As a sociologist, I’m well aware that all of us, all of the time, are involved (indeed, inevitably and unavoidably implicated) in the production of culture – whether we are watching live football or The X Factor on TV, buying a newspaper or reading one on-line, riding or refusing to ride a bike, we are all - all of the time – contributing to cultural shifts in one direction or another; we’re all agents of change, if also simultaneously structured by wider forces which make us likely to act in some ways more than others. It is at this most fundamental level - sociology’s simple but actually rather profound recognition that we are all social actors being shaped by but also helping to shape our world – that I really love my discipline.
But sometimes we more consciously and actively commit ourselves to the production of culture, and that’s certainly the case for me, with an event I’m currently helping to organise – Building Cycling Culture/s. Although it no longer matters, I’m not entirely clear how the idea for the event was born. I’m involved in one project which is exploring cycling in England and Rachel Aldred, one of the other organisers of the event, is involved in another. Between these two projects, over the last couple of years intensive and unprecedented research into the current state of cycling has been taking place across eight English cities – the Understanding Walking and Cycling project on which I work has concentrated on Lancaster, Leeds, Leicester and Worcester; whilst Rachel’s Cycling Cultures work is focusing on Bristol, Cambridge, Hull and London (Hackney).
Given the convergences in subject matter, it makes good sense to build conversations between these two projects, and as they move into their final stages, especially to start thinking about what they’ve found, and the implications of those findings. In particular, we sense that between them the projects have some useful things to say about how in England we could best build a broad and inclusive cycling culture.
I tend to talk about ‘a cycling culture’, in the singular. But on the graphic below you’ll see we refer to ‘cycling cultures‘, and in the title of this post I’ve hedged my bets by introducing a slash, giving the option of both at the same time – ‘cycling culture/s’. Although it might look like it, this is not mere post-modern intellectual tom-foolery. To me at least, it points to an important tension in the debates which lie behind the event, and which will hopefully be provoked by it. On the one hand we want to discuss how in the UK we best build a cycling culture in which everyone feels welcome, so that cycling becomes normalised, or mainstreamed; wherever they live, whatever their journey, and whatever the time of day, week, month or year, people of any age, class, gender, ethnicity and physical ability will find it perfectly acceptable, and feel able, to hop on a bike. But on the other hand, we recognise that within any culture there lies a plurality of (sub)cultures, and that people will ride bikes in different ways and for different reasons, and that’s something to welcome, indeed celebrate.
In other words, I think we want to find a route for English cycling promotion which aspires to the ‘mass cycling cultures’ found in places such as the Netherlands and Denmark, but without denying the vitality given to cycling by people embracing it in distinctive ways which make sense to them. This is perhaps having your cake and eating it too! Many people working for cycling in the Netherlands and Denmark seem so concerned to elevate cycling as ordinary and unthought that they deny it might have heightened meaning for particular groups of people. In societies such as the US and UK, meanwhile, the existence of distinctive cycling (sub)cultures seems sometimes to be regarded as a barrier by those who want to promote cycling as ordinary.
Most of all we want to promote debate and inspiration, in the belief that both are necessary to the production of a healthy future for cycling. And we want the event to embody its main message, and the reason we do what we do; namely, that cycling is a wonderful practice, and its obvious potential to become both mainstream and inclusive is one which we will work towards differently, but together.
We are not designing the event as a standard academic event, then, although we hope it will appeal to the many academics out there with interests in mobility, sustainable transport and cycling. We are planning it to include the voices of campaigners, practitioners and cycling enthusiasts, as well as those of academics (and we recognise that in the worlds of cycling such categories are anyway frequently blurred). And we are planning for it not only to debate and collaboratively explore the prospects for building cycling culture/s, but also to recognise and celebrate those which exist already.
The event’s two other main organisers are crucial to the ways in which it is taking shape – as genuinely inclusive, locally-relevant and highly vibrant. Andy Salkeld is Leicester City Council‘s Cycling Officer. Andy is the most imaginative, energised, enthusiastic, intelligent and ambitious local authority cycling officer I know, and he has worked on behalf of cycling in many ways for many years. Although he might not thank me for it, I’d call him a ‘cycling entrepreneur’. He has been massively helpful in facilitating our recent research in Leicester (where we have worked across the city, but most intensively with the south Asian communities in and around Belgrave), and he is also an important and influential voice on the Understanding Walking and Cycling project’s Advisory Board.
John Coster is another hugely energetic Leicester-based cultural entrepreneur. He is fiercely proud of the city, a highly respected journalist, and Editor of Citizens’ Eye. John’s involvement will ensure real community engagement in the event, both locally, and also – via the use of an innovative range of digital technologies – much further afield.
What with the recent high-profile launch of the ‘Boris bikes’ scheme, and in the long run up to the 2012 London Olympics, the time is right to bring some fresh ideas and energies to the cycling promotion table. In England, and the UK more generally, our progress towards developing a cycling culture remains in most places painfully slow, and in others completely undetectable. My personal hope is that in the current climate, a relatively high-profile, well orchestrated and inspiring event exploring the state of and prospects for cycling will develop fresh insights into what now needs to be done, and will generate fresh energies to do it. Together, we can build cycling culture/s!
The event is taking place on Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th June 2011, at Phoenix Square, Leicester’s Film and Digital Arts Centre. Whether you live locally or far away, whether you’re simply curious, an academic, activist, practitioner, policy-maker or some combination of those, there will be something for you. Our intention is that, whoever you are, you’ll certainly feel welcome. Obviously we’re still in the process of planning the event, but to register your interest and to receive further announcements, please go here.