I realised earlier today that we’ve just passed the half-way stage of the project on which I’m currently earning my living, Understanding Walking and Cycling. This prompted me to look back at a short piece I wrote for our local cycle campaign’s newsletter, at the start of the project, and to reflect a little on the extent to which the reality, 18 months into the project, matches my expectations back then. Here’s what I wrote, 18 months ago:
Tory leader David Cameron emerges from his house with his bike, and sets off on his cycle to work. Perhaps he wears a helmet, perhaps not. Perhaps a ministerial car takes his papers, perhaps he carries them himself. What’s clear is that he’s made a commitment to ride his bike, and is doing so.
But what conversations, discussions, negotiations and decisions have taken place behind the closed doors of the Cameron household to enable him to make that journey by bike? Does Mr Cameron make all such journeys by bike, or only some? If only some, why those rather than others?
It might surprise you to learn that we don’t know much about the specific processes which get people onto bikes and out riding. Similarly, although we know that the vast majority of people –famous and not-so-famous, young and old, men and women – do not ride bikes, we have little understanding of the processes which result in all these people not getting on their bikes, and moving around in other ways.
There’s a very visible world of transport, and then there’s a massive invisible world underneath it, producing the visible. We can see people moving about, in cars, on bikes, in trains, on foot. What we can’t see is the processes which got them there.
A new research project based at Lancaster University aims to change that. It’s called ‘Understanding Walking and Cycling’. I’m working on the project over the next 3 years.
A sceptic might say that we don’t need to understand walking and cycling, we need actions to promote them. By funding research into walking and cycling, Government can defer such actions. So long as the Department for Transport is awaiting evidence of ‘what really works’ in getting people out walking and cycling, it can avoid doing some of those things we already know would get more people walking and cycling – widespread 20 mph speed limits, closing streets to cars, widening pavements, building high quality off-road routes.
Of course, spending a bit of money on thinking is an awful lot cheaper, and politically less difficult, than spending a lot of money on doing. But there is a sound logical basis to the project. We want to understand how different kinds of people make decisions about which mode of transport to use for short, local, urban journeys. These are journeys which we know could easily be made by bike or foot. Our task is to figure out the many, varied and complex reasons as to why different kinds of people do and don’t make such journeys by bike or on foot.
We’ll be finding out how people do things through actually getting involved in their lives, and attending to the details of their ordinary routines. We’ll be hanging out in their houses, accompanying them on journeys, discussing their reasons for doing this rather than that, probing their relationships to things (car keys, umbrellas, ‘sensible’ shoes, waterproofs, bikes, timetables, maps ….) which help or hinder them from moving in particular ways. Getting behind Mr Cameron’s front door, in other words.
My immediate thoughts, re-reading this, are:
- what I wrote back then still makes sense to me, which gives me some confidence that both I personally and the project more generally are at least being reasonably consistent … (which I don’t think is necessarily a good thing, but I’ve also been led to believe that ‘proper academic projects’ are supposed to deliver what they promised at the outset to deliver …)
- but much more importantly, also that a suspicion I had back then has only grown stronger, actually much stronger – namely, that we cannot understand cycling only (or even mainly) by seeking to understand what goes on behind the ‘closed doors’ of households. There is something out there which – my sociological tongue-in-cheek – we might call ‘actually-existing realities'; and to understand cycling we need very consciously and explicitly to observe those realities, and critically to consider the ways in which they might be inhibiting or facilitating people’s decisions to cycle, or not to cycle. So as I mentioned in my recent post about our Worcester-based fieldwork, Griet and I have been paying much more ethnographic attention to conditions out there in the transport environment. Our (preliminary, non peer-reviewed) conclusions will not come as much of a surprise to you, indeed will strike most of you as statin’ the bleedin’ obvious (namely, those conditions for cycling absolutely suck). But I must confess to feeling very privileged to be a sociologist getting paid to stand on street corners (a la William Foote Whyte, one of my key sociological influences), from where I can pay very serious attention to actually-existing conditions for cycling, observe how people negotiate their ways through those conditions, and move slowly towards a position, perhaps a year from now, when Griet and I, along with our colleagues, will be reporting and discussing our findings, hopefully with multiple and diverse audiences. Half-way through the project, and half-way through our qualitative fieldwork, I’m feeling pretty confident that our calls for fundamental change to currently dominant conditions – if we’re serious about promoting walking and cycling (and how serious different ‘stakeholders’ really are about that does of course throw up a whole set of different questions …) – will have very firm bases in empirical realities.
Incidentally, please don’t take my use of David Cameron and his cycling here as some kind of indication that I support the Tories. For my own conscience, I feel the need to say: I have never voted Tory, and I have no intention of ever doing so. Should anyone be in the slightest bit interested, my vote on May 6th will be for Gina Dowding.