In Search of Urban Cycling Lived Experience in Tehran (An Auto-Ethnographic Approach) – Part 1

My name is Mohammad Nazarpoor. I am a cycling activist and a Ph.D. student in urban studies at Tarbiat Modares University, Tehran. My research interests revolve around urban anthropology and sociology. In recent years, my main focus has been on “Understanding Urban Cyclists’ Lived Experience”. I am highly enthusiastic about discovering how cyclists encounter urban spaces during their cycling experience.


Bicycles, as regards the lives of the people who ride them, might invert the movement that is projecting cities outside themselves. We need the bicycle to recentre ourselves onto ourselves, by recentring ourselves on the places where we live. (Marc Augé)

Our Everyday mobility is an embodied, affective and emotional practice that creates diverse perspectives for understanding the city. According to this perspective, Urban Cycling, as an embodied spatial practice, brings about a different experience in comparison with pedestrians, car drivers, and other ways of moving, due to its variable speed and immediate embodied relationship with urban spaces. Cycling is not only a physical movement from A to B, but also is a critical bodily practice, a way of life, and a specific way to experience everyday urban life.


The following sectionsare taken from an “Auto-ethnographic” research of my lived experience as a cyclist in Tehran (a car-dominated city). Auto-ethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically examine personal experience to understand cultural experience (Chang, 2008). It has close ties to phenomenology and the “New Mobilities paradigm“(Sheller and Urry, 2006) and it can provide an insider perspective on cycling lived experiences within cities. The four existential lifeworlds (Van Manen, 1997) are used to describe my own lived experiences; Lived space (spatiality), lived body (corporeality), lived time (temporality), and lived human relations (relationally). In each part, I will share some of my results.


Urban cycling in Tehran

There are so many problems and challenges in Tehran such as a poor public transportation system, heavy traffic, air pollution, urban sprawl, and so on. One of the most important of them which is directly related to cycling is a strong car culture. For many years, my friends and I have been doing efforts to promote urban cycling in our car-dominated city. We strongly believe that bicycle is a phenomenon that reconnects and reconciles us with our city as well as a form of emotional placemaking. I believe that the main challenge for cycling promotion in my city is car-based urban policies for consecutive years which has made a strong car logic and consequently which has led to an anti-bicycle culture in the city. However, in recent years and specifically in the last 3 years, Tehran has had significant progress in promoting urban cycling. Our urban policies have sought to promote cycling and limit car-centric urban development. Although, most of the efforts have focused on the logic of “Build it and they will come” instead of “strengthening the human infrastructure” (Snaije, 2021).

Tehran. Source: Tehran Bike

- Lived Space: Riding as a Form of Political Resistance (1)

In Tehran, as a car-dominated city, public spaces present themselves as a disputed space for urban cyclists. Cyclists in Tehran often experience stigmatization and harassment by other road users on the streets. I’m a minority in the city that is constructed entirely in favor of automobiles. These powerful machines conquer the streets while forcing a heavier spatial hegemony on cyclists. On our streets, other road users treat cyclists as “outsiders” who do not belong on the streets creating an anti-bicycle culture in which cyclists feel neglected. Drivers see themselves as being insiders and see bike riders as outsiders on the road. Cars informally privatize public spaces by obstructing other users so that the street becomes interpreted as belonging to private cars (Furness, 2007).


The driver is concerned only with steering himself to his destination, and in looking about sees only what he needs to see for that purpose; he thus perceives only his route, which has been materialized, mechanized and technicized, and he sees it from one angle only - that of its functionality: speed, readability, facility (Lefebvre, 1974: 313).


On the one hand, when we individually cycle, in response to the challenging environment, we often prefer to ride on the edge of the road and between cars. As a cyclist, I can only take up as little space as possible! I’m considered an intruder, with no share of the street in this motorized order, where my body is a core for imposing power. The space defines the law and rules over the body. This is the existential reasoning of the car-dominated culture. The urban mobility system in Tehran is based on cars and therefore plays a crucial role in transforming the Spatio-temporal ordering of the city. Space embodies relations of power. The relation between power and space structures the actions of individuals and defines equalities and inequalities that revolve around space. A 27-year-old man cyclist describes his street conflict as follows:


“People in the streets do not welcome us so much. It seems that they do not like us. They think we are a group of jobless people, who ride bicycles for fun! Especially motorcyclists! They behave badly because they know they are faster than us and we can never manage to catch them. I used to become nervous, but now, I’m getting used to it. I think our only possible response is to continue riding. I’m sure that the situation will change for our benefit if the number of bike riders increases. We are obviously a minority group. However, as I said, I’m very used to the current situation and not paying attention to what others do to us.”

Photo by: Mohammad Nazarpoor

On the other hand, while we are riding as a group, we can demonstrate more power and occupy larger spaces. The more you occupy the space, the more powerful you are. The creation of a group carnival for cyclists is an attempt to challenge the motorized spatial order and disturb the dominance of automobiles over urban spaces. Collective and carnival cycling is a very exciting and effective spatial performance in which the streets are our stages.


“urban mobility is not only the outcome of staging “from above” by planners, engineers, and designers, but also of staging “from below” by people themselves as they move throughout the city, performing and acting out their role as mobile actors." (Jensen, 2013)


Cyclists enjoy being seen and reinforcing their spatial narratives with the power of their muscles. There will be an opportunity to dictate our power to the space and occupy more space. It can be considered a ‘bicycle-based right to the city’ movement to engage and critique the dominance of the car-based hegemonic atmosphere.

Bike Carnival, Tehran. Source: Tehran Bike

We consider riding as a practice to change the existing situation. For many cyclists, in my city, riding a bike is a form of political resistance which requires the ‘demanding’ of public space. There is an intention to change the current equations of the urban spaces that are defined entirely based on the absolute domination of automobiles. Riding a bicycle in such cities as Tehran has become a radical practice that challenges the current car-centric planning paradigm. We need to make a different perspective to look at the cycling lived experience.


#MyCyclingExperience #cycling_lived_experience #lievd_space #Auto_ethnography #Tehran






References

Chang, H. (2008). Autoethnography as Method. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast.

Furness, Z. (2007). Critical mass, urban space, and vélomobility. Mobilities, 2, 299–319.

Jensen, O. (2013). Staging mobilities. Abingdon: Routledge.

Lefebvre, H. (1991 [1974]). The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Oxford: Blackwell.

Nazarpoor M, Saedi M. (2020). Understanding Lived Experience of urban Cycling in Tehran (A Collaborative Auto-ethnography). Urban Design Discourse; a Review of Contemporary Literature and Theories; 1 (2).

Nazarpoor M. (2022). Tehran Bike. Tehran Municipality: Hamshahri press.

Sheller, M., & Urry, J. (2006). The New Mobilities Paradigm. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 38(2), 207–226.

Snaije, L. (2021). Strengthening the Human Infrastructure of Cycling: soft strategies for inclusive uptake. BYCS.

Van Manen M. (1997) Researching lived experience. Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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