- One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility
The field of “cycling studies,” which has begun to emerge as a distinct research area only within the last decade, is small enough to leave plenty of knowledge gaps, particularly in the linkages between bicycle technology and cycling culture. In One Less Car, Zack Furness creates his own niche in the field, examining—with a mostly North American focus—the culture and politics of cycling advocacy within the context of wider concerns about automobility and urban planning, gender and race, globalization and capitalism. At one level, the book’s focus is mostly on the activities and discourses that frame the use of technology, rather than the technology itself. However, bicycle technology does come to the fore in some of the discussion, and in any case part of Furness’s argument concerns the interrelations of technology, culture, and politics.
Most of the book is focused on aspects of cycling that are outside the transportation mainstream, though they often are prominent in the media. The empirical chapters cover bike activism, the highly visible and often controversial Critical Mass rides, the portrayal of cycling in the media, the culture of do-it-yourself (DIY) bike technology, and international development-focused community bike projects. This positions One Less Car alongside other work concerned with cycling culture and cycling activism, but [End Page 507] Furness offers a firm and thoroughgoing political critique of assumptions and practices inherent in much cycling work that is often missing from other analyses.
In particular, Furness returns frequently to the racial dimensions of cycling, which affect people’s ability both to gain access to cycling and to engage in the world of advocacy. This focus on race has been generally absent from cycling studies, in part because these issues are intellectually better developed and politically more urgent in the North American context than in Europe, where the bulk of cycling research has so far taken place. One Less Car nevertheless serves as an implicit rebuke to European cycling researchers, especially given the complex demographic changes that are resulting from the shifting economics, politics, and culture of Europe.
Another welcome aspect of One Less Car is Furness’s insightful picking apart of differences in perspective within the cycling world where one might have assumed coherence. His critiques of advocates who dismiss the needs and experiences of less-experienced bicycle users, and of international development programs that reinforce existing inequalities—but with the addition of donated bicycles—are well-argued but pull no punches. Furness’s style sometimes makes it difficult to see where he sits as an analyst, outside the empirical positions he endorses. However, on the whole it is refreshing to be able to read an account where the author’s viewpoint has not been watered down by false attempts to appear “balanced.”
One of the most novel aspects of One Less Car—and perhaps the element which is most relevant to readers of T&C—is the parallel Furness draws between DIY bike culture and DIY punk music culture. The punk DIY ethos reframes the users of music technologies and products as producers rather than passive recipients. Furness draws a direct parallel here with creative technological cycling cultures, an insight that warrants fuller study to test how far the parallel holds.
The same is true of Furness’s intriguing opening discussion, which I at first assumed (erroneously) would be the underlying premise of the whole book. Furness argues convincingly that the “automotive idea”—the notion of unconstrained individual travel—was first expressed as an outcome of the transformations in technology, culture, and space related to the spread of cycling in the late nineteenth century. This argument needs further development in order to trace how automobility transferred from cycling to driving—which would then make clearer what stages might eventually result in there being many “less cars.” [End Page 508]
Paul Rosen has researched bicycle technology, culture, and policymaking, along with delivering UK cycling policy, over the last twenty years. He currently...