Why Bicycles?

Transportation touches everything.

Mark Juhel writes on the World Bank’s blog that “the way we move will define our future sustainability.” As cities grow and resources dwindle, a continued emphasis on the personalized automobile as the transportation ideal is both unsustainable and unaffordable for a majority of the world’s population. Because transportation is at the heart of global and local issues ranging from climate change to public health, individuals and organizations in places ranging from South Africa to Denmark, from Tanzania to Colombia, from the US to El Salvador are thinking critically about how we perceive movement and construct the built. The bicycle is an important part of this conversation.

Going further, this project recognized and reflects that transportation is an often under-acknoledged key aspect of many pressing global issues ranging from poverty alleviation to public health to girl’s education. Then, of course, there’s the fun stuff like bicycle music, bicycle artwork, bicycle blenders, and so on and so forth.

At the heart of it all, I am interested in the different ways the bicycle is framed, understood, promoted, and utilized in different cultural contexts. The German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, published an essay in 1954 titled “The Question Concerning Technology” in which he looks more ate our orientation to technology than at the form of technology. He asks the question, “how do we generally think about technology?” and comes up with two answers (1) technology as a means to an end, and (2) technology as a human activity. I am looking at the technology as a human activity; the approach is largely anthropological.

Some questions I’m interested in: What are the social, political, infrastructural, and geographic factors that make bicycling an activity perceived as reasonable or unreasonable? What are the constructed frameworks around this technology in each localized context? (eg- when is it seen as representing low socioeconomic status or not? When is its use promoted for mental health benefits or for women’s empowerment? When is the bicycle perceived as “other” and/or dangerous?) From a methodological perspective, how can blogging and documentary video for web be used to make connections and to further anthropological/ethnographic research and analysis?

I am not arguing that a bicycle is the solution for every problem in every place. Not even close. Places where bicycles do not make sense, however, also make for relevant stories here because they, too, further our exploration of human relationships with bicycles. Where and why (or why not) is this technology appropriate? In what ways, for what purposes, for whom?

Below is and interview with the director and a trailer (beginning at 2:37) for With My Own Two Wheels, a film about five communities around the world where bicycles are making or have made a positive difference. I would love to hear updates on the people highlighted in the film, which was made in 2011.
You can watch the full film for free at ViewChange.org.


3 responses to “Why Bicycles?

  1. Hey Ellie, I found your blog while searching for press about the Bike House in D.C.! Great stuff and thanks for the shout out – can we maybe link to your site from the Bike House page? Also btw your Oregon coast/NorCal tour looks like it was amazing. You always see the best side of people when you’re in the middle of nowhere. Alright, hope things are well!

    • Hey Eric! I’m glad your search led you here (especially via a post from more than a year ago)! Thanks for the feedback, and I would love it if the Bike House could link to my site 🙂 I wish I had gotten more involved there when I lived in DC. It was the first free bike mechanic co-op I had heard of, so it sticks with me as I encounter similar endeavors all over the country. As per my bike trip, I have fallen in love with the Pacific Coast! Even though I’m living in San Francisco now, I’m particularly infatuated with Oregon. Hope things are great in DC!

    • Also, any chance you might be the same Eric I spoke with on my day at the Bike House all that time ago? You told me about HacDC… If that is you, small world!

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