Posts Tagged ‘cycling culture/s’

Cycling struggles, 9

February 5, 2013

Have I painted too bleak a picture in this series of insights into the current state of British cycling? Have I made things seem worse than they are? Because we know many people – me and perhaps you included – happily cycle in British cities. Why haven’t I looked at them? The last in the series, in this post I focus on people who make cycling work. These people cycle regularly and routinely; they show utility cycling is possible. But do they show utility cycling is probable? And does their cycling make mass cycling more or less likely?

Please note, I’m not interested in further stigmatising the urban cyclist; quite the contrary. But as a sociologist concerned with how we produce a mass cycling culture, I want to investigate the potential unintended consequences of the minority of people who currently make cycling work for them.

9. A committed cycling story

This post merges the cycling stories of three committed cyclists. These cyclists are of a type, and I admit I’m brushing aside some of the diversity amongst ‘everyday cyclists’ here. By concentrating on three assertive male cyclists I’m suppressing the experiences of others, such as older, often female, cyclists who if you look carefully enough you’ll see riding in many British towns and cities. Jo’s a good example. In her seventies, she says:

“Very, very regularly I use the bike. I would say I use it just about every day really.

“I cycle to save a bit of time. I don’t do any cycling for pleasure, because I’ve only got an old Raleigh sit-up-and-beg bike, with the basket, with three-speeds – and they are a bit dodgy (I’ve never had a new bike, I can tell you that. I got it second-hand). I’ve discovered – keep your fingers’ crossed – that it doesn’t get pinched; if I take it into town it’s not attractive to anybody is it? All my life, not that particular one, but all my life I’ve had a bike.

“So I really use it to get to places more quickly, to make me less tired, and to save getting the car out, because [her husband] isn’t involved in quite a few of the things I do [and she doesn’t herself drive]. So that’s why I use the bike. I don’t use it for going out on bike rides.”

“Because I’m 72 now, you see, I’m getting a little, not nervous, but as the traffic gets worse on the roads to the city I tend to try and keep obviously to the little cycle ways and the alleys and keep out of the way of the busy roads.”

Jo tries to take direct routes and if they get too busy, and especially where there are lots of parked cars, she moves onto the pavement

“because it just isn’t fair on the buses and the other cars that are trying to move, to be honest … I’ve found it safer from everybody’s point of view, if there aren’t any pedestrians, because there just isn’t room for everybody. I’m not a nervous person but I do try to be sensible.”

Push bike

Like many people who cycle, Jo is happiest when her routes are clear and straightforward. When they become ‘messier’, and particularly when they become full of motorised transport (whether mobile or immobile) any sense of entitlement to limited space is diminished, and she feels she should give way. So Jo is an everyday cyclist, but unlike many everyday cyclists, she doesn’t have a strong cycling identity. She might move around by bike, but she’s not a cyclist. In this post I’ll be (implicitly) suggesting that she’s not become a cyclist because when it gets difficult to ride she stops riding; she’ll dismount and/or take to the pavement. The moment someone keeps riding when/where others wouldn’t dare, that’s the moment they become a cyclist.

I’m uncomfortable suppressing the voices of those like Jo; they’re already too silent and marginal. But I do so for a reason. I want to foreground assertive male cyclists because they have the strongest influence on cycling discourses; it’s their identities I want to examine and to some extent problematize. I’m silencing women like Jo, as well as other ‘cyclists of difference’ (non-white and non-middle class), but it’s the more general silence of these voices within (supposedly) pro-cycling discourses which produces a style of cycling promotion I’d call ‘male’ (and white, middle-class), which keeps British cycling gendered ‘male’ (and white, middle-class), and which makes – I’m afraid – women like Jo ‘a dying breed’. Jo is the kind of cyclist we should be producing but who instead we are losing. The cyclists we’re currently producing are like me and those I’ve chosen to focus on here. This is no way to get Britain cycling.

Committed cycling

Three committed cyclists

Fred is in his sixties, and retired. He lives a couple of miles from his city’s centre. He rides a Dawes Galaxy. In recent years he’s done some long-distance touring, but he also rides around town. He says:

“It’s my normal mode of transport. If I want to go somewhere, my first thought is I go on a bike. Shopping, going to see friends, whatever … I ride mainly for convenience because I can go anywhere I want, when I want … I can’t imagine a time when I won’t cycle.”

Rhys is in his early fifties. He’s a teacher. He rides regularly to the shops, to his allotment and to work.

“I always go to work on my bike, whatever the weather.”

Peter is in his mid-thirties. He’s always cycled and is a keen mountain biker. He rides to work, and deliberately uses his commute as a way of staying fit.

Fred has one bike. Rhys has two. Peter has three which are ready to ride and others in various states of assembly.

The style of committed cycling

For Fred, Rhys and Peter city cycling is relatively straightforward. They ride competently and confidently.

I accompany Fred on a shopping trip. We ride from his home towards the city centre. It’s cold and raining hard. Fred takes direct routes, and rides assertively. Here we’re negotiating a big roundabout near the city centre. Please as you read think about how likely it is that most people could be persuaded to do the kind of riding I’m depicting:

“We’re on the outside of the line of standing traffic, going down, riding towards oncoming traffic. Fred’s slowed down to do this. We were probably riding at 14 mph but we’re down to 10/11 mph. He’s being vigilant, watching out for movements, being careful of cars coming towards us. A car’s turning out of a side road. Fred’s seen it and has waited for it, to let it come through. We’re getting close to the roundabout now. Fred’s still on the outside edge; he might decide to move in – let’s see. Coming to the roundabout, there’s a tanker on the left, we’re just going past it and into the right-hand turn lane. Out onto the traffic island now, staying on the right-hand edge of the lane so that we can get back onto the outside of the vehicles as we head into the city. Overtaking buses, trucks, a long line of cars. The traffic’s speeding up now. Fred’s obviously very confident doing this. We’re riding in amongst the traffic, it’s now picked up to probably 20 mph and we’re just riding with it coming down to the lights, and now cutting back through to the inside, and onto the newly laid red tarmac as we get to the lights, going on the inside and up to the advanced stop line.”

And later

for a lot of the journey today it’s felt like we’re the fastest, most fluid moving vehicles on the road.”

Rhys describes the stretch of his commute along a busy main road:

“It’s a bit of a battle except that most times the traffic’s not moving very fast and so I’m going a lot faster than the traffic. So I’m going on the outside of the traffic and riding up the middle of the road basically, passing all the traffic for a lot of the way.”

Such riding is normal for committed cyclists, something which is done day in, day out. There are risks (such as the car pulling out in front of Fred, above), but through experience cyclists learn to negotiate them. And there are (admittedly grim) pleasures too:  the satisfaction of gliding past a standing line of motorised traffic; sometimes weaving in and out to maintain momentum.

Although they tend to have greater awareness of alternative routes, these cyclists are more likely than occasional cyclists to take direct routes along main roads. They are less frightened of doing so.

Confident road riding

Peter says:

“Main roads are a necessity if I’m late for work. I’ll take a nicer route if I’ve got plenty of time, because it’s five minutes longer, because it’s a mile and a bit more; if I’ve got time I’ll do it but if I haven’t I’ll go straight up the main road because it’s quick – that’s why main roads are main roads.”

