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Popular anthropology for everyone.

Why can't cyclists read maps?

Place-making on two wheels in Brisbane, Australia

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Cyclists riding in Melbourne, Australia. Photo via Wikimedia.
Cyclists riding in Melbourne, Australia. Photo via Wikimedia.

While riding my bike on an autumn afternoon in 2015, I was swallowed by a pack of 30 or 40 cyclists, all of whom were wearing formal clothing–dresses, suits, heels, ties and dress shoes. The group proceeded slowly down Boundary Street–the main thoroughfare between Brisbane's business district and the bohemian, inner-city suburb of West End–hooting and hollering and ringing their bells.

Some faster cyclists raced ahead to spread the pack through intersections and dissuade motorists from taking the road, while others held behind, waving genially to those amused or inconvenienced. Most of the group meandered lazily across lanes in which they'd normally seek to occupy only the farthest left margins.

The event's organisers hope that riding in formal or professional clothing can demonstrate that cycling is a mode of transport consistent with professional, inner-city lives.

However, at a certain point in their trip, the group demonstrates one of the subtle ways that cyclists can mould the city to their ends; as the pack reached a set of traffic lights that would take them over the Brisbane River into the CBD, the cyclists mounted the footpath, avoided the lights, and rode the wrong direction down a one-way street to a pedestrian walkway along the Brisbane River's edge.

In doing this, they made a difficult intersection amenable to their ends. An insignificant occurrence for an observer, a minor annoyance for a pedestrian, but, as the phenomenological anthropologist Michael Jackson notes, these tacit skills and somatic apprehensions are productive cultural grounds.

And it is in this appropriation of infrastructure, in this work that makes the city cyclable, that cyclists generate new ways of conceiving it.

Commuter cyclists in Brisbane, Australia commonly describe their city, in which 85% of travel around the city is conducted in private cars, as being dangerous for those on bicycles. They emphasise that their safety is not so much contingent on reliable infrastructure and motorist awareness as it is their skills at navigating a volatile road environment and their knowledge of the city's roads.

During my ethnographic research among inner-city cycling activists, I would ask cyclists to plot on maps the routes they rode most regularly. Surprisingly, despite being confident, regular riders–which I thought would demand a sophisticated cognisance of the city–most cyclists had difficulty plotting their route.

The dissonance struck me: why can't cycling activists read maps?

By trial and error, cyclists find the path of least resistance around the city.

I wondered at first about the helmets of my informants, but I later realised that the answer had less to do with bumps on the head and more to do with the bumps on the road.

In a city where cycling is rare, or where the cycling infrastructure is deficient, cyclists experience a distinct version of road environment and in order to best understand cycling practice, I needed to understand the factors that made travelling on a road by bicycle distinct from that of a motorised vehicle.

By attending to the emplaced perspective of cyclists, and their immersion in an overwhelming sensorial environment, their cartographic deficiencies can be understood.

The sensual factors described by my informants as significant were numerous. Cyclists spoke of listening intently for cars driving behind them, attempting to estimate by sound their proximity and intentions.

This intent listening, and the absence of an insulating vehicle, means that horns and yells can be particularly shocking. Because they are so vulnerable to debris, cyclists remark on constantly scanning the road's surface for cracks, glass, and potholes, and they minimise vibrations by threading a careful line across the road's surface.

Cyclists complain of being engulfed in a bus's exhaust, but delight in smelling food as they ride through the restaurant-peppered district of Southbank. They relish the kinaesthetic pleasure of coasting while using a car as a windbreak, but fear being pushed by the displaced air of a quickly passing motorist. They speak with joy of the wind on their face, disgust at an inhaled insect, and fear of swooping birds.

The cyclist's relationship with the act of moving is also less mediated than that of the motorist; a cyclist who turns their handlebars 45 degrees will effect a 45 degree shift in their front wheel, while effort pedalling is proportionate to either their rate of displacement or the road's gradient.

I asked an informant about the large hill that runs from his house to the city, and he laughed, "Yeah, I know all about that hill."

This was a joke, but, because he is immersed in an environment, in the throes of numerous competing stimuli, my informant isn't overstating the case; cyclists perceptually know more of a road environment than other road users.

Anthropology has a keen interest in the way place and landscape is constructed. Anthropology's attention to context and emplaced perspectives means that anthropologists seldom mistake the map for the territory.

Thomas Gladden's work among the Puluwatans of Micronesia reveals that these seafolk can travel great distances over the ocean without a 'map' as we know it; rather, the stars, tides and winds index the significant points of their journey.

In an article called Where All the Rivers Run West, Monica Minnegal and Peter Dwyer, demonstrate that decades of exposure to mining corporations and the Western cartographic tradition has contributed to at least one individual in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea moving from a relational understanding of space, like that which Gladden discusses, to a more abstract, categorical understanding.

