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Cyclescapes of the Unequal City: A Look at Bicycles and Gentrification

By Frantiska Blazkova

Fairly recently, riding a bicycle in the city was considered a radical statement or the last resort and few cyclists dared to enter the inhospitable streets. These days, the bicycle seems like the perfect means of transport to remedy our cities’ congestion, battle climate change, air pollution, and the urban population’s deteriorating health and fitness. Governments and city halls all over are putting in the effort by building cycle lanes, adjusting infrastructure, and making ambitious bike-friendly steps that appear to make cities more green, vibrant and liveable – a cycling renaissance of sorts, if you will. But some suggest that while cycling advocates mean nothing but well, their approaches might be the cause of uneven urban development.

John G. Stehlin is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and his book, Cyclescapes of the Unequal City: Bicycle Infrastructure and Uneven Development, looks at the unwitting role our beloved bikes might be playing in the gentrification of our cities. The study focuses on today’s North American cities but its essence and insights are thoroughly applicable to metropolises around the world. Besides infrastructural changes, cities and their leaders nowadays throw in the mix also bike share schemes that are supposed to promote the environmental, social, and economic health of the city and its residents. Cyclescapes of the Unequal City contextualizes and critically dissects this new wave of bicycling in American cities that’s covertly becoming a key symbol of unequal development.

People cycling on the cycle path at the Venice Beach, Los Angeles. © Robert Harding Productions / robertharding / Profimedia

Grounding its analysis in regional political economy and neighbourhood-based ethnography, Cyclescapes of the Unequal City is a critical look at the political economy of urban bicycle infrastructure in the United States. It uses the bicycle as a prism to view major shifts in today’s city and to address a growing interest in bicycling as an urban economic and environmental strategy, its role in the politics of gentrification, and efforts to build more diverse coalitions of bicycle advocates.

The University of Minnesota Press that published and sells the book states in the online description: “John G. Stehlin traces bicycling’s rise in popularity as a key policy solution for American cities facing the environmental, economic, and social contradictions of the previous century of sprawl. Using in-depth case studies from San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Detroit, he argues that the mission of bicycle advocacy has converged with, and reshaped, the urban growth machine around a model of liveable, environmentally friendly, and innovation-based urban capitalism. While advocates envision a more sustainable city for all, the deployment of bicycle infrastructure within the framework of the neoliberal city in many ways intensifies divisions along lines of race, class, and space.”

Girl cycles behind people on the street in San Francisco, California. Locals ride the closed streets once a month on a Sunday. © Adam Gasson / Alamy / Profimedia

Furthermore, Mimi Sheller, author of Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes, said in a review of the book: “This comparative study underlines how race, class, and gender are formed in relation to mobility practices in urban space. For anyone interested in mobility justice, this book is a necessary read.” And we strongly agree.

If you’re eager to learn more and can’t wait for the book to be delivered or your favourite bookshop doesn’t have it yet, listen to this great interview piece by the KPFA radio on their periodical Against the Grain programme – they invited Mr Stehlin to discuss Cyclescapes of the Unequal City. You’ll learn about the main viewpoints in depth and hear what he thinks should be the ideal approach of bicycle advocates, how to humanize and socialize a city or what status the bicycle enjoyed or how it played into counterculture in different periods of history. Let us know your opinion on the topic in comments on the We Love Cycling Facebook page!