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Bikes Point the Way to a Sustainable Future

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from "Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-Lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today!" by Chris Carlsson, published by AK Press, 2008.

[In] this bike subculture there's no person who is the best, who is winning, or getting the most money. It's a pretty equal community in that everyone can excel, but not have to be the top dog -- Robin Havens

A funny thing happened during the last decade of the 20th century. Paralleling events that transpired a century earlier, a social movement emerged based on the bicycle. This "movement" is far from a unified force, and unlike the late 19th century bicyclists, this generation does not have to rally around the demand for "good roads." Instead, "chopper" bike clubs, nonprofit do-it-yourself repair shops, monthly Critical Mass rides, organized recreational and quasi-political rides and events, and an explosion of small zines covering every imaginable angle of bicycling and its surrounding culture, have proliferated in most metropolitan areas. Month-long "Bikesummer" festivals have occurred in cities around North America since 1999, galvanizing bicyclists across the spectrum into action and cooperation. 

This curious, multifaceted phenomenon constitutes an important arena of autonomous politics. The bicycle has become a cultural signifier that begins to unite people across economic and racial strata. It signals a sensibility that stands against oil wars and the environmental devastation wrought by the oil and chemical industries, the urban decay imposed by cars and highways, the endless monocultural sprawl spreading outward across exurban zones. This new bicycling subculture stands for localism, a more human pace, more face-to-face interaction, hands- on technological self-sufficiency, reuse and recycling, and a healthy urban environment that is friendly to self-propulsion, pleasant smells and sights, and human conviviality. 

Bicycling is for many of its adherents both a symbolic and practical rejection of one of the most onerous relationships capitalist society imposes: car ownership. But it's much more than just an alternative mode of transit. A tall, rugged blonde man in his mid-thirties, Megulon-5, an inspirational character in Portland, Oregon's C.H.U.N.K. 666 group, declares, "We are preparing for a post-apocalyptic future with different laws of physics." It sounds off-kilter at first, but there is a rising tide of local activists in most communities who accept the Peak Oil arguments. Many are already organizing themselves directly and indirectly towards a post-petroleum way of life. It may not alter physics exactly, but it certainly implies a radical change in our relationship to energy resources and ecology. 

The explosion of zany and whimsical, practical and political self-expression via bicycling comprises a deeply rooted oppositional impulse that challenges core values of our society. The bicycle has become a device that connotes self-emancipation, as well as artistic and cultural experimentation. The playfulness and hands-on tinkering in the subculture is spawning new communities that can be framed as emerging sites of working class re-composition. 

The "outlaw" bicycling subculture has no hierarchy flowing from wage differentials and ownership, because most of the culture takes place outside of monetary exchange or the logic of business. Instead, these bike hackers are all about doing, tinkering with the discarded detritus of urban life, inventing new forms of play, celebration, and artistic expression. Theirs is a culture that is re-produced in action, not affirmed in acts of passive consumption. Not just an isolated geek culture, it exists in real spaces and brings people together across age, class, race, and gender boundaries. 

I call it an "outlaw" bike subculture because it goes against that kind of good behavior norm that a lot of mainstream bicycle advocates promote. The outlaw subculture is not particularly concerned with wearing helmets (or even safety in general), having the latest gear, following traffic rules set up for cars, or seeking approval from mainstream society. A 2003 issue of Christian Science Monitor described a "mutant bike" culture. Critical Mass rides have been important arenas for staking out these counter-norms in the bike scene. Crucially, this counter-sensibility has attracted legions of youth, and is eroding the nerdy image that has helped reinforce bicycling's reputation as unhip (recently emphasized in the film 40 Year Old Virgin, for example). 

It has long been a curiosity that mainstream, "middle-class" bicyclists have been obsessed with law-abiding behavior and have been so quick to denounce other cyclists for flouting their sense of propriety. Mainstream bicycle advocates maintain that cyclists as a group must be extremely law-abiding, in order to reinforce the self-congratulatory fantasy that bikes are angels in the transit universe, compared to the (automobile) devil   Once again, even among bicyclists, we run into a neo- Christian moralism that seeks to impose a black and white, good and bad dichotomy, warmly embracing those who shop and ride correctly, and casting the rest of us into a purgatory of illegality and disrespect. It's reinforced by an ideology called "effective cycling" developed by a Stanford rocket engineer (and bicycle enthusiast), which declares that  "Outlaw" Bicycling  bicyclists should strive to behave like cars on the streets of America.

