Mumbai on Two Wheels: Cycling, Urban Space, and Sustainable Mobility

Published: 9 July 2024

I started with an ethnographic question: “What do people do with bicycles?

What is it about?

Cycling, when examined through an anthropological lens, is not merely a means of transportation from one point to another. It represents a complex interplay of cultural, social, and political practices that are shaped by the lived experiences of individuals. Qualitative and ethnographic methods can effectively uncover the rich dimensions of cycling within various urban contexts, offering valuable insights into its cultural, social, political, and emotional aspects.

Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria’s Mumbai on Two Wheels: Cycling, Urban Space, and Sustainable Mobility exemplifies this approach by utilizing mobile ethnography to deeply explore cycling practices from the perspective of everyday life. Through this immersive method, the author reveals the intricate dynamics of cycling in different urban environments, highlighting the importance of understanding these experiences to better inform sustainable and inclusive transportation planning.

I once took a Kryptonite U-lock to Mumbai as a gift for a friend. She had seen me using one on a previous trip and asked me to bring one from the United States. U-locks are heavy, nearly indestructible steel locks that consists of two pieces—one shaped like a U and a short, straight section that goes over the top. Kryptonite U-locks are not common in India, where most people who don’t ride affordable, Indian-made, roadster-style bicycles (which lock to themselves) lock their bicycles with a long, thin cable secured with a combination lock. But in places like Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I am while writing this, U-locks are the norm. Here, bicycle store clerks admonish customers eyeing the more affordable cable locks. They say it is quick and easy for thieves to cut cables, but cutting a U-lock requires a special tool called an angle grinder and some time. After using my gift for a week, my friend returned it to me and said she will go back to using a cable lock. She told me that the problem with U-locks is that they can only lock one bicycle at a time, whereas cable locks can be looped through three or four bicycles snuggly fitted together, securing them all at once. “Cable locks are more social,” she said with a smile.

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The introduction presents an intriguing perspective on the social aspects of cycling, focusing on the simple choice of a bicycle lock. The author uses this everyday object to highlight how our decisions about transportation are shaped by social context and the built environment. By comparing experiences in Mumbai and Cambridge, the author demonstrates how different landscapes of cycling lead to distinct preferences for cable locks or U-locks! He opens a debate on how our choices shape our experiences and how these experiences, in turn, influence the evolution of urban mobility.

The book discusses the importance of considering the social, cultural, and historical context of cycling in urban areas, particularly in India and the United States. Johnathan presents an alternative approach to sustainable transportation planning by emphasizing the social, attitudinal, and behavioral factors, rather than solely focusing on street design. It means we need to pay attention to the human infrastructure rather as well as the hard infrastructure of cycling. Anjaria challenges the prevailing emphasis on bicycle infrastructure and advocates for a more context-sensitive approach that considers the diverse relationships to bicycles, urban histories, and the personal motivations behind transportation modes.

In Mumbai on Two Wheels, the author presents an in-depth exploration of cycling experiences in Mumbai, showcasing how individuals reshape their identities and perceptions of the city through their interactions with cycling and urban infrastructure. By engaging with a diverse range of actors—including bicycle activists, commuters, food delivery workers, event organizers, planners, technicians, shop owners, and architects—the book provides a comprehensive understanding of the social, cultural, and infrastructural dimensions that influence cycling practices in the city.

Cycling in Mumbai – Photo by Jonathan

What approach does it take?

The author employs an ethnographic methodology to deeply explore the cycling experiences and transportation landscapes of various cities, including Mumbai. By engaging with local cyclists, activists, and planners, the author immerses herself in diverse contexts to gain rich, firsthand insights.

This approach allows for a nuanced understanding of the social, cultural, and spatial dimensions that shape urban mobility, offering valuable lessons for creating inclusive and sustainable transportation systems. You can read more about Jonathan’s views on ethnographic methods in cycling research here: Ethnography on Two Wheels: Q&A with Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria.

Who might be interested in this book?

This book will appeal to a wide range of readers, including urban anthropologists, planners, policymakers, cycling advocates, and researchers in urban studies, mobility, and sustainability. Additionally, anyone with an interest in understanding the social dynamics and complexities of urban cycling will find this book engaging and insightful.

Further details
  • Academic disciplines: Urban Anthropology, Mobilities, Cycling Studies.
  • Geographical scope: India and the United States
  • Relation to cycling: cycling is central to the book.
  • Reference (APA): Anjaria, J. S. (2024). Mumbai on two wheels: Cycling, Urban Space, and Sustainable Mobility.
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