One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility

One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility
Zack Furness
Temple University Press, 2010, 348 pages, ISBN 978-1-59213-613-1

One Less Car is about the politics of cycling in North America.

One chapter covers the 1890s, while the rest of the book focuses on “biketivism” from the 1960s onward. It began, Furness states, in Holland in 1965. An anarchist group called Provo proposed several plans for social change including a White Bicycle Plan: ban automobiles from Amsterdam and launch a free bicycle program. “The white bicycle is a symbol of simplicity and cleanliness in contrast to the vanity and foulness of the authoritarian car,” a Provo manifesto stated.

Pro-bike/anti-car activities first appeared in North American in 1970 with a Bicycle Ecology Day in Chicago and then a 1972 protest in New York City where bicyclists rode by an auto show chanting “cars must go!” (The organizing group, Action Against Automobiles, later became Transportation Alternatives.) About these and other early political efforts Furness writes, “The active politicization…of bicycle transportation in those decades…set an important precedent for advocates and…vocalized a joyous rallying cry for cyclists to take to the streets en masse, as both riders and protesters.” He goes on to devote an entire chapter to Critical Mass, the once-a-month, leaderless rides that originated in San Francisco in 1992 and were initially called “Commute Clot.”

Furness does a nice job of presenting the various strands and tensions within bicycle advocacy: do we focus on the positives of biking or on the negatives of driving?; should we encourage biking for the environment or for public health or for urban vitality?; is it enough to use a bike for basic transportation or should riding a bike be harnessed to a larger social message?; is it better to build separate bike paths or to teach bicyclists how to ride with cars? My favorite sections happened to be less overtly political: a discussion of how bike-riding characters are portrayed in movies and television shows and an examination of pro-bike sentiments in punk rock lyrics.

This book stems from the author’s dissertation in cultural studies so you’ll bump into academic speak throughout: “mobile ontologies,” “complexity of capitalist space(s),” “mobile subjectivities.” The upside is that readers benefit from all of Furness’s research: loads of interesting facts, a 42-page bibliography and 115 endnotes on average per chapter. This is the kind of book that needn’t be read straight through. Each chapter can stand alone. Read it for a thoughtful look into the many faces of bicycling culture and politics.

Note: The author is donating all royalties from his book to three community bicycle organizations in Chicago and Pittsburgh.

Review by Kelly Nelson

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