Recently, I have been thinking about what it would take for Charlotte to achieve a world class distinction for cycling culture. Cities like Copenhagen pop to mind as what people “think,” when they hear phrases like “World Class,” “International,” and “cycling” all mixed together. In the US, typically places like Portland, OR, and Madison, WI come to mind. It was on a recent trip to Ragbrai in Iowa that I started to think about what these things actually mean. Two important questions come to mind. First, would people move here because cycling is such an important part of life. And, second, do we have infrastructure that enables people from a wide variety of social and economic backgrounds, experience, and usage to support such a bike culture.
When I first started putting ideas together for Velotribe.org and this blog, I wanted to promote the marketplace of ideas to think about tough questions. I learned throughout my tenure as a researcher, director, and teacher that getting highly motivated creative people together to identify and solve novel problems is a difficult endeavor to start up, but the advancements are great in the long run. Sometimes these issues are very complex, and ideologically push individuals to divide themselves into “camps” with opposing philosophies. Velotribe and this blog are meant to tease out these differences, so that solving the issues that many of us are passionate about will be possible. This has lead me to the idea that “modular” group, micro-cultures lead to exponential results. Therefore, rather than trying to get “everyone” on the same page, we should encourage people to do what they are passionate about, and then connect those projects as they seem relevant to each other ad hoc.
There are many passionate people in Charlotte working on building this city into a better biking culture. In fact there are at least two dozen individuals and groups that I can count right now off the top of my head. Each has their own distinctive voice in the community. The power for growth in cycling culture here really is in the “organic” growth of connecting people. I have seen several methods used to do this over the last several years, but long term growth depends upon organic methods, supported sometimes by corporate interests. We should encourage the connectivity of the marketplace of ideas, where people that come together encourage more creative and prosperous citizens.
I can remember arriving back into Charlotte in 2013 from Europe (where I worked), and I started to ride in what would become a social group called the Crank Mafia. There were only five/six of us then, but we started to ride between neighborhoods for almost everything. Many stops included businesses, restaurants, and pubs that I almost certainly wouldn’t have discovered or frequented over a span of time without the catalyst of the bike and group riding. We were meeting with others from different neighborhoods encouraging them to ride with us. It ballooned to hundreds of people in a very short amount of time. I spent as much or more time in NoDa, Plaza Midwood, and uptown than I did in my own neighborhood. In many ways, riding a bike reminded me of the book “The Gift,” by Marcel Mauss. In his anthropological work, Mauss noticed that exchange was a very important building block of connecting people together in groups. One might take away that people are either at confrontation with one another, or they exchange and become connected. Bike riding social was connecting the small Crank Mafia group to other people in other parts of town.
We began to plan events and meet-ups with an entirely different spectrum of people, all because of bikes and cycling. It was so organic and explosive that as I have watched various corporate groups try to do the same thing, they didn’t have the same results, and they were not lasting. Almost feeling Malcolm Gladwell-ian, I pondered why this was so. What is it about organic culture that is so powerful and lasting. The answer must begin with people and connectivity. Or at least that is what I currently think.
One of those people, I first met was a small in stature, but iconic nonetheless, woman named Pam Murray. She was the de facto leader, community organizer for the Plaza Midwood Tuesday Night Ride aka PMTNR. One of the riders in our small group, told us about Pam and the PMTNR, so one Tuesday we rode over to Plaza Midwood and met up at the Common Market for what would become a life altering experience. That night we rode with a large group of maybe 50-60 riders around town on regular roads, through neighborhoods, stopping for a social around the halfway point. Over the years, I have now ridden it many times, and it has grown to hundreds of riders at times, each with their own signature personality and style. I knew almost instantly that Pam was different from the majority of people I had encountered in Charlotte, and in cycling (I had been riding since my youth as a native in Charlotte). Pam had a passion for “everyday” cycling like artists and musicians have about their art and music. Over the last few years, I have come to know Pam as a cycling activist and advocate for “everyday” cycling. She doesn’t just talk the talk, she lives it. I can’t even imagine Plaza Midwood without Pam’s energy and tireless work to get people riding, and having fun. Plaza Midwood is by many standards a small micro-Copenhagen/Portland, but it has its own unique feel there among the other creative folks.
Anthropology is really a discipline about discovering things by learning about the people of the culture in their own voice, so that one might tease out larger rules, laws, morals, codes, connections. So, it seems fitting to ask people about why they cycle, or don’t. How bikes impact their everyday lives etc. For this new blog I decided to put some questions about cycling in Charlotte to Pam. What might we learn from her experiences. How can we take that passion and energy, and use it to bolster Charlotte’s cycling culture.
This was my interview: