Honors Thesis Spotlight: Claire Wixted
Wednesday, April 24, 2019
Wednesday, April 24, 2019
Can you tell me more about your thesis? What are you working on and what was the inspiration for your project?
The inspiration behind my thesis was both my own passion for bike riding and a visit to Amsterdam over the summer where I saw the bicycle culture there and I was really intrigued by it. So, for my thesis, I want to help people imagine a bicycle culture so that they can get as excited about it as I am. I decided to do a literary journalism project so that people could envision what a bicycle culture in America would look like.
I began my research with the historical component of what bicycle culture infrastructure has looked like in America in the past, beginning with the bicycle boom in the 1890s, and then I move to the contemporary to look at what successful bicycle cultures look like now. Like these models in Amsterdam, Copenhagen... all the big biking cities and then also talk about the obvious benefits of bicycle culture, like the environmental and public health benefits. I’m looking at Northampton as an example of a budding bicycle culture because they’ve been doing a lot of work there to make bicycle use more widespread and improve their bicycle infrastructure.
Throughout this, a challenge that I came across was that this was the project that I had in mind originally [see above], but now it’s changed shape a bit. As I was looking through the literature, it was kind of hard to miss that there’s this history of elitism in bicycle culture that I fear will be perpetuated today. The whole idea of a bicycle culture sounds great and on the face of it, it looks like a great thing, but there are a lot of inequalities at play.
My project now is sort of tracing this thread of elitism from the historical component of bicycle infrastructure, like in the 1890s there was this organization—that still exists under a different name today—called The League of American Wheelmen. This was the national registry of bicycle riders and they were advocates for the paving of roads so that they could go on long journeys with their bikes, but they had in the mid-1890s a Jim Crow Era rule. They decided to ban black members, so it wasn’t that bicycling was for everybody, it was for this elite group of people who wanted to take long trips into the countryside and had their own interests at heart. It wasn’t like they were advocating for people who needed to commute to work affordably.
So now my project has shaped to tracing this thread of elitism and looking at the issues of bicycle infrastructure. Such as when city planners just see it as this “nice” thing that they like and want to put into cities, and not acknowledging how this will change the neighborhood for people who have lived there forever. A lot of times, city planners will petition bicycle culture not to improve the neighborhood for the people who live there now, but to attract wealthy millennials who want to bike to work. It’s not like we’re making the bicycle lanes to serve the communities, we’re making the bicycle lanes to make the city more attractive. To me, this isn’t a sustainable or productive culture. I imagine a bicycle culture that’s fair for everybody and works for everybody, because it does have potential to improve the lives for everyone in the city.
Do you see that in Northampton?
That’s a good question. I spoke with Wayne Feiden, who is the city planner of Northampton, and I asked that question: how is Northampton working to combat these issues that fall along racial lines (even though Northampton is pretty white anyway)? He said that there’s the Valley Bike Share, which Northampton has implemented. They actually oversee and run the program throughout the Pioneer Valley at the Northampton City Office. According to him, the Valley Bike share promotes more equitable use of bicycle infrastructure. This is because it allows someone who does not have a biketo be able to use one and it reaches a broader range of cyclists because it’s electrical assist, so someone who is older or who is not physically fit may be more inclined to use the Valley bike. That’s something I need to look more into: how these places are combating these inequalities.
Have there been any campus resources or faculty that have been helpful for you?
My thesis adviser, Mark Hammon, has been really helpful, but mainly it’s just been me on my computer in the library. I’ve been very impressed by the range of materials I have been able to find on the library database. I’ve been able to find so much and also the fact that the library has books on my topic already… even though my topic isn’t that obscure, it still impresses that there are so many books in the library and it’s cool to see that these things are already being talked about.
Do you have any suggestions for future students taking on their own honors thesis project?
My advice would be to just get started on it. Even though it seems overwhelming and daunting, you just need to start and do a little each day. It’ll start to take a shape of its own even if it’s not what you initially planned because you’re going to come across things that will make you change course a little. Also, to not be too hard on yourself about it because it’s an undergraduate research project and probably the first time most of us have taken this on, so the stakes aren’t that high and you should have fun with it.
Interview by Sierra Sumner, Digital Communications Intern