Bicycle Politics workshop report

Centre for Mobilities Research, Lancaster University

16th and 17th September 2010

There were participants from across the planet – South Africa, India, Australia, the US, Spain, Denmark, Ireland and Italy – as well as from across the UK. And they came from many walks of life – activists, students and academics, transport planners, cycle trainers and bike co-op members. What united us was a passion for cycling, and a belief that cycling can change the world.

Aurora and I found it a pleasure and a privilege to host, who knows?, perhaps the world’s first ever gathering dedicated to thinking rigorously and politically about cycling and its potential. An event which brought together in space and time so many people, with so much experience, knowledge and commitment – how could it not be ace?

Day 1 kicked off with a paper from Andrew Millward, a cycling historian and Secretary of the Cycling History and Education Trust. Andrew reflected on the battles for recognition and justice which cyclists in Britain fought between the First and Second World Wars. Cycling groups resisted proposals to make the fitting and use of red rear lights on bicycles compulsory, just as they resisted proposals to push cycling off the roads. These proposals were viewed as governmental attempts to discipline, control and marginalise cycling, and to reduce the sense of responsibility speeding motorists felt towards the safety of cyclists; the analogies with the helmet debates of today are clear.

Robert Davis’ presentation elaborated on Andrew’s, demonstrating how contemporary discourses and practices of so-called ‘road safety’ in fact maintain and entrench the dominance of motorised traffic alongside the subjugation of walking, cycling and street life in general. Against the model of ‘road safety’ Robert posits one of ‘road danger reduction’, which would focus not on the control and discipline of people but instead of the motorised metal machines which so mundanely and regularly kill and maim them. For more details check out the Road Danger Reduction Forum, which Robert chairs; http://rdrf.org.uk/

Next up, Matt Wilson of Bicycology developed a careful argument as to why cyclists might in some circumstances wish to break the law. This argument feels increasingly necessary at a time when even people who claim to love and/or to promote cycling can be heard demonising such cycling as ‘deviant’. Matt’s analysis is part of an important move to understand rather than to judge such deviancy, and his account draws on anarchist political philosophy and in particular on conceptions of law-breaking (civil disobedience or non-violent direct action) as forming an important part of struggles for social change. For more on Bicycology, see http://www.bicycology.org.uk/

A delicious lunch was provided by the Sultan of Lancaster; http://www.sultanoflancaster.com/

Gail Jennings, editor of Mobility magazine, kicked off the afternoon sessions. Gail spoke eloquently of the cycling situation in Cape Town in particular, and Africa more generally. Cycling, and particularly sports cycling, is viewed positively by politicians and policy-makers keen to portray themselves and their city as belonging to the ‘global elite’; but on the ground conditions for ‘ordinary’ cycling are miserable. The optimistic rhetoric which constructs Cape Town as a cycle-friendly place contrasts sharply with the negative experiences of people who try to cycle and/or who want more cycling. Check out Mobility at http://emag.mobilitymagazine.co.za/LoginPage.aspx

Rutul Joshi from the Faculty of Planning and Public Policy at CEPT University in Ahmedabad built on our global understandings of cycling and the politics of cycling with his comprehensive account of current processes and trends in India. Like China, India is motorising fast; following the example of ‘the West’, many people aspire to and expect car ownership. Cycling and its magnificent potential to re-make the world as a saner, healthier and better place is in very real danger of being left behind. Rutul is quite rightly concerned about the inequitable implications of this elite-driven ‘rush to the car’; it is of course universally the case, but consideration of specific countries such as South Africa and India make it especially clear that, when it comes to thinking about driving cars and riding bicycles we are and should be wrestling with really important issues of social justice, equity and inclusion. Rutul is currently undertaking doctoral research in the Centre for Transport and Society at the University of West of England, Bristol. For more details of his work, see http://www.transport.uwe.ac.uk/staff/rutul.asp

After coffee, everyone walked over to Lancaster University Library’s video-conferencing suite, to hear John Stehlin from the University of California at Berkeley give a tremendously insightful paper exploring issues surrounding the formalisation of cycling in north American cities (and by extension, elsewhere), and the consequences of such formalising processes for inclusion and exclusion, including for who counts and doesn’t count as ‘a cyclist’. This was I think one of the recurrent themes of the workshop – although we rarely engaged in explicit critique of the currently dominant ways in which cycling is promoted, there seemed to be a succession of insights coalescing around the idea that cycling is undergoing processes of capture by particular discourses (in John’s presentation, to do with urban livability; in other presentations, to do more explicitly with competition amongst global cities, and/or new regimes of health and fitness), and is therefore being promoted to the benefit of some sets of interests (such as liberal, middle-class, white capital), to the exclusion of others (such as genuine social justice and sustainability). With John, we think this is a terrain we need to map and understand much better. If you want to find out more about John’s doctoral work, visit http://geography.berkeley.edu/people/person_detail.php?person=159

