The first four cycling struggles have been middle-class ones.
Britain’s urban middle classes are striving – though struggling and mainly failing – to incorporate cycling into their everyday lives. They know that cycling is ‘a good thing’, and would like to ride.
Like Holly, whose story I told last time, many people have yet to take up (or return to) cycling. But many others are learning to cycle in partial ways.
Leisure cycling is the most common form of partial cycling, because it allows people to exert maximum control over their cycling conditions – riding when and where they please.
The UK’s favourite cycling is thus sociably on sunny, summer Sundays, away from roads – conditions diametrically opposed to the monadic on-road cycling through smelly, dirty and noisy rush-hour congestion which various ‘authorities’ most want.
If the prospect of cycling for leisure has broad appeal, that of making ordinary journeys by bike does not. Whilst the British urban middle-class realises it ought to cycle for utility as well as for pleasure it can’t, because it’s scared to ride under prevailing conditions.
In conversation, people typically first express this fear of cycling in vague and general terms. But probing soon reveals a set of specific anxieties, which includes but is not limited to:
- having to share roads with cars;
- lack of respect towards cyclists among motorists;
- apparently chaotic provision for cycling – with a widespread perception that specific cycling facilities often exist where they’re least needed, and disappear where they’re most needed;
- being squeezed (and poor quality riding conditions in the gutter – debris, drains, broken glass etc);
- excessive speed (both rule-abiding and rule-breaking) of motorised traffic;
- the apparent vulnerability of those cyclists who do use the roads;
- dangers presented by roundabouts and junctions; and
- not being seen (especially after dark, and on fast roads with poor sight-lines).
Across the urban middle classes, then, utility cycling is regarded as something which it is good but too hard to do. People realise the car has become king, with most drivers – including themselves – feeling entitled to drive when and where they please. In fact, many people feel they have no choice but to drive. Car use is today imposed on them, and cycling is not an option.
Choice has been extinguished. People know this, though they struggle with it. Jan from Leeds is an habitual driver; she says “I think my problem is that I’m really anti-heavy traffic, but I’m contributing towards it. It’s very hypocritical isn’t it?” Elisa, also from Leeds, notes what we all know – “to avoid the cars people get in their car.”
Cars run riot, and people can’t face the idea of ‘sharing space’ with them on a bicycle. But understandably, people tend to feel pretty powerless to change the situation they and their loved ones must daily confront – of car use run rampant and cycling discriminated against. So they muddle on. This is a key reason why many people drive even short urban journeys, and it also a key reason why people support dedicated cycling provision.
But a caveat about method here – many of the people who participated in the Understanding Walking and Cycling research first responded to a questionnaire survey, and then agreed to take part in a follow-up encounter, either a face-to-face qualitatively oriented interview or a go-along (either on foot or by bike). People taking these steps are likely to be suburban middle class, and above averagely positive about sustainable travel.
So unsurprisingly, ‘the suburban middle class’ perspective on cycling is not an universal one.
This cycling story and the next focus on experiences of and attitudes towards cycling which were much harder to discover. In search of these perspectives, I and my colleague, the Flemish anthropologist Dr Griet Scheldeman, did ‘good, old-fashioned’ ethnography – we hung out, we spoke to people on the streets, in shops, pubs, cafes and at bus stops. We worked with schools, community workers and activists, health practitioners, and city council officers and elected members to find people who might talk to us, either individually or as part of a group.
The people we met were not hugely interested in our research, but our research was of course especially interested in them. It was often hard to get them to talk about cycling; it’s not the kind of thing people usually talk about. But we persevered, and I think we produced some useful data.
Below I focus on cycling perspectives within a deprived inner-city area; and next time I will look at cycling perspectives from a non-white urban area; in other words, in this story and the next I’m beginning to explore the relevance of class, ethnicity, and their intersections to understanding cycling.
5. A poor cycling story
This is a story of experiences of and attitudes to cycling on a deprived inner-city local authority housing (much of it high-rise) estate. It’s the kind of place which can be found in most British cities. Today it’s peopled by a mix of long-standing mainly white residents, and more recent immigrants from across the world, many of whom are seeking asylum.
The area has known ‘ordinary cycling’. Now in his eighties, Lance has lived in the area all his life; and in one of two tower blocks (the first was demolished) for fifty years. He’s a retired garage mechanic. He stopped cycling in “1965 I think. That’s a long time since isn’t it?” He got off his bike at the same time as the city as a whole climbed into its car – the Transport Ministers of the early- to mid-1960s, first Ernest Marples (Conservative) and then Barbara Castle (Labour), believed cities needed to be rebuilt around the car.
Inner ring roads simultaneously facilitated car use and inhibited cycling. Today people living here are literally surrounded by roads and cars – mostly of course other people’s cars, using roads which constrain rather than enable their own everyday mobilities.
What do people living here think about cycling?
The first thing to note is that, in contrast to the suburban middle classes who are relatively adept at thinking and talking about cycling, these inner-city residents hardly think about cycling, and have little to say about it. Awareness that cycling is being promoted is largely absent – most people here are still aspiring to climb into cars, not trying to climb out of them. (Car use here tends to be problematic in ways quite different from middle class suburbia: there, cars cause social and environmental problems and make people feel slightly guilty; here cars are problematic mainly at the individual level – because one cannot be financially afforded, or – if it can – because they are so expensive to run.)
