In Search of Urban Cycling Lived Experience in Tehran (An Auto-Ethnographic Approach) – Part 2
Updated: Jun 1, 2022
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.
Perception—as a combination of sensation and cognition—is inclusive of both passive encounter with environmental stimuli and active exploration of that environment, as the body moves through space and time interacting with a world. (Rodway, 1994: 12)
People not only observe the city whilst moving through it, rather they constitute the city by practicing mobility. The meaning of places in the city is constituted by the movement as much as by their morphological properties (Jensen, 2009). We need to pay attention to this kind of mobile sense-making, experiencing, and meaningful engagement with the environment. A cyclist establishes different ways to actively engage in urban spaces, with the body playing a key part to explore and experience the environment. The main question is how the city is thus reconstructed through the cyclist’s bodily experiences?
- Lived Body: Merleau-Punty on the Bike! (1)
Lived Body that carries an opposite meaning to the anatomical structure of the body is considered to be the foundation of our being-in-the-world and embodies all aspects of human existence. In Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, the subject is the body, the Object is the worldly experience, and the relation between these two forms our consciousness. This is the body as a set of possibilities for action that we each experience for ourselves from the inside out. Based on his philosophy each of us is a physical body with a perspective of the world before turning into a conscious being. The Body forms its worldly experiences by interacting with other beings, other humans, and its habitat. Therefore, a lived body isn’t just an object in the world but rather a way to manifest the universe.
The Body is the main tool through which cyclists move, explore and experience their surrounding environment. During the riding, my body is the pivot of the world and develops my lived spatial knowledge. We build our experiences by engaging our entire body and muscles to pedal and produce energy that helps us experience the urban spaces around them.We learn to come to grips (Merleau-Ponty, 2012) with the spaces through a process of exploration and discovery. My capacity for understanding the city through cycling depends on the construction of my body (jones, 2005) which has its space.
"Before producing effects in the material realm (tools and objects), before producing itself by drawing nourishment from that realm, and before reproducing itself by generating other bodies, each living body is space and has its space: it produces itself in space and it also produces that space" (Lefebvre, 1991: 170).
We consider experience through the body, the embodied bodily engagement that organizes urban experience.
The body senses as it moves, through kinaesthetic skill, merging sensory experience that informs one what the body is doing in space through the sensations of movement registered in joints, muscles, tendons and so on with intention and bodily memory…It combines with touch… sight, hearing, smell and other sensory impressions to perform the body’s motion, as well as intense emotions (Büscher and Urry, 2009: 6).
View from the Saddle
Cycling allows for an embodied meaning-making of place through contextual sensory experiences. In contrast to driving, riding a bike gives the person access to a different embodied knowledge of moving through the social and physical geographies of a place which enables an extended touch of the environment. As a cyclist, I am exposed to a broader urban environment, to urban sights, sounds, smells, feelings, and tastes in ways that differ from the experiences of car drivers who are separated from the outside environment in a moving private capsule. Bicyclists embody the knowledge of the energy used in mobility while drivers are more alienated from the energy consumed in their travel (Nixon, 2012). During cycling, the interactive relationship between the body and the environment can be quite intense in which the cyclist moves with the landscape. A 30-year-old young man explains this as:
“When riding a bicycle, you pay more attention to the problems, good and bad of an area; for example, a bicycle rider, who crosses somewhere, is more connected to the place than a car driver passing that same place…it seems that you are involved in all surrounding environments. You can also hear others’ voices. Riding a bicycle is very different from sitting in a car, passing indifferently, and leaving things too fast. When you are riding your bike, you cannot be indifferent… you feel involved… you think about things… very closely.”
In addition, riding practice causes the bike to disappear from the user’s perception, just like the cane in Merleau-Ponty’s example of the blind man, and the bike which was a tool to communicate with the urban places merges with the body of the cyclist. As Merleau-Ponty suggested, with skillful use the tool [my bike!] itself ceases to be a direct object of experience and becomes instead a medium through which we can experience the world – just as, by analogy, we experience through the body itself (Hale, 2017). In spaces that we ride frequently, we have an implicit bodily awareness of where objects are located, so we can move around easily without conscious effort.
“To habituate oneself to a hat, an automobile, or a cane [or my bike!] is to take up residence in them, or inversely, to make them participate in the voluminosity of one’s own body. Habit expresses the power we have of dilating our being in the world, or of altering our existence through incorporating new instruments” (Merleau-Ponty, 2012: 145).
Cycling is also a rhythmic practice. It requires a set of skills that are attained gradually; some of these skills are about coordination of the body and the bicycle and some are dependent on our relationship with the rhythmic order of the spaces we are exploring. The type of bicycle has a direct effect on the cycling rhythm. Cruiser bikes provide a slow rhythm due to their speed capacity while keeping the body in a vertical position because of their design; this makes these types of bicycles ideal for observing and understanding all details of urban spaces; whereas road bikes with their increased speed capacity and due to their aerodynamic design limit the landscapes.
According to the perspective, cycling has its unique cyclical rhythm, depending on our gender, physical abilities, and type of the bicycle, which is engaged with the pulse and rhythm of the city and creates a unique experience in and of urban spaces. The relation between the body, the kind of bicycle, and the dominant spatial order of different spaces define the ultimate rhythm of cycling. A 28-year-old young woman:
"Riding was hard at first and it really was. Special for me as a woman. We have to control a lot of things. In Tehran, the city for drivers, cycling was even harder than driving for women. But gradually, you learn how to ride and how to be survived on the streets”.
Cyclists enjoy being seen and shout their statements with the power of their muscles. During carnival cycling, we ride slowly, chatting to each other, looking around, and challenging the hegemonic order of the street. When we are riding as a group of bike riders everyone follows a line with a constant speed that our bodies learn from each other how to move. In this situation, I need to consider the bodily rhythms of others as well. It is a bodily challenge and a bodily protest on the street as a life stage. Our bodies manifest a critique of the belief that spaces should be functional and bodies should be docile.
Büscher, M., and J. Urry. 2009. “Mobile Methods and the Empirical.” European Journal of Social Theory 12 (1): 99–116.
Hale, J. A. (2017). Merleau-Ponty for architects. New York: Routledge.
Jensen, O. (2009). Flows of Meaning, Cultures of Movements – Urban Mobility as Meaningful Everyday Life Practice, Mobilities, 4:1, 139-158.
Jones, P. 2005. “Performing the City: A Body and a Bicycle Take on Birmingham.” UK, Social & Cultural Geography 6 (6): 813–830.
Lefebvre, H. (1991 ). The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Oxford: Blackwell.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (2012) Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Landes, D.A. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.
Nixon, D. V. (2012). A sense of momentum: Mobility practices and dis/embodied landscapes of energy use. Environment and Planning A, 44, 1661–1678.
Rodaway, P. (1994), Sensuous Geographies: Body, sense and place. London: Routledge.