Seeing Culture from the Saddle of a Bicycle

I was recently asked how I feel that bike paths could be improved.

Me being me, this isn’t a straightforward question. It’s a question that has a unique place in my mind not only as a cyclist and an anthropologist…but also as a Rhode Islander.

Many people respond that they wish bike paths would go places that people are going. This is a big critique—that cycling is viewed as purely recreational, and not a mode of transportation.

While it’s true that I have never had a worse time on a bike than while driving, it’s my primary way of getting around. It’s recreational for me, sure, but all year, it is my primary mode of transportation.

That means if you see me out riding, I am more likely to be on my way to or from work, running errands, or even going out to eat than I am likely to just be out riding for no other reason than that it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

But also I’m in Rhode Island. This is where the industrial revolution started, and by the first half of the 19th century, railroads were already spiderwebbed across the state. Post American Civil War, the textile industry that saw Rhode Island industrialize so quickly moved south. We Swamp Yankees took a big hit and never really recovered, and after WWI while the rest of the country was entering the Roaring 20s and reaping the rewards of their own industrialization, Rhode Island was already hitting the Great Depression. We here in Rhode Island have a habit of being ahead of the curve, but not necessarily in good ways.

So use of the railroad slowed down. That’s a common thread in the United States–rail use declines and car use increase.

In the case of Rhode Island, they fell into disuse and went bankrupt. They were abandoned until the late 1990s when some amazing people started cleaning it up, tearing out the old rails, and paving it.

Enter the Washington Secondary Bike Trail. It runs 19 miles, from the Cranston/Providence border (Providence being the capital city) aaaaaallll the way down to a couple short miles from the Connecticut border.

It passes through numerous municipalities, has crossings with roads that lead to shopping malls and economic centers all over central Rhode Island.

And it’s not the only path like that. The East Bay Bike Path runs through another big glob of towns and cities and through some incredibly beautiful and higher income areas, to just a stones throw from Massachusetts.

Similarly there’s the Blackstone Bike Path.

So in a pretty real sense we’ve already got veritable cycling highways. I live two miles from the start of the Washington path, and the highway is about 3/4 of a mile. It’s a matter of a couple minutes longer. I’m ok with that.

I’m on the Washington path for 12 miles, and usually twice a day during the nicer months. That’s 24 miles, every day.

So…how do I think things could be even better?

Well first of all I would love to see more obvious interconnection of the paths. Dedicated commuters and roadies do not have an issue riding in car traffic. But it’s less inviting when you’re new to it and the path ends and you’re tossed into traffic with little in the way of signage directing you or how you’re supposed to behave in motor vehicle traffic.

I would love protected bike lanes and/or sharrows that lead cyclists through the safest and fastest routes to downtown areas and the other paths. Drivers get connecting ramps to other highways. Same idea, just less to build.

On the paths themselves though, my biggest gripe is maintenance. Workers are pretty good overall about cutting low hanging or fallen branches. But all too often, some idiot high school kid or whatever gets their hands on a case of Pabst and is feeling really badass in front of their friends.

The broken glass will often stay for weeks. And some commuters will bring a whisk broom to sweep it off on their own.

Imagine if after a highway crash, a bumper was left in the middle of a travel lane instead of being removed or moved to the shoulder? Same idea.

Many of the people whose houses abut the bike path do not respect it. I cannot understand why. I’ve seen every obnoxious thing you can think of tossed down their hill and onto the path.

Patio chairs, balls, flower pots, rusted out old barbecues, dishwashers, futons/pads, and mattresses (like, spring coil mattresses, not the futon pad), to name a few.

This grill has been here for about a month.

That thing didn’t blow there. No cars are allowed here. You can’t carry that on a bike. I wish property owners were held responsible for the 50lb objects on the ground behind their houses in an area where no cars can get.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, is snow clearing. Again, this is Rhode Island. Winter can be harsh and unpredictable. But roadways are regularly plowed for car traffic. The bike paths are often left unusable.

In the last two years (winters of 2018 and 2019), several of the municipalities through which the Washington path runs have started to clear it, but not all, and in some it almost seems random.

The path is rendered unusable for recreational use (walking/dog walking/running/recreational cycling, etc), but there are still many dedicated commuters who are forced to ride on narrower roads (snow mounds cover the shoulders) that are in poor condition. And we have to share them with drivers who are (understandably) cranky about the crappy roads.

And I see the same commuters! All year. On the path and off. We wave to each other no matter what the weather, and we pass each other on the same winter routes when the paths aren’t clear.

The one town that never clears the path is Coventry. I’m pretty sure coventry is the largest municipality in Rhode Island but I could be wrong. They do not clear the path, to the point they have SIGNS stating as much. The same signs also say no snow mobiles.