Rhys could take one of two routes between home and work: one involves a dedicated cycling route alongside a main road, with controlled crossings to get across the major intersections; the other is through the city centre on road. He chooses the latter; as we examine the map together he says of the former:

“I don’t actually like this route. It’s not a pleasant route. It’s very exposed, and it’s got these irritating bits at the roundabouts where, for a cyclist, it just seems to disrupt your flow.”

So Rhys avoids this ‘stop/start’ route on his commute. But he’ll use it as a quick way of getting out of town for a long ride on his road bike; but then he’s moving fast and will ride and negotiate the roundabouts on the road (“especially when I’m on my road bike I don’t want to be stopping and starting, I want to keep moving”).

Cycling’s right to the road

All three cyclists insist on their right to the road. Rhys says:

My view is that even if there is a cycle track I’ve got every right to be on the road on my bike, just as much as a car or anybody else really.”

Peter says:

“I always claim my space in the road. I see some cyclists who stick to the kerb, right until the last minute and then put their arm out and go. And I’m thinking, ‘oh no! Why?’; I’m thinking ‘30 yards before, check behind you and go for it; if you’re changing lanes, go for it’.”

They particularly avoid off-road infrastructure if it will slow them down (as in Rhys’ commute) and/or is likely to bring them into conflict with pedestrians. I follow Peter along a stretch of dual carriageway busy with cars travelling fast. When I mention he could have ridden on the adjacent pavement, which has been converted to shared-use, he says:

“Yes I know, but at that time of day there are too many pedestrians, and even though I know I can ride through there and also through town – you can ride through there now too – I still think they’ve got right of way.”

Right to the road

Becoming a ‘cyclist’ – step one

For these men, riding on the road is normal, but it’s not always easy. Fred, Peter and Rhys have learned how to cope on the roads but the difficulties of road cycling haven’t disappeared; those difficulties are embedded within the prevailing road environment and will inevitably sometimes be confronted, and not always effectively negotiated.

In negotiating these difficulties by bike people develop identities as ‘cyclists’. This is a two-step process. The first step in developing a cyclist identity is in merely tolerating and learning to negotiate what to most people are intolerable cycling conditions.

Rhys says “I’m a confident cyclist so I’ll do battle with the traffic.”

About half of Rhys’ journey to work is along a busy main road on which it’s easy to get squeezed, so effective cycling depends on asserting yourself and riding in what is usually called ‘primary position’ – taking up the same sort of space as would a car, and making it impossible for motorists to get past. (When as a cyclist you consider it safe for following cars to pass, you move out of primary and into secondary position, to let them through. It’s a key riding technique (indispensable for fast and fluid city cycling in the UK, I would argue) which all three men use.)

Peter describes his journey to work:

I admit I’m quite quick. I can accelerate to 20, 25 mph and in the mornings when it’s bumper-to-bumper I can keep up with the flow of traffic.

“There’s a lot of turnings, and the amount of times cars come round, you’re coming up to a junction on your left, and they just ‘verumphhh’ – swing it –  instead of waiting two seconds for me to go … It’s bloody annoying. I do shout at people.”

Talking about mixing with motorised traffic, Rhys says:

“Obviously you’ve got to be pretty careful, you’ve got to be pretty sharp and pretty aware. I’m almost expecting somebody to do something stupid. I don’t ride and expect everybody to do what they should do. I always ride expecting they are going to get in my way or I am going to get in their way … It’s not the best thing. It’s not what you’d want to do.”

An element of difficulty and danger is normalised amongst these regular road cyclists. It’s a fact of life which they’ve learned to accept and cope with. Rhys again:

“I’ve had the odd time when I’ve been cut up by buses, things like that. You get the occasional time when people come in too close when they are going past you, even when they don’t have to be so close, but I think that’s just a general thing about people not having an appreciation of cyclists and about how much room you should give cyclists when you are going past. “

So in this first part of the process of building a cyclist identity, the kinds of experience which stop most people cycling are simply taken-for-granted and tolerated as the cyclist’s lot. And these bad experiences are typically put into the context of overall good experiences.

All three men also own cars and drive, but they don’t identify themselves as motorists in the same ways they do as cyclists because driving is easy and normal, merely something they do. They identify more strongly with cycling because they have to struggle to cycle, and struggles build identities.

Becoming a ‘cyclist’ – step two

The second step in developing a cyclist identity is in continuing to cycle despite experiencing dangerous incidents. In fact, often part of the process of building a cyclist identity is to convert these incidents into resources; I don’t want to overstate this – it’s a bit too ‘sensational’ – but for the resilient urban cyclist they become almost ‘rites of passage’ and ‘badges of honour’.

So conflicts, near-misses and getting knocked off are experiences which become part of ‘a cycling career’, stories in the building of a cycling biography. Obviously this is not inevitable; whilst some people tend to reinforce their cyclist identities via such experiences, others simply stop cycling, becoming ‘ex-cyclists’. The effects of these bad experiences underlie why cycling is so subject to ‘churn’ (people taking it up but soon stopping) and why the tiny minority who persist are so resilient.

Rhys tells me:

“I do have an occasional shout at some people. Like there was one occasion a few weeks ago, I was at the roundabout and I wanted to go round, so I was in the middle of the road, and some van driver came up behind me and told me I was getting in his way, from him wanting to go straight on. So we had a kind of little discussion about whose road it was and who had the right to be on the road.”

Such incidents could easily put someone off cycling, but Rhys is used to it.

Peter had many cycling stories, partly because he’s done so much riding, and partly because we worked with him more intensively than we did with either Fred or Rhys. You may find that Peter’s stories (below) sound a bit extreme; I think this is at least partly due to where we are ‘forced’ or ‘choose’ to ride. I don’t ride regularly in Peter’s city but I know it’s a much less forgiving cycling environment than my own city of Lancaster. And of course we must be careful here not to ‘blame the victim’.

During one conversation Peter and I shared experiences of riding the ‘End-to-End’, probably the most significant British long-distance ride in terms of ‘earning your spurs’. Peter was forced to abandon his ride after a few days with a suspected heart attack, which turned out to be a series of panic attacks. He describes his experiences the day before his abandonment:

“I nearly got hit three times.

“One was on a long ascent, a long crawl. There were these long artics [big trucks] coming down the hill, and I could hear this thing bombing behind me and there was a Range Rover towing a caravan, and he was trying to get in front of me before the lorries came.  And he cut in and I virtually had to force myself off the road.

“Then about twenty miles down the road, an artic this time. It was on a nice, perfect, straight bit of road – flat – with a good two foot past the white line so I was in, like, a cycle lane. And this lorry come past and I thought ‘that was a bit close!’. And also I could hear a second one coming. That time I had to jump off the road. Because what was happening, there was a car behind the two lorries overtaking them, and the bloke in the second lorry was paying more attention to him than to me and he was kind of steering to the left as he was going past me.  And that got within like 8 inches of me, that arctic did.  And he was fully loaded, he was carrying logs.