We completed the formal part of day one with group discussions around the current constraints on cycling becoming more-than-it-is, and then met informally for the workshop dinner, held at The Gregson Community Centre; see: http://www.gregson.co.uk/

Day two started with Jennifer Bonham of Adelaide University and Peter Cox of the University of Chester articulating a Foucauldian analysis of cycleways, as enabling the construction of cycling practice in particular ways, and concomitantly frustrating its articulation in other ways. Their paper illuminated two main strands of thinking across the workshop. First, echoing John’s analysis, to do with how the construction of cycling by particular legitimate discourses and interests as about mainly one thing (whether a leisure practice, a way of replacing car commuter journeys, a health practice, an environmental practice …) tends to render illegitimate alternative ways of understanding and doing cycling; we might almost say that in the act of creating cycling, cycling is destroyed. Second, we already know that the provision of off-road (aka segregated) cycling infrastructure is, however ‘good’ and/or useful, also in various ways problematic; and thinking across the workshop helped us to begin to see more precisely why – so that for as long as cycling provision is about separation from motorised modes, it remains importantly structured by impulses towards its displacement, constraint, control and punishment; so that cycling’s marginalisation within car-centric societies is (however inadvertently) perpetuated, and its radical potential thwarted.

Rachel Aldred from the University of East London presented a paper, co-authored with Katrina Jungnickel, coming out of their Cycling Cultures project. Rachel and Kat are conducting ethnographic fieldwork amongst people who cycle in four English cities; Bristol, Cambridge, Hull and London (Hackney). Their paper explores the tensions which people who cycle must negotiate, between being identified and/or seeking identification as ‘a (particular kind of) cyclist’, and seeking to resist or refuse such identities and their real and/or imagined consequences. There are clear connections here with Matt’s paper – if we can give legitimacy to cycling tactics which are currently framed as ‘deviant’, and/or challenge the structural conditions behind such cycling tactics, we shift the grounds out of which identities get constructed and contested. Check out Rachel and Kat’s exciting and ongoing Cycling Cultures project at: http://www.cyclingcultures.org.uk/

Although she is far too modest to say so herself, I (Dave) believe that Aurora Trujillo’s paper is a very significant intervention in the politics of cycling. Aurora has just won her PhD from the University of Reading, with an attempt – within the discipline of political philosophy – to designate sets of practices associated with green or sustainable living as oppressed in ways similar to which specific groups of people – stratified for example by race, gender and class – are oppressed. Aurora’s paper directed this re-working of the political philosophy of difference to the practice of cycling, and to the use of the logic of oppression to explain the conditions which cyclists confront in car-centric societies. This re-working of cyclists and cycling enables a clearer conceptualisation of some key issues to do with bicycle politics; in ways which parallel debates within the politics of gender, class and race it refigures, for example, most of what currently passes for cycling promotion as accommodation of cycling in a system which remains monopolised by the car, rather than the transformation of that system by a genuine pro-cycling politics. Like Matt Wilson, Aurora is involved in Bicycology, which can be read as one attempt to instantiate empirically what this ‘genuine’ bicycle politics could look like; see http://www.bicycology.org.uk/ Although we do not want unproblematically and uncritically to elevate and privilege subcultural and/or social movement approaches to cycling above those cycling projects which might be more embedded within dominant apparatuses of government, it is worth mentioning that other small-scale examples of what an alternative way of promoting cycling might look like come from the range of bike co-ops and other activist projects represented by some of the workshop’s participants. This list is illustrative, not exhaustive:

http://birminghambikefoundry.wordpress.com/

http://www.oblongleeds.org.uk/node/339

http://www.ibikemcr.org.uk/

http://www.kebelecoop.org/

It’s also worth flagging up here that due to the large volume of abstract submissions, we had to narrow the focus of the workshop and therefore decided not to include quite a few exceptionally good-looking papers which took a social movement orientation to bicycle politics. We decided to focus on more general political and philosophical analyses of the barriers which prevent cycling from becoming more dominant, and on the illustration of these barriers through a series of empirical case studies. But we think there’s another very important workshop (or even workshops!) in there, and we would really like – and hope – to see such a workshop (or workshops) come about ….

