Dr. Nick Scott recently completed his Ph.D. on the production of urban mobilities in Canada’s National Capital Region, and is currently teaching part time in the Sociology Department at the University of Ottawa. His research focuses on everyday mobilities and the city, especially urban automobility, walking, cycling and public transit, and how these mobilities are co-constructed, performed and publicly justified.
Mobility publics, worlds and the rise of cycling counterpublics
This paper stages an engagement between research on publics and counterpublics and research on mobilities. It begins by distinguishing common forms of public mobility (e.g. bus, train, ferry), from what Scott calls ‘mobility publics.’ Mobility publics, drawing on Warner’s definition of publics, are defined as self-organized, intertextual networks that draw otherwise unrelated people together through everyday movement. I make the argument that all mass mobilities contain such publics, publics whose ongoing performance contribute to the realization of worlds populated by certain objects and actors, although automobility, along with its distinctive world of sociotechnical mediators (superhighways, driver’s licenses, suburban commuting, hydrocarbons, etc.), is frequently conflated with the public because of its dominant status. The paper moves on to argue that cyclists are coalescing with increasing valence into a ‘mobility counterpublic.’ That is, cycling shares all of the requisite characteristics of a mobility public, but tends to unfold under and in relation to the social, symbolic and material contexts of hegemonic automobility, especially where cyclists tend to be aware of their subordinate status vis-à-vis motorists. To empirically substantiate the notion of mobility publics and explore this unequal power dynamic between the car driving public and emergent cycling counterpublics, the paper examines the contested expansion of public bicycle systems in large Canadian cities. After outlining how public bike networks cultivate and depend on self-organized, intertextual relations between shared bikes, docking terminals, city bike lanes, short trip making, digital maps, credit cards, smart phones and mobile apps (among other mediators), I explore how the public bike is working to expand cycling counterpublics more generally, in turn leading to growing tensions and interconnections with the car driving public.