Second, the bicycle is viewed as a toy much more than as a vehicle. Although for the children who ride one the bicycle can be an important means of moving around, the adult perspective is that it’s a play thing, not to be taken seriously.
Karen has lived in the area for almost 40 years. She cycled as a child:
“Oh yeah, I loved it when we were kids. We used to go out on bikes riding all over. Oh yeah, them were the days”.
Why doesn’t she ride now?
“Well to be perfectly honest it’s not something I’ve ever tried since. I’ve grown up and sort of left my bike back there.”
Cycling belongs to childhood. It’s something which kids do. Many women we spoke to simply laughed at the idea that they might cycle; some of the younger white women said they would look (and so feel) stupid riding a bike.
Third then, adult cycling is low status. Such cycling within the area falls into two separate categories, which quite effectively (if crudely) epitomise a class divide in British urban utility cycling.
In the one category are the commuters who can be seen in the morning and again in the early evening pedalling in and out of the city centre on the main road running through the area. These cyclists tend to be male, to ride on the road rather than the pavement, and often to wear specific cycling gear, such as Lycra shorts, helmets and hi-viz bibs; to the residents of the inner-city which they ride through, they are ‘alien’.
In the other category are a few young and middle-aged non-white men who ride cheap mountain bikes on the pavements. Our overall sense is that in the absence of a car, and quite often working shift patterns which render public transport useless, a bicycle is a cheap and effective way for these men to move around. They tend to ride on the pavement because they perceive roads to be too dangerous and really only for cars.
But there’s also a localised perception that cycling is the drug dealer’s favoured mode of transport. Here’s another status barrier to cycling at the local level; such a perception, especially if it’s shared by the police, further stigmatises (almost criminalises) cycling.
Overall, we see that from a deprived inner-city perspective cycling becomes something which ‘other people do’. Moreover, these ‘other people’ are not role-models; quite the contrary. And ‘negative encounters’ with cyclists – most likely as a pedestrian on the pavement – are likely to see cycling/cyclists constructed as a (very specific) ‘problem’ much more than as an (abstract) ‘solution’.
But for most of the day cycling is invisible on the inner-city streets. Originally from Jamaica, Lily has lived in the area for fifty years.
“I don’t see any adults on bikes”, she says, “just kids”.
Lily figures that this is because “they can’t face the roads, going on the roads on a bicycle”.
Pavement cycling tends to be treated – even by pedestrians - as normal (if not, obviously, as desirable). Lily says,
“it’s to do with the traffic; they’re safe on the pavement … They need some cycle lanes really. They’ve got a few lanes but I think they’re rubbish myself”.
Overall, in this part of the city cycling feels a bit irrelevant. It’s low status and stigmatised. To cycle is not on most people’s agenda here. This is understandable: people have more pressing issues to deal with than whether or not they should be thinking about cycling; many of the people we met, for example, were living with young children in high-rise flats with no heating and broken windows.
But just because they don’t orientate to it doesn’t mean that cycling is unimportant, only that it has been made to be unimportant in these people’s day-to-day lives.
Amini is originally from Morocco. She lived in the Netherlands for ten years, before coming to Britain, where she’s lived for eight years. In the Netherlands, she cycled regularly, but although she still has a bike, and so too do her children, she never cycles in Britain.
“Everybody”, she says, “from Holland cycles. But the roads there are not like here. There you have got special roads for the cycle. Here you haven’t got always the cycle path. That’s why I can’t do it here. But I did do it a lot in Holland.” Her children “use [their bicycles] just in the playground, because it’s not safe for them to take them on the [road] here”.
There is nothing inevitable about people living here not cycling. There are reasons why they don’t cycle. Lack of provision is important: people see the roads as unfit for cycling; and there’s a lack of residential cycle parking. But the barriers are cultural as much as infrastructural – to cycle here is to communicate something negative about yourself. To cycle is to be an embarrassment.
There are important issues of justice and equity here. Increasingly people with cars are cycling, but people without cars are not – the car-less are not sick of the car, so much as sick of other people’s cars. These cars – used by people who like to drive into the country and hop onto their bikes on sunny summer Sundays – form a powerful barrier to inner-city cycling by the car-less who live there; the domination of inner-city space by other people’s cars makes it both hard and unusual to cycle in the city.
I got angry seeing people effectively marooned (especially after dark, when many are too afraid to go outside) in a sea of other people’s cars. Surrounded by those cars, from which here there is no escape, no suburban retreat, they have of course come to feel ‘normal’ in precisely the same way that the bicycle has disappeared from view and come to feel ‘abnormal’.
The powerful ways in which a culture of car use – even when that’s other people’s car use – as normal has co-constituted a culture of cycling as abnormal was a consistent theme across all our qualitative fieldwork. In re-making our cities for cycling we must be sure to think not only of those we’re keen to get out of cars, but also those whom the car has left behind.