Next up, Esther Anaya, a bicycle consultant from Barcelona, provided a critical analysis of public bike hire schemes. Although Esther focused on Spain, her insights provide food-for-thought for public bike hire schemes everywhere; they also take us back to the insight that in the race to keep up with innovations taking place in other ‘global cities’ things are being done to cycling which might not necessarily be in the best interests of a radical (inclusive, democratic, progressive) politics of the bicycle. This is not to say we should rule out public bike schemes; to the contrary, the ways in which they are re-working not only city streets and people’s everyday practices, but also notions of appropriate ownership, are very interesting and potentially very important, and as such they demand further critical inquiry.

Adopting a similar approach – of stepping back and thinking a bit more critically about developments which it is (quite understandably – we all want a good news story) too easy to feel happy and optimistic about – Robert Davis presented an empirical investigation of London’s recent so-called ‘cycling revolution’. Robert accepts that cycling really has increased in London, but he questions whether Transport for London’s (anyway none too ambitious) targets for further growth in cycling can actually be met, without radically exceeding those strategies (such as the public bike system and the cycling superhighways) which currently exist.

Friday’s delicious buffet lunch was provided by another local company, Bevington’s Catering, http://www.bevingtonscatering.com/

The workshop’s final presentation came from Copenhagen, which is generally held up as a very fine example of a city which has made – and continues to make – cycling work. Some 35% of journeys in Copenhagen are made by bike, and the target is 50% (by contrast, the respective figures for London are 2% and 5%). Ezra Goldman and Trine Agervig Carstensen explained the changing ways in which cycling has been seen in Denmark in general and Copenhagen in particular, and how this has facilitated what we all want, modal shift away from the car and towards the bicycle. Ezra and Trine are part of a big Danish study, which has just kicked off, called Bike-ability: http://www.bikeability.dk/

Whilst we certainly do not wish to deny or denigrate Copenhagen’s achievements, by this point in the workshop it had become clearer to us (Aurora and Dave) what Copenhagen currently symbolises, and why it is held in such high – and relatively uncritical – regard: Copenhagen represents world best practice in actively promoting cycling within a society which remains structured by the car; Copenhagen is as good as cycling gets without de-centering the car. From the perspective of people pursuing a more radical bicycle politics, this might not be enough. We want a bicycle politics which produces gains far in excess of those made in Copenhagen, a bicycle politics in which car-centric societies do not accommodate the bicycle, but in which the car is replaced – and those societies are much more fundamentally transformed – by the bicycle.

The workshop was about far more than these 12 presentations. It was about living out our principles in our everyday lives, about embodying those changes which we want to see come more widely about; so that – as examples – anyone who wanted free accommodation in our houses and friends’ houses was provided with it, and all food was vegan, provided by local caterers, and – along with teas and coffees – kindly and enthusiastically served by Rory and Stacey, two workshop participants. Many agreed that this created a particularly relaxed, homely and friendly atmosphere which energised and facilitated the presentations and discussions.

The two days revolved around respectful, convivial and engaged discussion amongst everyone who took part. It was absolutely brilliant to see so many people, including a lot of young people who might not ordinarily be directly involved in higher education, looking very much at home at Lancaster University. As people who often wonder whether universities are perhaps part of the problem rather than part of the solution when it comes to working towards a socially just, environmentally sustainable planet, it was satisfying to see how the construction and elaboration of liberatory spaces, bringing together academic/activists of many different sorts for critical discussions, is nonetheless possible.

So a massive thank you to everyone who  participated – the people who presented, the people who chaired, the people who asked questions and engaged in discussion – everyone, for making the event work. Special thanks to Stacey and Rory, who for the two days kept smiling whilst they kept us all supplied with really great food and drink, to Nes from I Bike MCR, for so wonderfully facilitating the closing discussion before we all went our separate ways again, and to Griet for taking such great photos.

After developing intimacy at an event such as Bicycle Politics, we find it hard to return to ‘everyday life’, but we hope that – like us – many other people returned to their everyday lives at least a little touched by their experiences in Lancaster.

Finally, thanks to the Centre for Mobilities Research (CeMoRe), and especially John Urry and Pennie Drinkall, for hosting the event, to Colin Pooley and Sheila Constantine for helping to make it happen, and to both the Understanding Walking and Cycling project and the Cycle-Touring and Countryside Trust for contributing to its costs.

