NOTE OR WARNING: This post is part argument to reveal how fascinating transportation can be and part personal musings/meanderings on activism and anthropology.
Is transportation a sexy topic? Sexy in the sense that it’s highly appealing or interesting. Two years ago, I didn’t think so. My mode of transportation was deliberate only in the sense of perceived convenience. I never thought twice about the statement I made by how I moved around or about the contribution I was making to pollution and congestion. Two years after becoming interested in bicycle travel, my thinking is more along the lines of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which states:
“Transportation is at the heart of many of the most pressing issues facing the world today–from climate change to public health…Transport networks are the pulse of a city, defining livability and urban space.”
More than half the world lives in cities today, and that number is only growing. So how are we thinking about our built environment? How much of our public space is dedicated to moving and storing private vehicles? (Too much, if you ask me). I get really revved up about this in part because how we move will define our future sustainability. Continuing to celebrate the automobile as the ideal mode of transportation will lead to more pollution and more congestion, increasingly making our cities and our planet less livable.
But who cares about transportation infrastructure when there are so many bigger issues in the world? That’s my most struggle-worthy question these days. Once I re-convince myself that it’s an advocacy-worthy cause–which I do almost every day–I spend a lot of my time and energy thinking about bicycles and multi-modal infrastructure as a part of improving lives and cities. I want to be a part of shifting cultural attitudes (leading to affected policy) about design of public space, but I also want to play observer and recorder of the cultural realities that exist in different places… aka ethnographer. After all, the bike is being presented as a useful tool in contexts outside environmentalism and urban development, and that is FASCINATING. I hear conversations about women’s empowerment, mental health benefits, access to education and markets, etc. Where and why is it being framed in particular ways? That’s the idea behind The Bike Beat.
What ends up being slightly disheartening to me is that most people I talk to see the bicycle as just a bicycle, just for recreation. I’ve built up this whole other framework of significance in my mind. It’s a little discouraging when my big, idealistic ideas are brought down to earth in this way that discredits my own attempted ‘moral imagination,’ to use John Paul Lederach’s term. This professor of International Peacebuilding defines the moral imagination as “the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not exist yet.” He’s talking about conflict transformation instead of bicycles or transportation culture/infrastructure, but I see these types of ideas as very potentially connected.
So I consider myself a cultural anthropologist, at least to the extent that the subject was my undergrad major and I love the anthropological approach to the world. I understand anthropology as the study of the different frameworks people use to explain and break down the universe, as the study of different but equally legitimate (?) versions of reality.
I’m trying to reconcile the dual identity of anthropologist and activist (and a reporter, of sorts?). If most different versions of reality are equally legitimate (which it’s easy to argue they aren’t, but that conversation gets way too messy way too fast), then where does activism belong–can outsiders be advocates? For that matter, how long does one have to live in a place to not be considered an outsider? (That’s a tangent for a different blog post…)
What is activism anyway? I’ve been meditating on that, and my current working definition is: a statement of how one believes the world should be, and a subsequent attempt to convince as many people as possible to construct their worlds in line with that statement. It’s funny and contradictory, though, that I consider myself a mild activist and an open-minded person. I’m realizing as I write this that I don’t think open-mindedness and maintenance of strong opinions are oppositional. The part I’m most conflicted about is imposition of strong opinions on people. For example, I have very strongly found that bicycling is the best mode of transportation for me. I want to convince everyone in the world of its wonders, and I want to get more people on bikes, but I am also hesitant to impose my belief system on others.
In studying bicycle culture in different places, for example, how do I work on an issue like transportation in a local context while respecting local values and ideals…when is imposing what ‘I’ believe in okay? Isn’t that what activism is? And say, hypothetically, I were to go to Kurdish parts of Turkey and have a conversation about transportation. Would I be quickly dismissed for other more pressing issues? In other words, when do people in any given place start thinking about transportation? Only AFTER poverty is alleviated? AFTER quality education for all is provided? AFTER the world is fed? AFTER freedom for the oppressed is achieved? Or is the bicycle a logical part of each of these conversations? I believe the way we move our bodies through space is incredibly important, and I also believe it is a useful part of other conversations. What kind of space is there in the conversation on things like poverty alleviation for transportation issues? (Hint on that, and subject for another post, The World Bank thinks bicycles can be important elements of poverty alleviation..and they also recognize its usefulness in other places)