A Just Future for Cycling?

I occupy three precarious categories: South Florida resident, humanities professor, and cyclist. The last, however, is a condition afforded to me because of ...

I occupy three precarious categories: South Florida resident, humanities professor, and cyclist. The last, however, is a condition afforded to me because of my membership in an elite professional class.1 Consequently, I enjoy a degree of flexibility (of schedule and geography) that many who are displaced from urban cores—through the mechanisms of gentrification, unchecked suburbanization, and feckless development—do not. Cycling, for me, is a systemic privilege, a personal pursuit, and, as projected onto me by others, a political statement.

While I spend much of my time teaching my students about the lies of global North environmentalism—the myth of untrammeled wilderness, among other things—my image as an “activist,” owed largely to the helmet that daily hangs off my backpack, is unsullied by the larger forces of displacement and infrastructural racism that make my commute possible.2

Yes, many do see cyclists as symbols of environmental progressivism. How else to explain my cycling companion Jake being “coal-rolled”? (This is a practice where drivers intentionally modify diesel-powered vehicles to emit large clouds of black diesel exhaust. Many then seek to trap and disorient cyclists within the stream of smoke.) Why else would one do this to cyclists, except as a statement of commitment to an American automobile culture that is, rather absurdly, deemed threatened by “radicals” like us?

Detractors may view cyclists as implicit threats to their social order, while cyclists may view themselves as heroes of a coming social transformation. In many ways, both sides are wrong. For example: referring to the perceived radicalism of fixed-gear (“fixie”) bikes within gentrifying urban hubs, John G. Stehlin notes in Cyclescapes of the Unequal City: Bicycle Infrastructure and Uneven Development, that “fixies are the new land barons.”3 Any perceived radicalism in simply owning or riding a bike is but an enabling myth.

In fact, the dangerous, unequal forces of gentrification have been “bike-washed,” Stehlin contends: displacement and violence concealed beneath the veneer of a narrow vision of cycling that welcomes some and excludes many. This unequal cyclescape, for Stehlin, instantiates “a condensation of conflicts over place, economy, and meaning, shot through with race, class, and intergenerational tensions, [which is then] refracted through debates over the purpose of the street itself.”

Many communities have come to see the painted white lines of a bike lane as a harbinger of corporate enclosure.

The ways in which the street—as a form of public space—is imagined and built forms a central concern of Stehlin’s book. As an exploration of race, urban infrastructure, and the history of bicycle advocacy, Stehlin’s Cyclescapes examines how “bicycling and other low-carbon, ‘human-scale’ mobilities have become a symbol and vector of the urban ‘renaissance’ that has in many ways hardened” differences such as “race, class, gender, and the division of labor.”

Indeed, the notion of building sustainable, “bikeable” cities in places like San Francisco, as Stehlin closely documents, is merely a facade: a deceit to conceal time-honored urban renewal or “beautification” schemes. Such designs frequently employ the symbol of the bicycle as a tool to further their goals of gentrifying largely Black and Latino neighborhoods: ostensibly bulldozing communities in San Francisco’s market district, for example, to make space for bike lanes. For this reason, many communities have come to see the painted white lines of a bike lane as a harbinger of corporate enclosure. As one Black resident of Austin, TX, remarked: “When the bikes came in, the blacks went out.”

But must cycling be only a tool for capital? Can there be a just future for cycling?


The Urban Cyclescape

First, how did the bicycle shift “from a vehicle of last resort (signifying racialized urban poverty) to a symbol of choosing a cosmopolitan, less carbon-intensive life (making visible the return of the largely White middle class)”? And, more importantly, how did the stereotype of the “cosmopolitan urban cyclist,” in places like New York City or San Francisco, come to symbolize a form of low-carbon pleasure? Especially when such a cyclist is no harmless urbanite, but, rather, a new “flâneur, a quintessentially modern (male) subject who wander[s] the bourgeois city, consuming it with his eyes”; a rabid consumer, whose lifestyle depends on the persistence of fossil capitalism in the nation’s interior?

