Temple University Press
“War on the car” rhetoric has been common in Toronto over the past few years. Such a phrase comes from the deployment of a particular form of rhetorical combat which positioning the car as the battered victim of mean-spirited bullies who call for alternatives to the one-driver-one-car commuter model simply because they hate the freedom that cars represent. The kind of hyperbole represented by terms like “war on the car” presumes that the car is the de-facto centerpiece of urban living and any encroachment, no matter how minor, on its dominance of the city streets, is an abhorrent assault on decency and the traditional lifeways of post-industrial mankind. Thus calls for bike lanes in Toronto and critical recognition of how much noise and pollution and stress and congestion is added to the city by the flow of car traffic is ‘the war on the car.’
Zack Furness’ book, One Less Car (borrowing his title from the popular pro-bike sticker seen on frames and racks)
investigates the dominant discourse surrounding cycling, particularly in the context of American cities wherein cycling is primarily a form of recreation. Zack Furness is an assistant professor of cultural studies at Columbia College in Chicago. He has gauged ears and tattoos, by the way, and after seeing his photo it occurred to me to check on whether or not he appears in a new (2012) Autonomedia book titled Punkademics, about punk university professors (including a contribution from my Trent University comrade, Alan O’Connor), and as it turns out, Furness edited that particular volume.
One Less Car presents a dual approach to an investigation of contemporary cycling and politics. The first is to look critically at the history of representations of the bicycle in popular culture and interrogate the discourse on the subject. So, for example, according to Furness, the bicycle has been portrayed as a children’s toy with a primary function of preparing the young to become drivers. Connected to that then, is the representation of adult cyclists in specific forms of American popular culture as stunted in maturity (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and The 40 Year Old Virgin).
Otherwise, cycling is for the impoverished or for people who shirk a social responsibility to purchase a car. These kinds of images produce a normative understanding of cycling as fodder for humour, but an absurd choice of transportation for a real-life American adult.
The second phase of critiquing the popular discourse is for Furness to cite all of the pundits who denounce urban cycling for whatever reason. So many of the arguments Furness quotes are basically by people simply appalled that the road they use as auto-drivers should have to be shared with anyone else. The arguments are typically of a “know your place” variety that presumes that an existing order of privilege is also fundamentally correct, and that the vulnerable who are threatening to put a minor strain on that privilege are, in essence, selfish. For example, Furness cites one pundit who claims that a hypothetical (child) cyclist crushed under the wheels of an SUV is a threat to the driver’s safety and not the other way around. This sort of argument emerges in a cultural environment where driving is always presumed as safe and cycling always presumed as dangerous, even though the invention and popularization of the automobile has unleashed a holocaust of death and injury, and the one major threat to the safety of cyclists is the exact same thing that threatens that of drivers - that is other reckless and inconsiderate motorists.
The other side to the analysis of the dominant discourse is the culture of radical cyclists: critical mass participants, bike co-ops, and things like that. Modes of bike usage that revel in the ‘other’ status of the urban cyclist. Much of Furness’ book is about explaining critical mass and he quotes frequently from Critical Mass inventor and chief theorist, Chris Carlsson, as well as other cycling intellectuals such as Microcosm Publishing founder/Bipedal, By Pedal zinester Joe Biel. The section on critical mass subjects the monthly ride to the same rigorous critique as other aspects of the broader cycling discourse, although Furness is clearly sympathetic to the event and its underlying sentiments.