“And about 20 miles later, this car actually clipped my bar end. Just, it was like a millimetre, you just felt that [banging his hand on his bar end].”

For experienced cyclists such negative cycling experiences are brief moments which puncture longer durations of cycling pleasure, but that doesn’t make them inconsequential. They are hugely consequential; they stop most people cycling, and they ensure the minority who continue cycling develop powerful identities. By sharing them, we align ourselves with others who have had similar experiences. Have you ever enjoyed – almost thrived on – swapping cycling experiences (the good as well as bad), almost as though you’re feeding on/off them? In doing so we’re forging powerful identities and sub-cultures of cycling. I’ll be honest, these sub-cultures are part of the reason I love cycling – I know I can go anywhere in the world, find and meet fellow cyclists, and quickly build rapport, solidarity and friendship with them. Peter is doing this kind of work here; we’re standing in his garage, surrounded by his bikes, talking about the thing we share in common – love for cycling. It’s brilliant! I love fellow cyclists because our recognition and appreciation (in a word, identification) of each other is so strong. But if we’re serious about getting more people cycling we’d be foolish to be blind to the potential consequences of such powerful in-group formation.

In another cycling story, Peter says:

“I have been hit a few times. I’ve actually gone over the bonnet of a car before … It was partly my fault. Well, it was 50/50. It was at night. My lights weren’t effective enough. The battery was dying. He said he didn’t see me. He pulled out and I had my head down. I looked up and it was too late. I had no time to hit the brakes.

“Luckily I hit the front of the wing and cleared the bonnet, Superman over the bonnet! If I’d hit the door I think I would have been dead because I hit him at about 30 mph; and destroyed my bike in the process.

“I’ve been hit on about four or five occasions. That was the worst one. Sometimes a car’s just pulled out, never saw me and last minute hit the brakes, and just nudged me sort of thing, and I’ve had a bit of a wobble. ”

The obvious question to ask anyone who continues cycling despite such incidents is ‘why?’ Here’s my conversation with Peter:

“Why do you keep riding when things like that happen to you?”

“You’ve got to get back on haven’t you?”

“Why?”

“If you don’t get back on you never will!”

“Why do you want to get back on?”

“Because I enjoy it.”

“What do you enjoy about it?”

“Well you saw me coming downhill. I love downhills.”

Of course I accept Peter’s explanation; it’s what came into his head when pushed, and he clearly finds riding fast downhill tremendously thrilling. But as a sociologist I must add identity as an explanatory factor: Peter keeps cycling because he’s become a cyclist; and he’s not just built that identity, he’s earned it.

Attachment to a cyclist identity

A cyclist identity is earned by riding in places where others fear to pedal. Cyclists who survive the difficulties and dangers of urban British cycling have earned their cyclist identity by insisting on, then defending, and finally surviving their right to the road. Understandably then, they’re not going to give this right up lightly. But in insisting on their right to the road, do these cyclists make cycling a more difficult route for others to follow? Do they ensure their own identities remain exclusive? Do they perpetuate the status quo of a tiny minority of people cycling through prejudicial cycling conditions in an anti-cycling environment? Do they impede the creation of the kinds of conditions which are required for other people, people much less prepared to go through the journey which they have taken, to cycle? Unfortunately I think the answer to all these questions is ‘yes’. And I think the sooner we face up to that – individually as people who care about cycling and collectively as ‘cyclists’ voice’ –  the sooner we’ll develop and insist on strategies which can genuinely get many more people cycling, much more safely, much more often.

Summary

The key point is that strong cycling identities – which can then find expression in and through some (by no means all) cycling advocacy – result from conditions which keep cycling marginal. The strong identity of ‘cyclist’ and cycling as a marginalised and difficult practice are co-produced from the same stuff. Unless we as cyclists are reflexive about this, our advocacy will risk reproducing the situation (the institutional conditions as well as the actual environment for cycling) which keeps cycling so marginal. Unless we’re reflexive, as cycling advocates we’ll reproduce rather than challenge the status quo.

As regular cyclists cycling seems easy. We’re puzzled as to why more people don’t do it; it’s such a convenient, straightforward, cheap and healthy way of moving around. It might sound patronising to insist that many people won’t do something which we ourselves do, but better that than down-playing the difficulties of cycling and insisting it’s easier than people think. What we fail to realise is that by succeeding in cycling we have become different, and that such difference makes a difference.

Today cycling is ordinary to the few and extraordinary to the many. It’s not mainstream. Getting Britain cycling requires making it ordinary to the many (which might well be at the cost of making it extraordinary to those of us who currently ride).

When ‘ordinary cycling’ meets a hill

September 25, 2012

I was in Bristol to take part in the City Council’s Inquiry into Cycling Safety last week. I’d been asked to give evidence from the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, into the question “what can the Council and its partners do to improve safety for cyclists in the city?” It’s great these kinds of question are now being asked in Britain’s city halls, and a privilege to be part of the process – we just need to work together to make sure they translate into bold and concrete actions which make cycling simultaneously bigger and safer.

It was great, too, to see so many people riding in Bristol. The parts of the city centre I rode felt relatively hospitable to cycling, and hugely better than here up north in Lancaster. I’d say that Bristol has done relatively well in re-making its central spaces away from cars and towards people. The section of dedicated cycling space in the photo above is directly outside the City Council’s offices on College Green where the Inquiry took place; I was told that this lovely green space was partially reclaimed from motorised traffic in the 1990s. I suspect – as is the case with most big cities which have enjoyed recent gains in cycling – the major challenges now lie elsewhere, further out from the city centre.

And out there be hills! Bristol is unquestionably a hilly city. Mmmm … I admit to feeling slightly awkward when hills are raised as a potential problem to creating a culture of cycling as ordinary. The discussion typically goes as it did at the Inquiry into Cycling Safety in Bristol: Jim Davis, Chair of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, gave a splendid overview of best-practice cycle provision, based mainly on the Netherlands. (It was wonderful to see the work which Jim and others have done – to promote a paradigm shift in thinking about British cycling – recognised by Bristol City Council. Like mine, I take his invitation to Bristol’s Council House as welcome – if tentative – evidence of a ‘turning-point’ in UK cycling policy, planning and provision.) Then came the typical question – ‘isn’t it the case that the Netherlands has a huge advantage, when it comes to getting people cycling, that it’s pan flat?’

Forget the superb provision for cycling – making it the easiest, most convenient and obvious way of moving around Dutch towns and cities – which Jim’s presentation had just evidenced; when it comes down to it, this line of thinking asks, isn’t the difference between a country with high levels of cycling and one without down to topography?

My awkwardness here reminds me of the awkwardness I feel when discussing whether or not cycling’s safe, whether or not people are inherently lazy (and so unlikely to get on bicycles), or whether segregation or integration is the way ahead for UK cycling. It’s an awkwardness based on awareness that both ‘sides’ have a point, but both are sometimes ill-prepared to hear the others’ (put philosophically, we forget to look for a synthesis of the thesis and its antithesis; put psychologically, we’re better at denial and repudiation than exploration and understanding).

As Jim did, I might point out that rates of cycling can be high in hilly places, such as Swiss cities; I might point out that the winds which often blow across the Netherlands are as hard to push against as many hills; I might (following Professor John Parkin) take the ‘engineer’s line’ that hills can usually be mitigated through sensitive planning of cycle routes (reducing gradient by increasing length, basically) or even (as in Trondheim, Norway) through ‘bike-lifts’; or they can be dealt with at the point-of-purchase through electric bikes; or I might suggest that much of Britain is flat (even most of the routes in a supposedly ‘hilly city’ such as my home town of Lancaster are actually surprisingly flat), and even if rates of cycling tend to be a bit higher across the flatter (and drier) eastern side of Britain, they remain far below typical Dutch rates of cycling.

In other words, we can and do make the case that we can successfully override topography through infrastructurally and/or culturally providing for cycling in ways likely to make it normal. But how persuasive is our case? And anyway, my awkwardness remains, a little niggling, nagging uneasiness. For reasons I find hard to identify, I still somehow feel I haven’t successfully answered the question. Perhaps, however well we answer the question, it’s hard (and even perhaps unwise) to evade a fundamental truth? Because we all know, don’t we, that it’s easier to cycle on the flat than in hills? (In much the same way, we all know, don’t we, that it’s actually more pleasurable to cycle in the absence than the presence of motorised traffic?) It may be less exciting, less fun and less interesting to cycle up hills than on the flat, but it’s certainly (all else being equal) easier.

This makes me think I should change tack, when asked such questions in future. First-of-all, up-front, fair-and-square, agree that ‘yes, it’s easier to cycle when it’s flat, and this almost certainly helps to explain why – when it comes to the ‘rich world’ – the Dutch and Danes are most likely to cycle’.

But then second, to insist that:

  1. places are often flatter than realised;
  2. that people often cycle even in hilly places;
  3. our task nonetheless remains – for all the very good reasons which we already know – to get many more people cycling in all places, including hilly ones; and
  4. what we mean by ‘cycling’ isn’t fixed, but can and will change.

When we spoke to people about cycling during the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, perhaps surprisingly, they expressed concerns about hills (and wet weather) much less than they did about heavy and fast-moving traffic. (And looking through the evidence it presented to Bristol City Council, I note that Bristol Cycling Campaign found a similar story when it surveyed rail commuters at the city’s Temple Quay station; over 70% of them identified ‘stressful cycling conditions’ as a reason for not cycling; far above hills and weather.)

People who did not cycle but who were required by our research questions to think about the prospects of their cycling did sometimes mention topography (especially any steep local hills they knew of) and weather (especially rain), as reasons why they’d be unlikely to do so. But our overall impression was that hills (and weather) are far from being the most important reason why people don’t cycle. In Lancaster, perhaps the hilliest (and wettest) of our case study towns, the profile of cycling is probably highest. Topography and weather might influence the amount of cycling undertaken, and the route chosen, but the effect of these fixed factors is much less than the impact of other variables over which we do have some control. That said, I do think that seeing motorised traffic as being more of a barrier to cycling than hills is a function of the cycling which most people currently do. Either they ride exclusively for leisure, in which case they find terrain (and weather conditions) to suit – that usually means flatter ground, alongside rivers, canals and coastlines, or along disused railways. Or else they are relatively ‘serious’ cyclists, for whom hills (and wet weather) aren’t really an issue – they’ve long since equipped themselves with the equipment (range of gears, waterproof clothing) and physical and mental competences to cope.

But in a place which is closer to building a culture of cycling as ordinary, such as Bristol, hills become more of an issue. These places are producing a new kind of cyclist – someone who doesn’t belong either to the ‘hardcore’ and ‘committed’ minority or to the much more sizeable ‘cycling only sociably on summer, sunny Sundays’ contingent. Bristol dubs itself ‘Britain’s first cycling city’. Partly funded by the now defunct Cycling England, it has in recent years enjoyed substantial support for cycling. There are far more cyclists on its streets than I’m used to seeing at home. I believe the current level of cycling is around 8% of all journeys; the target is 20% of all journeys by bike by 2025. That will require cycling to become ‘ordinary’, and given its topography, that will require cycling uphill to become ‘ordinary’.

So how do people – including those who aren’t necessarily super-fit, who aren’t necessarily riding high-quality machines with a good range of gears, and who aren’t necessarily inclined to get sweaty – move around a hilly town successfully by bike?

Exploring the city once my work was done, I saw a pub with big plate glass windows at the top of Park Street – exactly the kind of place I like! I got a table in the window and spent a happy couple of hours watching people outside. I was struck by the numbers of people walking their bikes up Park Street, away from the city centre and towards the University.

Please excuse and indulge my naivety here, because I’ll admit to not having noticed so many people pushing their bicycles uphill in an urban environment before. I’m used to the idea of people sometimes pushing their machines up hills when cycle-touring, and occasionally here in Lancaster I’ll see someone get off to push, usually as they head over the canal into the city’s hilly eastern suburbs, or as they approach Lancaster University, which sits on higher ground to the city’s south. But, perhaps because I’ve never really stopped to notice (and stopping to notice is an important strategy when exploring and understanding urban cycling) I’ve never before seen so many people dismount to push their bikes up the same hill.

However, I think this is less about the hill than it is about the place; the main issue to do with ‘ordinary cycling’ and its approach. In Lancaster we’ve not reached ‘ordinary cycling’; people ride mainly for leisure and tend to avoid hills (and – as much as possible – roads), or else they belong to the ‘hardcore’ minority who (almost unthinkingly?) pedal up the hills. Bristol, in contrast, is building a culture of ‘ordinary cycling’. This ordinary cycling will meet hills, and I’m interested to know what happens when it does. The ‘established’ cultures of ordinary cycling developed by the Dutch and Danes haven’t had to tackle this. We can follow them in providing for cycling in most other respects, but not necessarily when the road rises. We’re entering another dimension …

So next morning I abandoned my plans for a long ride around Bristol and set off to the foot of Park Street instead. The road rises from the docks and heads out of the city towards Bristol University. As it runs adjacent to College Green and the Council House, there’s a dedicated cycle lane. A bit further, and this gives out, near the bottom of the hill.

It’s (deliberately?) ambiguous, what you do here. Riding alone, I would take to the road. Riding with my kids, I’d stick to the (shared space?) pavement (or sidewalk). But as you continue up Park Street, it’s increasingly obvious that cycling’s ‘proper place’ is on the road. And though the pavement remains wide, most people I saw were indeed cycling on the road.

I imagine that it’s about now that you clearly feel you’re on a climb. The gradient ratchets up a notch, you can see the road stretching ahead of you, and you know you’re in for a work-out.

A bit further along, the pavement narrows again, and it’s become obvious by now that cycling should be on the road. As the gradient kicks in, hitting (I’m guessing) around 10%, people respond in different ways.

Some rise out the saddle, but on the whole I was surprised by how many people don’t. There is obviously more stuff to say about types of bikes and ranges of gears here, but I’m not going to (I’ve rambled on enough already) … I will note, though, that I saw a few guys (only guys, and two of them were I think messengers) riding fixed-gear up Park Street (no photos, I’m afraid), but none riding down – did I miss them, or do they descend via a different route?

Researching this piece, I find there’s been a hill climb on this section of road in the last couple of years, though one which doesn’t take place at the traditional ‘roadies’ hill climb time of year, which is autumn, but in February. Riders use different kinds of machine to tackle a 250 metre stretch of the hill – it looks an ace evening’s entertainment!

I’m sorry to generalise in such ugly sociological fashion, but my guess is that different ‘types of people’ ride the hill at different times of day. The previous evening, sat in the pub at the top, more people seemed to be pushing their bikes, and looked to be returning home from work. In the morning, I’d guess many riders to be students and/or lecturers, and a higher proportion of them – in fact, the majority – rode. Indeed, most people seemed to be riding up quite comfortably.

A few people rode Bromptons. Unsurprisingly, given they don’t have the same range of gears as more ‘standard’ bikes, most of their riders were pushing rather than pedalling, though here’s an exception …

The line of riders going up was fairly continuous. Some rode faster, some slower.

The photo below gives a sense of the climb’s length. Certainly, it’s not a climb you can bludgeon your way over – it lasts long enough that you must decide how you’re going to engage with it, the attitude you’re going to take. You can see there’s no specific provision for cycling; the carriageway is sufficiently wide, and cycling speeds sufficiently low, that this didn’t seem to cause any problems. (I’d expect inter-modal conflict to be more common, and more a problem, going down.)

But it would be surprising if everyone rode up this hill, and of course they don’t. A lot of people get off and push. I saw some people do this almost from the foot of the hill, but more often people rode until the hill ramped up, and dismounted there, at the steepest section.

Following people as they pushed their bicycles up the hill, it struck me that here is a simple, rational and straightforward way of tackling ‘the problem’ of hills. The people I saw didn’t look tired, stressed or embarrassed by their ‘decision’ to dismount; they walked uphill with their bikes in a composed way, as if it was entirely normal, which of course it is. So perhaps their strategy doesn’t recognise ‘a problem’ at all? Pushing is something you simply do when you don’t want to ride. (There are questions arising from this preliminary observational work which could only be tackled through stopping to talk with people – how do they experience the act of stopping pedalling and starting to push?)

The one pre-requisite, you’ll perhaps notice, for this pushing strategy to work is a broad pavement (or sidewalk), which Park Street has.

These people demonstrate how hills aren’t a barrier to cycling; they’re only a barrier to a particular, and rather fixed, conception of cycling. ‘Ordinary cycling’ can adapt to hills in different ways, and perhaps in the process challenge and change our understandings of what it means to move around cities by cycle.

To see people dismount to push their machines through junctions or along stretches of road which have effectively ‘designed-out’ cycling is one thing; it is to see evidence of active discrimination against cycling on the part of politicians, transport planners and engineers. I have talked to many people who push rather than ride their machines through difficult junctions and along busy roads, and they do so because they are terrified by the thought of pedalling through those hostile conditions. But this doesn’t mean that any time people are ‘forced’ to dismount there’s a problem. And to see people dismount in order to negotiate a hill which they consider too steep to ride is a different matter. People push their machines for many reasons: to accompany friends on foot; to negotiate pedestrian-dominated space; to browse from shop-to-shop along a high street. The bicycle’s size and easy manoeuvrability gives its user a flexibility unavailable to people travelling by car.

We should I think then celebrate, rather than unduly concern ourselves with, the fact that here is a machine which – if ever the ground rises too sharply and the going gets too tough for our liking – can be pushed as well as pedalled. Where we should concern ourselves is first, with ensuring pavements are sufficiently wide to accommodate not only pedestrians but also those who choose to dismount, and second, with ensuring an openness and tolerance towards different styles of cycling sufficient to ensure no-one feels maligned and marginalised.

As ‘ordinary cycling’ grows the visibility of the current ‘hardcore’ who tend to ride hills come-what-may will steadily diminish. Their (our) way of cycling will gradually become just one possible way of cycling. And that’s good. We want cycling to be ‘ordinary’ (easy, convenient and obvious) not only in flat places, but in hilly places too. And that is perfectly possible. There’s no ‘failure’ in walking a bike up a hill; only ‘success’ in another person making another journey by/with bicycle.

My happy morning of sociological fieldwork took a turn for the even better whilst I mooched around near the top of Park Street, where who should I bump into? The most straightforward – and I think perhaps the best – sociologist I’ve ever known, Dr Ben Fincham, also on a short visit to the city and caught here in the act of parking his bike. Ben’s doctoral work comprised a fascinating (almost ruthlessly unromantic) ethnography of bicycle messengers, and he is one of the founders of the Cycling and Society Research Group. Whenever we talk – which is alas too little – I am always bowled over by his ability to cut through stultifying academic convention and speak honestly but still sociologically from the heart. It was fantastic to so unexpectedly bump into him, and spend a couple of hours drinking coffee in his company.

Back on Park Street, I had a train to catch, and headed down to the city centre. Yet of course, I’ve told only half the story, the uphill half (and only a small part of that, based as it is solely on observation. Any Bristol-based sociology or cultural geography students out there, looking for a research project?). I watched riders fly down Park Street at 30 mph or more. A couple of times I flinched. With motorised traffic, including HGVs (heavy goods vehicles) and buses, many parked cars and a fair few side streets, this is an ‘interesting’ environment to be riding so fast, and the other side of the ‘hilly coin’. For starters I’d suggest hilly cities are not only more demanding of people’s physical capacities going up, but also of their psychological capacities going down. But how ‘ordinary cycling’ might adapt to them, and they to it, are questions for another day (unless there are people out there (and I’m sure there are) who can already tell us something about ‘ordinary’ downhill riding in hilly cities?).

Finally, apologies for the blurriness of my photos – I’m technically inept and, Sue tells me, had the camera set up for portraits. Whoops!

Cycling in France

July 10, 2012

In the continuing poor excuse for a British summer (flooded roads and an absolute drenching on yesterday’s ride), it already seems unlikely I was so recently riding under a warm sun and often cloudless skies in south-east France. But I was, with Jim, who also lives – and for the rest of the year rides – in this corner of north-west England. It was a super trip, comprising three lots of three days’ riding.

We started in the Ardèche, riding 300 miles over a mountainous three-day course which formed part of L’Ardéchoise, a massive annual cycling event which this year celebrated its 20th anniversary.

What an event! Jim had ridden it four times before, and had told me quite a bit about it. Indeed, it was Jim and Jules raving about their experiences of previous L’Ardéchoise – sat in the pub following long, hard riding on cold, dark winter nights – which had first piqued my desire to give it a go. But you know how you can’t quite imagine something until you actually experience it yourself? How, no matter how well someone describes something, it remains just that, a description – until you actually, practically, taste it directly?

So nothing Jim had said prepared me for the magnificence of L’Ardéchoise. The best way I can think to (unsatisfactorily) describe it is to ask you to imagine an area you know well, and perhaps often ride in. For me, it’d be somewhere like the Lake District or Yorkshire Dales National Parks, in this part of England. Then imagine that bit of the world being given over almost completely, and absolutely unapologetically, to cycling. For four consecutive days. Imagine the area announcing in no uncertain terms that it is throwing open its doors to cycling, and cyclists. During L’Ardéchoise I detected not a hint of ambivalence to this welcome: out in the countryside, farmhouses are decked with balloons and banners; at the roadside, people join together to provide drink and food to the riders, whilst bands play as you pedal past; and the villages! Entire villages re-make themselves for the event – the whole place often organised according to a theme (the village below was in the moo … d). It’s as if they’re intent on outdoing one another in the generosity of their welcome.

Towards the end of the first day, having ridden over a hundred miles, I was feeling weary. I’d got insufficient hard miles in my legs, the long climbs had taken their toll, and a spoke snapping in my front wheel had forced us to detour off route in search of a bike shop (huge thanks to the guy from a great bike shop in Vals-les-Bains, Topvelo Vals,  for dropping everything to fix my wheel so quickly and happily). It was getting late and I knew we still had some way to go. And then we emerged into the village square of Chassiers.

Suddenly we rode into a party: music playing; the master of ceremonies announcing our arrival to the whole village; people cheering and clapping; we were being congratulated, and offered food and drink by a happy team of people, who’d presumably been offering riders food and drink over the past few hours. I don’t think I’ve ever, anywhere, felt so valued and appreciated, just for the simple fact I was riding a bike, into their village! It’s too glib to say, but I’ll say it anyway – the British mistreat the cyclist; the Dutch take her or him for granted; but the French – or certainly the French in the Ardèche during L’Ardéchoise – know how to celebrate the cyclist. What a rare and joyous experience, to feel wanted – as someone who loves riding a bicycle – by a whole village; no, by an entire region! This experience helps me understand how the French embrace le vélo in ways which other nations don’t, at least not yet …

If you’re following this year’s Tour de France, you get a sense of this radical orientation to the bicycle when you watch the riders ascending the big mountains, and getting funnelled through a tunnel thick with cheering, screaming, spectators. Paul Sherwen, the British ex-pro cyclist who is now a TV commentator, described a few days ago how that was an experience which, as a rider, would make the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. For a mortal like me, L’Ardéchoise is probably as close as I’ll get to that experience. But boy, it’s good!

Also like Le Tour, there’s something special about the involvement which L’Ardéchoise inspires. Actually, ‘involvement’ isn’t the right word, it’s too passive; ‘ownership’ is better. In various ways people don’t simply ‘accept’ the event, or get ‘involved’ in it; they take ‘ownership’ of it – they make it their own. This ownership is demonstrated in folk art. You see it during TV coverage of Le Tour. And riding L’Ardéchoise, you spot it (but also no doubt often miss it) everywhere; bicycles –  clustered together in a velo-love-in, or dangling elegantly and alone – painted in the colours of the Ardèche, the yellow and purple of the wild flowers so wonderfully abundant in late spring.

Material statements of support for the event (and of course there are sound economic motives here) and cycling are everywhere: hand-made sculptures, banners, posters and placards welcoming the ride’s arrival, or more simply stating support for the bike – ‘Vive le velo!’. In these ways, the bicycle is annually, symbolically re-incorporated into the Ardèche (and during Le Tour, the entire French) psyche. Through this folk art people announce and honour their allegiance to the bicycle, and those who ride them. I don’t just mean this romantically – people embracing cycling, taking it to their hearts. I mean it as a tangible process – people in their ordinary lives mundanely reproducing the bicycle’s significance and iconic status within French culture. This cultural work around the bicycle matters. To get concrete about it, let’s look at one empirical outcome we saw often on the roads of south-east France as we rode 650 miles over nine days.

You might argue a society that really respects cycling shouldn’t need to remind motorists to give people riding bicycles space, as they overtake. But perhaps only a society that really respects cycling takes it upon itself to see such signs as important and worth installing. Although I’m wary of a culture of ‘signs for everything’, instruction is needed to bring about changes in behaviour which, when regularly repeated and aggregated, help shift social conditions. In Britain we need to shift conditions on roads to make them better places for cycling, and such signs provide a means of doing so. So we need such signs as one step towards effecting a cultural change towards greater recognition of cycling, and greater respect towards the cyclist.

The cultural work the French do around cycling ensures the status of cycling and the cyclist is preserved, even though few French people cycle. Such cultural work, then, is an essential but insufficient part of a bicycle system oriented to making cycling mainstream. Whilst such events don’t do much – if anything – to get people cycling to school, college, work and the shops, L’Ardéchoise is nonetheless a super example of solid cultural work in support of cycling. The organisational effort behind the event’s success is magnificent. We each paid 200 euros to take part in the three-day Montagne Ardechoise – this covers two night’s (very satisfactory, if basic) accommodation, two (superb) evening meals, two breakfasts, baggage transfer, ride jersey (modelled below by Jim), a meal at the end of the ride, and most importantly, all the behind-the-scenes organisation which makes such an event possible.

Jim and I were two of 15,000 participants. Most riders are French, and many clubs ride together. Although we didn’t meet any, a smattering of participants come from elsewhere around the world. We didn’t get a sense of how big the event is until the last day when our route, one of many, converged with the other rides, and took to closed roads for the final miles to L’Ardéchoise HQ, the village of St Felicien. As the road steadily thickened with cyclists it seemed like the previous two days had been only the prelude to this extravagant finale. We became part of a cycling procession. On the climbs barely an inch of tarmac was without a bike. On the right-hand edge of the roads people cycled slowly, and some pushed their bikes up the steeper sections of the longer climbs. To their left a steady stream of riders overtook. And to their left, sometimes accompanied by shouts of warning as they approached (“attention!”, or “a gauche!”), formed the fastest line of riders.

Over these final hours the event overtook me; the miles passed with my barely noticing. My ride became an experience I was sharing with thousands of fellow cyclists – not ‘strangers’, because this shared act involved some kind of communion – an opening out to others not based on knowing who they are, but on the shared practice of cycling. Together we become part of something sacred. Cycling’s the practice which has most reliably takes me towards something I call sacred, and I don’t think I’m alone.

Given we numbered in our thousands, our procession was remarkably quiet. It became a pilgrimage. How often do we share a ride with so many others? This is not the aggregated mass of individualised, stop-start cycle commuting that can be experienced on a daily basis in cities across the Netherlands and China, or in the Danish capital, Copenhagen; this is thousands of riders moving in the same direction, through the same beautiful countryside, with the same final destination – riders dropping deliriously down a mountain’s side before becoming a concertina crawl up the next long slow climb. There’s no inside/outside here; we become the experience we’re witnessing. Like others at such times I’m unwilling to break the silence, the reverential hush, which together we create. We contribute to something sacred, and our behaviour unconsciously adapts to it. We lose control, and the freedom is ecstatic.

The last 20 km of the ride were breathtaking. They involved a fantastically long descent from Lamastre to St Felicien, via a road that must have been deliberately selected by the local tourist board to stun each rider into a personal promise to one day return – a continuously unravelling panorama of Ardèche countryside at its most achingly beautiful. And sat with Jim and a cold beer in the sunshine at the end, our L’Ardéchoise experience felt complete as we applauded the rides of others, including Robert Marchand – the centenarian, who recently set a new hour record for his age, was the oldest participant in this year’s L’Ardéchoise, completing a day’s ride beyond what many people half his age could ever do. So who knows, perhaps my best riding years might still lie ahead of me?

From the Ardèche we travelled east to the Vercors. We based ourselves in a peaceful riverside municipal campsite at Pont-en-Royans for another three days of riding through outrageously spectacular countryside. The limestone cliffs and deep gorges of this part of France are incredible. Some of the roads we rode left me incredulous – “how on earth did ‘they’ build this road, and why, here?” I’d barely heard of the Vercors, but Jim insisted it provided some of the best cycling in France. And I’m sure he’s right; now I’ve seen it, I aim to return …

And then from the Vercors we travelled east again, basing ourselves at Le Bourg d’Oisans for three days of riding in the French Alps. I’d not been to the Ardèche or Vercors before, but nor had I been to the French Alps, and for me, this was the reason above all for making this trip – a big part of my love for cycling has been shaped by places I’ve only ever seen on TV and read about in books and magazines, places like Col du Galibier and Alpe d’Huez. Without wishing to sound over-dramatic, riding those mountains for myself would be a dream-come-true. It’s also an ambition, a challenge, and – if successful – an achievement, of course. Perhaps the most seductive aspect of challenging rides, for me,  is the slow, unsteady process from hatching the plan, through getting prepared, and finally to its (never done until it’s done) execution.

Jim and I had discussed riding the route of La Marmotte, but in hesitant tones. It would depend …. on how we’d been riding until then, on whether we felt we had the legs, on whether we got lucky with the weather. I wanted to ride both Galiber and L’Alpe d’Huez, but was less sure I’d feel up to riding them together, as part of a day’s ride as long and hard as La Marmotte. To climb 5,000 metres in one day? That’s over three miles in a line straight up to the sky from the ground! But over the first week of our trip we seemed cautiously, slowly and silently to move towards a tacit consensus that we’d give it a shot. The day before, we pitched our tents and did the gentlest local ride we could find, engaging our lowest gear to soft-pedal our way up Col d’Ornan. We checked the weather forecast, which promised a fine start to the day before thunderstorms later, and then during the day we both grew quieter: beginning to focus on the ride ahead, to organise our minds as well as our bikes, and to solidify our conviction that we’d set on a course which we now would steer, come what may.

This is such a strong reason why we ride these rides – to test ourselves, to translate our potential to do a ride into actual achievement, something to stay with us forever; an addition to our own personal palmares. It doesn’t matter if no one else cares – by riding we move towards who we want to be, and become who we are. However amateur, if you ride even half-seriously you develop your own cycling biography, and it’s something which – as Robert Marchand demonstrates – can be added-to until life ends.

We rose at 5, were away by 6. What a feeling! There’s real intensity to the privilege of going into the unknown, not entirely sure what will happen, but knowing that you’re embarking on one of the rides of your life; obviously not emulating the legends of cycle sport, but getting closer to experiencing the obdurate magnificence of a cycle-scape created by all those riders who the world has ever heard of. Of course we rode conservatively, we couldn’t do otherwise. But we made steady progress, up first Col du Glandon and then Col de la Croix de Fer, over which the 2012 Tour de France will in a couple of day’s time ride.

Descending to St Jean de Maurienne Jim hit a stone that slit his tyre, forcing a search for a bike shop to get a replacement. But still we made good progress, the weather stayed on our side, and we grabbed food at St Michel de Maurienne before starting up Col du Telegraphe. Down from the Telegraphe, though Valloire and onto the Galibier. We both were riding well, and hard as it was, this is of course the right kind of ‘hard’ … chosen, of our own free will, and something which adds to rather than detracts from our sense of ourselves … an almost ridiculously (perhaps, in a world so full of involuntary hardship, criminally?) privileged ‘hard’, then.

It’s a long, long descent off Galibier, first down to the Col du Lautaret, where you’re still over 2000 metres, and then down the Romanche valley back to Le Bourg d’Oisans. We knew we could stop here, our campsite less than a mile away. But we over-ruled the little voices in our heads and kept going past the town. So we were onto L’Alpe almost before we knew it. With a hundred miles and 4000 metres climbing already in our legs, it felt outrageously steep. Then the storm broke, thunder rolled, lightning flashed and water was everywhere. We buried our heads, dug deep and kept going, entering our own little worlds. I loved it. My feet were on fire, hot spots breaking out across the base of both. Both my legs began to cramp. All the water was aggravating saddle sores which had built over the past week. I felt as slow as an ox. But I was climbing L’Alpe! Each hairpin carried names of heroes of our sport, and was another step up the mountain, another part of a day which I’ll remember forever.

As we gently rode a recovery ride the next day, we looked down on the road up to Alpe d’Huez. It seems almost vertically to ascend the mountain from the valley floor through 21 switchbacks. We couldn’t quite believe we’d had the strength to ride up it, in a thunderstorm, after ten hours and more than 100 miles in the saddle, just the previous day.

Finally, back to what the French tell us about building a mainstream culture of cycling. As Jim and I rode the roads around Le Bourg d’Oisans, I thought often to myself, “I would not want my kids riding these roads”. Le Bourg d’Oisans feels like a town oriented towards cycling, but not to the everyday needs of ordinary cyclists. The French, to generalise, love cycling. But not in a way which enables everyone to do it.

Huge thanks to Jim for most of the photos (I dropped and broke my camera at the top of Col de la Croix Fer!), for being such a truly amazing travel companion, and for tolerating not just my company but also my  slow descending for so long.

Cycling and the politics of time

May 30, 2012

Something that struck me time and again, talking to people during the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, was the interconnections between cycling and time. I’ll begin with two observations about how the availability (including lack) of time influences people’s cycling.

First, people who typically feel busy sometimes cycle as a way of reclaiming time for themselves; so for example, I met a middle-aged chap in Leicester who spent far more of his time than he’d like driving all over the country by car, but who relaxed once he got home by taking to his bike for a leisurely evening ride, to unwind from the stresses of the day. Many people described cycling in such ways – as about quality ‘off-time’; in fact, based on our fieldwork I’d argue that this ‘leisurely cycling’ is the dominant experience of cycling in Britain today. In other words, if you’re ‘time poor’ cycling represents quality down-time, in which to relax and be restored.

Then second, people who have more leisurely lifestyles find it easier to integrate cycling as part of their ordinary, everyday lives; so for example, an older semi-retired couple in Worcester cycled for many of their local journeys. They felt able to do so because they never felt in a rush, and could schedule their lives as they liked, rather than having to fit into the demands of others. In other words, if you’re ‘time rich’ cycling can work as a way of organising and connecting different aspects of your everyday life.

There’s a contradiction here, between how cycling works for most people today, and how transport policy would like cycling to work.  On the one hand, our research suggests cycling might be encouraged by making life in general more leisurely and relaxed. This would also probably promote sustainability, by making life slower and more locally-rooted (and, I’d argue, more enjoyable and convivial).