Cyclescapes, in its documentary of the knotty history of bike advocacy, and its rigorous examination of the intersecting phenomena of racialized gentrification and urban planning, tracks precisely this shift.

Stehlin’s critique of prominent bike advocacy groups like Critical Mass—an early champion of cyclists’ rights, but one largely committed to White middle-class notions of “sharing the road”—is a case in point. Such putatively radical organizations have, according to Stehlin, actually advanced the agenda of gentrification by historically ignoring questions of race and class.

In this way, the book also creates space for consideration of alternative visions of cycling in America’s cities. Such alternatives include cycling groups in San Francisco, Detroit, and Philadelphia—comprised of riders of color, voicing the concerns of their communities—as well as specific examples of policy and design, which could allow cycling, bikeshare programs, and just development to coexist and support one another.


Exile by the Bay

By Russell Rickford

While cycling may not be “an expression of neoliberalism,” Stehlin argues, “the selective adoption of bicycling as an ‘institutional fix’ is a key element of neoliberalization.” Put another way, selective investment in cycling infrastructure—through the creation of programs like NYC’s Citi Bike, one of a number of bikeshare programs that have cropped up in recent years—has enabled disinvestment in public transportation. Seemingly less malevolent than the Koch brothers’ campaigns against mass transit, Citi Bike has largely benefited an elite urban class, while draining funds from systems that benefit the urban middle and lower classes.4

Accordingly, Stehlin makes clear that “without dedicated resources and a more muscular role for the public sector, such systems [investment in cycling infrastructures like corporate bikesharing programs] will tend to trace and amplify existing patterns of gentrification.” Meanwhile, “low-wage workers travel significantly farther for work in many outer areas.”5

Despite their anarchic roots, often traceable to the 1970s oil crisis, organizations like Critical Mass have seen their potential ultimately coopted. Cycling today serves not the free will of a free people, but, instead, as a quick (and profitable) techno-fix for soaring carbon emissions in congested cities.

In this way, the bicycle also helps to galvanize the myth of the “green metropolis.” As Daniel Aldana Cohen argues, the “happy story of low-carbon cities is based on a cheap accounting trick.”6 It is precisely this sleight of hand that Cyclescapes is intent on revealing.


Cycling and Race

As Cyclescapes demonstrates, the myth of the green metropolis has long thrived on such accounting tricks. In some instances, so-called urban “revitalization”—that which is generally reflective of the consumerist desires of the corporate flaneur—has resulted in actual urban displacement. Largely Black and Latino communities have been removed in the service of such revitalization. Some were moved into highly concentrated pockets of high-density, low-infrastructure neighborhoods in a late-capitalist form of Jim Crow segregation made possible by generations of redlining.

Such unequal development—whether the alleged “smart growth” championed by technocratic city planners that actually displaces local residents, or patterns of unplanned growth that necessarily fails when circumstances change—is what the bicycle has come to symbolize for many, not a cheery symbol of environmental progressivism.

But the White flaneur vision of cycling has always existed alongside others: specifically, the ideas and lives of cycling communities of color. Among the book’s central virtues is the study of such communities in San Francisco, Detroit, and Philadelphia. Here, while also functioning as an index of uneven development and dispossession, “the bicycle can bridge potential antagonisms, allowing people whose daily lives are extraordinarily different to commune over a shared way of moving through space.”

If such a sentiment seems at all utopian, Stehlin’s research into organizations like Oakland’s Scraper Bikes or Detroit’s Slow Roll—both representative of local communities who generally don’t benefit from “smart growth”—demonstrates not only its very possibility, but the reality that cyclists of color have long been agitating for spatial justice through cycling advocacy.

In spite of the ways in which the urban cyclescape has been employed as a form of greenwashing, cycling, nonetheless, remains a pretty good idea.

