Book review: Reconsidering the Bicycle. An Anthropological Perspective on a New (Old) Thing
Luis Vivanco’s Reconsidering the Bicycle. An Anthropological Perspective on a New (Old) Thing appears to be the first anthropology book attempting to study the bicycle.
Aimed primarily to function as a course book for students in anthropology and sociology, Reconsidering the Bicycle… is part of a Routledge series dedicated to the ‘anthropology of stuff’, alongside other items of our lives such as coffee, T-shirts, computers, iPods, flowers, drugs or coffee.
Before proceeding to an overview of Vivanco’s arguments, I consider that there are a few important things to say about the larger both academic as well as social context in which this book has been published. First, this is the first book dedicated to cycling coming exclusively from the realm of social sciences. Previous attempts such as ‘Cycling and Society’ (2007) can be better described as interdisciplinary works. That volume, edited by Horton, Cox and Rosen, gathers some scholars from humanist disciplines such as history or sociology, but there are as well other contributing scholars coming from ‘hard’ disciplines such as geography, planning, engineering or technology. Second, Vivanco writes from the United States, the country where the share of car use is the biggest in the entire world. This interest for the bicycle is a sign that mobility practices are likely to change even in such car-centric societies that seem to witness a ‘pedaling revolution’ (Mapes 2009).
What Vivanco tries to achieve in his book is to ‘reconsider’ two main paradigms of understanding bicycle’s place, as they are expressed in society and in academia. First, the general view at social level, in US, but also in other western countries, is that bicycles are either ‘a child’s toys’ or performance machines for ‘the lycra-clad competitor or recreational enthusiast’. Against this, Vivanco proposes a different perspective of the bicycles, one that considers them ‘heterogeneous, multidimensional and contextual objects’, used for the aforementioned purposes, but most importantly, for urban mobility. As I will further show, it should come to no surprise than that the arguments in his book are drawn mainly from mobility theories developed in the last decade by scholars such as Urry (2007) and Creswell (2006). In this understanding, mobility refers to the ‘intertwined physical, technological, social and experiential dimensions of human movement’.
He does the same ‘critical estrangement’ when he looks at often taken for granted mantras expressed by planners and engineers: ‘the closure’ in the design of the bicycle, the ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ logic or the ‘effective cycling’ paradigm.
Second, then, is the observation that Vivanco makes about the academic interest around bicycles, an interest that is mainly expressed in the field of transport studies. By using a ‘new mobility paradigm’ lens (Urry 2007), he critiques thus the general technological determinism often prevailing in the thinking of planners and engineers. Throughout the book he pleads for a ‘critical estrangement’, that he describes as a ‘step back from my own life as a cyclist to think critically about the bicycle and its role in everyday mobility’. He does the same ‘critical estrangement’ when he looks at often taken for granted mantras expressed by planners and engineers: ‘the closure’ in the design of the bicycle, the ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ logic or the ‘effective cycling’ paradigm. I will explain further down what each of these entail.
The so called ‘closure’ in the design of the bicycle, defined as such by historians and philosophers of technology such as Bijker (1995), refers to the moment when the design of the bicycle became stabilized in 1890s (with the safety bicycle). This assumed socio-technical stability makes it easy today ‘to dismiss the bicycle as a serious urban mobility option based on the idea that is is technologically stagnant, primitive and obsolete’. The ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ logic is associated with the construction of bicycle infrastructure that automatically translates into more people cycling. As Vivanco puts it, ‘one can easily get the false impression that material and policy changes alone shape the desire and experience of riding a bicycle in the city’. Finally, the ‘effective cycling’ paradigm advocates for bicycles sharing the road with cars but which has important drawbacks for advocates and cyclists alike. According to Vivanco, ‘effective cycling’ has ‘two important consequences for bicycle advocacy, one being that it offered an expedient way for public officials to avoid investing in bicycle infrastructure and programs, and the second, that the actual practice of effective cycling had a tendency to redefine urban cycling as disciplined and elite practice’.
To illustrate how this myths can be debunked Vivanco further brings into discussion in a separate chapter three urban bicycle cultures showing how bicycling is not only shaped by material conditions and traffic policies, but also by ‘cultural attitudes, symbolic constructions, and social relations’. The first two examples are somehow predictable: Amsterdam, a pioneer cycling city, where 38 percent of trips are made by bicycle and where cycling is part of the national branding, and Bogota (Colombia), a booming bicycle city, where the recent built Cicloruta (‘Cycle Route’), that measures 350 kilometers, transformed the bicycle in a tool for social inclusion. He closes the chapter by considering his own city, Burlington, who was recently approved at the Silver level for being a “Bicycle Friendly Community”.
By looking at the advocacy and social movements promoting everyday bicycle use in Burlington, Vivanco once again confronts in the final chapter of the book the technological determinism that tends to view this promoting activity as ‘mostly apolitical’. For his description and analysis of the local bike movement, Vivanco uses the concept of ‘distinctive cultural politics’ to highlight that there is ‘a contest of meanings taking place within the movement’. He notices the ‘distinct perspectives on the strategic importance of the bicycle’s visibility in the movement’ as well as ‘distinct perspectives over how to get more people interested in everyday bicycling’.
Vivanco concludes that there is an increasing ‘need for the bicycle’, and observes that this apparently ‘natural’ need, that he expresses himself as an active cyclist, is nevertheless socially constructed, being ‘shaped by the shared preferences and imperatives of culture’. He is optimist though, as any respectable bike advocate would be, and notes that despite the heterogeneous, multidimensional and contextual nature of the bicycle-object, this need for the bicycle manages to successfully challenge in the last few decades the even more ‘natural’ need people have for their own automobiles.
Luis A. Vivanco (2013), Reconsidering the Bicycle. An Anthropological Perspective on a New (Old) Thing, New York and London: Routledge
Bijker, W. (1995) ‘Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change’, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press;
Cresswell, T. (2006) ‘On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World’, New York and London: Routledge;
Horton et al. (2007) ‘Cycling and Society’, Hampshire and Burlington: Ashgate;
Mapes, J. (2009) ‘Pedaling Revolution. How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities’, Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press;
Urry J. (2007) ‘Mobilities’, Cambridge: Polity Press;
Vivanco, L. A. (2013) ‘Reconsidering the Bicycle. An Anthropological Perspective on a New (Old) Thing’, New York and London: Routledge.