The Practice of Everyday Life – Biking at UO and CSU

In one of my graduate seminars, we are currently reading Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. Though certainly brilliant writing, it can be… dense to read through, shall we say? I’ve only managed to get through the first part, and it’s been quite the struggle to wrap my head around everything that he is saying. Thankfully this class only meets once a week and I have several days to work through this book.

At any rate, I was having a really difficult time understanding his distinction between “strategies” and “tactics” and how each of them describe a different angle of power. For de Certeau, strategies are used by institutions (governments, businesses, etc.) to set the rules. But then tactics are used by everyday people in their everyday lives, and often circumvent these institutions and their rules. But it’s not so much outright subversion or challenging of the norms. Instead, it can be something as simple as an individual using some thing for a purpose other than what it was intended. It is not necessarily an outright act of challenging the power and authority, but it is nevertheless a significant aspect of the practice of everyday life. (*Cinema Sins Ding* “roll credits”)

While this makes sense on paper, and I feel pretty comfortable with this idea in theory, I was struggling to think of some examples of how this actually plays out in the real world. And suddenly I had an epiphany. During one of my undergraduate classes on media theory, my professor had shown us various photos from the University of Oregon campus to demonstrate how cultural hegemony can even be inscribed in buildings and physical spaces. The very way that a building is constructed and designed says something about what is “meant” to take place there and what the institution “wants” the people to do in the space.

The presence of bike racks everywhere indicates what the hegemonic, or commonly accepted, mode of transportation is. Similarly, the presence of pedestrian paths but not car roads can tell us something about what the cultural hegemony of the university is.

And since I have had the privilege of being a university student at multiple institutions, I found myself with the unique opportunity to compare the ways that each University exerts its power (de Certeau’s notion of strategies) by designing its campus and buildings in certain ways to dictate what behaviors are “expected.”

Both the University of Oregon and Colorado State University like to market themselves as very bike-friendly campuses. But the way that each school actually designs and distributes its biking infrastructure dictates different kinds of “preferred” behaviors.

At the University of Oregon, 13th street runs directly through the heart of the campus. For several blocks, only approved University vehicles are allowed; no private cars may enter. Because of this, the majority of the street is restricted to pedestrian and biking traffic. The street is lined with bike racks, which means that students can lock their bikes essentially directly in front of the building that their class is in. And when it’s time to move from one building to another, they can simply get on their bike, head down the road, and lock up at another bike rack right by their building. Put another way, the campus has small bike racks, but has them located everywhere.

This university is bike friendly for commuting to campus, but also within campus. This is the school’s strategy: creating many places where cycling is encouraged and facilitated. To be sure, there are still areas where a direct bike route is not quite as simple (such as riding from the Lillis Business Complex directly to the Knight Library), but many students develop their own tactics. For instance, they might bike straight down the smaller sidewalk rather than using Kincaid street.

But for Colorado State University, the institution’s strategies are somewhat different. They still claim to be a bike-friendly university, but what this looks like in practice is very different than at the University of Oregon. There are still bike racks present, but they are much more concentrated in large groups. It’s as if there are several “bike parking lots” rather than trying to have a large number of bike racks place all over the place.

And then, there are many sections of the campus where riding a bike is explicitly forbidden. And the campus police will specifically enforce these dismount zones, ticketing cyclists who do not follow the instructions.

The University of Oregon had similar sections of footpaths. But the school’s strategy was still much different. There was simply a small printed word on the sidewalk, “WALK.” And then several duck footprints. I never once saw, nor heard of, anyone being approached by campus police if they didn’t dismount their bike in these zones. In fact, I wasn’t even able to find an image of this sidewalk message online, whereas there was no shortage of imagery of Colorado State University’s dismount zones. This tells us a lot about how important the dismount policy is for one campus over the other. So the school is bike friendly in that it is easy to commute to campus, but there is significantly less ability to commute within campus once you’re there. Instead, the strategies of the school create a norm where students commute to campus via bike, and then walk everywhere else.

So how do students (the everyday person) respond with their own tactics? Let’s use a similar example as above, of a student trying to get from one place to the library. If a student has their bike locked at the Behavioral Sciences Building, they may have a bit of difficulty getting themselves and their bike over to the Morgan Library. They could use the actual bike paths, which is a bit of a longer route that passes by Braiden Hall. They could simply leave their bike locked at the big collection of bike racks and walk down the pathway. In this case, their tactics closely align with the school’s strategies. Or, as many people may do sometimes, they may choose to ignore the dismount zone and bike down the center pathway. By doing so, they do run the risk of being punished, and being subjected to the power of the University. But this is a great example of how the tactics of everyday people in their daily lives can (and indeed regularly do) interact with the power of institutions and their strategies.

The way that a university constructs and designs its campus and buildings can say a lot about how they want their students to use those particular spaces. But what people actually do within those spaces has just as much to say, and perhaps even more.

Food for future thought: This is what the exterior of each school’s student center looks like. What are the strategies that the space lends itself to? And what are the tactics that the people there actually enact?

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