[Русская версия]

This note is part of a project that investigates alternative mobilities (bicycles, kick-scooters, skateboarding) in large Russian cities, with a focus on Saint Petersburg. This project was born out of an interest in cycling and kick-scootering in Russian cities as well as from a desire to offer an alternative to the mobilities studies that exist today in Russia (the majority of them are quantitative ones). Alternative mobilities in Russia are hard to use due to the lack of infrastructure, the ambiguity of the roles and status of the vehicle themselves, and the absence with which one can describe them. The last problem touches upon not only mundane and political communication, but also academics that have trouble tackling the question: “How one can describe the mobility of alternative vehicles in city?”

At first glance, this question seems very simple. Common sense presents many language resources for how the bicycle ride could be appropriately described: turns, fast and slow motion, overtake, detour, sidewalk or street riding. The task becomes more hard to achieve when one begins to ask how we can include the very sociological language for describing and analyzing the bicycle rides. What kind of conceptual language would be preferable? How to grasp important facets of the rides? How can we connect this with questions of social order, infrastructure, urban space, and the mundane?

As an exercise, please try to describe this ride by the bicyclist in London trying to appeal to social categories accustomed to the social sciences:    

Bicycle riding is hard to grasp for two reasons. First, everyday mobility is not our fully conscious experience – it implies what M. Merleau-Ponty calls “motion function”. The bicyclist’s (or kick-scooterist’s) body is immersed into the practice of mobility to such an extent that it is merged with space and time, where the very possibility of moving are shaped by the riding practices. Second, as British geographer Justin Spinney cogently remarks, we are accustomed to a static position in thinking about society and city. The meaningful spaces in the city are those that are made through our dwelling (house), social experience (work office, pub), or visual experience (the landscape we see from windows). We rarely take into account spaces through which we are moving in daily life.

The problem of description is particularly evident in the contemporary literature of mobilities studies. This field deals with the analysis of mobile politics of people, things, and information. It endeavors to explore the propensities of mobilities: what kind of new things do they have for society, what work should be done by both passengers and drivers, how the places that are connected through mobilities streams are themselves being changed? One of the important threads in this field tackles the question: what are mundane mobilities? What kind of bodily, emotional, cognitive aspects are enacted thereby? What effects of movings do we have? Sociologists, anthropologists, and human geographers are working in this approach in an attempt to find answers to these questions.

I would like to talk about two ways of describing cycling in the city. They’re offered by two British geographers: Justin Spinney and Phil Jones.

Spinney offers one way to describe the behaviour of cyclist. He relies on the phenomenological tradition, using autoethnography (triangulated with interviewing). He focuses on the manifold of bodily experience, including those that are aroused by external extreme conditions (pain, risk, high tension). What follows is an excerpt from his narrative about his participation in Mont Ventoux race in UK:

Breathing, staying in the saddle, getting out of the saddle, using different muscles, starting to hurt, but not unbearable, just going into the shade . . . calves starting to hurt, trying to find a rhythm, entering the shade, breathing very laboured, breathe, 9 mph, into second gear, one gear left . . . out of the saddle, corner coming up, looks like a ramp, all I can see is road . . . thighs burning (transcription, 12 June 2003).  

Spinney’s narrative is of interest because of its multilayered structure: he refers to internal sensations (breathing, pain), both passive and active. He also narrates his bodily actions:  staying in the saddle, getting out of the saddle, that are connected to the previous sensations. Thirdly, he relates environmental events that partly motivate his internal and external actions. Finally, he underscores the visual aspect of his experience where the eyes are part of the whole situation and work to coordinate internal bodily sensations/actions with external conditions.

Spinney’s language is appealing due to its capacity to connect the external facets of the situation (its spatial, temporal, and physical peculiarities) through describing concrete actions and internal sensations. He successfully grasps “entraining’’ the body to the situation and the coordination of internal sensations to the situation. At the same time, his language has its own disadvantage: it focuses the reader’s attention upon the figure of the author himself, ignoring the question of social order, interactions with other people and infrastructure.  


In contrast to Spinney, Phil Jones collides a genealogy of city space (Birmingham, in his case) with his practices of moving. The latter are grasped with notions of physical actions and affective sensations. Jones seems to be more reflexive about the bicyclist’s position in city. Based on this position, he explores the possibilities which are being opened up by the vehicle as technology:  

With this flexibility, the bicycle allows me to create my own microgeography of the city, reconstructing various spaces in a highly embodied fashion: the street with the bad potholes that shake your teeth out; the steep slope where you can get the rush of zipping past traffic queuing for the lights; the high curbs you can jump the bike off to land with a satisfying jolt, Whatever. This is the cyclist performance of the city, making and remaking the stage, even as the “hardware” is changed all around me through urban regeneration and planning policy.

The experience of moving shifts to the backside: the major accent put to constant dialectics of urban space and bicycle. This situation creates emerging detached zones of mobility inside the built infrastructure of the city. Elsewhere he is even close to critical urbanists with his emphasizing of a need to return the city to other users besides cars. In some sense Jones’ language is akin to Michel de Certeau’s, where the aim for conceptualizing mobility is much more important than the description of experience itself.  

Spinney’s and Jones’ languages differs in accent: Spinney puts an emphasis on the description of the ride itself, internal sensations, and external conditions of situation where interpretations and conceptualization go to the back. Jones for his part creates context, a genealogy of space, and uses plenty of philosophical and sociological concepts. Spinney is good at being deep in his description, while being not very conscious to the context. Jones’s narrative is talking about infrastructure and context, but it lacks of subtlety of details of the moving itself.

In conclusion, I’m inviting readers to make another virtual ride. In this case it will be a bicycle trip on summer Saint-Petersburg streets:

Could you use both languages (Spinney’s and Jones’) and imagine how the weather, Saint-Petersburg traffic, and infrastructure determines the propensities of moving there? Or could you attempt to conceive what the bicyclist on the video feels at high speed, in a situation of risk, trying to find a temporal place between cars and pedestrians?


One thought on “How to describe bicycle mobility in the city?

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