New cycling stories

March 20, 2014

The world is missing our wisdom.

Mass cycling

In your work for cycling, do you sometimes attend meetings? If so, have you ever sat through a meeting with the growing, gnawing feeling you’re talking at cross purposes with the other people present? Have you ever left a meeting utterly dejected, feeling you might as well give up because ‘people just don’t get it’?

Meetings about cycling inevitably involve different agendas and compromise. But is our struggle to make cycling mainstream so difficult because we – it’s strongest advocates – still haven’t learned how to speak about it? Are we yet to find our voice? If so, other people, understandably, would struggle to hear it. So perhaps ‘people don’t get it’ because we’ve yet to tell them?

Partly, we’ve inherited a problem. Cycling advocacy for the past half-century has been on the back foot, so busy complaining, criticising and protesting it never paused to build – let alone proselytize – progressive visions of an alternative society with the bicycle at its heart. Yet isn’t that what we must do if we’re to convince others that cycling matters?

Why don’t we have compelling visions with which to convince ourselves and others of cycling’s value? Partly, as I’ve said, because our tendency has been reactive, not pro-active. But partly also, cycling advocacy has become pragmatic, maybe too pragmatic. We have learned how to fit cycling into other agendas rather than develop agendas of our own. We try particularly to sell cycling in ways most likely to resonate with institutional agendas – ‘cycling cuts congestion, pollution and carbon emissions’; ‘cycling increases health and fitness, and reduces obesity’. We try to make cycling make sense to others, but at what cost?

We advocate for cycling despite never having stopped to build compelling cycling visions. Then when we argue for cycling we get this unsettling feeling that ‘other people don’t get it’. That’s because their ambitions for cycling don’t match the visions we have, but which we have repressed and can’t express.

We have jumbles of ideas, impulses and convictions around cycling’s worth. But we lack the confidence to develop these jumbles into coherent visions, because they’re about bicycles, and bicycles don’t count. Personal and collective development of mass cycling visions is immature because we have internalised the cycling shame of the last half-century. This shame got forked on bicycles as the car became everyman’s vehicle (and gradually every woman’s too). So now we are embarrassed to say we believe in bikes, believe in society re-organised away from cars and towards bikes. As many people today are embarrassed to think of themselves as people who might cycle, we are embarrassed to advocate boldly for their cycling.

We work towards visions we can’t articulate, and we are shy in sharing our ambitions for cycling. Our private thoughts don’t find public expression; they don’t cohere into comprehensible speech. We are silenced. And so the world misses our wisdom. How powerful is the dominant ideology that it stops us articulating even to ourselves, let alone asking for, what it is we really want! This our silence contributes to cycling’s continued repression.

Cycling city

So? So we need to develop our visions and move beyond the shame of speaking them. Find our voice. Of course we must compromise – to make cycling big requires working with others, and that inevitably entails compromise. But unless they know what we really stand for, those others can’t know by how much we’re compromising.

We believe bikes should replace cars. We think half of all journeys could easily be made by bike. We see a bicycle-based society as better than a car-based one. We look forward to the time when bicycles proliferate as cars disappear and die. People won’t know these things unless we tell them, so we should tell them. We need to make our stories, to help make sense of the changes we’re calling for.

Just one example – the conversion of two lanes of a dual-carriageway’s four into top-notch space for cycling. Howls of protest, obviously. But the prospects of such change have to be higher the more people see them as forming part of an ongoing societal project to re-design our cities away from cars towards bicycles. The more people can see and understand the bigger picture, the more supportive they will be. That’s why we need vision, narrative and discourse elucidating change, helping people make sense of, rather than react against, it.

Airing these things will facilitate not sabotage progress. It’ll transform cycling from ‘a special interest’ into a public good. It’ll break us free from being seen as ‘a self-interested culture of cranks and hobbyists’. And others will finally see what it is we’re going on about – ‘they’ll get it’. And at the very least, if still too little changes, politicians and policy-makers will be able to see that – from our perspectives –not nearly enough is being done, and that’s why we’re angry and keep demanding and expecting more.

Others lack visions for cycling because we’ve not even tried to sell them ours. Until we do, cycling will keep getting incorporated – where it gets incorporated at all – in trivial, tokenistic ways – in ways that make sense to those without visions of mass cycling. They’ll keep giving cycling at most a little because they have learnt and assume that a little is enough. And we as advocates will continue to feel that cycling’s being sold seriously short.

If you want a society based on cycling, start talking about a society based on cycling. Like everything else, the way to develop, refine and sell our cycling visions is to practise – and as we get better at telling the new cycling stories, others are more likely to hear, believe and start telling them too.

Different Worlds

January 7, 2014

Mona Caron - Different Worlds

Most people don’t cycle, and it’s easy to assume they’re indifferent, even hostile to cycling. But that’s not true; even as they describe, explain and justify their car-locked lives, many people view cycling as something they’d love to do, just not in this world.

When people talk about driving and cycling they often talk about two quite different and separate worlds. There’s the world they know best, full of cars including theirs, the world they must – simply to function – learn, accept and deal with. This world is physical and psychological, ‘out there’ but also ‘in here’, and so taken-for-granted it’s negotiated almost without thinking. Bicycles occupy another world – slower-moving and sunnier, if confined in most people’s imaginations to leisure, holidays and wishful thinking. People struggle to fit the idea of themselves cycling into the first world, but easily can in the second. So interviews about cars and bicycles tend to slip between describing everyday car-based hustle and bustle and reflecting on the occasional or imagined delights of, for example, a weekend off-road ride in the countryside.

So what happens when you, the interviewer, introduce into the conversation the idea of utility cycling? Typically people express their unwillingness to cycle because it looks and feels too scary; next they mention how the cycling facilities they’ve seen don’t join up, and look unfit for purpose; but these ‘facts’ out the way, so long as you keep them in this ‘what if..?’ territory, interesting things happen. You get glimpses of a third world based more around bicycles than cars. You see this world in the injection of pace, the change in demeanour, the glint in the eye, the flash of a smile, and the burst of enthusiasm that emerge as someone briefly considers the prospect of more cycling – as what’s usually on the margins or just under the surface comes momentarily into view; it’s like sunshine bursting suddenly through the clouds, as someone savours a little taste of how life could be. Then reality reasserts itself, the gate slams shut, and that third world is gone. (Here we see how individual psychology mirrors dominant ideology as performed through governmental discourses – almost complete and unwavering commitment to the car cracked by little rhetorical tweets and policy gestures looking in a more bike-friendly direction.)

As the interviewer it’s hard to trust your senses here, and the cold ‘facts’ of the transcript don’t easily reveal what you witness – the optimism injected as someone momentarily dwells on individual and societal cycling futures (questionnaires might capture these inchoate dreams of a different life better than less structured interviews). But we know the appetite for this third world is there. A recent British Social Attitudes survey found

‘widespread support for the idea that everyone should be cutting down on their car use, and most people disagree that individual action is pointless. Two-thirds of drivers say they are willing to cut their car use and three in five would be able to shift from using the car on short journeys to cycling, walking, or taking the bus … the overall climate of public opinion can … be described as favourable towards a reduction in car use.’

(Stradling et al, 2008: 153)

Other surveys show people want 20 mph speed limits, and want cycling (and walking) prioritised over the car. That people want change is unsurprising – the car system structures their world and many are forced against their deepest desires and aspirations to drive. In a sensible discussion I’m sure almost everyone would agree Britain’s being choked by cars and wishes it could stop.

Utility cycling remains a remote but real possibility despite the twin, related processes of people feeling disempowered from doing it and urban space practically eliminating it; people are dreaming even now, even here, among all the cars, of being in a better, happier place, by bike. Change from cars to bicycles is closer than we think; it just needs to be triggered, if not in the ways we’re trying to trigger it. The biggest barrier is not lack of desire, it’s cynicism – dreaming of a cycling future’s one thing, getting there quite another; why get excited about something you can’t imagine happening?

People glimpse a better cycling future, but remain in perpetual fug over the driving present. The car contributes to a de-skilling and disembodiment of everyday life. People’s capacity to move through the world without a screen to protect them has been eroded, as has the relationship to their own bodies that develops through physical activity. Talking to people about their reliance on the car, you get the impression we’ve collectively sleep-walked into the current state of transport, and on pausing to think about it they momentarily awaken and slowly shake their heads, struggling to comprehend how the car’s taken over life. Even the most car-centric of people feels this; Jeremy Clarkson’s tremendous popularity is surely based on his ability temporarily to extinguish people’s growing ambivalence towards the car, so they can still sometimes bathe for a short sweet while in its unalloyed celebration.

So cycling sits in an alternative future even as current conditions occlude it. Cycling here is importantly symbolic. If in the present people have lost control of their bodies, homes and lives, in the cycling future they retake control of those bodies, take back those homes from the car, and reassert autonomy over those lives. The thought of cycling gives people a sense that things, and most importantly they themselves, could be different. Cycling’s power is as the pivot around which life rotates away from a darker towards a brighter future. But it’s unwise to show unambiguous support for something with such dodgy prospects, so enthusiasm for cycling is muted, constrained by the understandable (if also incorrect) sense that ‘things don’t change – driving’s what we do’. For now, people figure, we’re stuck with the car.

You might think this other world lying just beneath the cars is so clearly against vested interests, it’ll never happen. You might say it’s much easier for car-dependent people to romanticise cycling than it is to get them on a bike. But don’t those responses keep cynicism the biggest barrier to cycling? I think we should see the truth in people’s hesitant, halting visions of a better life, and make ways to encourage and convert them into action, though precisely how we do so is another question.

Another world is possible, and cycling is not just part of it, it’s a route to it. Cycling is repressed but barely; it lies close to the surface. This is why, as I tried to say in a recent post, I think we need to create more seductive visions of the cycling future, to help people get more than a glimpse – to help them get a sustained view – of the world that cycling, including their own cycling, will create.

Reference

Stradling, Stephen, Jillian Anable, Tracy Anderson and Alexandra Cronberg (2008): ‘Car Use and Climate Change: Do We Practise What We Preach?’, in Alison Park, John Curtice, Katarina Thomson, Miranda Phillips, Mark Johnson and Elizabeth Clery (eds), British Social Attitudes: The 24th Report, London: Sage, pp. 139-59.

How best to boost urban cycling?

November 26, 2013

I’ve run out of time to do the post I’d intended this week (tomorrow I travel to Bavaria to take part in what looks like a stimulating Active Mobility workshop), so will instead simply note that a debate between David Dansky, head of training and development at Cycle Training UK, and me is today published on the Mobile Lives Forum (a site well worth checking out in its own right). David and I discuss why urban cycling matters, how it can best be encouraged, and differences in encouraging cycling between urban and suburban areas. (We were given tight word limits, which is why our responses are so brief.) On the same site there’s a video-conference with the sociologist Rachel Aldred from Westminster University exploring London’s ‘bicycle revolution’, so if you feel so inclined you can get a real sociological cycling fix!

Read my discussion with David (who has consistently been among the most interested, thoughtful and respectful respondents to the (somewhat contentious) Understanding Walking and Cycling research with which I was involved) here.

City Cycling – book review

November 21, 2013

I’m posting below the review of City Cycling, edited by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, I wrote earlier this year for the journal World Transport Policy and Practice. It’s long but hopefully of interest to those concerned about prospects for city cycling across the world; and the more people who read and think about, and then act on these issues, the better.

City Cycling book cover

A tricky balance must be struck in thinking about cycling’s prospects as an ordinary mode of urban transport. On the one hand, it’s good not to be all doom-and-gloom, but to offer hope that the urban world should and could make most of its daily trips beyond walking length by bicycle. But on the other hand it’s important to emphasize that cycling as a mass mode of planetary mobility isn’t inevitable and that making it happen requires ambition, commitment and work. Overall, this book gets that balance right. Sure, there’s easy talk of ‘cycling’s renaissance’ across cities such as London, Paris and New York, talk which seems premature, too uncritical and rather naïve. But then it’s more important to show things can change, even if they’re changing far too slowly, than to lose hope that cycling will ever effectively be centred in our political institutions, towns, cities, and everyday lives.

No one has done more than John Pucher and Ralph Buehler to popularise the cause and possibility of city cycling, using what is elsewhere to advocate what could be at home – in north America, but also Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Over the past decade and more, Pucher and Buehler have argued that the English-speaking world should follow the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany in becoming cycle-friendly; and they have investigated and shown how it can be done. City Cycling continues this project in an impressive way. It’s academic, drawing together an international, cross-disciplinary collection of researchers who set out what needs to change for cycling to become mainstream; but it’s unquestionably advocacy too. The case for cycling has already been made but it needs making again and again, and it is made persuasively here. It is glib but true to say that if every politician, policy-maker and practitioner with any responsibility for the organisation of urban life read and acted on this book, we could move rapidly and radically towards a socially and environmentally much brighter future.

Overall the book argues for cycling to be systematically embedded into global economy and society in the same way as driving a car has over the past half-century been systematically embedded within north American, Australian and much of European economy and society. Of course this ‘centering’ of cycling must be at the car’s expense, and here it sometimes feels like the ambition of City Cycling’s lead editor and chief contributor, Professor Pucher, is ahead of the book’s other contributors. For example, there is some but on the whole too little interrogation of the role of the car’s continuing dominance – ideologically, structurally, spatially – in impeding cycling. Cycling visions, strategies and actions never take place in a vacuum; they emerge from and are shaped by the context of car domination. Much current action in the name of cycling – because it is insufficient for the job of mainstreaming cycling – therefore risks merely perpetuating cycling as a marginal mode of mobility and cyclists as a sub-cultural ‘out-group’. Minor support for cycling reproduces cycling as a minority mode, and isn’t good enough. Only major resource re-allocation away from the car and towards the bicycle can break cycling out from its current marginalisation at the car’s expense. The better chapters here make clear that cycling thrives in places where driving is not just ‘civilised’ but more importantly deterred.

But there’s no ‘magic bullet’. City Cycling argues effectively that consistent, coherent support for cycling across all sectors of society is required in order to develop a bicycle system which makes cycling, not driving, the obvious mode of short-distance urban travel. Countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany are well advanced over north America and Australia in every important respect – from allocation of transport spending on cycling, to development of cycling infrastructure, to land use and planning rules, to driver awareness and cycling education.

Nevertheless and for good reason, issues of infrastructure loom large. It now seems evident to the point of obviousness that new city cycling cannot be produced without the provision of a dedicated network of cycling routes of a quality sufficient to appeal to everyone. Pucher and Buehler’s previous research demonstrates this as the key difference between countries with high and low levels of cycling. So whilst its message is undoubtedly broader, City Cycling’s biggest impact might be in pushing us closer to consensus (a consensus which is I think established across the scientific community, but lagging across advocacy) that the two main means of mainstreaming cycling are infrastructural; first, the taming of motorised traffic to speeds which make cycling plausible even for those (the vast majority of people) nervous about sharing space with it; and second, wherever that is not (for transient reasons of political will) done (most likely on bigger and busier roads) cycling’s separation from and prioritisation over motorised traffic.

Whilst the contrasts between cycle-friendly northern Europe and car-centric Anglophone countries seem to cry out for strong critique of the latter, the book is unfailingly polite in tone. Given its intended readership needs to be persuaded rather than offended, this is probably good diplomacy. It does sometimes feel, though, that the passion which surely animates advocacy of more cycling – and which helps explain that advocacy – has gone AWOL. So one cost of diplomacy is a certain tediousness in both description (“the Netherlands is like this, the US is like this …”) and analysis (“the Dutch prioritise cycling, but north Americans don’t …”). The book’s impetus to convince more than explain also leaves some questions unasked (“But why do the Dutch prioritise cycling, whilst north Americans don’t? What are the ideological and institutional blocks and barriers, and how might they be overcome?”). For similarly understandable reasons the book is generally upbeat (“look how cycling is growing, and look how easy it is to grow it faster!”), yet we know this is only one side of the story. There are certainly good news stories, but let us not be blind to the fact that across most of the world levels of cycling are either negligible and static, or else quite high but rapidly declining (and in those places cycling needs rescuing, not promoting).

City Cycling belongs to an emerging paradigm shift, from a paradigm that sees cities built for and around the car, towards one which sees cars as inappropriate and bicycles as far more appropriate vehicles for cities. There’s material useful to this transition here. It’s good to see Kristin Lovejoy and Susan Handy’s exploration of cycles and cycle accessories, for example. We know that many bicycles are not really fit for the purpose of city cycling, and it’s refreshing to see that recognised. Also good are three chapters exploring cycling in different sized cities – the small, medium and mega. Cycling is sometimes dismissed by critics as more appropriate to smaller than to bigger cities, whose populations (they say) should travel by transit not bike. So it’s a neat bit of advocacy as well as analysis to break cities down by size, and discuss prospects and strategies for cycling at each scale.

The most fascinating glimpse into cycling is provided by the penultimate chapter exploring cycling in four ‘mega cities’, London, New York, Paris and Tokyo. The first three have seen much pro-cycling hype (and sometimes hysteria) and large increases in cycling, albeit from very low bases. In contrast cycling in Tokyo seems prey to benign neglect, yet it’s by far the most successful ‘cycling mega city’, with relatively high modal share (16.5% of all trips we are told), demographically relatively evenly spread. This chapter correspondingly begs the more detailed kind of cultural investigation which is necessarily absent from the book, but which is nonetheless well worth pursuing. One of the book’s big policy pushes is towards dedicated cycling infrastructure, something now being pursued in London, Paris and New York but not Tokyo. So that using Tokyo as a model of best practice in this chapter might almost undermine the main advocacy push of the book as a whole. (It would be a shame, but unsurprising, if the case of Tokyo were used by opponents of dedicated cycling infrastructure.)

Tokyo’s apparent ‘success’ suggests the importance of closer study of how cycling is actually practised – how do people cycle there? How fast do they tend to go? We know quite a lot about cycling policy and practice in north America, Australia and Europe, but what about cycling policies and practices elsewhere, including Japan about which it seems we know too little? Furthermore the book is silent on the two countries which arguably matter most for the future both of city cycling and our planet – China and India. That’s fair enough –  City Cycling makes no claims to inclusivity or universality. But the more global perspective which the case of Tokyo provokes raises potentially disturbing questions; ‘just what is cycling?’; and ‘what do we want it to become?’.

City Cycling’s desire to persuade more than explain is both its biggest strength and its greatest shortcoming. Thus my hope is that it’ll be read more by people who need persuading of the case for cycling than those seeking to understand it. But even were that to be the case, I have some concerns. In its rush to show how cycling’s promotion is compatible with a range of bureaucratic policies, and how inserting cycling effectively into the city is mainly about technocratic expertise and practice, there’s an evacuation of politics from City Cycling. There are two elements to this evacuation of the political: first, it prevents the book asking some tough questions (to do with continuing neo-liberal capitalism) about why cycling continues to be so marginalised despite it making so much sense; and second, what disappears from most chapters is what I would assume is the authors’ beliefs in the bicycle’s capacity to make the world a better place.

To finish let’s look briefly at each of these in turn.

First, if cycling is so good, why aren’t we all cycling yet? If the arguments are so strong and persuasive, what’s stopping us? Answering such questions requires political, economic, social and cultural analyses both of continuing car (and oil) dependency and of cycling’s continuing marginality. Across the USA, Australia and UK it remains the case that the advocacy of cycling is tolerated, and demands for greater investments in cycling are granted, only so long as they don’t threaten the car’s centrality to everyday life and/or they fit with emergent neo-liberal discourses around livable (for the white, affluent, middle-classes) cities. So only outrageous, extraordinary demands for cycling – demands which test the limits of the car system – have hope of breaking us (even cycling’s advocates) out of unwittingly reproducing cycling’s marginality. Until we learn to do this, mass city cycling – cycling as the main vehicular means of urban transport – remains a pipe-dream.

Second, should cycling promotion become a technocratic exercise, simply about inserting more cycling into the city-as-it-is for the latest, most fashionable set of policy reasons? Is cycling’s main contribution to make our bodies, businesses, streets and economies more ‘effective’ and efficient? Is more cycling enough, or do we want something more? I don’t know about you, but I want something more. Cycling, and thus the bicycle, is not ‘merely’ a bureaucratic and technocratic insertion into the city as it is, with all its injustices and inequalities (to do with class, gender, race, age, ability, locality and so on). Cycling, and thus the bicycle, is also potentially, at least in part, a disruption to that city, and so something which enables the city to be re-made in more socially and ecologically just ways. So demands for city cycling should not only be ridiculously bold but also unapologetically critical. Who are we encouraging to cycle? White, male, middle-aged commuters? Not good enough! What about – for example – kids, people who need to ride wider-than-average machines specifically adapted to their needs, people travelling as a group (who’ve every right to travel as sociably as people within a car)? I think people advocate for cycling because they recognise its capacity to improve the world in a strong, qualitative way; I agree; and I think that we shouldn’t sell either ourselves or cycling short.

All this is perhaps less a criticism of the book than a critique of what cycling might become if left purely to the work of books such as this. This book is important, but it’s not enough. It can form only part of a broader struggle. City Cycling should push city cycling, and is to be very highly commended for that, but it raises more questions than it answers for future cycling research. This is no bad thing; cycling research, much like cycling advocacy, is part of the cycling system we need to establish and maintain in order to first make and then keep cycling normal.

Cycling advocacy and the global future

November 8, 2013

There is no global cycling policy and globally cycling’s future will emerge from multiple and intersecting trends, including: responses to big planetary challenges such as climate change, the end of cheap oil, and the growth in diseases induced by sedentary lifestyles; patterns of car ownership and use, especially across the world’s fastest-growing economies; changes in cycling’s profile, particularly in globally iconic cities; and the possibilities of new technologies (including e-bikes and public bike schemes) to re-define current meanings and practices of mobility. But cycling’s future and so also the globe’s will be importantly shaped by its advocates’ views of what cycling is for.

Why advocate cycling? Simply so it becomes easier for us as cyclists to move about by bike? Or is there a bigger vision of what everyone’s lives, relationships, places, and world should be and feel like? I think the latter – the bicycle is both symbolic of, and a pragmatic path to, another way of life, and this is why so many of us believe in cycling, and want to make it bigger.

The bicycle isn’t yet the iconic vehicle to and of a brighter world, but it could and should be – there’s an empty space in the global imagination awaiting it to fill. Though the idea of the bicycle achieving globally iconic status might seem ridiculous, a hundred years ago the same might have been said about the car, and the bicycle’s deeply loved by people everywhere.

If we want a different world organised around the bicycle not the car, it’s our business to make it. Cycling’s global future depends partly on how successfully its advocates build and sell cycling as core to a better world; and for that we need bold and powerful visions. Yet in Britain at least, no cycling advocacy organisation obviously and proudly struts an alternative global vision (the small, grassroots, activist-initiated Bicycology perhaps comes closest). CTC – the national cycling charity – endured the time of the car, and has (understandably) found ways of co-existing with it, though its recent ‘Cycletopia initiative seemed a tentative step in a more visionary direction. Sustrans gives tantalising glimpses of cycling as a route to a better world in its publicity material, but doesn’t really deliver more. A new organisation, the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain is less constrained, more impatient and ambitious, but has yet to develop a really compelling and inspiring vision of why transport cycling is worth fighting for. And although it’s become more common, even acceptable, to aim not for 2 but 25% of journeys by bike, it’s still unclear why.

