Bicycle commuting in an automobile-dominated city: how individuals become and remain bike commuters in Charlotte, North Carolina

  • Kevin B. Caldwell
  • Robert H. W. Boyer


In Charlotte, North Carolina less than one half of 1% of commuters ride a bicycle to work despite several decades of public investment in bicycle infrastructure and planning. Like many fast-growing cities of North America, Charlotte’s rapid physical growth in the past half-century has left its residents little option but to navigate the city by car. To date, research on utility cycling has paid relatively little attention to the practice of bicycle commuting in auto-dominated cities. This article uses grounded theory methodology to build a context- and time-sensitive explanation of how individuals adopt and sustain the practice of bicycle commuting in Charlotte. Through interviews with 26 Charlotte-area bicycle commuters—20 men and 6 women, mean age 40.3—, we find that, according to subjects interviewed, initiating and sustaining the practice of bicycle commuting involves the renegotiation of relationships between the cyclist and (1) the bicycle, (2) other local cyclists, (3) urban space, and (4) the workplace. Dynamics in these relationships are overlapping and simultaneous. This time- and context-sensitive explanation broadens the array of policy interventions that complement the infrastructure-centered approach to promoting cycling in Charlotte today. Elected officials, planners, and bicycle advocates stand to benefit by understanding the transition to cycling as a process of social learning that exposes individuals interested in bicycle commuting to less hostile “neighborhood” thoroughfares.


Bicycle Urban cycling Utility cycling Grounded theory methodology Social practice theory 



This paper is derived from research conducted for the completion of the first author’s unpublished Masters Capstone Project. Preliminary results were presented at the 2017 conference of the American Association of Geographers (Boston, MA). The authors wish to thank the anonymous interview subjects that participated in the study, Dr. Heather Smith and Dr. Loril Gossett for their methodological and theoretical guidance, as well as Dr. Jennifer Bonham for her comments on a earlier draft.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

All authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Geography & Earth SciencesUniversity of North Carolina at CharlotteCharlotteUSA

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