Presentation: Representing cycling sensescapes and sociabilities with mobile methods
Representing cycling sensescapes
and sociabilities with mobile
Velomobile Methods Workshop
11 May 2016, Oxford
Sensescapes as constitutive of future
The practice of cycling is perceived so differently through the body of its practitioners in
comparison to other forms of urban mobility, particularly driving.
Yet, cycling is too often treated as indistinctive from the latter in terms of policies and
Bicycle systems can only come to life when cycling sensescapes cease
to be as hostile as they are now. The challenge is to think and to feel
beyond the current socio-technical arrangements.
How can the cycling sensescapes be tamed in today's unfriendly car environments?
Are sensory tolerances something that can be learnt?
How to re-imagine human senses that readily embrace the equally unappealing
prospects of self-propelled, shell-less mobility?
These possibilities are systematically rejected today, but they should be reconsidered if
a bicycle system is to really take off.
The utopian project of building sensory tolerances.
Sensory tolerances as essential affordances of future bicycle systems.
Under which conditions could embodying the bicycle be as appealing as inhabiting the
Should we aim to equate one type of affordances with others?
the fleeting and the ephemeral
What methods for the fleeting, the distributed, the multiple, the
sensory, the emotional and the kinaesthetic (Law and Urry 2011)?
The need to go beyond the visual and auditory towards the more embodied
nature of cycling and to reflect the kinaesthetic with its intricate and too
often dormant internal sensorium of one's body.
Methods: video and audio footage; auto-ethnography; auto-
'Seeing' with a GoPro
The visual has been historically the dominant sense, particularly within the Western
culture. The sense to build upon the rest of human sensorium.
The less mediated, almost shell-ness, nature of cycling.
mundane exchanges of glances with others ahead;
looking back over one's shoulder;
looking ahead over another cyclist's shoulder;
anticipating a left-turning car by checking if its front wheels change position.
The bicycle has a particular design → one sits on a bike at a higher level than the
seat of average cars, meaning better vision in the distance.
The bicycle has a particular design → cyclists need to check more often
the road surface for holes, bumps etc.
Bicycles have different designs → road bikes forces the cyclist on a lean forward
position, vision at a distance and peripheral vision are
Bicycles have different designs → upright city bicycles in Copenhagen or
Amsterdam afford richer visual scapes.
Technology: GoPro attached to helmet
Point of view shot = 'sees what you see'; although not at the same level as
Wide angle camera → objects at the periphery (cars) seem closer than they
Conspicuous; issues of privacy when researching other subjects.
Technology: GoPro attached to helmet, point of view shot
'Hearing' with headset microphones
Sound brings dangers to the attention in the way the eyes do not
→ I can look to fine tune the adequate response: steering, braking or accelerating
I can tell the next move of the driver behind me → a rising pitch of engine =
the car is going to overtake; steady, low engine note = a car is 'tracking' me, waiting
for the good opportunity pass.
The cyclist-bicycle hybrid generates its own 'acoustic territory', a
'topography of auditory life' (LaBelle 2010), almost inaudible from the louder engine
notes. This territory is harder to represent even with fine attuned technologies.
The rhythm of cycling emerges from both body and machine, their symbiosis
generates an enveloping sound membrane, the result of a resounding
body voicing the effort through audible heartbeats and alert
breathing, and of a machine engaged in circular movement, its scratchy
tires, the snoring chain, the clicking freewheel. The sound, but
also the feel of the bike, is an integrated sense of the state of the bike.
Technology: Headset microphones and
voice recorder app on smartphone
'Real-time video diary'.
Complements the microphone of the GoPro which is more exposed to background
noise; headset microphone is protected by a scarf around the neck.
Records my description of what I perceive beyond visual scapes, but also
the 'voice' of the body: heavy breathing, coughing etc.
Vocabulary remains limited; plus the wholeness of sensescapes difficult
to describe aptly within such short instances.
Technology: Headset microphones and
voice recorder app on smartphone
Auto-ethnography and being through movement
Bringing balance (equilibrioception), movement (proprioception) and pain
(nocioception) to the fore through auto-ethnography.
Other senses than the visual and the hearing work in close symbiosis in perception
through 'perceptual system' (Gibson 1979).
Perception is a mode of being through movement (Merleau-Ponty 1958).
It's cold today, I have put some gloves on, also a cap. As I just took the bicycle
from the shed, I'm standing still for some brief moments, the bicycle on my right
side, my left hand on the handlebars, my right hand resting
on the saddle. I contemplate my next movements, left foot on the pedal, both
hands now on the handlebars, gently pushing the bike forward to
gain that initial momentum, the forefingers mildly caressing the springy
brake levers, a precaution I always take, the right foot elegantly describing a
hemicycle in the air as it gets over the seat and instinctively finds the
other pedal. Yet, I'm standing still, not a single move, looking ahead, listening
to the humming city I'm about to embrace. I smell nothing yet, my ears and nose
are just a bit cold, maybe I feel the leg muscles contracting as they
anticipate the effort ahead. (Field notes from 2 bicycle rides in London, on 19
January 2015 and 6 March 2015)
Auto-biography and building sensory tolerances
The existence and function of sensory tolerances are as much important as are the long
and painstaking processes whereby they become embodied.