This absence of big and persuasive stories about why we want more cycling is a problem for two reasons.

First, it means the value of cycling gets colonised by institutional agendas and ambitions. Institutions embracing cycling is no bad thing, but is it generating a bland, pragmatic and in the long-run counter-productive view of cycling? Is the dominant trope becoming of cycling fitting this world, rather than creating a route out, towards a better one? In projecting the idea that cycling belongs to the same world as today’s driving one, institutionalised cycling promotion prevents our getting somewhere else, cycling’s potential sold short and stymied.

Second, it’s hard to motivate and inspire without a vision. As advocates we should help people cycling feel part of something big and transformative – a movement changing the world for good. Then they won’t be ‘merely’ cycling; they’ll be on a mission, and might get more involved. But the absence of global and national visions for cycling is felt locally – cycle campaigns everywhere struggle against a tide of indifference when they could and should be trail-blazing vibrant, radical and inspiring visions for their districts.

At this local level, in Britain and elsewhere two styles of cycling advocacy tend to co-exist, often uneasily. In one, advocates view themselves as ‘cycling’s representatives’ and make suggestions for things that ought to be done (usually by others, mainly local government) for cycling, and complain about schemes (so many!) that fail to value cycling. Here, cycling is done to us, by those we lobby and to whom we protest; however much we love cycling, it becomes something given us by others. With respect to everyone who engages in such work (and I’ve done my share), such advocacy gets cycling a few crumbs from transport’s table and achieves little beyond reproducing itself as marginal; it’s jaded, lacks vision and disempowers both ourselves and others. The other style of cycling advocacy is more obviously vision-led. Cycling is not done to us, we do cycling. Although it rarely finds its way into mainstream cycle campaigning this style of advocacy can be found in grassroots projects, often workers’ co-ops, across the world; and it’s one to learn, adopt and adapt more widely.

How? I’m not sure; the necessary work is neither obvious nor easy. But articulation of a global vision could start in our own backyards and involve two main tasks: the priority is to develop and strive to popularise a local vision based around the bicycle – we need to open to and convince not just others but also ourselves of a future where cycling is the practical, ethical and aesthetic glue joining things together; this could entail shifts to advocacy in artistic, literary and educational directions, to produce locally-pertinent and collectively-owned stories about cycling’s relevance to a fair and sustainable global future; the next step is to direct energies into projects making these locally-owned visions real. Like everything, the way to proceed is through practice, and to try to have fun! (Advocacy can be dreary, but it could be exciting, and so much more effective.)

Critical Mass

It’s time to reclaim cycling for a cause more noble than getting people to work on time, time for visions inspiring more people to ‘really get cycling’ (by which I mean not just doing cycling, but having reasons why, reasons dictated not by government policy priorities but real thirst for change). Cycling advocacy influences cycling’s future, and so too the globe’s, so we must be bold and visionary. Dream and demand too little and we’ll get less than cycling deserves – how depressing if more cycling doesn’t, when it so obviously could, change the world? So let’s work for a ‘cycling revolution’ which is no chimera, but real.

This post is based on a talk I gave on 23rd October 2013, at the AGM of Dynamo, Lancaster and District’s Cycling Campaign. Thanks to Dynamo for having me speak, and to those who attended for stimulating discussion. The art work is by Mona Caron – whilst I’m sure not alone, she’s the only artist I know of who has done work that embodies a clear vision of cycling-based futures.

Butter Tubs

October 9, 2013

The climb of Butter Tubs will be better known once the first stage of next year’s Tour de France passes over it. How hard the riders find it will depend a lot on the wind. Yesterday, damp and blustery with the wind at my back, I barely noticed it, the gradient never so steep as to force deep effort. But at over 500 metres, conditions towards the top can be dreadful; I’ve been brought almost to a standstill by head winds here, and felt my bike being blown beneath me by side winds.

The Butter Tubs themselves lie just over the pass from Wensleydale to Swaledale; this is limestone country and the Tubs are deep potholes set close to the road, used – legend has it – for keeping butter cool.

The Butter Tubs

From the little market town of Hawes in Wensleydale you can see the Butter Tubs road climbing north over the moor; disconcertingly, the road seems to be clinging to the fellside for dear life. Out of Hawes and across the River Ure, you wind up past the hamlet of Simonstone. Below you upland rain pummels down through Hardraw Force, England’s highest unbroken waterfall. There’s a short, steep section (where the biggest crowds, including me and my family, will gather on the first Saturday of next July) before the road relaxes its way across higher ground.

Getting steeper

Shallowing out

And this is a road, not a lane. I guess it was chosen partly because it stays so wide as it goes so high. Coming half-way through the stage, it’s unlikely to make much impact on the race – chances are a break (hopefully including a Brit, even a local, or two) will have formed, and the peloton will mind the gap before reeling it back for a bunch sprint to the Harrogate finish.

But what impact might the Tour’s passing through this part of the world have on cycling more generally? I love cycling’s continuing high profile. I try to keep it in perspective – for most people cycling continues to be mainly irrelevant – but after a lifetime spent loving something strange I’m starting to feel a bit more normal! Still, imagining we’re in the midst of ‘a cycling revolution’ is wishful thinking and for the Tour de France to have local impact on everyday life in the Yorkshire Dales – and so contribute to a nascent trend of ‘Britain embracing the bicycle’ – requires work. Revolutions never happen; they’re made.

Can almost 200 of the world’s strongest male cyclists passing over Butter Tubs help get Yorkshire cycling? Can the spectacle be turned to participation? And the participation not just of cycling enthusiasts drawn to Yorkshire’s hills and dales, however good that might be for the tourist economy, but also of local people going about their daily business? Put differently, can carbon-heavy cycling – for Le Tour is certainly that – be converted to carbon-neutral cycling? Because only cycling which replaces rather than adds to carbon-based travel will help move us towards sustainability; and no matter how many good things bringing Le Tour here might achieve, that’s – surely – what matters most.

