Stylocycle’s Blog

Counter Culture?
November 5, 2009, 4:21 pm
Filed under: around town, commute by bike

Last week in my graduate seminar, we were reading Arviddson’s “From Counter Culture to Consumer Culture” about the marketing of the Vespa in the post-war period through to the 1970s in Italy. On the heels of that reading, my students asked whether there were any ‘real’ counter culture’ movements current.

I’m not convinced that there is a critical mass movement in the sense of anti-war and anti-capitalist movements of the late 60’s to mid-7o’s, or of various early twentieth century intellectual and political movements (eg: when it was a legitimate if counter-cultural stance to call oneself a ‘communist’ in 1920’s North America and Europe).

That said, I do think that contemporary ‘commuter bike culture’ is part of a ‘slow’ movement that runs against the grain of more, faster, bigger, cheaper. Like many counter-culture movements before it, this is a reformist movement. I do not think that any of us is seeking to remain on the fringes as a subculture movement. I know I dream of a future in which my city looks more like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, or Prato, Pistoia, Viareggio (or any of a host of other Tuscan small cities where bicycles and pedestrians rule the centre of town). That is, I want to see more people on their bikes, and I want it to be practical for them. I want us not to have to shower when we get to work, and not to have to keep a change of clothes in the office. I want a future in which we cycle at a non-sweaty pace in our every-day clothes, on comfortable bicycles built to last.

That’s my present-tense, and I love it. I love the way that my bike compels complete strangers to strike up conversations with me. That (now common) phenomenon helps me to feel like I live in a hospitable city (hat-tip to Derrida) with a community of people around me, connected to each other, not running about like disconnected atomistic drones.

Since I started using the bike as my primary means of getting around in this semi-urban town, I’ve lost 18 pounds. My back and hips feel better, and I also feel much more independent, not having to wait for a taxi or a bus to get where I want to go. I also find that on my bike I’m much more inclined to stop in at a few places along the way in my day. As a result, from my local favourite pastry chef I’ve learned tricks about using a super-hot oven for pastries, and I’ve met many more people in my new neighbourhood, I’ve discovered a bread bakery that uses an honour system to take payment, and I’ve found that I can run errands without waiting for my spouse to take me across town to do them.

And the thing is that although the things I enjoy are decidedly bourgeois, my bicycle lifestyle is extremely economical. I paid $860 for the Blue Beauty and saved $1300 in bus and taxi fares in the first year that I had her. In year two I bought a beautiful seat that cost me about $200, and I had her tuned up twice, once for spring and once for winter, total cost: $150 in service. And the Blue Beauty will save me at least $1300 in transportation costs again this year. My point here is that even if I weren’t a fairly bourgie person, the bike would be extremely economical. And I can do as I please with the difference between maintenance costs on the bike and transportation money saved.

So: is the “cashmere commuter” a counter-culture advocate? I think so. I think that we are doing things that end up privileging small, local businesses (because they are more fun to pop into than big-box conveyor belt type places) when we are out and about on our bikes. We certainly are not buying into the petroleum industry. Our mode of getting around is pretty ‘democratically’ priced — even if our own personal bikes are fairly expensive on the initial outlay. Our bikes are certainly part of a dirty manufacturing industry, but when we choose to buy bikes intended to last through decades worth of winters outside (like the Blue Beauty), we are making a commitment to less consumption rather than more.

The thing is I also think we are hoping that these choices will become less ‘against’ and more in-step with what the rest of the culture is doing. I’m definitely hoping more people will join us as we meander through town rather than racing from stop-light to stop-light.

That said, my old punk-rock self remains inclined to tell the creeps who cut me off to go fuck themselves. There are a few really aggressive drivers on the streets here in mid-town, even though most people are pretty cool and biking in the city centre is much more relaxed than biking in the suburbs with their speedways from strip mall to strip mall. So, I’m going to reserve my right to unleash my inner rebel sometimes. My biking culture amabassador self is on call about 98% of the time, but sometimes an asshole really needs to be called out for what s/he is.

2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Good post. I reading about what people are for rather than what they are against. I don’t dislike cars so much as prefer having choices that enhance my life – and provide economy. I have no desire to be a bike ambassador or uber-advocate. I simply don’t want to feel compelled to buying a second car that I really can’t afford when there are more desirable options out there.

Comment by Karen

Hi Karen!
On the point of the second car: absolutely!

Funny thing is that I tend to get labelled as a ‘clothes horse’ because I shop the Neiman’s deep discounts, and have a fondness for Stuart Weitzman shoes, and do not go to work in dungarees. But in 20 years of clothes shopping, I have not spent what people spend on a single car (and we’d likely be on a third ‘2nd car’ by now if we’d had one for every primary car we’ve had). It’s peculiar that in my peer group and in the culture at large the possession of a car or two is just a given. It’s the absence of a car that marks one as socially suspect.


I think I need to look at deep discount sales again soon. I have yet to find the gloves I want for riding this winter.

Comment by stylocycle

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: