02 March 2011

Bicycle Anthropology

Paris Cycle Chic - Giving Directions
I've always loved this shot I took in Paris a few years back. Depending on where you're from, you'll form a conclusion as to what's happening when you look at it. An aggressive motorist/cyclist confrontation, many will assume. I was riding behind this lady on the shared bus lane/bike path when the passenger in the car said something. I was too far away to hear what. The lady hopped over the hump and stopped. I was now approaching and took the photo. I slowed as I passed, in order to hear what was being said.

The lady was gesticulating and saying "I don't know! I don't have a car and I'm from the 5th!" Laughter from both parties followed. The "5th" means the 5th arrondissement (district), which is south of the river from where this shot was taken. She was just being asked for directions. It was all very friendly.
Summer Traffic
That's Lulu-Sophia in the cargo bay and while we were waiting for the red light here in Copenhagen last summer the passenger in the car on the left caught her eye. He said "hi!" to her and she, being two, fixed him with a stare and replied with a muted "hi". Wherefter the conversation ended. But it was lovely all the same and as we rolled away she said, "Daddy... that man said hi to me...". Again. Lovely.

In my travels with this bicycle lark I've been stopped for directions a few times. Always whilst waiting at a red light. In Budapest the motorist was unlucky picking me. I A. don't speak Hungarian and B. had only been in the city for a day. Nevertheless, we smiled and shrugged and mimed. In Barcelona it was English tourists looking for a hotel. I sent them - vaguely - in the right direction. Many other cities as well throughout my life.

Here in Copenhagen I've been asked for directions many, many times. You don't go around engaging motorists in conversation in some dreamy world of coexistence, but when you're at the red light it's easier to roll down the window and pick a bicycle user on the cycle track next door than trying to get the attention of a pedestrian. And certainly easier than trying to talk to the "cyclist" in your rear-view mirror pretending he's a car while sucking on your exhaust fumes.

In one of my talks I go on about Bicycle Anthropology - about how bicycle users are merely pedestrians who go a bit faster and how the bicycle is the most human form of transport - after, obviously, pedestrians.
snow bikes 01 snow bikes 02
If you take away the bicycles from the bicycle users on the cycle track they resemble, by and large, pedestrians.
Standing Room Only - Kopie Standing Room Only 02
Take away this girl's upright bicycle (the most anthropologically-correct bicycle) and she is just a girl running for the bus.

Indeed, the name "vélocipède" orginates from the Latin blend of "swift" and "foot", which applies perfectly to the way that Citizen Cyclists use the bicycle to this day in our cities.

One of the greatest moments I've experienced since travelling with Copenhagenize and Cycle Chic was in New York. Not direct interaction as such, but still memorable. I had just come off a bridge from Brooklyn and was heading uptown. Waiting at the red light like normal people do. I was on a black Bullitt and wearing normal clothes and with a camera slung round my back. I was sitting up and waiting for the light. I looked around and, to my right, I met the eye of an older woman of Latina persuasion in a big-ass SUV. She was staring at me. I looked back. Then she just nodded. Once. A nod that said "respect." or "cool". I smiled back at her. The light changed and we parted ways. I doubt that she's on a bicycle today in the city, but maybe I was her first Citizen Cyclist spotting, waiting at the red light and on a cool bicycle. I'll never forget that moment.

It's an episode you see anywhere that Citizen Cyclists are given gardens in which to thrive and grow. A motorist or car passenger doesn't see some strange sub-culture, they merely see a fellow citizen on a different form of transport. One that is accessible and easy to engage in conversation. A fellow human being on their own protected lane or track but still anthropologically an integral part of the city.