Traffic: Geographies of Power

Every first time cyclists knows the feeling. You leave your car at home, choosing instead to take the more conscionable vehicle, the bicycle. You're being green. You're being sustainable. You're being a good citizen. You are nervous to ride on the road, but confident that drivers will slow down and move cautiously around you, respectful of your higher calling and vulnerable position. Offering a slight wave or even a mouthed "thank you for cycling" as they pass, your neighbors will at least think somewhat better of you, if not inspired to call you up and join you the following morning.

But when you get on the road, thing don't turn out as expected. Drivers treat your position in the lane -- to the right but not dangerously so -- like an empty drum in barrel horse racing. They speed by you without so much as a nod causing your heart to stop and check itself. You get weird stares which you associate with a mix of mental insanity and road rage. Occasionally you get a beep which you first interpret to be a nicety, but which you soon discover is a mechanical "fuck you" in lieu of a human voice. When you arrive at your office, you realize that bicycle parking had not occurred to the building manager. While you search for a nearby tree to lock your bike, coworkers who regularly chat you up over coffee approach you with some reservation, holding their nose in the opposite direction and wondering if you've had your license suspended from a recent DUI.

What you're experiencing, perhaps for the first time in your life, is what it feels like to be in the margins. The system, in this case the American transportation system, was not built for you. It's not personal. City planners didn't seek you out and make things difficult for you out of malice. It's just that cycling wasn't a consideration when roads were built.

While we often think of road cycling as car vs cyclist, it's a bit more complicated than that. It's about space and power.

When people ask me what geography is, I tell them it's about space and power. But that doesn't help much. It's too abstract. So I tell them about cycling.

Think about the road. An empty road. Perhaps High Street at 7:00AM on a Sunday morning. Now ask yourself these questions: What is road space? What defines a street, it's boundaries, it's character? How does the street effect sidewalks, storefronts, bus stops, and driveways? How is access to road space controlled?

Keep High Street in mind. Now bring a car into view. Imagine how that space is changed by of the presence of the car, the movement of the car. How does the driver experience the road? How are road behaviors normalized into everyday practice? How do people become socialized into driving, cycling, skateboarding, walking?

Steady on, now. Fill the street with traffic. Cars. Buses. Dump trucks. Scooters. Pedestrians. Strollers. And don't forget: a bicycle which you mounted confidently -- or perhaps not so confidently -- on top.

I think most of us would agree on one thing: this space was not created for you. Okay, okay -- legally you're allowed there. But that's another story. You don't fit the weight requirement for entry to the street; you and your bicycle weigh a fraction of the Escalade with fold-down TV's. You're slow; you can't keep up with the rush around you. There's no law that says you have to live up to any of these expectations, of course. But those expectations are real nonetheless. And when you don't meet the expectations of your environment, when you break with the socialized norms of that space, there are consequences.

What does that mean? Consequences? It means that people who can claim legitimacy in according to the rules of that space are authorized -- if by no one other than themselves -- to judge you. The social isolation of an enclosed automobile adds to the element of anonymity, which further empowers one to exercise authority. You are an illegitimate intruder in this space.

If this sounds hopeless, I don't think it needs to be. There are ways to mediate these power-space dynamics. One thing we try to do through Bike to Work Week, is get a critical mass of cyclists on the road in order to normalize the urban spectacle of cycling. There are also contradictory power dynamics at play, as Meredith Joy has articulated elsewhere, such as attempting to bring cyclists under the pervue of the state and to govern the cycling body.

What absolutely cannot be missed is this: cycling is not simply about not driving a car and dichotomies should not be too simply constructed. Both the driver and the cyclist, at odds as they are on the road, still must contend with similar power problems which are exercised through road space. To understand the problems of cycling, then, we must understand power and space in the urban environment.

Austin Kocher would like you to check out The name says it all.