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Notes Toward Right Relationships Among Philly Bike Orgs's picture


My years of Gender and Sexuality studies courses in the Bi-Co have exposed me, time and time again, to surprising conflicts and debates among those with an interest (academic or personal) in Gender and Sexuality issues. More interesting to me than the predictable us-vs-them dichotomies are the tensions that arise between those who might seem at first to obviously be on the same page. My writing seminar freshman year, for example, had me pondering the deep divide among self-declared feminists over how to view prostitution. Our discussion of Riki Wilchins’ Queer Theory, Gender Theory provoked a direct engagement with the author when Shlomo critiqued Wilchins for “frequently mak[ing] cynical observations about feminism and the lack of care that the discipline has toward other advocate groups,” and Wilchins replied by explaining that “my perspective is informed by my own experience as a young genderqueer struggling for acceptance within the les/fem community.” Clearly, once we scratch the surface, gender and sexuality issues diffract with/against each other in surprising ways. Once one delves in, one finds that disagreements, tensions, and hostilities unimaginable to the outsider actually define the field. Such tensions range from the productive (highlighting real and important differences in perspective) to the destructive (dissolving into identity politics that “fail to provide a coalitional framework,” as Anne summarized Butler.

            Instead of focusing on issues of gender and sexuality per se, I am interested in abstracting this observation and extending it (as a useful analogy) to another field I care deeply about: that of the politics of transportation, specifically surrounding the bicycle. I am involved to various degrees with a number of bicycle-related organizations and interest groups in Philadelphia, each with a different mission, priorities, and perspectives on cycling-related issues. As with gender, the “bicycling world” seemed relatively homogenous before I knew much about it. However, after internship and volunteering experiences as well as ethnographic engagement with these communities in the context of anthropology coursework, I understand how heterogeneous and complicated bike people – and the organizations representing the varied interests of those people – actually are. What do tensions within the bicycle community compel us to do?

John Humbach gave us a vocabulary of “right relationships” instead of a rights-based understanding of justice that I found particularly helpful insofar as it challenges us to higher standards of engagement with others. Because “right relationships cannot be legislated” (Humbach 13), they require creative, direct and active engagement to create and maintain. Importantly, he says that, “Rips and tears in the fabric of relationships should be taught as occasions for mending, not as occasions to dissolve what still remains” (Humbach 13). How might this be applied to the bike world? Can interpersonal relationship theory also work for relationships between structures like nonprofit organizations? Judith Butler, in her lectures, spoke about expanding our conception of the ‘we’” in activism, rejecting identity politics (and even her prior focus on gender more exclusively) in favor of a potential ethics grounded in something more collective. She has focused the need for openness to “queer alliances” between unlikely political bedfellows as a central component to successful activist work – something that had resonated with me in reading some of Rebecca Solnit’s work this past summer as well. But when lesbians are fighting with feminists, maybe a “queer alliance” doesn’t need to be very radical at all – maybe seeking more “right” relationships between groups that are already allied in some way is an important dimension of this struggle, too.

So what are these tensions to which I keep referring? I am by no means an expert on any of the organizations I’m writing about, so I can only offer my anecdotal experience, based on a lot of conversations with people who are very passionate about bicycles. The organization I interned with, The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, has a mission to: “Promote bicycling as a healthy, low-cost, and environmentally-friendly form of transportation and recreation.” They accomplish this by advocating for bicycle infrastructure (like parking and bike lanes), educating the public about bike safety, maintaining a very active blog on Philly cycling issues, and sponsoring community rides to grow interest in the activity. I’ve also taken a bike repair class with Neighborhood Bike Works, which seeks to “increase opportunities for urban youth in underserved neighborhoods in greater Philadelphia by offering educational, recreational, and career-building opportunities through bicycling.” A national organization called Bike and Build, which “organizes cross-country cycling trips to benefit the affordable housing cause in the United States,” is also based in Philadelphia. Gearing Up, yet another wonderful nonprofit organization, “provides women in transition from drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, and/or homelessness with the skills, equipment, and guidance to safely ride a bicycle for exercise, transportation, and personal growth.” And these are just the first that come to mind! How do all these organizations fit together?

The Bicycle Coalition, insofar as it should be representing and supporting all the cyclists in Philadelphia, has a direct responsibility to the needs to both Neighborhood Bike Works and Gearing Up (and these organizations, by extension, stand to benefit through supporting the BCGP’s work.) The Bicycle Coalition is currently doing research into the much lower rates of bicycle ridership among African Americans and Latinos in Philadelphia as compared to Caucasians and Asians – insofar as the people NBW and GU serve tend to be from the former as opposed to the latter groups, a dialogue between the organizations about issues of representation could be productive. While Bike and Build is technically a national organization, one of its rides (the “Capital Ride”) ends in Philly, and being better grounded and well-known in the Philly bike world (I get the sense they are not at the moment) could be helpful in recruitment and awareness-raising for both their rides specifically and for biking more generally. I’ve also heard complaints from bike messengers, racing, and long-distance recreation cyclists (separate groups) about feeling unrepresented by the BCGP, perhaps because these riders are less likely to use bike lanes (messengers) or be biking around the city at all (racing/recreation). However, the bike messengers are benefiting from other infrastructure like bike parking, and the racing and recreational cyclists might provide vital membership support ($$$) to the BCGP if they felt their interests were being better taken into account.

These, as I have hopefully made clear, are just my provisional thoughts on the topic, and I by no means wish to speak on behalf of any of these organizations. Quite the contrary, I think I’ve noticed enough potential for improved alliances among them that they should really be speaking to each other. Specifically, I think a “Bike Org Summit” for Philly bike-related nonprofits (and perhaps some other interest groups like the Bicycle Club of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Bike Messenger Association, and representatives of local bike shops) could result in more mutually beneficial relationships (and understanding) among them all. I attended the annual Philly Bike Expo in October, and found it really fun, but it was more focused on the retail side of things as opposed to the nonprofits. Neighborhood Bike Works, Gearing Up, and the Bicycle Coalition were in attendance, but their efforts were necessarily focused on explaining their missions and efforts to the visitors to the Expo as opposed to engaging in productive dialogue with each other.

In closing, I want to emphasize that I do think that consciously reaching across huge divides is admirable and necessary – but so is improving and deepening relations among existing allied entities (even just for efficiency’s sake!) A Philly Bike Org summit might be one way of doing this. To tie this back into gender (a constant challenge in this ambitious course) I think it’s interesting how, even though I’m actually studying specifically gendered aspects of bicycling/bicycle culture for my thesis, that’s not what ended up feeling relevant for this paper. This web paper was not about gender as it relates to cyclists specifically, but gender studies as a tool that works far beyond the boundaries of gender-related topics – as we’ve seen with disability, economic disparity, and now even bicycles.


Humbach, John. Towards a Natural Justice of Right Relationships. From Human Rights in Philosophy and Practice, Burton M. Leiser and Tom D. Campbell, eds., 2001. 1-18.