The other side

From Butter Tubs the road drops into Swaledale; it’s steep with some tight corners, but remains wide and is surprisingly well surfaced (although it’ll probably need re-doing after another Yorkshire winter); unless it’s particularly wet and windy, the Tour carnival will hurtle down without a second thought.

Heading into Swaledale

You can’t talk about Yorkshire cycling without mentioning hills, wind and rain. Cosy in a car, you’re immune to all three, but on a bicycle it’s a different story. So is cycling here only for the fit and adventurous riding just for fun, never for ‘ordinary people’ doing ‘ordinary stuff’? Will Le Tour’s legacy be more ‘outsiders’ coming to ride in Yorkshire, while locals stay stuck fast in their cars?

Hay barns dotted prettily across its floor, upper Swaledale is gorgeous. Here I turn left – my route takes me to the top of the valley and the Cumbrian border on the wild and windswept Birkdale Common, but all the riders and the fuss will turn the other way, through Muker and Reeth, before crossing back to Wensleydale down at Leyburn.

Road sign

Yorkshire is talking of Le Tour. For people here there’s no escape. So what to make of it? In a place like Hawes cars are everywhere, and the people you occasionally see on bikes look much like me. The car enables life here to continue to be lived as it’s come – if only in quite recent times – to be lived; everyday life without a car has quickly become unthinkable. Is, then, re-thinking the bicycle as able to do some of the work which the car currently does in places such as this too big a challenge? If so, would that be a failure of cycling, or of our imaginations?

Welcome to Hawes

Yorkshire’s landscapes and people will next year add colour and character to the world’s biggest bike race. But how will the race leave Yorkshire? Essentially unchanged beyond a momentary tourist boom and a contribution to re-making the region as a cycling destination? Or can it leave a longer-lasting and more locally-relevant legacy, developing the region not just as a destination for, but also an origin of, cycling?

Typical Dales' main street

We’re seeing some money to get people living in cities cycling, and also visitors to national parks. For sure we need new thinking and ideas to help make it happen, but we could also now do with some money to help people who actually live and work in places like Yorkshire’s Dales cycle too. The 2014 Tour won’t by itself make much difference; but we can make it make a difference. So I suggest we find ways to use the Tour’s Yorkshire passing as an impetus to develop a rural cycling which doesn’t disappear once the race is gone, but survives locally and contributes to sustainability.

Wide Open Road

October 4, 2013

There are parts of England, never mind Britain, where it’s possible to do a long day’s ride almost entirely on A and B roads (for those who live elsewhere, that’s big roads) yet rarely see a truck or car (though tractors, quad bikes and post vans are a bit more common).

Along the Ingleton to Hawes road

I’d been invited to the Department for Transport’s Cycle Stakeholder Forum which took place on Monday in London. Although on paper I’m a ‘member’ of this Forum, I’ve yet to attend a meeting. Frankly, the continuing ‘taking cycling seriously’ waffle, whilst so little’s being done to make cycling easy, makes me nauseous, and whilst I know it’s not a particularly rational political strategy (and even ‘immature’), I increasingly want nothing to do with it. To be honest I’m still not sure whether ‘men (and it is mainly men) in suits (pretending to) take cycling seriously’ is a good thing: it’s probably an inevitable and necessary stage in the process of making cycling mainstream, something I’ve long hoped to see; but – and this is where the nausea comes in – I hate seeing cycling instrumentalised, reduced and bureaucratised, all so it makes sense within worlds which – at least for me – are antithetical to what cycling is and should be.

So rather than go to London I promised myself a long ride instead. Then I’d save the £90 train fare, and likely spend and end the day energised and elated, rather than dejected and deflated. Some days all I want to do, really, is sit on the bike and ride; spend the day thoughtlessly pedalling. On those days I tend to devise a relatively flat route along relatively big roads (and I almost always ride anti-clockwise, a habit I developed long ago – I think through riding with people who saw right turns as making rides unnecessarily complicated).

A684, west of Hawes

With so much talk of ‘Getting Britain Cycling’, it’s odd that I can leave home at 9 am on a Monday morning, ride 85 miles along big roads remarkably free of motorised traffic and passing through some of England’s finest countryside, yet barely see another person on a bicycle. We might be getting more serious about more effectively inserting cycling into the ‘straight’ world, but what I’d like to see is the ‘straight’ world get a bit less, well, ‘straight’ through its embrace of cycling, so that the Monday-Friday, 9-5 grind starts to lose its allure. ‘Yes’, cycling could make us ‘more efficient workers’ (one of the few reasons many politicians could probably be persuaded to like it), but really, who wants to be a more efficient worker?! Instead, sell the car, get a bike, and use the money saved to drop hours spent working and go cycling instead! That way lies more health benefits than ‘merely’ pedalling the commute could ever bring; and a tangible sense of freedom to boot.

Rides such as this one, involving big loops north-east of Lancaster, don’t feel they’ve quite started until I reach Ingleton, 18 miles from home. I think that’s because only then do I reach roads that are wide, open and quiet; until then bigger roads are busy, while quieter ones are lanes that tend to feel intimate, not expansive. I love riding through the gentle mid-morning ‘bustle’ of Ingleton village (I often pop my first banana or energy bar on my way through), because then the ‘niggly bit’ is over and the long, straight roads of the western Dales begin. The B6255 road to Hawes climbs steeply at first before flattening as it strikes a course north-east, Whernside to one side, Ingleborough the other. Riding this road I always feel a deep privilege to being on a bike.

The valley narrows towards Chapel-le-Dale and the exposed limestone creeps closer, then Ribblehead Viaduct strikes its clear, fine line across the moor ahead. You swoop fast down beneath it and then, immediately after the Horton turn which follows the Settle-Carlisle south, there’s a lovely curve to the road which lets you keep your speed ahead of the next rise, as you pass the motorists huddled in their cars.

