From automobility to cyle-ability – a subaltern path to flourishing?


Social scientists interested in mobility, and transport geographers with more social and cultural leanings, have been writing about “automobility” for more than a decade. Automobility – the dominance of personal car use in developed, and increasingly in developing countries – is varyingly understood as a self-perpetuating regime or a socio-technical system (Schwanen, in press). It is seen to rest on particular locked-in and interlocking systems of resource and capital flows, technologies, ideologies, power relations, values and cultural forms. In such a systems view, alternative forms of getting around, like cycling, walking and public transport are seen as ‘subaltern’ and niche, unable to gain the capital (cultural, financial) to become mainstream. How then, might we forge a path towards more sustainable, healthier and equitable modes of mobility? Systems views can always be critiqued for being reductionist – never intricate enough to represent the complexity of reality. Perhaps too, they are not fully able to capture the unpredictability and agency of the ‘environment’ itself (writing from a flooded Oxford, this is particularly evident!) and the social and political movements that push for justice in the face of politico-environmental changes. I’ve been looking at one such emergent movement, the aptly named “Clitoral Mass”, who in 2013 organized monthly mass bike rides for “women and women-identified people” in north American cities of L.A., Toronto, Atlanta, Chicago, Oakland and NYC. Their “principles of unity” seem to me to represent a type of manifesto for an alternative paradigm: one that I would call cycle-ability. Drawing heavily on Clitoral Mass’s principles, some potential departures from automobility could be outlined:

Automobility Cycle-ability
Driven towards increasing mobility Cycling towards increasing wellness
Currently based on non-renewable energy sources Based on renewable energy cycles
Valorizes and requires (bodily) knowledge mediated through and embedded in various technologies (Merriman, 2009) and is part of systems of knowledge that are heavily regulated and commoditized (e.g. driving lessons, road traffic rules, engineering, car manufacturing) Valorizes and requires different bodily knowledge, related to non-motorized technologies – balance, self-propulsion, muscle memory (e.g. “in touch with our physical, mental and spiritual selves” – Clitoral Mass). Systems of knowledge and production of these are (as yet) less formalized and commoditized (largely learned informally).
Values technological advances Values human capabilities (e.g. empowerment)
Valorizes freedom to choose (through market, through individualized mobility) Freedom as/in vulnerability, connectedness and recognition (e.g. of histories of oppression)
Policy priorities: cutting congestion, improving efficiency, increasing speed (‘saving’ economically valuable time) Priorities: Creating a mass ‘congestion’ together (connecting with others, raising consciousness), being healthy, slowing down and having a good time.
Requires intense public regulation, intervention and support to function & mitigate for negative externalities Grass-roots, tapping into resources and infrastructures largely created for/by the dominant paradigm of auto-mobility

Note: A cycle-ability for people, not cyclists The end of a political struggle against oppression might ultimately be to make obsolete signifiers like “subaltern”, “feminist” or  “LGBTQI”– when difference is no longer associated with oppression. In a similar vein, no longer identifying as ‘a cyclist’ – but just a person who happens to be on a bike (or wheelchair, skateboard or scooter) might be the aim of a paradigm of cycle-ability.


Schwanen, T. in press. Automobility, in: Wright, J.D. (ed.) The International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2nd Edition. Elsevier, Oxford.

Merriman, P. (2009). Automobility and the Geographies of the Car. Geography Compass, 3/2, 586-599.

Anna Davidson

DPhil Student

Tweets as @acdavids

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