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Can cultural institutions shape how we think about cycling? MollaAliod

Reimagining Australia … by bike

Cultural heritage can play an important role in promoting sustainable land use and creative economies – and all we have to do is get on our bikes.

If this sounds peculiar, think of events such as Italy’s L'eroica bike ride, which combines cycling and culture in the hills of Tuscany.

For the cyclist in the know, L'eroica evokes scenes of vintage bikes, woollen jerseys, leather cycling shoes and food and wine. Since 1997, thousands of cyclists have participated in the 200km ride established to safeguard the heritage of the white gravel roads in of this region of Italy.

The event takes place on the first Sunday of each October. The route is marked out all year round – a constant reminder of the central premise of conservation. Locals don’t want their district to get lost in the kinds of high-speed commutes to city centres that allow people to ignore local produce and trade.


L’eroica has successfully latched onto the curiosity that already existed regarding the history of Italian cycling. Of course, a particular romanticism accompanies a cycling event set in the rolling hills of Tuscany. The vintage bikes and fashions hark back to a stylish “dolce vita” captured so evocatively on film. It has created a contemporary cultural imaginary that champions both environmental heritage and a sustainable lifestyle.

Importantly, it offers an opportunity for local businesses to benefit from creative partnerships while promoting sustainable development.

The ride provides a genuine illustration of the power of “grass roots” active cultural participation – and it’s one that turns on issues of cultural heritage in local communities.

How Londoners roll

Let’s now look to London. The Guardian tells us bicycles make up 24% of vehicles in London’s rush hour. How can a densely populated city with narrow city streets filled with double-decker buses be a safe or enjoyable place to cycle?

The numbers keep growing, helped, in no small part, by the vision of Mayor Boris Johnson, who, earlier this year, committed over £900 million to the development of cycling as a genuine transport option.

Boris Johnson. ejbaurdo

The Mayor’s Transport Strategy document, released in June, describes how transport has both created new visions and revitalised London over the past 150 years.

The report sets out multiple proposals to ensure that infrastructure meets growing demand – and that does so while capturing the curiosity of the city’s inhabitants.

An important part of this plan is the development of an annual RideLondon festival. RideLondon includes an elite 100-mile race, a 100-mile cycling event from London to Surrey, and an eight-mile family event that takes participants through the most famous cultural icons in the city.

So has the festival captured the population’s imagination? According to the RideLondon website, yes:

24 hours after the ballot opened for the 2014 Prudential RideLondon-Surrey 100, more than 50,000 people have registered to take part in next year’s event.

So why would 50,000 people register for a “fun” 100-mile cycle so quickly?

London is creating a cultural imaginary, or set of shared ideas, around cycling. The city is meeting a growing transport need by connecting cycling with active cultural participation, creative economies and sustainable development investment.

RideLondon builds on the success of 2012 London Olympics as well as the incredible response to the 2007 Tour de France Prologue, which took a cultural tour of London. The 2014 Tour de France is scheduled to start in Leeds and will feature a stage finish in London before returning to France.


The development of this cultural imaginary is contributing distinct benefits to the UK economy. Business is booming for signature British cycling brands such as Pashley, (Stratford-Upon Avon) Brooks, (Birmingham) Moulton (Stratford-Upon Avon) and Brompton (West London).

As the boundaries between the lycra-clad elite sport and commuter cycling are blur, local businesses are also getting in on the act.

The London-based bike clothing brand Rapha supplies kits for the elite cyclists at Team Sky while marketing cycle-specific sports coats to wear at the office. Similarly, the Cambridge Raincoat Company began offering locally designed and made cycling products in 2010, based on the idea that you could look good off and on the bike.

Examples of this sort show culture, design and business development coming together around a shared vision of sustainable cities.

How then can cultural institutions shape how we think about cycling through their exhibitions and events?

Getting around new urban spaces

A joint University of Canberra and University of Tasmania research project, currently in development, will investigate the role cultural heritage – experienced through the cultural activity of cycling – plays in generating new ways of experiencing urban and regional centres.


We will be examining the role of active cultural participation and the relationship between cycling and urban design.

Our research will offer propositions for how active cultural participation in a growing cultural imaginary around cycling can engage local residents in critical discussions about infrastructure, transport, mobility and safety.

L’eroica and the transformation of London for bikes are excellent examples of how active cultural participation can promote a message of sustainable development.

Futurama – a model for urban futures

[Futurama](’s_Fair), an exhibition that was developed for the 1939-40 New York World’s Trade Fair, shows how culture and urban development have historically been entwined.

Detail of the Futurama exhibit at the New York World Fair 1939-40, showing a street intersection in the City of Tomorrow. Wikimedia Commons

Futurama was a large-scale interactive exhibition sponsored by General Motors and housed in that company’s pavilion at the World’s Trade Fair.

It imagined a future with the car at its centre and, in doing so, inspired America, and in turn Australia, to implement an untested urban growth model based on the car. Some 28,000 people a day passed through the exhibition on chairs mounted to a conveyer, looking down as though from a low flying aeroplane upon a huge diorama of their future cities.

That exhibition helped develop a cultural imaginary around future cities based on mass-road transport – which in turn would require more people to buy cars.

The designer Norman Bel Geddes and exhibition sponsor General Motors celebrated the enormous public and private expenditure required to move from a walking/transit based urbanism, to a suburban model designed for point-to-point travel in cars.

According to American historian Adnan Morshed, “it was not the spectacle of the future itself, but the technique of seeing the future” that made Futurama so inspirational.


Freewheeling around Australia

In 2014, the National Museum of Australia will begin touring its new exhibition, Freewheeling: Cycling in Australia. While engineers and designers focus on bike infrastructure and road rules, we are interested in whether museums can offer forums for active cultural participation that ultimately improve the sustainability and speed of mobility.

Could this exhibition capture community curiosity and play a role in the development of a cultural imaginary around cycling in Australia? L'eroica and London’s vigorous cycling culture show there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful.

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