In the U.S., the prevailing cultural norm still sees the bicycle as a toy. As children we are given a bicycle when we are deemed "ready," and it is often our first experience of self-emancipation from the narrow confines of home, of our street, and of parental supervision. Suddenly, we are mobile. On bikes kids quickly expand their territories. Neighborhoods that were once far away are now close and spaces for new independent adventures open up. Who can forget the exhilarating freedom of zipping along on a bicycle with a group of friends, or even alone, at a young age? Mastery of a complex urban environment starts to seem possible as our new mobility alters perspectives, horizons, and expectations. 

Of course this new freedom is tempered by streets jammed with death-dealing vehicles. Our first liberation is eventually forgotten as the promise of "true freedom" behind the wheel of a car is pumped into us before we can even walk, shaping the imaginations of children from an early age. The bicycle is usually seen as a mere stepping stone to the real thing, one's first car. And few people eschew that path and refuse to drive; for many, in spite of the financial burden, getting a car is an urgent priority of growing up, of establishing maturity. The bicycle is left behind as a child's plaything, or maybe in our overweening athletic culture it retains some use as a device for exercise. But American society, dominated by the car and oil industries for most of the past century, has been unwilling to accommodate the bicycle as a vehicular choice, as a reasonable means of daily transportation. 

Nevertheless, the bicycle has been enjoying a resurgence in the past 15 years. Daily bicycle commuting has expanded dramatically in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and other cities where the monthly seizure of streets by bicyclists known as Critical Mass has opened space and imaginations, and given people a safe and enjoyable way to reconnect with urban bicycling before venturing out on their own. For most of these new bicycle commuters, the choice is self-reinforcing. Once tried, bicycling is much more pleasant than sitting in traffic in a car. Moreover, it is much cheaper, and the rhythms of regular cycling can improve mental and physical health.   Underneath this broad move towards bicycling is a burgeoning subculture that is reaching down to kids and teens, diminishing the gender gap, and making bicycling and things bicycle-related hip in unprecedented ways. This subculture is largely a do-it-yourself (DIY) phenomenon, based on word-of-mouth, homemade zines, informal parties and events, and a deliberate sharing of basic technical know-how. The zine explosion, a quintessential DIY movement based on increasingly available reproduction technologies in copyshops and at corporate jobs since the mid-1980s, was crucial in spreading the new bike subculture. Megulon-5 attributes his own entry into the subculture partly to Greta Snider's infamous zine Mudflap: 

I was living in Portland, reading Mudflap and BikeCult and a lot of zines, and countercultural books. There was just this culture out there that I felt really isolated from, living in Portland. Now I don't feel so much that way, partly because I think we've -- C.H.U.N.K. 666 and other people unrelated to us -- made our own culture.

The bike subcultures provide important social space. Unlike the chain stores and malls that dominate the U.S., the bike culture is participatory, unpredictable, and open-ended. Robin Havens moved to San Francisco in 1996, knowing no one and not yet a bicyclist. But thanks to her roommates she found herself immersed in the bike messenger scene, and before long she was publishing her own occasional zine, Rip It Up!, about "bikes, beer and boys." Eventually she became a bike mechanic, founded a bike repair workshop for kids in San Francisco's Hunters' Point, and now teaches bike repair as part of a public high school curriculum. She declares: 

The underground bike subculture represents self-sufficiency, self-sustainability, and responsibility   [qualities that] could definitely be attributed to other kinds of ecological activism, e.g. community gardening. I also think that the bike or the garden culture (really healthy cultures) allow for a kind of giving and receiving that you can't get in the broader society   It breaks down the anonymity of the city.

The mental space opened up is one of bicycling's best kept secrets. For many, choosing to bicycle is a public act of individuation, reinforcing a self-reliant and critical mentality. Often it is the most individualistic cycling "rebels" who invest the most time and effort in new communities and institutions. On this note, Jessie Basbaum of San Francisco's Bike Kitchen says,   "Riding a bike is a very independent act. Just riding your bike around fosters a lot of self-reliance and comfortableness being alone. Riding by yourself gives you a lot of time to think, to look at things around you, so in that sense it's going against the grain a little bit." 

Bicycling communities are interesting amalgamations of strongly in dividualistic people who collaborate on self-sufficiency. Ted White, long time bike activist and "bikeumentarist" says,   "People who are into bikes tend almost always to be in some way independent thinking and self-sufficient   I think bikes are a positive response to almost everything that is wrong with American mainstream society today. Bikes are cheap, simple, and democratic and sexy in a very different way than riding around in a car. Bike transportation is about individuality but not about excess. Bikes are congenial and social. Bikes force us to be in our bodies and help us to know and love our bodies as they are.

