I’ve been working on revising a paper on bike storage, which (hopefully!) will appear in an academic journal.
The paper uses ideas from practice theory to explore connections between the meanings of cycling, and the practicalities of cycling. In this vein, a recent book co-authored by key practice theory writer Elizabeth Shove discusses how early motoring required mechanical skills, which were more easily seen as ‘masculine’, and how this then contributed to the development both of motoring and of ideas around masculinity. (While on the gendering of skill, one might now point to the persistent stereotype of women as ‘bad drivers’ with poor spatial skills, despite the statistics and the substantially higher insurance premiums charged to men until the age of 40 (until the recent EU ruling) suggesting otherwise.)
Practice theory attempts to provide a way of going beyond the individualism inherent in many approaches to ‘behaviour change’. It doesn’t assume that the key actors are individual people, or that the key is changing attitudes (often then seen as leading to changes in behaviour, despite evidence to the contrary – the so-called value-action gap). Instead, the focus is on (how to change) practices, which are seen as not driven by individual choice but by a combination of ‘meanings, skills and stuff’. Shove gives the example of air conditioning. As buildings are increasingly built with air conditioning, traditional cooling features disappear. Buildings then require air conditioning, which in turn is expected by their users, who come to expect a more uniform temperature and feel uncomfortable if this is not provided. The implication of a practice approach is that the rise of unsustainable practices is not primarily driven by individual preferences, and that we should also look elsewhere for solutions.
One key aspect of practice theory is that competence is seen as being distributed across people and things, rather than as being an individual attribute. So early driving was weighted with multiple competences; not least, starting the car in the first place (hand cranking being a complex and difficult operation involving some personal injury risk). Since then, the driver has been de-skilled, as more and more competences instead become located in the automobile itself (e.g. automatic locking), in the road infrastructure (e.g. motorway crash barriers), in accessories (e.g. in-car GPS). Now, reading maps is starting to become unnecessary; a few decades ago, it was hand signals that disappeared, finally replaced by the car’s indicators. (This de-skilling does not go unnoticed; frequent news stories along the line of ‘My GPS told me to drive off a cliff’ tap into long-standing collective anxieties about human reason being taken over by machines.)
Conversely, in low-cycling contexts, cycling is (still) not seen as a mass activity to be facilitated on a large scale; it is instead seen as an individual choice made by members of an often-stigmatised minority group (see my recent paper in Mobilities). As such, it is seen as normal to rest many competences in the rider, who must remember to acquire these, carrying stuff with her (lights, locks, hi-vis, helmets etc.), and learning a variety of techniques (road positioning, locking strategies, map-reading, etc.) The bicycle and infrastructure (and relatedly, the state) are expected to contribute less. Despite the need for them, lights and locks are rarely built-in to the standard types of bicycle common in the UK, and even on designated cycle routes infrastructure rarely if ever provides the instant legibility afforded car drivers by trunk road signage.
In this vein, the storage paper explores the meanings and practicalities shaping ‘storage strategies’. One story cited involves someone who struggled to have her bicycle classified as a legitimate occupant of her office, rather than a health and safety hazard. It is instructive how often bicycles are seen as threatening even when they are at rest. Borrowing from Mary Douglas’ work, the paper uses the idea of ‘matter out of place’; Douglas argues that dirt is dirt because it disturbs a classification scheme (so shoes may not be dirty on the hall carpet, but may be dirty on the sofa – they belong one place but not another). One interviewee suggested that differing approaches to household ‘dirt’ have reduced the extent to which bike storage inside is seen as appropriate:
[P]eople used to put [bikes] in the passage, passage, in the front passage ways but I think people pay so much on carpets and wallpaper now, that that, that don’t happen.
(Cycling Cultures interviewee, Hull)
In line with Douglas’s ideas around classification schemes, I would suggest that bikes, like their riders, are seen as threatening because we live in a society that still devalues and stigmatises the practice of cycling. Bicycles may merely be ‘junk’ when lying unused at the back of the shed (as do many bikes in the UK); they often appear ‘hazardous’ when stored on apartment walkways, on pavements, near public buildings, and in offices. (The categorisation of bikes as safety hazards reminds me of struggles by social landlords to banish washing lines, which has always struck me as more convincingly being about different attitudes to the correctness of displaying one’s smalls than about fire hazards).
Another theme in the paper is the impossibility of ever achieving competence in locking one’s bike. In-car locking devices (another transferred competence!) have helped to dramatically cut car theft, yet bicycles and their owners remain constantly insecure. One person summed up the feeling – ‘you’re always wary and always weary’ – and people spoke of using different strategies at different times; for example, some places at night would be seen as unsuitable even if the rider was using two high-quality locks (as recommended). Many people spoke of allowing their bicycles to become rusty or dirty, even if that affected riding quality, because this might make the bicycle less vulnerable to theft. A strange item, the bicycle, so ‘undesirable’ in many contexts and yet so ‘desirable’ to thieves…
Finally, the equation of ‘parking’ with ‘car parking’ produces another knowledge/competence challenge for cyclists: in estate agent adverts, any car parking opportunities are likely to be mentioned, but it is unusual for an agent to be able to answer queries about bicycle storage:
[W]hat other people that don’t cycle think is a safe place to put your bike is not where I think is a safe place to put my bike. And one guy said, oh yeah, you can keep it in the flat, no problem, and I got to the flat and it was up three flights of stairs. I was like, I’m not carrying my Kona up three flights of stairs every single morning and every single night. And he said, oh, you could tie it to the lamppost outside. (laughter)
Cycling Cultures interviewee, Hackney.