For information on CeMoRe, go to: http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/centres/cemore/

To see abstracts of all the papers we’ve mentioned here, visit the Bicycle Politics page at: http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/centres/cemore/event/3299/

And stay tuned for the next phase of work around bicycle politics!

Dave Horton and Aurora Trujillo, September 2010

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9 Responses to “Bicycle Politics workshop report”

  1. Chambo Says:

    Don’t know if you saw this
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-nottinghamshire-11295300
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-nottinghamshire-11295300

    However what I did find interesting was the funding and strategies that will be put in place in Aberystwyth and outlying villages. I know that normally money is spent in urban areas and there seems to be a lot of work done in the ‘urban’ environment, I suppose it’s easy to cycle in cities; well I find it really easy. London, Manchester, Notts, Leicester are a doddle.

    However, out in rural locations where public transport is awful and the population is geographically disparate, it’s really hard to cycle from one place to the next in a safe manner. Especially when other road user aren’t used to cyclists. It occurs to me that often rural locations are seen as places for leisure but not for living. So I was really surprised when I saw the investment that Aberystwyth are making in cycle paths

    http://bronglais.blogspot.com/2010/09/aberystwyth-gets-1-million-for-green.html

    I’d love to see more research done into rural cycling, especially with a particular emphasis on somewhere like West Wales that has the UNESCO Dyfi Biosphere (of which Aberystwyth is part) and promotes sustainable living. I think that this could have a real impact upon the lives of people that live there. I’ll keep my eye out to see what rural-based research comes out of the projects, as it’s really interesting.

  2. Politics of cycling policy Says:

    [...] rambling in the countryside, or even sailing. I'm especially suspicious of people who organise Bicycle Politics Workshops and who passionately advocate that cycling can change the world. In my experience of the roads [...]

  3. Eric Britton, editor Says:

    Very interesting and makes me wish I had been with you. Dave’s synopsis of the presentations is very useful, but what would interest me with my hat as editor of World streets would be to see a “state of the cycling arts” report which tells the story of your main insights, areas of agreement, and less than agreement, of this diverse expert group as a whole. Might anyone be up for this? If so, you can catch me at eric.britton@newmobility.org, Skype: newmobility. Tel. +331 7550 3788 Thanks. Eric Britton

  4. Bicycle Politics Workshop | Bicicleta pública Says:

    [...] El pasado mes de septiembre tuve la suerte de participar en este Workshop que organizó el grupo de investigación CeMoRe, de la Universidad de Lancaster (UK). El profesor Dave Horton ofrece un informe sobre los contenidos del evento en su blog. [...]

  5. Richard Grassick Says:

    Sorry to have missed the workshop, Dave, some interesting points raised here. I’m especially moved by concepts of social justice in developing economies with a small car-owning minority, yet transport policies increasingly geared for them. Though some key questions remain to be explored, perhaps in your future events (please keep me informed!!). The philosophical differences between UK and Danish perspectives re vehicular cycling v cycling infrastructure need better, and a more self-reflexive, explanation. After all, the Copenhagen model need not be stuck in a “best practice in a car centric” context. Might it also be a step towards car free cities? Given our lousy rate of cycling, UK-based proposals that condemn the likes of Copenhagen or the Netherlands need very careful handling. Not unrelated is the lack of wider economic critique. The most successful reducer of CO2 emissions these last years has been economic recession. One cycling-friendly city transport senator (Reinhard Loske, Bremen) has been arguing for economic contraction as a background to transport policies designed to reduce the car’s footprint on our communities.

    Keep up the good work!

    Thanks

    Richard Grassick

  6. bike gear Says:

    Great article. Very informative. Let’s make cycling accessible to everyone!

  7. amcambike Says:

    Do you have a source for the figure that “35% of journeys in Copenhagen are made by bike”, which would put it ahead of every comparable Dutch city.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Hi, I’m currently in remotest south-west Ireland, but I’ll get back to you with sources upon my return – please remind me if I forget! Alternatively, you could probably find relevant references via either Copenhagenize, or the Danish Cycling Embassy. The target is 50% of all journeys by bike within the city of Copenhagen by 2015, if I remember rightly. Cheers, Dave

      • amcambike Says:

        The Danish cycling embassy does not have a Copenhagen rate at its statistics page. Wikipedia says on Copenhagen that “36% of all citizens commute to work by bicycle”, but the source is no longer online. Copenhagenize says the cycling rate is ’37% city-wide’ but gives no source.

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