From the pass at Newby Head it’s downhill almost all the way to Hawes. The road is wide and its gradient gradual, so you can hold a good speed, with on Monday a strong head wind saving me the effort of braking.

From Hawes the wind is mostly at my back, and I plain sail west up valley to the Moorcock Inn, just shy of the Wensleydale/Garsdale watershed, turning north there down a valley for which, if I’ve not ridden it in more than a month or two, I develop serious cravings – Mallerstang.

B6259, north of Moorcock Inn

Why do I love Mallerstang? The gradients are gentle (you can see why the Settle-Carlisle railway took this valley), and – in this direction – after a short climb you’ve a long downhill that’s fast and fluid. The surrounding fells (Wild Boar is perhaps best known) are little visited, while their long edges and gentle slopes form a perfect fit with road cycling. And though you’re moving fast across smooth tarmac, you feel here that you’ve left the world behind.

I usually stay along this Eden Valley into Kirkby Stephen because, 50 miles from home, I need food; but today – progress slowed by the wind – I’ve already eaten in Hawes. So at Pendragon Castle a few miles short of Kirkby I take the little lane west (the railway tunnelled below) to the next empty A road, the 683. A super road, going south it aims straight at the Howgills before hugging tight their eastern flank. (You re-enter the Yorkshire Dales National Park where Cautley Spout tumbles from the fells behind The Cross Keys Temperance Inn.) Like Mallerstang, heading this way the gradient’s in your favour and it’s another straight, fast run all the way to Sedbergh. Through the town I keep to the A683 along the Lune’s east side to Kirkby Lonsdale, switching there via Devil’s Bridge to the Lune’s west side for the last stretch, along the B6254, for home.

A683, south of Kirkby Stephen

Cycling wide open roads lifts not just my spirits but also my horizons. It makes me ambitious for cycling in ways not encouraged by the Department for Transport, ambitious not just quantitatively but also qualitatively. ‘Yes’ to more bums on saddles, but I want cycling to lead those bums – both individually and collectively – towards better things. Why ‘Get Britain Cycling’? To get its bodies and its cities primed for the next wave of neo-liberal, corporate, consumer capitalist incursions, aimed at making Britain more economically ‘efficient’ and profitable? Not in my name, thanks. I want Britain to ‘Get Cycling’ so more people might ride their bike to ride their bike and take ‘a cycling perspective’, one that gets them closer to home, closer to themselves, closer to a world in which no one need wear a suit.

Digging In

October 1, 2013

Derek riding Condor Bottoms Hill Climb, 2013

Autumn seems inevitably to bring a turn back to the local. Hill climbs somehow fit this return – this digging into our back-yards. The hill climb demands engagement with the ground – even as you pull up on the bars, it seems to be pulling you towards it; your focus becomes literally grounded as, eyes to the tarmac, you grunt your way slowly up, the world cut down to rasping breath and burning legs.

Hill climbs come as summer turns to autumn, and they mark the end of the road cycling calendar. If the world has opened out over the long, light, warmer months, it begins slowly now to close back down again. The grip of familiar territory upon our riding might have loosened during summer, but it’s re-established now. I enjoy this cosy sense of coming back, of coming home, to the local; the time between now and Christmas is about ‘getting in the miles’ on favourite roads between favourite places. For me hill climbs embody this return to the local; the hard pull up a short, steep incline my last grunt before, with winter in sight, I drop into gentler riding.

Bobby riding Condor Bottoms Hill Climb, 2013 - 2

This year something about uphill racing appealed to my son Bobby, who now he’s 12 can compete on the road. His Uncle Derek was also enthusiastic, so the three of us rode Lancaster Cycling Club’s hill climbs on consecutive Thursday evenings. The first, Condor Bottoms, climbs the Quernmore Valley’s short and steep west side. The second, Jubilee Towers, goes the other, longer way out the valley – up onto the Forest of Bowland. Bobby and Derek enjoyed these events so much, they wanted more. So the next week we all had another go up Jubilee Towers in Lancaster CC’s Open Hill Climb.

Dave riding Condor Bottoms Hill Climb, 2013

This event attracted three current National Hill Climb Champions – Eve Dixon, Lynn Hamel and Jack Pullar. They’re considerably quicker than us, but however fast or slow you are, there’s something universal in the hill climbing experience. For the Jubilee Towers climb, you start on a gradient so steep a concrete block is placed behind your rear wheel to stop you slipping back. Up until then, you’re in the world – getting ready, making small talk, warming up. But as your start time draws closer you become more serious, quieter, less outgoing. When your number’s called, you line up, and – as the final seconds are counted down – you compose your breathing.

Then away, you move into the climb, and enter a different world. Racing uphill quickly extinguishes all thought beyond the most basic instructions to yourself (‘out the saddle’, ‘up a gear’). The world closes down around your body, bike and breath; everything else is gone. This reduction to body, bike and breath is brutal and beautiful. To race uphill is very hard, but freedom comes from mind being put in place by body.

Within minutes the effort is done, and you re-emerge into a world you’ve barely left behind. It’s the same world, but you’re a bit different now. Physical recovery from so short a burst is rapid but at another level something’s changed, though exactly what I struggle to say. For me at least I think there’s a small sense of empowerment – it’s hard not to be just a little bit impressed with yourself after making such an effort. But also, a transaction has taken place: your emotional energies have been invested in the hill; the hill now matters more, both to you and also I think – because hill climbs are not merely personal experiences but also more importantly cultural events – to cycling.

Dave, Bobby and Derek after Jubilee Tower Hill Climb

Many thanks to Graham Atkinson for his permission to publish some of the super photos he took on Condor Bottoms in September, and also to Bobby’s Uncle Derek, for his of the three of us after the Jubilee Towers climb.

10 years of Cycling and Society

September 13, 2013

I’m just back from the 10th annual Cycling & Society Symposium, hosted this year by the University of Central Lancashire at their outdoor campus, Ty’n Dwr, near Llangollen in mid-Wales. It was superbly organised by Richard Weston, and pulled together around 35 of us face-to-face, as well as Jennifer Bonham in Adelaide, Australia via Skype.

