Saturday, November 20, 2010

Critical Mass: four interesting reads

Plenty of folks have written on Critical Mass and its role in transforming society. I haven't ridden in Critical Mass in too many places - Chicago in '04 and '05 (absolutely phenomenal - bikes as far as you could see), NYC in '08 (well, we didn't actually ride... because there were about 30 cops and ten cyclists in Union Square with us), Austin '09 (Austin gets more riders on the Thursday Social Ride than on Critical Mass) - but even my small trajectory reflects the decline of Critical Mass' political power over the past decade. I'm torn. Either Mass is being dismantled because it threatens to upset the dominant social order, or it's being dismantled from within because it's already served its useful purpose and gotten bikes on the map. Portland and NYC (both represented below) tell very different stories.

Either way, here are a few interesting sources on Critical Mass.

Carlsson, Chris, ed. Critical Mass: Bicycling's Defiant Celebration. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2002: AK is an anarchist press, which is rather fitting for a whole book on an anarchist event. Though Carlsson is described elsewhere as the founder of Critical Mass, in true anarchist fashion he totally denies any association beyond collecting, compiling, and publishing the dozens of short essays that make up this volume. Critical Mass is a once-a-month spontaneous cycling event where cyclists in cities all over the world band together and ride en masse through city streets during Friday rush hour. As an anarchist event, it has no leader, founder, set route, or set meaning, and though the many Massers who contributed essays to this book all agree that it has something to do with a lot of people bicycling at the same time in the same place, very few agree as to why they are doing it. This lack of agreement makes for a fascinating volume written by people of all levels of literacy, humor, and philosophical engagement and provides a lot of food for thought as to the relationship between riding/writing and doing/speaking. (Check out some other stuff on Carlsson and Critical Mass here.)

Lynn, Andrew, Elizabeth Press, and Chris Ryan. "Still We Ride." United States: In Tandem Productions, 2005: Still We Ride is a film made by the NYC activist organization TimesUp! that documents the police crackdown on the Critical Mass ride during the 2004 Republican National Convention. It is obviously biased toward showing that cyclists are not considered “traffic,” and at times those being documented seem to be actively provoking the police, but both the bias and the obvious acts of police brutality (beating cyclists, seizing bikes, etc.) make a compelling argument for how difficult it is to be a transportation minority in a car culture. Made just six years ago, it also serves as a historical record of a car-dominant society in an increasingly multi-modal culture: just this fall, 80 of the 240 cyclists arrested that night were awarded a multi-million dollar settlement from the New York City government.

Furness, Zack. "Critical Mass, Urban Space and Velomobility." Mobilities 2, no. 2 (2007): 299-319: This article focuses on the spatial politics of Critical Mass. Using the Situationists, a 1950s group that attempted to revolutionize society by temporarily appropriating spaces and transforming them through spontaneous performative critique, he characterizes Critical Mass as a performative critique of car culture.

Sano, Rev Phil, and Joe Biel. "A Post-Critical Mass Portland: Living in a Post-Revolutionary Bicycle Age." United States: Microcosm Publishing, 2009: This short video examines the reasons why Critical Mass in Portland no longer has the revolutionary (velorutionary) power it had in the early 2000s. Its conclusion that Portland would rather spend thousands of dollars silencing Critical Mass than allow traffic to be impeded is similar to the TimesUp! argument in “Still We Ride,” but with an important caveat: unlike New York, Portland has been named the most Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists for several years and boasts not only hundreds of miles of bike friendly infrastructure but a significant modal split and a thriving bike culture and bike industry. Though the filmmakers do not suggest this, the end of Critical Mass in Portland may mean a silencing of cyclists, but it may also indicate that Critical Mass has served its purpose and made its voice heard, and that it was in its death throes, anyway.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Flink, Sheller & Urry and Walsh: three quick reads on car culture

I'm just starting to compile my research and look for holes, and believe me, there are holes. I'm going to put together a longer list of transportation and culture later on, but in the meantime, here are three pieces on American car culture that provide useful context for bike studies. Forgive my crappy prose - it's been a long week.

Flink, James J. "Three Stages of American Automobile Consciousness." American Quarterly 24, no. 4 (October 1972): 451-73: Flink’s by-now classic Marxist interpretation of the influence of the automobile on American society divides automobility into three phases and shows how each contains the seeds of the next. The first phase, from 1910 to World War II, involved the introduction of the car into American society and the reorientation of both landscape and culture to accommodate it; the second, in the 1940s and 1950s, constituted the American love affair with the car, and the third, which started in the late 1950s, has been the disillusionment with the car and its reconfiguration as a problem rather than the best thing ever. Flink’s argument is a little teleological (domination by the motorcar is “inevitable”), but he does compellingly link American ideology in general and individualism in particular with personal mobility.