In Oakland, such organizations contradict the normative cycling subject as a White, male elite (who is often employed in the tech sector). Instead, “collective riding practices”—as represented by community groups like the Scraper Bike Team—“have emerged as counternarratives to the marginalization of Black and Latino neighborhoods and cyclists amid the city’s renaissance.” Scraper, which originated among Black youth in East Oakland, appropriates local car culture with brightly decorated and highly customized bikes “that reflect instead what Katherine McKittrick calls a ‘black sense of place.’” Their work demonstrates the ongoing “collective political practice of making cycling subjects,” or to riff on Sylvia Wynter: the cycling subject as an ongoing praxis over and against what we might otherwise understand as a stable ontological category.7 That is, if the hegemonic notion of today’s urban cyclist—as Stehlin also demonstrates through a myriad of popular ads—is the White flaneur, such notions are consistently undercut by the presence of “subaltern” cycling groups like Scraper or the Wheelie Kid crews of Philadelphia that Stehlin documents in his conclusion. The latter duly undermines racist notions of communal “order” that have historically pathologized communities of color.

The rise of such “subaltern” cycling groups follows the history of political resistance in Oakland, which Stehlin traces from the Black radicalism of the Black Panthers to advocacy groups like Bike East Bay and Walk Oakland Bike Oakland (WOBO). When new displacement targeted working-class communities in San Francisco’s Mission District and along Oakland’s Telegraph Avenue—taking the form of a new round of redlining for communities of color—those same communities ultimately forged organizations like Bike East Bay or Scraper.

But these organizations, created in response to racial segregation and economic inequality, were still marginalized. For example, both organizations ultimately had a seat at the table when NACTO (National Association of City Transportation Officials) launched its vision for Oakland’s cyclescape; yet, while the meeting was in session, it was the leaders of Scraper—and not other groups of White cyclists—who were outside valeting bikes. This is why Stehlin characterizes even Oakland’s cyclescape as “a tale of two mobilities”: a place where “the concentration of investment oriented toward the CBD [central business district] contrasts sharply with the neglect of car- and bus-dependent East Oakland, where people on bicycles, primarily of color, face freeway-like conditions on surface streets and must often ride on sidewalks.”


The Big Picture: Working-Class Environmentalism

By Daniel Aldana Cohen

Such forms of advocacy practiced by organizations like Scraper Bikes are not merely a necessity for underserved communities, but a source of communal joy and radical politics: a means of cultivating new infrastructural publics through what Stehlin ultimately argues is a form of “passive revolution.”8 “Advocates of color have decisively shaped the terms of discourse today,” argues Stehlin, “creating the political space to launch their own initiatives, such as Untokening and Equiticity”—a group of cycling advocates who also originated in Oakland and are committed to “mobility justice … which challenge mainstream bicycle advocacy’s tacitly pro-gentrification consensus.” This is so, even though “these groups, with some exceptions, have tended not to be included in the ascendant political bloc of bicycle advocates.” Oakland’s Scraper Bikes, for example, issues “a challenge to bicycle advocacy” groups like Critical Mass, which enjoys a largely White membership. To Critical Mass’s mantra of a “car-free city,” groups like Scraper ask: For whom?

Of course, if we are to take seriously the potential of a “passive revolution”—per Gramsci, to transform the “soft infrastructure” of everyday practices into the “hard infrastructure” of the municipal cyclescape—we might see the exclusion of this political bloc not as an obstacle. Instead, we could view their exclusion in terms of what my colleagues in the energy humanities increasingly imagine as a form of “radical indeterminacy”: a point of departure from the normative constraints of fossil-fueled ideology, and one shot through with possibility and hope.9


Toward a Just Future for Cycling

In spite of the ways in which the urban cyclescape has been employed as a form of greenwashing, cycling, nonetheless, remains a pretty good idea. Consequently, Stehlin asks at the end of the book: “How might bicycle infrastructure be rethought … [as] a necessity for a just metropolis?”

