienced to the same degree throughout much of Europe. However, the cycle has had a lasting impact, reducing classism and sexism in human society. Ridden by men and women, girls and boys, rich and poor, both those dominant and subordinate, it became a representation of a carefree, confident and assured life. As such, the ubiquitous cycle is often used as a prop to sell a variety of goods, including coffee, tea and wine. The cycle also represents nostalgia, with cargo cycles and Brooks’ saddles tying the past to the present. It is environmentally friendly, producing no pollutants and improving the physical and psychological health of the rider who develops a greater respect for the environment because of a closer proximity. As Cox writes, while the cycle is not a magic bullet to stop climate change or urban overcrowding, it is clearly a significant piece of the puzzle.

Copyright © Duncan Jamieson 2019

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