The newsletter of the Active Transportation Alliance

Modeshift Spring 2012


Empowerment on two wheels

By Sarah Louden

Zack Furness is a professor of cultural studies at Columbia College Chicago, as well as a member of Active Trans. His 2010 book, One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility, was recently nominated by Planetizen as a 2012 top ten book in urban planning, design, and development.

Not only does One Less Car provide a history of bicycle advocacy and politics in the US and abroad, but it outlines contemporary issues in cycling that span across geography, race, gender and socioeconomics.

Active Trans recently had the opportunity to speak with Furness about his book and what he learned while writing and researching it.

All profits from the Furness’ book will be donated to Chicago’s West Town Bikes, and Blackstone Bicycle Works, as well as Pittsburgh’s Free Ride.

What is your background in cycling?

Like many folks, I rode a bike as a kid, and I started riding a bit more in college — mainly for transportation but also for fun. When I moved back to Pittsburgh (my hometown) for graduate school in 1999, I started bike commuting full-time, and I used bikes as my primary form of transportation until moving to Chicago in 2007. Now it’s a combination of trains and bikes.

One Less Car delves into the politics surrounding cycling and walking in (primarily) urban areas. There exists tension between cyclists and drivers, and what you refer to as “the overall struggle for human-scale cities." What productive ways exist for cyclists and pedestrians to reclaim and utilize urban spaces?

I think it depends on the city and the broader sociocultural context. There are strategies that can work well for bicyclists and pedestrians in any city, namely starting organizations and hosting events that simultaneously put pressure on city officials to create amenities and infrastructure while demonstrating some of the tangible ways that bicycling and walking can improve people’s quality of life.

There are many ways to improve mobility for cyclists and pedestrians, but I think we also need to start collectively grappling with social problems—human problems—that are manifested in cities, and to recognize how those issues shape, and are shaped by, things like transportation.

What can present-day cyclists and advocates learn from advocacy movements of the past?

I think bike advocates can learn a lot from cycling groups and average citizens that radically reshaped the transportation priorities in cities like Copenhagen (beginning in the 1970s) and more recently in Bogotá, under the helm of Mayor Enrique Peñalosa (1998-2001).

In both circumstances, bicycling improved because transportation was actively politicized and turned into a public issue, rather than a "traffic management" problem. People felt like they had a stake as citizens, and I think that’s a worthy goal for any bike advocacy group to aspire.

In addition, I think bike advocates in the US could stand to learn from the disability rights movement, which not only made visible a set of issues that are still, tragically, ignored by the general public, but also advocated in a way that emphasized the importance of universal access and the need to think democratically about urban design.

One Less Car author, Zach Furness
      Zach Furness

The 1970s Dutch bicycle advocacy group, The Kabouters, spoke of recognizing the bicycle not just as a symbol of athleticism, but rather as “a practical, mundane, and universal feature of everyday urban life." Do you believe this viewpoint can still pertain to contemporary cycling culture?

I hope so, and I’d like to say "yes" were it not for the fact that, unlike the US, the Netherlands already had a much more entrenched national history of bicycling prior to the country’s shift toward automobility.

In short, bicycling has never really been a practical, mundane, nor universal feature of everyday life in the US. Still, I think the motivation behind the statement is what’s important, inasmuch as the idea was to promote cycling as a mode of accessible, mass transportation instead of something strictly reserved for athletic people, pre-teens or young urbanites with ironic facial hair.

I think the popularity of cycling in recent years, along with the increased demand for bicycle infrastructure and the availability of more utilitarian cycling technologies (cargo bikes, pedi-cabs, tricycles, etc.) suggests that people can and will use bikes and other pedal-powered machines for daily transportation if they have the opportunity and feel safe doing it.

Although Critical Mass is a controversial activity that often invites disorganization and creates tension among bicycle advocates, it continues to draw large crowds – especially in Chicago. In your book you state, “Critical not a substitution for formal bike advocacy or the solution to the problems of car culture by any stretch of the imagination...what it succeeds in doing, however, is creating conditions in which people can actively imagine something different by physically doing it for a brief moment in time." Can you expand upon this idea?

What I was trying to say is that it’s one thing to speculate about what conditions "could" or "should" look like if we envisioned cities where bicycling was actively encouraged or where roads functioned as actual public spaces, but it’s quite another thing to take part in an event that gives you a taste of what that might actually look and feel like.

Critical Mass rides and Reclaim the Streets events (guerilla street parties) were both designed to experiment and play with this process, and to spark the kind of imagination that gets people asking questions like: “What if it was like this all the time?” I think that’s not only a beautiful question, it’s also a pretty reasonable one given the fact that the ubiquitous presence of cars is somewhat of an anomaly in human history.

Over the past few years, how do you feel the bicycling culture has changed or progressed, and how do you feel this influences the everyday bicycle commuter?

I think that you can now find an even broader and more eclectic range of bicycle subcultures in the US (and beyond) that have their own devotees, their own cultural practices, publications, and so on. There are entire networks of handmade bicycle builders and bike touring enthusiasts that have each grown dramatically over last decade, just as there are disparate groups of people who still go completely crazy over things as different as velodrome racing, rehabbing antique bicycles, customizing outrageous lowriders, building giant junk bikes, and writing bike blogs.

As far as the influence these groups have on bicycle commuting? I guess I’m prone to go with the predictable "professor" answer by saying: “It’s complicated.” More specifically though, I think there are plenty of indications that the once "underground" popularity of bikes helped to spark a renewed interest in biking that spread pretty rapidly when the fixed-gear trend took root a little while ago (to give one example).

In addition, I think the simplicity of single-speed and fixed-gear bikes also turned a lot of people’s attention toward the realization that bikes can be stripped down and elegant, and this undoubtedly contributed to the popularity of handmade bicycles, the increased value of vintage steel bikes, and the prevalence of more streamlined, utilitarian models in bike shops.

Beyond discussing cycling in urban areas, your book also goes into detail regarding cycling in rural and impoverished areas – specifically communities in Latin America and Africa. In what ways can bicycle donation help end poverty cycles in the US as well as abroad? What organizations should readers check out if they want to get involved?

I think that bicycle donation programs like those pioneered by Bikes Not Bombs (Boston) and currently facilitated by groups like Working Bikes (Chicago) do incredible work by removing bikes from the waste stream and by providing people with access to transportation in places where cars and busses are either unaffordable, undesirable or unavailable.

Having access to bikes can make a huge difference to people anywhere that lack affordable access to transportation, but they can obviously have the strongest impacts in places where folks lack immediate access to clean water, hospitals, markets and so on.

David Mozer, a longtime cycling advocate, hosts a fantastic website that has great information about bicycle transportation worldwide, as well as large list of bicycle recycling initiatives throughout the US and beyond.

What do you hope readers will gain from One Less Car?

First and foremost, I hope that bike advocates find my book useful, regardless of whether they find value in my nerdy analysis or whether my research simply offers them additional tools for doing their work. Generally, I hope that readers gain a better understanding of the cultural and political dimensions of bicycling and car culture, though I’d be happy if folks simply think I tell an interesting story about bikes.

I’d be happier, though, if they started bike commuting.

 Sarah Louden served as a writing and editing intern at Active Trans.

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