In his 1935 essay “Techniques of the Body,” Marcel Mauss characterized the body as our primary tool for experiencing the world; bodily practices shape what we think of as normal. The things we do over and over in our everyday lives have a lot to do with what we think we should be doing, as Pierre Bourdieu argued about the reproduction of habitus. The concept of habitus connects individual, embodied action with larger frameworks of culture, society, and built environments. So what does this mean to someone interested in social change? It means that maybe getting people to change some habitual practice can change their worldviews. What is now considered fringe or undesirable can become socially accepted and taken for granted.
For many bike activists, the primary goal is getting more people to think of bicycling as a mode of transport rather than a pastime for eccentrics, and they see bike infrastructure projects as a way of reaching this goal. But if ideas about appropriate uses of streets have to do with habitus, it is also useful to look at what happens when normal street conditions get disrupted by events, changed travel expectations, and even disaster.
In 2007, I moved from Portland, a city where bike commuting is somewhat unremarkable, to Los Angeles. At first I lived in Long Beach, which had the same gridded blocks as Portland, and was of a similar size, so it seemed like biking there would be great. What I learned, though, was that the shape of the city did not suggest bikeability to lots of people. Biking on narrow neighborhood streets filled with large SUVs, I quickly figured out that motorists saw me as a nuisance rather than a fellow road user. “Hipster” bike commuters like me were more and more common in LA, where bicycling had long been an endurance sport or a burden of poverty, but we were not necessarily welcome.
Feeling anxious about biking on LA streets, I was intrigued to learn about the ciclovía in Bogotá, Colombia, which closes about 70 miles of streets to cars in the central city every Sunday. This Streetsfilm by Clarence Eckerson introduced me and many others to the ciclovía:
By “opening” streets to pedestrians and bicyclists, a ciclovía invites people to break with their daily transportation habits. For people who regularly use marginalized forms of mobility on car-dominated streets, ciclovías can be a real treat. For people who regularly drive, they can be an opportunity to experience, perhaps for the first time, the fun of bicycling in their city.
During my fieldwork in Los Angeles, I co-founded CicLAvia, which is (you guessed it!) a ciclovía in LA. It has been pretty neat to witness the enthusiasm these street events provoke in a city like LA. I don’t know whether they have caused more people to bike commute, but in May the New York Times credited CicLAvia with changing the negative dynamic between drivers and bicyclists. Maybe giving people a chance to learn what it feels like to ride a bike in the street at an event can shift what modes of transport people expect to see on the streets during the week.
When I was in London this September, I talked to some bicycling scholars there who said that the summer influx of Olympics tourists may have caused more people to try biking to work. The government warned commuters to expect delays and advocates offered guides to cycle commuting. On all the underground and overground lines I rode, I saw signs advising people to “get ahead of the games” and plan their travel carefully. This was a case where the street conditions hadn’t necessarily changed, but people’s expectations about other modes of transport had. Will this have a lasting effect on cycle commuting in London?
What happens when transportation habitus is disrupted by disaster, like what many people affected by Sandy are experiencing? In the other cases, where planned events changed street conditions and expectations, people may have been annoyed by inconvenience. However, losing mobility through disaster means panic. For families that had to stop driving temporarily because their car was destroyed or because gas stations ran out of fuel, or for people that rely on transit to get to their jobs, I can see why bike commuting might not feel like a fun alternative. At the same time, people in New York’s bike community have been using bicycles to help out with relief, showing how these flexible machines can help people adapt to new conditions. It’s a reminder that people who are already using bikes are examples of green infrastructure themselves.