There are plenty of days throughout the winter when I take roads through Coventry and into West Warwick where I hop on the Washington path and am good to go for the next 9 miles.


We voted to build the path. Why don’t we care about it? It’s a main travel artery for many people, including myself.

If you’re reading this you probably already know I filmed a documentary on the Industrial Revolution in Rhode Island. It’s essentially the story of this bike path and how the railroad connected the events that transpired and how the bike path connects us to those events.

The most recent screening of it was at a library in Coventry.

It had been couple weeks since the last snow, but still fairly cold. What do you think I had to contend with?

That’s right. At least two miles of walking through this. In a town that invited ME to come give a talk and screen a documentary on this very same bike path. They love their history; but they don’t want to care for it.

I had to walk miles through ice and slush, I couldn’t walk to the side of the path because the ground was so wet you’d sink in two inches. My socks were soaked.

And I don’t ride a bike that has a tough time in snow:

This is during a snow storm. This section of the path is cleared within a few days. My bike can handle snow. It can’t handle wet ice.

I brought this up during my talk.

This street is effectively the town line. Notice how clear the path is.

This is immediately behind me.

People were surprised to learn that the path is cleared in every other town and city that this path goes through.

They’d been eagerly anticipating it melting so that they could use the path again. To walk, to run, to bring their dogs out, for their kids to ride to school, for some of them to ride to work.

They had no idea that it was clear elsewhere.

So, for me, treating the bike paths like any other road would improve them by orders of magnitude. There would be maybe a dozen work days I didn’t ride throughout the year if they cleared the paths reliably. There are so many days where my wife drops me off or I bum a ride home because I’m just not confident in the state of the bike path and it gets dark too early to want to interact with drivers on a dark, slushy road with no shoulder after having worked 9 hours.

If the paths were properly maintained and kept clear year round, people would be on them, every day.

But we live in a car culture here in America. Even though I don’t like cars, I’m not here to argue that that’s a bad thing.

But the enculturation starts early! When I was in 4th or 5th grade, John Paul bragged that when he got his license, his parents were giving him their 1989 Cutlass Supreme.

In 2019 that doesn’t sound like a big deal. But at the time it was maybe a 6 year old car. Which…that’s not a bad first car.

I’ve got a 14-year-old cousin who is trying to figure out how to get several thousand dollars together before he gets his license so his first car can be a classic.

It starts early. Cars are part of The American Identity™️. They’re a symbol of adulthood and independence, and that’s reflected in what we collectively prioritize.

Here in Rhode Island, there was recently a big outcry by cycling advocates when it was announced that funds allocated for cycling infrastructure would be redirected to highways and bridges. It was also recently announced that not only are we super short for our highway and bridge repair (R.I. bridges are the worst in the country), but that required funding has doubled because we not only want to repair the bridges (a good idea), but apparently we want to add more lanes to the highway.

The Rhode Island Department of Transportation is seeking an additional $200 Million for this project, 24 of which would have been stripped from cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. Infrastructure that, like the Washington path, we voted for.

All of this is intended to be illustrative. I’m not trying to argue my rights to the road (which are total, with few exceptions), I’m trying to paint a picture of the subculture of cycling within the over arching culture in the United States, because a.) there’s clearly a disconnect there, and b.) as anthropologists we should be able to parse out different bits of culture and examine how they’re interconnected.

It isn’t about legality. If it were, more non-cyclists would understand that bike route or “bicycles may use full lane” signs are not to let cyclists know where we are allowed; rather, they’re to let drivers know where we are most likely to be.

Cycling is a mode of transportation. If I have to be in the left lane to make a left turn because that’s where I’m going, that’s where I have to be.

Again, it’s not about legality, because if it were, this wouldn’t be commonplace:

Why completely block cycling traffic in an attempt to slow drivers?

And neither would this:

This isn’t what “parking protected bike lane” is supposed to mean. Photo: Drew Pflaumer

What I’m saying is that all of this–whether legislative battles or parking in a bike lane without being ticketed, or yelling at a cyclist about where we’re supposed to be, or arguing with cyclists about “who pays for the roads,” or tossing your garbage over your back fence and down the hill onto the bike path because you don’t use it–all of it is reflective of a culture that values one thing over another.

Every example I’ve given here is an example of someone’s (or a bunch of someones) assumptions that that which they prioritize is universal.

In this case, it’s the prioritization of the automobile over other methods of transportation, thus leading to bankrupt or ancient rail systems, treating cycling as purely recreation, or the assumption that the person you invited to give a talk on cycling and anthropology–the one who makes documentaries from bicycle–would be arriving by car.

But it’s also just one example. It’s an allegory. Remove the specifics, see the patterns, and apply them elsewhere.

That’s what Anthropology is all about, and from what I’ve seen, it’s a lot more fun and interesting from here.

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