Pedalling big changes

Zack Furness is the author of One Less Car: Bicycling and the politics of automobility (Temple University Press, 2010). He was interviewed via email by Jon Lamb.

What was your motivation for writing One Less Car?

Two reasons are most important. First, the basic ability for folks to ride a bike on a city street in the US is not a given, nor is it “natural” in any formal sense of the word. Rather, it’s due to tireless work of cycling advocates over the last 50 years.

There have been lots of people who have worked to promote access for bicycle transportation and non-motorised vehicles, to raise awareness about the innumerable problems of car culture and to agitate for what philosopher Henri Lefebvre famously called “the right to the city”, which is another way of describing fundamental rights that are rooted not in consumption or the ownership of private property, but in being an inhabitant of a city. It’s the radically democratic idea that all people should be allowed to  create and shape the kind of city in which they want to live, regardless of whether they have money.

Because so much of the work done by bike advocates has been widely ignored or, at best, wrongly understood as some sort of single-issue gesture, I felt like the best way I could show my respect for this lineage of activism was to document it and to highlight what I see as some of the salient issues about both bicycle transportation and car culture.

The second, related, reason I wrote One Less Car is that, despite my gratitude for and sense of indebtedness to bike advocates, there are some major problems with the ways in which bike advocacy is done, and many crucial social and political issues - in particular those pertaining to race, gender, class and mobility - that are frequently ignored in never-ending debates about the safety of bike lanes or the merits of wearing helmets (to give just two examples).

I wanted to raise some critical questions about bike advocacy because there is too much at stake not to do so. I’m much less concerned with pretending to be some expert on cycling than I am with people advocating for bicycle transportation within the context of social and environmental justice.

The auto industry in US politics and society appears almost omnipresent and all powerful. What longer term implications do you think the 2008 global financial crisis and oil price hike have had upon the big auto corporations? What are the longer term implications or opportunities for sustainable transport?

It’s difficult to say because capitalism is incredibly resilient, and people throughout the world (especially in the US) have short memories when it comes to economic crises; we tend to see them as exceptions, as opposed to being fundamental to the market capitalism that organises our everyday lives. Consequently, I’m not sure that the recent economic turmoil will have any substantive impact on the US auto industry, or at least no more so than the radical transformations that have already taken place since the 1980s: the downsizing of workforces, higher profit expectations of corporate management and an organised assault on the unions.

I’m always of two minds when it comes to the auto industry, because at the same time I loathe auto corporations and the pre-eminent role of the car in the US, I never forget that auto unions are responsible for providing hundreds of thousands of working-class people with job stability and dignified careers throughout the 20th century. Like a number of progressive auto workers, I wish that the industry could be reorganised to allow the workers to keep their jobs, but perhaps they could produce technologies that aren’t ultimately destructive to the planet.

The auto corporations will never let this happen because they’d just as soon take advantage of crises to disempower the unions and increase their foothold in foreign markets. The auto industry is like every other major industry that is entirely dependent on cheap oil and, by extension, beholden to the corporate oligopoly that dominates global oil production.

At the same time, it’s not all doom and gloom. The increasing costs associated with driving are undoubtedly making a lot of people rethink their transportation habits, and it’s an important reason so many have taken up bike riding for transportation in recent years. There’s good reason for bike advocates to be excited or at least find something positive in the midst of the turmoil.

The book provides some insightful detail around cycling culture, how it has evolved historically and how this intersects with race, class and gender. How do you think issues of equity and inclusion are understood by cycling advocates?

In North America, the UK and what I can gather about Australia, there seems to be broad support for inclusion as long as it pertains specifically to improving conditions for cyclists and attempting to “mainstream” bicycle transportation. What is less common is finding support for transportation equity that is specifically tied to empowering women, addressing the needs of the disenfranchised and generally thinking about bikes as part of a more radical set of alternative solutions to the problems of everyday mobility.

There are excellent examples of people and organisations that have greatly expanded the parameters of bike advocacy to make it more attentive to the needs of women, the poor and/or communities of colour, but on the whole, bicycle transportation is not typically framed as a feminist endeavour, or a social and environmental justice issue. I don’t fault all bike advocates for failing to address these issues when there are enough challenges posed, in most US cities, by simply getting lanes painted on a street! But I also think it’s appropriate for people to hold themselves accountable and to recognise that ignoring the thornier social issues surrounding transportation is largely a matter of unexamined privilege. Ironically, the inattention to such issues severely limits the capacity of cycling organisations to form bonds with communities that could dramatically increase the support for urban bicycle transportation.

