In Search of Urban Cycling Lived Experience in Tehran (An Auto-Ethnographic Approach) – Part 3

Updated: Jul 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.


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).


Bicycling experiences are shaped by “human infrastructure” in which people themselves and social interactions comprise bicycling infrastructure (Logo, 2012).It means that we need to focus on cultural, social, and behavioral aspects of cycling in different urban fabrics. If human infrastructure is further considered, mobility cultures can begin to shift towards a more inclusive cycling paradigm (Snaije, 2021). In this case, infrastructure should be understood as something that is practiced, imagined, and social-cultural (Angelo and Hentschel, 2015). One of the main questions for me is how we can understand social interaction on bikes as a lived experience (lived human relation) according to the frame of the human infrastructure of urban cycling? We need to pay more attention to this area of cycling that has received limited attention.


Human interaction or car interaction? Images: Tehran book

- Lived Human Relations: Triangulation on the Bikes! (1)

Lived human relation is the relation we maintain with others in the interpersonal space we share with them. Humans live in meaningful relationships. We are inter-related with one another in our being to the world. How we perceive and acknowledge one another in our human vulnerability is decisive for our lives (Storli et al., 2007). Being and dealing with others is the foundation of everyday life. Cycling has a plurality of meanings and is influenced by a myriad of social dynamics (Rosen et al., 2007).


Cycling practice is a social process that extends social relations across aspects of the urban spaces within a specific context and can be regarded as a “way of life” (Aldred & Jungnickel, 2014) that improves social environments. Unlike cars with "dispersion" characteristics, bicycles are socially "connecting" and greatly stimulate the interactions between cyclists. Triangulation (Whyte, 1980) is a character that can bring people together, strangers. In the cycling lifeworld, that is the bike! It increases the possibility of interactions (direct and indirect). Cyclists are very open to each other and they easily enter into conversations that initiate direct social interaction between them. The bikes trigger the first spark of our acquaintance and easily bring us together. When I bike, I have close social interaction with my cyclist friends on our bikes (direct) and with other cyclists and pedestrians on the street (indirect). My 28-year-old friend on his bike:


“Yeah, we became friends through our bikes. Bike riders become friends very fast as they are sort of a minority group. They easily become friends, and it is enjoyable. We ride our bikes to encourage others to do the same. When we see another bike rider, we become friends. Most of the cyclist groups have been shaped this way; these groups haven’t been shaped overnight; their participants found each other while riding their bikes through the city”.


Triangulation: A stranger, We, and our bikes! Image: Mohammad Nazarpoor

Bicycle as a leveler!

I have some cyclist friends that we met each other while we were waiting for the red light to change or on a bike path on some streets such as Keshavarz Boulevard. We owe this simple acquaintance to our bikes. We have created an advocacy group that included different ages, genders, and social classes. However, we experience a classless position when we are on our bikes and ride in a line as a group. The one who is riding a bicycle is open to others (environment and people) and creates social interaction in a very simple way.


When we are riding our bicycles, we directly expose ourselves to each other right contrary to the occasion when others are behind the wheel of their expensive cars. When we are cycling, we do not have any class masks on our faces. No two stranger car drivers or pedestrians would ever say hello to each other but we, when stay behind the stop light or see each other on a bicycle route, greet each other and this is a sign of the importance of "the other" in our lifeworld. Our social relationships are formed around our everyday cycling and become stronger over time. Cycling practice has specific symbolic value based on specific cultural contextual norms and a bicycle is a tool that fosters social interaction. A middle-aged man riding a bike in Tehran for several years explains that:


“I’ve been a bike rider for years. Bike riding has really affected my personal life. I think my life has improved as I feel more effective and connected to other people. I’ve encouraged more than twenty people to start cycling, and they have encouraged their friends and acquaintances… everyone encourages me. I think we are changing each other’s lifestyle, and this is a great thing: causing good changes in my own life and the lives of others”.


Image: BazCharkh advocacy group

Cycling as a place-making practice!

In these classless atmospheres, we turn spaces into places through our place-making cycling practices. We need to focus on these kinds of place-making practices that involve individual and collective acts of meaning-making. As a cyclist, I make concrete meaningful places through my everyday embodied biking experiences and the attachments and connections I form to places. Through our everyday socio-spatial uses and narratives, and through more collective experiences or soft interventions, spaces gain meaning and become places, and create our lived experiences.


Our everyday individual and collective cycling practice that happen in specific spaces are very important foundations for long-term involvement with places and increase place attachment and place-based identities. This social and emotional relationship with a place can be represented by material elements to show who the place belongs to. I’m mad about street stenciling with my friends in our city to manifest a “bicycle-based right to the city” and critique the dominance of the car-based hegemonic atmosphere by showing our territory.


Place Attachment Image: BazCharkh advocacy group

Counter-hegemonic practice!

As a cyclist, I am the main actor in the story of the streets during biking which is the best way to see and be seen. The bike speed is great for creating and experiencing urban life. Theatrical moving sequences show different scenes of urban life, a play in which I find myself both an actor and a spectator. 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). Seeing and being seen is the social interaction mechanism to create our identity. The identities we represent and those that are ascribed by others influence how we experience urban spaces. Cycling in my car-dominated context is a form of practice that challenges our ideas of how urban space ought to be used and it’s important for me to be seen as a challenger! Riding as a group on our hegemonic street distributes the dominant order and strengthens the social bond among the people who are marginalized. Riding together becomes an act of collective solidarity which is named by Cox (2018) “Counter-hegemonic practice”.


Counter-hegemonic practice! Image: Mohammad Nazarpoor

#MyCyclingExperience#cycling_lived_experience#lievd_human_relations#Auto_ethnography#Tehran


Continue reading in part 1 Continue reading in part 2




References

Aldred, R., & Jungnickel, K. (2014). Why culture matters for transport policy: The case of cycling in the UK. Journal of Transport Geography, 34, 78–87.

Angelo, H., & Hentschel, C. (2015). Interactions with infrastructure as windows into social worlds: A method for critical urban studies: Introduction. City 19: 306–312.

Cox, P. (2018). Cycling: A Sociology of Velo-Mobility. Milton: Routledge.

Jensen, O. (2013). Staging mobilities. Abingdon: Routledge. Nazarpoor M. (2022). Tehran Bike. Tehran Municipality: Hamshahri press.

Rosen, P., Cox, P., Horton, D., (2007). Cycling and Society. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

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

Storli SL, Lindseth A, Asplund K. (2007). “Being somewhere else” – Delusion or relevant experience? A phenomenological investigation into the meaning of lived experience from being in intensive care. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well- being 2: 144–159.

Van Manen M. (1997). Researching lived experience. Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. Albany: State University of New York Press; 1990.

Whyte, W.H. (1980). “The social life of small urban Spaces”, in Kent, F. (Ed.) The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Project for Public Spaces, New York.

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