Sheller, Mimi, and John Urry. "The City and the Car." International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24, no. 4 (2000): 737-57: Sheller and Urry are both UK-based sociologists and both write prolifically about the technological domination of the car. This article contains the clearest synthesis of their arguments that I have found. They argue that although people invented the car, the car has quickly come to dominate all elements of society by orienting “automobility” around itself. Automobility is a complex concept involving manufacturing processes (Fordism, Taylorism), consumption patterns (cars are the second most expensive thing most people will every buy), a machinic complex of roads, motels, parts manufacturers, and other businesses that only exist in the form they do because of cars, overly private mobility, a shaming of other transportation modes, and the exploitation of environmental resources. Having built up and then deconstructed the automobilic monolith, Sheller and Urry propose a solution similar to Mapes’: multimodality and increased flows of information.

Walsh, Margaret. "Gendering Mobility: Women, Work, and Automobility in the United States." History 93, no. 311 (July 2008): 376-95: Walsh is a UK-based historian of transportation in the US. This article focuses on the historical relationship between women and cars, and as such it provides an incredible amount of background on automobility and social difference. It also provides a possible model for a similar study of bicycles. In addition to tracing women’s use of cars in the US and thus intervening in arguments that posit the car as a masculine vehicle, she situates this relationship in transportation studies (Flink, Rae), feminist studies (“The Cult of True Womanhood”), economics (Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic), and reams of Federal Highway Administration and Census data. This article is amazingly useful just for her methodology and literature alone.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Four good sources of bicycle statistics

National Statistical Data Sources

National Data Sets serve both statistical and discursive functions. The data sets included below cannot speak to specific individuals, and some of them cannot even speak to specific places. Nor can causal relationships be extrapolated from them without violating basic statistical principles (correlation is not causation!) What they can do is show the correlation between two variables – say, biking to work and education level – and predict the likelihood that an increase in one will accompany an increase in the other. Thus, though they cannot characterize specific bicyclists or give reasons as to why certain people in certain places bike more than others, they can provide characteristics that bicyclists and neighborhoods with high rates of bicycling are likely to have. Perhaps unsurprisingly, data from three of the four studies below crop up in planning and advocacy discourse at both the Federal and local Austin levels; this fact alone indicates that these data sets merit further study, both for what information can be mined from them and for the ways in which they discursively construct bicyclists and bike-friendly neighborhoods.

US Census Bureau
Decennial Census 2000 (2010), Summary File 3, and the 2009 American Community Survey (

Description: Both the Decennial Census and the American Community Surveys include questions on bicycling to work. Though the American Community Surveys include continuously collected data and are therefore more up-to-date, they are estimates, not true counts, and their sample sizes are too small to accurately predict behavior at the block group level (small groups of a few blocks within an urban census tract, which itself is usually a small parcel of no more than six block groups.) Thus, for predicting the percentage of Austin commuters who biked to work in 2009, the American Community Survey theoretically provides the most accurate numbers. For predicting bike commuting at the neighborhood level, however, the much larger sample size in the Decennial Census theoretically provides more accurate numbers. (The League of American Bicyclists has used American Community Survey data to put together bicycling commuting rates for the 70 largest cities and the US for the past ten years; see

Pros: Together, the Decennial Census and the American Community Surveys provide large amounts of data and allow for correlations between biking and a host of other variables, including household income, race, ethnicity, gender, population density, education level, and household size. Also, sample data can be downloaded and manipulated (hooray!)

Cons: Because the Census data focus on biking to work, they are unable to capture cycling for non-work purposes, including running errands, biking to places of entertainment like bars, coffeeshops, and movie theaters, and recreational riding. It also excludes cycling as work. Further, focusing on work leaves out students, who very likely bike at least as much as workers. Also, the question about transportation to work asks for the main mode of transportation to work used by the respondent in a recent “reference week,” and only allows one mode to be reported, even if the respondent uses multiple modes on a daily basis. Thus, it excludes people who ride to work, but who use their bikes for the shorter portion of their trip, or who ride to work, but not as much as they use some other mode. Further, the census provides no data on cycling frequency or time of year the data was collected, nor (because it cannot report records for specific individuals) does it indicate potential routes to work. Finally, as with any survey, all information is self-reported and is therefore only as accurate as the respondent wants it to be, though I imagine that the threat of penalty under Federal law keeps a few people from lying on their surveys. It thus can only provide information on people who self-report as regular commuters, and its picture of cyclists is accordingly skewed.

Bureau of Transportation Statistics
2009 Omnibus Household Survey (

Description: Administered annually by the Federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the Omnibus Household Survey is a 15-minute nationwide telephone survey of approximately 1,000 randomly selected households. The 2009 Survey also includes data for “Target MSAs,” metropolitan statistical areas around major cities (LA, New York, Chicago, etc.) that include transit in their modal mix. It aims to gauge public opinion regarding the national transportation system (including roads, railroads, and airplanes) and includes two questions about bicycling: one, whether the respondent bicycled at all, for any reason, in the “reference week” preceeding the survey, and the other, how many days in the past week the respondent biked.

