Thursday, November 8, 2007

Bicycles and Academia

At the beginning of the fall term, I was asked a funny question by a motorist during my morning commute to campus:
"Are you north campus or south campus?" (The UCLA campus is somewhat arbitrarily divided into north and south campus with most of the humanities/social science/arts departments in the north, and the science and engineering departments in the south. The music building was constructed during the height of post-WWII serialism and is positioned right at the intersection of the two, while the old physics building, renamed "Humanities" in the last year is in the north.)
I answered, "Technically, my building is right between the two."
The motorist yelled, "What's your major?!"
I answered, and he said, "You are north!"
I doubt that this motorist was taking a survey, but he did bring underscore something that has been on my mind recently: is there a relationship between field of study and likelihood to prefer bicycles?

The number of cyclists at UCLA is growing with bicycle parking in central campus literally becoming congested for the first time since I've been here. It has gotten to the point where I no longer use my bike to get around campus and rather park it for the entire day as I would a car. The one population that has been consistent about bicycle use are the graduate students, post doctoral scholars and researchers, and a few professors. Of the people I know who commute by bicycle, I would say that the number of scientists who go car-free is slightly higher than north campus types. But I think the proportion is changing as more people lose their patience with driving a car in Los Angeles. Just the other night I met a philosophy grad student who proudly rides a LeMonde road bike. And I know of two colleagues in my department who want to buy bikes, and another who is trying to familiarize herself with the treacherous ride through Beverly Hills (one of the most dangerous neighborhoods for bicycles) from West Hollywood.

Is there something iconic about the cycling academic? A recent promotional spot for MTVU (MTV networks station dedicated to the university set) intended to make fun of professors showed a middle-aged man in tweed parking his bicycle. On my ride home, I often see professors with their briefcases strapped to their bikes and many grad students riding home. My brother-in-law tells me that every academic he knows prefers bicycles. I've been pondering that comment for years. This is a topic that I will have to continue on a later date. Now, about that dissertation of mine...

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