One thing worth mentioning is that in countries where there is a dedicated commitment to bicycle transportation (e.g. in the Netherlands or Denmark) a variety of bicycle amenities, as well as entire cycling infrastructures, are by design more inclusive and more responsive to the needs of people with different abilities, different concerns and from different walks of life. I don’t want to make it seem as if “inclusion” is reducible to the rhetoric of bike advocates, as opposed to the results that specific forms of advocacy and planning yield.

There are some great examples in the US of cities taking cycling and sustainable transport seriously, like Portland in Oregon. What are the factors behind this and how influential are they to other cities?

Portland bike advocacy goes back to the early 1970s. Cycling advocates organised into a group called the Bike Lobby in 1970, and the following year they passed what is arguably the first piece of legislation specifically aimed at promoting bicycle transportation, by requiring 1% of highway funding to be set aside for bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

Around this time, a coalition of activists and local politicians halted the development of the Mt. Hood Freeway and other highway infrastructure schemes (developed in consultation with New York City planning tyrant Robert Moses) that would have decimated the city’s core. These achievements created a context in which public transportation and bicycling could eventually flourish. At the same time, one cannot talk about the success of cycling in Portland without recognising the grassroots efforts of cyclists who work outside of formal political channels through the development of community cycling projects, worker-owned bike shops, a politicised “car free” movement and a plethora of bike-centred events.

Portland is certainly not without its flaws, nor are the other cities (like San Francisco, Minneapolis, New York and Chicago) where cycling has increased phenomenally in the last two decades. But Portland’s success highlights the importance of a movement that makes concrete demands of the state and simultaneously creates alternative institutions and cultural practices that push people in more environmentally progressive and politically radical directions, i.e. toward socialism. Portland’s successes have inspired a lot of bike advocates to realise that things could change in their own city. Lastly, the city’s investment in dedicated cycling facilities will undoubtedly promote bicycle transportation in the long term, as has been the case in numerous cities throughout northern Europe and Asia.

In the US, Australia and elsewhere there are crusade-like attacks upon cycling by conservative media commentators. What drives this and how effective are cycling advocates in countering this in the States?

There has been a perception cultivated in the press that cyclists are smug, ideologically driven elitists who think they are better than everyone, who don’t pay their “fair share” to be on the road: These good-for-nothings constantly complain about their lot in life, and then they disobey traffic laws just to throw their smug elitism in our faces! I address this nonsense in my book, but the bottom line is that we are living in a moment when there’s an incredibly toxic mix of stupidity, arrogance and reactionary thinking that have pushed already conservative countries even further down the right-wing rabbit hole.

Within the paranoid Glen Beckian world view that has come to dominate political discourse in the US, everything perceived to be good for the environment is part of a grand socialist conspiracy to make good people feel guilty and ultimately to undermine the “American way of life”. You have politicians creating bills to remove energy-saving light bulbs from government buildings at the same time you hear shrill cries for energy “independence” from all those freedom-hating brown people in the Middle East - and with absolutely no irony. Similarly, you have taxpayer-funded representatives denouncing things like Bike-to-Work Day, or speaking out against a minuscule tax break for bike commuters, claiming that it’s a Democratic plan to send us back to the horse-and-buggy days.

It’s impossible for cyclists or almost anyone else to counter such messages directly because the corporate press (in particular TV news) does not create space in which alternative viewpoints can be heard, much less taken seriously. People like the Koch brothers and the Mellon Scaifes pump millions of dollars into right-wing or libertarian think tanks that specialise in promoting “market-based solutions” to society’s problems, including transportation. Thus one is far more likely to hear some anti-cyclist or anti-public transit diatribe than a sane discussion about peak oil or the point on the horizon when the country’s transportation infrastructure will resemble that of a Third World country - that is, without trillions of dollars in dedicated infrastructure investments.

Cyclists have been effective at countering attacks when given the opportunity to have their perspective covered in the press (typically in newspapers), but they are far more effective when it comes to advocating their own messages through blogs, websites, films, film festivals, comics, creative demonstrations and even through more traditional forms of communication like magazines and radio programs.