This is similar to the issue I noticed in cyclist's map-reading, and it has to do with the sensorial immersion described above. In understanding place, anthropology is sensitive to the work involved in constructing landscapes; as the anthropologists Steven Feld and Keith Basso poetically state,

… as place is sensed, senses are placed; as places make sense, senses make place.

But what does this immersion have to do with a cyclist's map-reading skills?

The answer lies in the generative capacity of these stimuli, and the deficiencies of Brisbane's cycling infrastructure. Generally speaking, the cycling infrastructure of Brisbane consists of lanes painted on the road (see Figure 1). The Brisbane City Council offers cycling maps that detail where the on-road infrastructure is around Brisbane city. Similarly, Google Maps has a cycling tab that highlights the council's cycling routes when clicked.

However, few cyclists used these maps.

On-road cycling infrastructure in Brisbane
On-road cycling infrastructure in Brisbane

Maps are often understood as neutral, objective representations of a region. However, maps appear neutral by removing social context. More precisely, a map elides that which can pass unconsidered.

In cities, where travel by car is expected and relatively frictionless, maps represent cities as a series of conduits and blocks. These maps depict the road by displacing certain factors–the speed of travelling cars, road surface, gradient, width of the lanes, motorists' aggression–as the population generally travels in a fashion that inures them to such stimuli.

However, it is these affective and social factors omitted from the map that are the most salient contributors to the construction of cyclists' routes.

Brisbane cyclists develop their routes based on their histories of practice, rather than the presence of cycling infrastructure or the directness of the route. Should they be forced to negotiate a problematic intersection, or have a negative experience on a piece of road, they will alter their path to avoid the issue.

By trial and error, cyclists find the path of least resistance around the city.

Sometimes these paths demand a little creativity, and take advantage of the bicycle's ambiguous legal position and the material circumstances of the city. As the sensual vagaries of the road conspire to inhibit easy riding, cyclists exploit the affordances offered their unique position by permitting forms of infrastructure to materialise the possibility for movement.

As opposed to other states in Australia, cyclists in Queensland–the state of which Brisbane is the capital–are permitted to ride on footpaths. In Brisbane, the cyclist is neither a person nor a vehicle. Brisbane cyclists can be observed utilising their interstitial position to either introduce positives to their trip or ameliorate its negatives. Cyclists will drop into roadside drainways, cut across parks, fashion shortcuts through roadside gardens, use the footpath, and ride in the gutter against the flow of traffic on a one-way street (a process one cyclist called 'salmoning', i.e., swimming upstream).

One informant lengthened her route because she enjoyed the sensation of riding on a wooden footbridge, while another rode a dark, overgrown footpath alongside a creek to avoid riding the shared infrastructure of a nearby main road.

The cyclist's vulnerability encourages them to concatenate discrete topographies and infrastructures in order to circumvent the issues presented by shared roads. An example of these routes is shown in Figures 2-13.

Crosses as pedestrian
Crosses as pedestrian
Rides up footpath
Rides up footpath
Crosses one-way street
Crosses one-way street
Salmons up lane
Salmons up lane
Crosses intersecting street
Crosses intersecting street
Travels delivery alley
Travels delivery alley
Returns to road
Returns to road
Leaves road via exit ramp
Leaves road via exit ramp
Travels up footpath
Travels up footpath
Rides forecourt
Rides forecourt
Descends grassy hill
Descends grassy hill

Brisbane cyclists rely on their histories when constructing routes, as the routes they have eked out offer them greater protection than the painted lanes of the city's cycling infrastructure. One cyclist noted:

"They [bicycle lanes] don't make much sense. They stop and start, they're in the door zone [the region between the lane of traffic and the lane of parked cars]. It's safer for me… you know, I've been riding here for years: I know the best ways to go."

As cyclists learn the "ways to go," particular streets become regions of hostility, dark alleys become desirable alternatives, and unique connections between places can be forged.

These creative routes subvert the intended use of infrastructure, and this inhibits their translation onto maps that expect people to move along formal conduits of passage (see Figure 14 for a cartographic representation of Figures 2-13).

In the process of exploiting the bicycle's interstitial position to create safe routes, cyclists effect an urban imaginary that is unique to their commuting modality.

Cartographic representation of Figures 2-13
Cartographic representation of Figures 2-13

Anthropologists recognise that 'place' is not a static, delineated region; rather, it is what becomes apparent through daily movement and being. Engaged practice activates a landscape, whereby terrain, topography, gradient, contour, seasonal variations and daily rhythms are incorporated into the knowledge developed to attend to these factors.

As cyclists ride, their sensual immersion in the road and the lack of safe infrastructure encourages them to thread a creative line around the unsympathetic regions of the city.

In doing this, the cyclists' practice creates a distinct version of Brisbane: one that is safe to ride, but hard to read.


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