Velography: Stardate 5015.6: The cynicism of cycling culture

As a native Charlottean (Charlotte, NC), I remember when this city was a sleepy little town. There wasn’t much to do as a little kid, stores were closed on Sunday, and “blue laws” were the norm. The basic entertainment growing up for most of the neighborhood kids was either the bowling alley at Park Lanes, a movie at Park Terrace, Freedom Park, one of the malls in town (South Park or Eastland), playing in the neighborhood somewhere inventing our own games, or simply riding a bike to meet up with everyone to play video games, get a “Slurpee,” or even grab something to eat.

Over the course of my teenage years, Charlotte started to wake up and smell the potential, by developing slowly, piece by piece into the city that it is now. It would be quite a travesty not to recognize a great many young entrepreneurs that believed in Charlotte as a future “world class city,” many of which developed out of the music, fashion, art, theater, and widespread cultural movements washing in and out of the various “hip” neighborhoods where creativity mixed with poverty. In the music and artistic scene, there was always a bit of rivalry between Charlotte and the “Triangle” (Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and Durham), where colleges, college radio, and business supported a vibrant independent “scene” for the young adult crowd, mainly in or right out of college. Charlotte, of course, had plenty to offer as the music and the arts grew, but the Triangle represented the center of North Carolinian   culture for independent thinking and thinkers. Nevertheless, Charlotte was able to attract a different type of creative personality – the entrepreneur. Over the years, Charlotteans and Neo-Carpetbaggers from the North, transplanted to this city, and brought with them a sense of urgency to make a place in this town, as a big fish in a small pond, and with growth a big fish in an even bigger, better pond. Their connectivity with corporate America (i.e. Banks and Industry) created a perfect petrie dish to sustain and maintain what we now call the Queen City.

As someone who grew up playing in bands around town and the region, biking was always seen as a recreational activity. You rode in neighborhoods, parks, and if you dared across main arteries to other locations where you could meet friends from other schools (busing was the norm during my teenage years). Because of the nature of punk/hardcore/indy music, many of us always considered our little cohort to be in antagonism with corporate Charlotte, corporate North Carolina, and corporate America, and lastly “corporate rock.” In later years, this attitude turned towards the Triangle, because that area seemed, not only to gather all of the attention in music etc. It also seemed to represent the “power” in NC music. After all, the management companies, entertainment lawyers, record labels, national clubs, and the overall music business “appeared” to be centered in that part of the state.

Later on I would begin to see these categories as “artificial,” created by some sort of partial defense mechanism of my cohort group, and also the belief that “Charlotte” was somehow the unwilling underdog (I now think teenagers and young adults like to be the underdog). In any case, this seemingly “harmless” small feature of Charlotean naivety transferred in some ways to the culture of biking in town. It wasn’t just my cohort, it seems to be a feature of other cohorts around town, representing both historical differences (diachronic), but also cultural differences (synchronic). The features that I have observed appear to be widespread features of this particular society. Why, of course, I am not sure exactly, but it may be that cycling shares a similar function, or disposition with other cultural forms (like music and art). Anthropologists sometimes categorize these cultural tokens as the relationship between the social actors in a set locale, and than the function of sharing particular objects and actions with one another. In other words, riding a bike or playing in a band, isn’t just an individual activity, that one simply (is it ever really simple?) engages in as some sort of aesthetic for pure aesthetic. Instead, riding a bike is a social activity that engages individuals in cooperation, and reflection of social ontologies, of relationships, of cultural and cognitive constraints and processes.

I always thought the biggest hurdle for a greater cycling culture in Charlotte was the mainstream voice – corporate Charlotte. As Charlotte has grown it has produced  exaggerated suburban sprawl, where people in Matthews and Ballantyne are asked to engage in civic relationships, commitments, and responsibilities with center city “folk.” Approaching close to a million people, Charlotte, is hardly a connected city in agreement of ideals, morals, and cultural reflection, it is rather a set of loosely connected tribes, or fiefdoms of modernity. We have seen over the last decade or two, the rise of cycling functionalism – where adults now use bikes to commute to work, to socialize, to grocery shop, and to transport themselves and their belongings through and to different neighborhoods. Of course this transition has been more explosive in certain parts of town (i.e., Plaza-Midwood, NoDa, Uptown, South End etc.); however, it is not clear whether it was because of the “urban infrastructure” that has accompanied it, or that these two things happened side by side with correlation, but not cause and effect.

What I have now come to realize is that cycling in Charlotte doesn’t need to fear corporate, or mainstream society (i.e., car commuting). Of course there is a great deal of education that needs to accompany infrastructure to both drivers of automobiles AND cyclists throughout the area. No, the greatest hurdle for a greater cycling culture in Charlotte, is in fact bicyclists and some organizations that advocate cycling. It seems counterintuitive, but many in the cycling world are so pessimistic about Charlotte becoming a force in the “domestication” of cycling city/county wide, that they are unable to see the great strides the city has made historically, as well as, culturally. Recently, I was even on a Facebook group page that advocated cyclists as drivers nationally. I engaged this group on a particular issue about infrastructure (e.g., bike lanes).

The general idea, which I am many others support, is that bicycles are vehicles, and therefore, they shouldn’t be marginalized by the creation of bike lanes. The statistics seem to back up this argument, because bike lanes “hide” many hazards, yet give the rider a false sense of safety (see Bike Lane hazards). Although, I agree with the theory that cyclists should act as a vehicle (this is backed up by many state laws), I also realize that bike lanes represent a material cultural artifact that promotes explicitly biking space, and implicitly that bikers have rights to the road, and in some places where it is problematic to “share the road” a space to differentiate themselves from other hazards (i.e., cars and faster and heavier traffic). In my opinion, the domestication of cycling culture in Charlotte can’t be earned by solely educating the masses (both cyclists and drivers). It must also be supported by material infrastructure to be successful. So, education, action (riding as a vehicle), and infrastructure to promote, achieve, and sustain a mainstream cycling environment for all vehicle types. This particular website featured a hostile response to myself and several other responders that “we don’t need more infrastructure,” and that “we don’t want to be treated different, we demand our rights as bikers in the lane.” While this might seem quite harmless for a group of small like minded advocates, the attitude seems to be one I find quite frequently in cycling, very reminiscent of ideology rather than pragmatism.

I certainly don’t claim to speak for all cyclists everywhere, but the attitude of fundamentalist cycling echoed with me long after all of us as “infrastructuralists” were thrown off and blocked from the group. The idea of extremist idealism that cyclists are equal to cars (really it isn’t egalitarianism, but rather we deserve more rights than cars, but that is implicit reasoning), and the pessimism that Charlotte is such a horrible cycling culture, makes it hard for the hundreds of people who are trying to make it a better “commuterverse” for bikes and biking culture. I am not entirely put off by the skepticism, but I have also seen the historical transformation over the last several decades. I would argue that critical reflection is an important component of growing this city’s cycling culture. However, I would also proffer that cynicism for the sake of tearing down, is cheap and unhelpful. It is easy to throw the stones, hard to create something exciting, important, dynamic. There are several hundred cyclists around Charlotte working with the government, lawyers, businesses, NPOs, event and communities, and others who haven’t ridden yet that hopefully will someday. Some of us believe that Charlotte can become the Portland of the East Coast one day, but distinctively Charlotte. Biking in Charlotte is better served by appealing to mainstream and marginal individual groups in and around town, not by forcing marginal beliefs upon the mainstream. Riding is about health, community, and culture. Biking is one step towards improving these communities and connecting the people that live in them. Riding bikes and creating an infrastructure to support it creates a marketplace – a marketplace of ideas shared by those on bikes.

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