Enskilment or 'understanding in practice' (Ingold 2000) - useful to bridge the
existing gap between learning through representations and actual doing.
I was desperately trying to catch the eyes of the driver in the car parked on the side of
the road as I was cycling towards him … As I realised it is in fact unlikely he would
acknowledge my imminent arrival, I tried to swerve a bit to the right, not too much though
as I would have gotten straight in the way of other incoming cars on the other lane. The
door opened slowly and widely, the next thing I remember is laying on the tarmac … I hit
the door with the left side of the handlebars, was instantly sent 'sailing' over the bars, did
some sort of a turn in the air and landed on my back. I luckily escaped with minor rib
contusions and a vivid memory of the incident that is haunting me ever since. This was
one of the not too many bicycle accidents I had and, even though it occurred ten years
ago, it still is the most traumatizing. Never again do I take a 'parked car'
to be a mere 'parked car' any more and make sure I leave
enough clearance if some careless driver rushes out of his
car without much consideration for others around. (Notes
reflecting on a previous cycling experience, from 2006)
Methods for cycling sensescapes
Mobile technologies as method:
Effective when accounting exclusively for the visual and the auditory
Less effective when deeper senses are explored: balance, movement, pain.
Self-reflexivity as method:
Effective to explore the non-representational (Thrift 2007)
Effective to explore the tacit embodied knowledge acquired in many years of cycling
Sociabilities as constitutive of future
Sociability is defined as the play form of association (Simmel 1910).
Mobile sociabilities describe the types of quality interactions taking place
between cyclists riding together in a particular formation.
Emotions and affects rise and surge between bodies moving together:
Bodies extend out into more-than-personal bonds and associations as people move with
each other. Emotions and affects feed back as they leap between people tying them
even closer together. […] Rather than communicating symbolically or discursively, being
mobile together in time is 'crucial in both establishing and enhancing a sense of
collective purpose and a common understanding' producing feelings of 'well being'
describe the all too common practices of rule breaking and bending in Amsterdam as
'swarm behaviour', with cyclists 'adopting and sharing new rules of conduct in
communication with each other'. (Te Brömmelstroet et al. 2014).
are once again more visible in bike friendly cities; the side-by-side cycling with
another person 'gives the most affordable co-presence, but (…) requires co-riders
to maintain the same pace over the terrain' (McIlvenny 2014).
Critical Mass events that are reversing the interaction order of urban mobilities
through carnivalesque sociabilities; the carnival celebrates 'temporary liberation
from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of
all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions' (Bakhtin 1965).
Club ride sociabilities
The mobile interaction order
Mobilizing Goffman's concept of 'interaction order' (1982) for the study of
The 'interaction order' describes how social life can be understood when looking at the
trivial instances where people have face-to-face encounters, which are conducted by
following a set of enabling conventions.
The interaction order has been mobilised more recently to explore co-
presence beyond the static confinements imagined by Goffman (Jensen 2010, 2013,
Through an analysis of the mobile interaction order maintained by several groups of
cyclists, encountered in London, Amsterdam and the British countryside, I identify a
set of team and individual tactics that are deployed to keep
the interactants safe, to increase the efficiency of the group,
to sustain its mobility or to build further confidence to cycle
on the road.
Researching sociabilities: Methods as 'face-work'
'Face-work' are 'actions taken by a person to make whatever he is doing consistent
with face' and which serve 'to counteract “incidents” – that is, events whose effective
symbolic implications threaten face' (Goffman 1967:8)
Face-work in a 'chain-gang formation'.
requires very specific position within the mobile group; limits the mobility options;
the researcher is 'stuck in formation';
his face-work = changing positions in the group to avoid upsetting the interaction;
physical capabilities as well as the skills to ride in formation are extremely important.
Face-work in an 'accordion formation'
position in the group is less constraining
the researcher can swing between the front, the middle and the
end of the formation
two successive actions: the expansion and the compression. The expansion is
caused by inclination of the terrain, physical capabilities, volume of traffic or weather.
The compression is done through brief stops, the use of mobile phones when riders
get lost or lunch breaks to allow recovery.
Methods for cycling sociabilities
Video footage as method:
To represent the dynamics of group cycling
Effective once cycling group skills and capabilities are acquired.
'Face-work' as method:
Researching sociabilities by learning to ride in 'chain gang' and 'accordion'
Participant observation = researcher is effectively engaged in sustaining interaction