This is perhaps the more radical intervention of the book: How do we imagine new infrastructural publics, ones that are no longer fueled by either fossil capital or the vast tendrils of settler-colonial ideology that continue to frame liberal development schemes? In addition, how might we imagine alternatives to extractivism within our global petroculture that don’t reproduce historic modes of social and environmental injustice? In short, how do we imagine otherwise?10

Of course, this future is difficult to imagine, because, as we have seen, “pro-bike” development can create disaster for local communities. In the post-Fordist cyclescapes documented in the book, the bicycle’s virtue seems to derive from its displacement of the “coercive flexibility and mass automobility” of the era of Ford. But if liberation from cars can only be accomplished by creating spatially expressed gentrifying bike lanes, the future remains bleak, especially for communities like those displaced from San Francisco’s Mission District, where the Valencia Street bike thoroughfare effectively coopted public space.

How might we imagine alternatives to extractivism within our global petroculture that don’t reproduce historic modes of social and environmental injustice?

What would become known positively by urban planners as the “Valencia Epiphany” not only enclosed common space, to the detriment of the neighborhood people and for the benefit of corporations. It also excluded “junior partners” in its planning stage: the working-class cyclists who had long used this street to get to work. As a model for similar projects in Philadelphia, the Valencia example reveals a familiar problem: limiting the roads available to cars in this neighborhood “reflects a consumerist and urbanist turn in environmentalism more generally” that serves the ends of capital and development, not, as one might imagine, the ends of cycling, climate change mitigation, and justice. “It also implicitly parses bicycle users into those with disposable income and those who cycle out of poverty and valorizes the former”: because the Valencia corridor was intended to bolster the city’s burgeoning tech sector in places like the aptly named “Twitterloin.”

But if the Valencia Epiphany fails—with a “road diet” that accommodates the needs of cyclists and motorists, while ignoring such junior partners as local laborers—the “Philadelphia Model” is a triumph. The city’s Indego program—thanks to its inclusive pay scale, subsidized memberships, and more expansive hub stations—substantively departs from programs like Citi Bike and consequently offers a model for a progressive bikeshare infrastructure.

Unfortunately, however, while “a number of cities have adopted the ‘faster’ elements of Philadelphia’s success: subsidized memberships, cash payment, and community-based ambassador programs … comparatively fewer have replicated the combination of public investment and democratic accountability, because the political organization required is a greater challenge.” Thus, Stehlin concludes: “the contradictions of bikeshare are essentially the contradictions of contemporary urban capitalism.”


Two Paths for Cycling

The contemporary cyclescape is, in fact, a microcosm of America itself: a landscape deeply rooted in the “contradictions of … capitalism,” more broadly. “The bicycle is [simply] a unique window,” admits Stehlin, one that “renders gentrification”—and urban apartheid—“intelligible … in a new way.”

That said, whoever thought that the Citi Bike customer, or the White liberal professor riding her bicycle along the exquisite coastal highways of Boca Raton, wasn’t merely another portrait of gentrification? This, again, is why I found the greatest virtue of the project to be its documentation of organizations like Scraper Bikes and Bike East Bay.

Thus, I see the author’s final remark as a productive point of departure for thinking about the dangerously unequal status quo of public transit today—what Stehlin calls the “mobility interregnum”—and how it can be viewed positively: as a moment of radical indeterminacy. “The deep transformations [of] the political economy and ecology of urbanization that our current situation requires,” concludes Stehlin, “are not yet considered politically possible.” Consequently, Stehlin’s “hope in writing [Cyclescapes] is that, through political struggle, they become so.”


Your Prius Is Not Enough

By Max Holleran

But throughout this stunning study of cycling advocacy, Stehlin, in fact, demonstrates that political struggle has already borne tremendous fruit. Yes, the realities of the “extreme city”—and the splintered cyclescapes that serve to dramatize it—demand a continued reckoning. Yet there are radical bike organizations throughout many states, including my own, that might also be seen as models for political revolution.11

I am under no delusion that my lone bicycle is making much of a difference, especially in a state that is sinking under the weight of rising seas and the political hypocrisy of its Republican leadership (and which has been touted as the most deadly state for cycling in the nation, according to a recent essay in the Orlando Sentinel).12 Yet I can’t help but speculate on the possibility of change. To do otherwise seems a privilege for the well-heeled, and we have no more time for such indulgences.


