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Cycling and democracy

Action Speaks
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 3, 2012

critical-mass-ii_main
Action Speaks, the panel discussion series at Providence art space AS220, continues October 10 with a discussion of cycling and protest culture.

Moderator Marc Levitt, as usual, will use an underappreciated date in history as a jumping off point for the chat. This time it's 1992, year of the first Critical Mass ride in San Francisco.

Critical Mass, now in hundreds of cities around the globe, draws together a pack of cyclists to cruise around town in a politically tinged, rolling celebration. Its take-the-streets ethos anticipated the anti-globalization protests in Seattle in 1999 and the more recent Occupy Wall Street movement.

And the rides raise all sorts of interesting questions about public space and democracy. The Action Speaks panel — scheduled for 5:30 pm at AS220, 115 Empire Street and free and open to the public — will feature Nicole Freedman, former director of bicycle programs for the city of Boston, David Herlihy, author of Bicycle: The History, and Zack Furness, a professor of communications at Penn State and author of One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility.

The Phoenix caught up with Furness for a Q&A, via email, in advance of his appearance.

THE BICYCLE IN THE WESTERN WORLD: BOURGEOIS TOTEM OR SYMBOL OF DEFIANCE? At times it can symbolize both, or neither . . . it all depends on the historical and cultural context. Today, where cars are one of the supreme icons of American life, other kinds of transportation — as well as the people who use them — are often seen as inferior. Against this, there are many people who champion bicycling as not only a form of transportation, but as a way to rethink our individual and collective relationships to technology, energy production, urban design, our communities, and mobility itself.

HOW ABOUT BIKE MESSENGER CULTURE? YOU'VE SUGGESTED IT'S NOT JUST THE PROVINCE OF THE WHITE, TATTOOED, AND HIP. CAN YOU EXPLAIN? Being a bike messenger is a working-class job, and not everyone who works that job fits the demographic you mentioned. By only focusing on messengering as a white subculture or a "rebel" lifestyle, it allows people to conveniently ignore the labor issues involved, as well as the crucial role that people of color — especially Caribbean immigrants — actually played in cultivating messenger culture in places like New York City (riding fixed gear bikes, for example).

YOU WRITE THAT CRITICAL MASS, HOWEVER OPPOSITIONAL, IS NOT AS DEMOCRATIC AS IT MIGHT APPEAR. WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT — AND WHY DOES IT MATTER? Anyone can ride in Critical Mass, so it's very democratic in that sense. But in some places the rides have been more contentious because of police harassment or, in a few circumstances, because a handful of riders acted like knuckleheads. Given that people love to focus on this kind of drama — as opposed to the vast majority of rides in the last 20 years that are peaceful and fun — there are undoubtedly folks who get discouraged from participating. With that being said, I think CM is part of a spectrum of activities that are crucial in revealing how our city streets, our public spaces, and our car-centric transportation system are not as democratic as they might appear.

  Topics: This Just In , Cycling, bicycles, democracy
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