Pros: Like the Census data, the Omnibus Household Survey collects demographic and geographic data as well as biking, so it also allows for correlations between biking and several other variables. It is also available for download, and its relatively small size (about 1,600 respondents) makes it easy to work with. In addition, it considers biking to be both transportation AND a sport, thereby capturing riders who ride for recreation and for non-work purposes in addition to commuters. Further, it attempts to quantify biking by asking for the number of days biked in the previous week, thus allowing for correlations between bicycling frequency and variables like education level, neighborhood urbanicity, income level, etc. It also includes questions on availability of bike infrastructure, thus allowing for correlations between cycling and available lanes/paths, etc.

Cons: Although the data are broken into a national set and a focused urban set, the sets are neither place-specific nor particularly large, and with a total of roughly 1,600 respondents in the 2009 Survey, even if the data could be broken down into neighborhoods or even cities, there are not enough respondents for results to be statistically significant in any particular place. Further, this data is generated via randomized phone calls to landline telephones, and as of 2008 nearly 20% of households were wireless only; the data may be skewed to older people, less urban people, and people with children or other dependents. Finally, although asking about days biked in the previous week does provide more insight into bicycling behaviors than the Census question does, more depth regarding reasons for cycling, mileage, routes, and trips taken would provide a nuanced picture of cyclists.

Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals/ USDoT
2010 Women’s Cycling Survey (

Description: The 2010 Women’s Cycling Survey was administered in the spring of 2010 by the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals and sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration; Mark Schultz and Anna Sibley of the Department of Public Health at UNC-Greensboro handled the preliminary analysis. Its aim was to determine bicycling attitudes and behaviors among female cyclists. Unlike the other surveys discussed here, this survey was conducted online via SurveyMonkey, and its distribution was not controlled for geography – instead, it was circulated via bike-related blogs and websites. It garnered more than 13,000 respondents, all but 200 of whom were women, and more than 6,000 of those women reported biking daily for transportation. The demographics and cycling behaviors of its respondents differ significantly from those of the Census Bureau and BTS Surveys above and the Attitudes and Behaviors Survey below; I suspect the difference in survey design and distribution may be the largest contributing factor.

Pros: Because the survey was distributed online and data are therefore not dependent on the respondent having a landline, data may represent more cyclists more fully than other surveys. Also, the sample size is huge! The survey also goes into more detail regarding cycling behavior, and includes questions on miles biked per week, reasons for biking, and factors that may increase cycling (bike lanes, off-road paths, etc.) By focusing on women, the survey also collects substantial information on a cycling population that is often overlooked in popular cycling discourse.

Cons: Probably the largest problem with this data is its opacity: as yet, I have been unable to find even a representative sample of the survey questions or the data collected. Also, the vast majority of its respondents (85%) reported having a Bachelor’s degree or higher, 90% reported that they are white, 80% characterized their communities as either medium or large cities, and roughly half of respondents reported that they rode daily. These percentages are considerably skewed with respect to the other three data sets and national statistics collected by the census bureau; the non-randomized distribution method may have significantly skewed the data. Also, because we have no comparable data (the survey will only be performed once, and does not include male respondents), its findings may be relevant for correlating female cycling with bike infrastructure, but I’m not sure that we can safely draw any other conclusions from them.

Bureau of Transportation Statistics/USDoT
2002 National Survey of Bicyclist and Pedestrian Attitudes and Behaviors (
Description: This 9,000-respondent telephone survey, which was conducted in the summer of 2002, appears to be one of the most frequently-cited sources of cycling statistics for planning agencies and advocacy groups alike. It was the first national survey to go into detail about how, how often, where, and why people walk or bike, and it goes into depth about safety concerns, distance biked, type and number of trips, start points, end points, and thoughts on bicycling infrastructure. The survey also collected info on many of the demographic variables mentioned in the above surveys, thus allowing for correllations between cycling and a variety of factors.

Pros: The survey has a large sample size, making it statistically relevant at many geographic levels. It also provides the most detailed data about who bikes where and why, and the randomized telephone survey method helps keep basic demographic information on par with national data.

Cons: Although the reports do provide base counts and the actual wording of questions, I have yet to find either the actual data or a representative sample of it. This opacity is concerning because although the reports do a great deal with race, they do very little with social class, and based on the data I have been able to work with, class correlates much more strongly with bicycling than does race. Also, as with the Omnibus Household Survey, the reliance on landline phones may skew the results toward people with landlines, although this may not have been as much of a concern in 2002. Finally, the age of the survey may be a problem, as bike networks have exploded and bike commuting has increased by 44% since 2000 (see the League of American Bicyclists’ summary of American Community Survey biking rates, above.)