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Bikes Point the Way to a Sustainable Future

Bicycling subcultures signal a sensibility that stands against oil wars, environmental devastation, urban decay and monocultural sprawl.

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).  

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