The Cultural Construction of the Bicycle

Before automobiles first appeared in urban spaces, parents regularly sent children outside to play in the street. Today, noone would hesitate to label any parent who did that as reckless. The cultural distance between then and now is substantial. Readers interested in its course should check out Peter Norton’s excellent, and consistently surprising, Fighting Traffic.

I am regular bike commuter in New York City, along with an increasing number of other people. Bikes, under the law, are supposed to follow the same rules of the road as motor vehicles. But many cyclists, here in New York at any rate, don’t. They slow rather than stop at red lights and stop signs. They weave around pedestrians in crosswalks. They go the wrong way on one way streets. It’s a great case study of why people obey the law: we cyclists break these rules because they seem so manifestly unsuited to our circumstances. I yield rather than stop for some red lights and some pedestrians, when it seems clearly safe to do so (although I draw my personal line at salmoning upstream in a one-way zone). But I would never in a million years blow through a red light when driving a car. Even in the middle of the night, even if  nobody is coming and I know nobody is coming, I sit there patiently in the empty intersection until the light turns green.

Can the law take the lead in developing rules that make enough sense for biking for transport that cyclists would obey them? Or must we await, as we did in the case of automobiles, a new cultural construction of bicycling? (As Norton demonstrates, a lot of people died in “accidents” while the new construction of the car was emerging.) Is the wait worth it if that new construction would be optimized by what my colleagues Sonia Katyal and Eduardo Peñalver might call bicyclists’ productive disobedience? Notwithstanding my wish for a more top-down approach, it seems that  lawyers and regulators have given more thought how to optimize traffic rules for driverless cars than for bicycles.

I was in London two weeks ago giving a paper, where the bike share system has made urban cycling even more ubiquitous than it is in New York. A few days’ observation found, just as in New York, cyclists ignoring red lights and going the wrong way on one way streets.  But I didn’t see one instance in London of two cyclist behaviors I see regularly here:  failing to stop for pedestrians and riding on the sidewalk.  London cyclists’ disobedience seems more productive than New Yorkers’.

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5 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    Could you please explain how what you refer to as a “new cultural construction” would differ from law’s developing rules that make enough sense for cyclists to obey them? It seems as if the development of such new rules would constitute a new “construction.” And if the rules and the construction were distinct, then the development of the new construction wouldn’t ipso facto bring about the new rules… Could you please explain your idea more clearly?

  2. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    Sounds like a problem of legal, and cultural, transition. I’ve been cycling in NYC since 1985 and hope to continue for another 20 years, say. Before Mayor Bloomberg’s effort to make a bike culture (e.g., green lanes), we riders fended for ourselves and tended to obey the law.

    My guess is that once the efforts Mayor Bloomberg has begun to create a cycling culture gel, obedience will again prevail. In the transition, which may take a decade or more, violations and experimentation will rule, by cyclists and everyone else, such as pedestrians and taxi drivers.

    The transition problem also goes beyond law and compliance to norms. Last May, a taxi driver hit me / my bike as I rode, in the bike lane, down Broad Street. I may have been riding a bit too fast. The driver certainly misjudged our proximity. Though we were both basically obeying the law, we had an accident (I broke my wrist and elbow).

    I think the odds of such a case 10 or 15 years ago, when cycling was less common in NYC, and 10 or 15 years from now, when it will be more common, would be far lower than now, when we are trying to cope with the switch.

    A new construction is underway, and I am sadly skeptical of a legal solution that will make it easier.

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    Lawrence, just curious: when you say the odds of an accident 10 or 15 years ago were lower, how are you normalizing them? Are you talking about the total number of cases per year, or are you dividing that by the number of bicyclists? (I.e., even if there were fewer bicycle accidents absolutely, fewer bicyclists back then could nonetheless result in higher odds of a particular bicyclist being in an accident, in theory.)

  4. Lawrence Cunningham says:


  5. Ray Campbell says:

    One of the issues with a new cultural construction is that as bike usage increases, the demographics of the bike riders change, which impacts the culture. The stats I’ve seen show that in the US bike commuters trend heavily male, and urban bike culture is also heavily impacted by the commercial bike messenger component, which tends to be both male and young. If you look at cities with a mature cycling infrastructure, such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, that’s not the case – in those towns somewhere around 25% of all local trips are done by bike, with women making up more than half the cyclists, and with a distribution across ages. You don’t have to be a crit to think that changing who participates in making the cultural norms might impact what those norms are.