In contrast, there are glossy magazines and plenty of upscale marketers selling bicycles and frou-frou lycra clothing, helmets, bike accessories and all the things you would expect a prolific consumer society to promote. But mainstream bicycling culture is largely separated from the grassroots upsurge, even if there are crossovers aplenty in the form of messenger bags, headlights, and other mass-produced accoutrements that trickle through the permeable membrane between the two worlds.   Chicago's "Rat Patrol," a self-described "anarchist group," articulates the subcultural rejection of commodification and marketing, and with it, underlines the outlaw assault on the marketing efforts to co-opt the bike culture:

The pathetic sports junkie on a bicycle is no more free than a motorist trapped in an SUV in a traffic jam   There is a void of self-doubt which athletes attempt to cover with spandex outfits and titanium objects of veneration. The sporting goods 'user' is compelled by nervous guilt to look down upon those who do not ride as fast, or as far, or as often. Persons exhibiting the following behaviors are best regarded as covert operators of the capitalistic conspiracy to further co-opt and defuse non-fossil-fueled transportation movements: 

• Abnormal concern with perfect finish and perfect operation of the bicycle • Keeps glossy bicycling magazines under the mattress • Suggests you should buy new equipment instead of repairing old bicycle • Always rides in superhero tights • When riding, is more concerned with speed and distance covered than scenery or places visited • Unable to hold a conversation unrelated to bicycles or biking • Paranoid delusion that he/she is being persecuted for his/her hobby • Speech is sprinkled with component brand names • Constant desire to witness bicycle's transforming power in his/her own life • Believes that biking is a morally superior choice, therefore befitting a morally superior attitude • Attempts to bring bicycle-related issues into every conversation • Awkward duck walk caused by wearing cleated bike shoes into roadside businesses • Easily impressed with expensive equipment and celebrity endorsements • Wears helmet even when not on bike

As you can see, these easily-identifiable symptoms of sporting goods addiction are identical to the symptoms of capitalist-driven automobile addiction. They are caused by the fetishization and worship of lifeless objects. What was once viewed as a useful tool, a means to an end, becomes the end in itself. Should your comrades seek to impose these dangerous ideas on you, or should you find yourself believing them, stay on your guard, and remember that these innocent- sounding ideas are in actuality part of a sinister plot to coopt the velorution. Do not let the greedy multinationals once again derail progressive attempts to save our Earth from global warming and environmental disaster!

The outlaw bicycling subculture is distinctly anti-consumerist. It is a tinkering culture that spontaneously re-uses and recycles in ways environmental advocates of recycling can only dream about. It is a culture that often merges bicycles with art and performance. Portland's   C.H.U.N.K. 666, an exemplary and probably typical group of bicycle hackers, "acquires whatever bicycles we can ethically without spending, [or] spending as little money as possible. We cut them into pieces and weld them back together again in different configurations." In the first issue of the C.H.U.N.K. 666 zine, a feature on one of the legendary early groups, the Hard Times Bicycle Club (HTBC) in Minneapolis, described how it has no dues, no regular meetings or rides. As the article explained, "part of the HTBC aesthetic is anti-money and anti-retail   A mechanic and artist, 38-year-old Per Hanson, is president of the HTBC   He lives 'minimally,' having few possessions and no real job."

The Hard Times Bike Club spread the word that they would recycle used bike parts and as a result, parts were dropped off at their garage regularly.   Martin Leugers founded Chopper Riding Urban Dwellers (CRUD), a San Francisco-based group that also puts bikes back together "artistically." As he put it:   I like the punk rock ethics of not wanting to make money from my art   I decided I'm going to make money at my job, and I enjoy what I do (industrial design), though it's not my perfect ideal. But it gives me the ability to make crazy bikes that basically nobody wants. The bikes I make I view as a kind of sculpture   It's my totally creative outlet where I don't have to worry about selling them. Class doesn't often enter into the identities being created in these new subcultural spaces, and yet, a resilient anti-capitalist instinct runs through much of it and gets expressed in various ways. Echoing Leugers, a recurrent theme is the refusal to allow the wage-labor relationship to define one's engagement. 

Bicycling outside of the waged day   Jessie Basbaum, private investigator, and Catherine Hartzell, immunology lab researcher, co-founded San Francisco's Bike Kitchen in mid2003 while still in their early 20s. The Bike Kitchen quickly became a favorite haunt adjacent to Cellspace, a large community space in the Mission District. Covered in graffiti, the Bike Kitchen sits in a former truck rental facility surrounded by asphalt, and on weekends, a neighborhood flea market. It's an all-volunteer space and deliberately refuses to provide paid services. "It's part of our policy not to do repairs for money  we're here to show people how to do it," says Basbaum. "It's definitely not a job," emphasizes Hartzell. In fact, if it were to become a job, Hartzell wonders "how I would feel. I don't think I would love it as much. When it's required of you, and you're not making the decision, you lose some sense of enjoyment."

Copyright AK Press, 2008

Click on the link for a copy of "Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-Lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today!"