As someone who’s been around since the start, I was invited to say a few words about where as a research community we’ve come from, where we might go, and how in the wider world cycling is changing. I decided to start by telling the cycling story of my daughter, Flo, who like Cycling & Society is 10 years old.

Flo was born into a bubble structured by cycling; her parents love cycling and live without a car. For a decade she has developed through that structured space, into a skilled and experienced cyclist. At the start she had to be physically carried or pulled …

Sue & Flo in the Netherlands

But she soon learnt to propel herself, initially on a balance bike, then through a series of pedal-driven machines; the bikes grew bigger and she became stronger, faster and more independent.

On Morecambe Prom

Racing at Salt Ayre

Flo BMXing in Silverdale

For so long as her friends were the children of our friends, cycling remained normal. But then slowly, inevitably, she has through school developed friends of her own, friends whose lives are not based around the bicycle but the car. And cycling is steadily becoming less ‘natural’; it’s becoming more unappealing. We’ve taught Flo to cycle, but it’s getting steadily harder to make her cycle in a world which mainly doesn’t. Her agency is being structured less by us her parents, and more by the world outside. For now she’s riding slowly away from us, towards the car. Her transport preferences are becoming normal. In her own little, sweet and innocent way, Flo shows how far we remain from a cycling world.

The personal and the social are inextricably, complexly connected. I struggle with but also accept Flo’s resistance to cycling; she’s finding her way in the world, and wants to fit in. We’ve helped her – and some of her friends – to understand more about cycling, but they’re all part of a car-centric society in which ‘being normal’ matters. In the world as it is her reluctance to cycle is part of learning to be sociable. So our challenge as parents is changing; if over the last decade we’ve taught and encouraged our kids to cycle, over the next one I hope we’ll teach them to navigate and negotiate a world of multiple and sometimes clashing visions and values – in other words, politics. We’ll explain cycling’s significance to a healthy, peaceful, happy, just, and green world, and we’ll try to nudge them some ways more than others, but they’ll figure things out for themselves, including what role cycling, if any, should play in their own lives.

But this next decade is crucial, either to cycling’s continued marginalisation or else to its normalisation. A decade ago cycling was ignored and/or treated as irrelevant by most academics, including those with expertise in transport and sustainability; today, in contrast, there’s a steady stream of peer-reviewed journal articles about cycling, major research funding for cycling projects, and more respect shown to those who argue for cycling’s importance. Cycling’s shift from the margins towards the mainstream of academia is an effect but also a cause of cycling’s shift from the margins towards the mainstream of society in general; both trends are tentative but have the potential to develop significantly between now and 2023. So I look forward to the 20th Cycling & Society Symposium in 2023, and hope I might have good news to report there on Flo’s cycling trajectory over the coming decade,  as she moves into adulthood. By then cycling could be much more normal, and Flo and her friends might perhaps be cycling, and less self-consciously.

Llangollen was a cosmopolitan affair. There were people from Brazil, China, Poland, Romania, Denmark, France, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, Hungary and the UK, as well as Jennifer from Australia. I find this truly inspiring and encouraging – the thirst for new cycling knowledge, like the push for cycling, is now happening almost everywhere.

Tim on Horseshoe Pass

The beautiful, rural and remote location provided good opportunities for riding. Many participants got out and about by bike during the event; for myself, I rode over to Llangollen from Crewe with Tim Jones (above) – who gave a super presentation about the MAMIL (Middle Aged Men in Lycra) phenomenon – and Cosmin Popan (below) – who’s recently started a PhD on cycling at Lancaster University. And after a full day spent listening to twelve diverse but uniformly excellent papers, the three of us rode with Peter Wood – who’s close to finishing his PhD on cycling at The Open University – up Horseshoe Pass.

Cosmin on Horseshoe Pass

It’s a huge privilege to hang out with researchers such as Peter and Cosmin who, compared to Tim and me, are starting out on their journeys into cycling research. The energies and enthusiasms of others who love cycling are infectious. And there’s still so much to know, both about cycling per se, and about how best to promote it.

Cosmin, Tim & Peter on Horseshoe Pass

Seeing in Llangollen the continuing passion for and growing expertise in cycling, it strikes me that thinking about cycling is in a pretty healthy place, and that it’ll continue to make important contributions over the next decade.

Promoting Walking and Cycling

August 11, 2013

A book based on the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, on which I worked between 2008 and 2011, is published next week. It’s available to order now from the publisher, Policy Press. A short post I wrote about the book for the Policy Press blog is below.

Promoting Walking & Cycling

Serious and sustained promotion of walking and cycling would transform our everyday lives. The streets where we live, the journeys we make, the places we go – all would become steadily more full of people and less full of cars. It’s a compelling vision, and an easily obtainable one – if policy and practice starts, then continues to prioritise walking and cycling above the car as means of making short trips in urban areas.

Many people like cycling but ride only when they consider it safe, easy and convenient. When urban space is re-organised away from the car and towards people, including people riding bicycles, people will walk and cycle far more of their short journeys, journeys which although they’d rather not, they often currently make by car. The scale of the changes required to achieve this revolution in everyday transport exceeds what’s being done in most places in most of the world so far, but there are places where walking and cycling have been made easier than driving, places which provide insight and inspiration.

Cities across the globe are pushing cars from their centres, creating space for people to walk and cycle and enhancing quality of life. And through serious, sustained investment in the bicycle as the best means of local transport, the Netherlands has become the world’s most cycle-friendly country. What’s been done there can be done everywhere; but it requires political vision and commitment. Everyday life based around bicycles instead of cars would build a happier, healthier society and benefit everyone, including those who don’t cycle.

Promoting Walking and Cycling: New Perspectives on Sustainable Travel explains why more people don’t make more of their journeys on foot and by cycle, and sets out what needs to change for them to do so. Many people want life less dominated by cars; this is how we get there.


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