This article was commissioned by Max Holleran. icon

  1. It is imperative here to acknowledge the precarious nature of employment within the humanities, in which the adjunctification of the professoriate (coupled with neoliberal austerity measures) has produced cataclysmic effects. See Kevin Birmingham, “The Great Shame of Our Profession: How the Humanities Survive on Exploitation,” Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. 8, no. 1 (2017). For insights into the current academic job market, see Devin M. Garofalo et al., “The Humanities without Nostalgia,” Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. 65, no. 34 (2019).
  2. See William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, edited by William Cronon (Norton, 1995).
  3. Challenging hegemonic notions of bike culture, Stehlin reminds readers of the origins of the fixie, which began with West Indian bicycle messengers in New York City. As a child of NYC, it was difficult not to wince during the author’s transition from such memories to the contemporary cyclescape, wherein local cycling culture has been hijacked by organizations like the Forbes family–funded Public Bikes. Boasting the promise of “mass transit for one,” Public Bikes effectively promotes the primacy of the individual, while extolling what many might recognize as a passage lifted straight out of Frederick Law Olmsted’s argument for Central Park—also a site committed to the improvement of life for New York’s burgeoning upper classes: “The quality and usage of our public spaces,” leaders of Public Bikes argue, however ironically, “is the measure of the success of our democracy.” See Frederick Law Olmsted’s “Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns” (Riverside, 1870) for a discussion of the relationship between open space / public parks and democracy.
  4. For a discussion of Americans for Prosperity and the Koch brothers’ involvement in infrastructural disinvestment, see Hiroko Tabuchi, “How the Koch Brothers Are Killing Public Transit Projects around the Country,” New York Times, June 19, 2018.
  5. This is so, despite the construction of bikeshare systems like Detroit’s MoGo. MoGo has “become a growing element of the downtown recovery strategy,” but “still figure[s] primarily as a consumer amenity, rather than a functional part of an economically productive cluster.”
  6. Daniel Aldana Cohen, “The Big Picture: Working-Class Environmentalism,” Public Books, November 16, 2017. See also David Owen, Green Metropolis: What the City Can Teach the Country about True Sustainability (Riverhead, 2010).
  7. See Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, after Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” New Centennial Review, vol. 3, no.3, (2003).
  8. See Antonio Gramsci on “passive revolution” in his Prison Notebooks, vol. 1, edited and translated from the Italian by Joseph A. Buttigieg with Antonio Callari (Columbia University Press, 2011).
  9. For an introduction to work in the Energy Humanities, see Imre Szeman and Dominic Boyer, eds., Energy Humanities: An Anthology (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).
  10. In her book The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (Duke University Press, 2017), Macarena Gómez-Barris states: “If we only track the purview of power’s destruction and death force, we are forever analytically imprisoned to reproducing a totalizing viewpoint that ignores life that is unbridled and finds forms of resisting and living alternatively.” See also the podcast Imagine Otherwise.
  11. For a discussion of extreme income inequality—the defining characteristic of the “extreme city”—as well as trends in green and/or sustainable development in Miami and New York, see Ashley Dawson, Extreme Cities: Climate Chaos and the Urban Future (Verso, 2017). For further information on how to participate in events and activities centered around mobility justice and equity, see Untokening.org. See also Mimi Sheller, Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes (Verso, 2018). There are also collaborative/collective “bike kitchens” in many cities that participate in community cycling advocacy and for which you can volunteer. In my home county of Palm Beach, Florida, Jack the Bike Man is one option.
  12. David Whitley, “Florida Is a Killing Field for Cyclists,” Orlando Sentinel, September 25, 2018.
Featured image: Beware of These Streets (2017). Photograph by Andrew Gook / Unsplash