Researching bicycling, like many ethnographic projects, suggests a bodily incorporation of the ethnographer into some local practice. I mean, I could study the social and cultural life of bicycling and not also ride a bike, but that would be like a celiac studying people who sample bread. Actually, that’s kind of accurate, because there is not one kind of bicycling, just as there is not one kind of bread. The celiac could enjoy millet and rice flour loaves, while avoiding those with wheat flour. I study and practice urban transport bicycling, which includes what I think of as “urban recreational cycling,” but I don’t know much about mountain biking, long distance recreational cycling, or racing.
In addition to providing an ethnographic subject that connects me to existing theoretical conversations in anthropology, studying bicycling has meant tracing the contours of an emerging field. For many years, transportation researchers have used quantitative methods to study bicycling and to make recommendations about infrastructure and policy. The study of bicycling as a social and cultural phenomenon is a newer endeavor whose beginning is marked most clearly by the 2007 publication of Cycling and Society, edited by Dave Horton, Paul Rosen, and Peter Cox. Many of the essays in that volume used qualitative methods and ethnographic engagement to analyze the meanings of bicycling in various contexts, paving the way for more research in this vein.
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.
This footage is exciting, and heartwrenching. Seeing New York City in a crisis is scary, even for those of us who don’t live there. And in light of the longstanding attempts to deny climate change, water lapping against the iconic urban density of Manhattan says something frightening, to me at least. But another statement the video makes is that a bike can take you places other forms of mobility sometimes can’t.