Yet on the other hand, cycling’s increasingly promoted through attempts to speed it up. This trend is clearest in initiatives such as Copenhagen’s ‘green wave’, whereby traffic signals on the popular arterial cycling route of Nørrebrogade are synchronised to enable continuous movement for people riding at 20 kilometres per hour.

Copenhagen is the city of efficient cycling par excellence, and there at least, judging by its high and rising modal share, ‘efficient cycling’ seems popular. Understandably, if also problematically, we’re speeding cycling up to fit the world-as-it-is, rather than attempting to slow the world down, so cycling-as-it-is fits into it better. My main question here is: do we want cycling to be made efficient?

My reason for asking this question: what happens to cycling in the drive towards making it more efficient? Speeding up cycling makes it more competitive, and thus potentially more attractive, vis-à-vis other modes. But what’s lost by these gains in time?

I’m not disputing that cycling can be fast and efficient, and that’s sometimes why we ride. If I want to get from home to Lancaster University, 4 miles away, cycling is – for me – much quicker than any other means of getting there. But that’s not the only reason I choose to cycle, and to ‘sell’ cycling because of its speed is, I think, overly to instrumentalise it.

The instrumentalisation of cycling risks killing its inherent value. Writing of the emergence of train travel in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, published in 1849, the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin said:

“The whole system of railroad travelling is addressed to people who, being in a hurry, are therefore, for the time being, miserable.”

Ruskin goes on:

“No one would travel in that manner who could help it – who had the time to go leisurely over hills and between hedges instead of through tunnels and between banks … The railroad is in all its relations a matter of earnest business, to be got through as soon as possible. It transmutes a man [sic] from a traveller into a living parcel.”

I invoke Ruskin to suggest there’s a trade-off: incorporating ever more efficient cycling into an ever more efficient society probably takes some of the sheen off it; it risks turning cycling from freedom to chore. As cycling becomes more integral to the world-as-it-is, it becomes less able to transform that world for the better.

Instrumentalisation of cycling in the name of efficiency is everywhere: using cycling to make cities less congested and polluted; using cycling to make people’s bodies more healthy and less obese; using cycling to bring tourist cash into the local economy; using cycling to announce our city as a truly ‘progressive’ place.

We should be wary of attempts to encourage people to cycle because cycling is good for something else. For starters, I’m not sure it works. But also, cycling becomes something else to be marketed and sold, often by people who are selling and marketing it not because they love it, but because it’s their job.

A couple of years ago, sitting in a Copenhagen café during a winter’s day spent exploring the city by bike, I made these field notes:

“I’ve ridden here, there and everywhere, breathing in and drinking up the city. It might have a lot to do with the time of year and the freezing conditions, but I’m struck by how utilitarian cycling in Copenhagen feels. Everyone rides as if they’re going somewhere, which of course they are. I’d like to return to ride in summer, to see how it differs, but what’s missing in my early December experience is the slow, lazy, loitering style of cycling which might actually build solidarities, communities and social capital.

“It feels ironic that this is the city where Gehl Architects are located. Through work such as Life Between Buildings and Cities for People Jan Gehl helped teach me the significance of walking and cycling to civilising cities, challenging and transforming the dominant rhythmicities of cities. Yet here in his city of Copenhagen, people ride bikes like automatons. Often, I feel as though I’m on a conveyor belt I can’t get off. Everyone seems to know where they’re going, and they’re going there. They’re taking no prisoners, they’re not slowing down.

“It’s the opposite of the cycling city as the relaxed, unhurried, people-centred city; this is the cycling city as the functional, efficient city, keeping the cogs of capitalism whirring round. I feel as though I’m on a capitalist treadmill; the bicycle keeps this city going, and it’s a capitalist city. Cycling here is about efficiency. It makes me want to rebel.

“And they ride so fast! Maybe they’re trying to warm themselves up. OK, I don’t know where I’m going and I’m not used to riding such a clunker, but I’m not accustomed to being so regularly overtaken, and to overtaking so little. There’s no dilly-dallying here. And they come so close! The cycle lanes already feel narrow, perhaps because the snow and ice have encroached. But when a faster cyclist approaches from behind, there’s little room for manoeuvre. A few times I brush shoulders with an overtaking cyclist. After a while it feels less alarming, almost normal.

“And I’m so hemmed in. (It feels like) there’s no escape. Cyclists are so numerous, yet so constrained. Strange …

“I’ve also fulfilled a dream, to visit Christiania … and here I leave the fast, one-track efficient city and move into the slower, multi-tracked and more textured city, Gehl’s city. Suddenly there’s room to loiter, to look up (or rather, to look over my shoulder behind me, to see there are no cyclists approaching fast, and I can relax, breathe deep, find my own pace, take my own line, and simply ride ….).”

Copenhagen embodies the dilemmas of contemporary cycling – particularly what it’s for. I’ve returned since, continue to find it stimulating, and continue to worry about the possibility of slow cycling. What happens to the slow cyclist – perhaps the older person pottering on her or his bicycle, or the idler, going nowhere in particular – in the rush to get more people to school, college and work more quickly? What happens to cycling as a ‘political’ tool of resistance to the society we’ve got, once the society we’ve got learns to use the bicycle to more effectively reproduce itself?

I don’t want fast cycling eliminated. We need multiple rhythms of cycling in the sustainable city; not one monotonous cycling speed. Unlike cars, bikes are skinny, so there’s sufficient space within urban environments to cater for and cope with them travelling at multiple speeds.

The Understanding Walking and Cycling project found that in the UK cycle lanes are needed to enable people who don’t want to ride fast and furiously (on ‘faster’ bikes) to instead ride slowly (on ‘slower’ bikes) along big and busy roads. Meanwhile, in Copenhagen cycle lanes seem oriented to making people ride not slower, but faster. This throws up questions about what dedicated cycle lanes are for, and why.

In both the UK and Copenhagen it’s ridiculously hard to cycle sociably. In both places cycling conditions forcibly reduce the cyclist to the individual level, and reproduce cycling as a strictly utilitarian practice. This must change. Sociable cycling challenges instrumentalising logic, showing cycling can be more than getting from A to B as fast as possible. A civilised city would enable people to talk as they cycle alongside one another; a sustainable city would see it as unjust if people can do this when travelling by car, but not by bike.

Everywhere there’s cycling (and cycling is almost everywhere) we should resist imposition of single speed solitary cycling; single speed solitary cycling is – effectively – what we’ve created in the UK and it stops many people cycling. And the instrumental logic behind cycling’s promotion in Copenhagen irons out and renders less and less visible any difference, and imposes single speed solitary cycling there. Only resistance – in the name of multiple speed, sociable cycling – will enable cycling to be democratised across differences of age, fitness, gender, and motive.

Greater incorporation of cycling into urban space, at the car’s expense, potentially but not inevitably alters the character of that space. To see bicycles as no more than ‘skinny green cars’ is to reproduce the city much as it already is, and to miss cycling’s radical potential to change the world fundamentally for the better. Bicycles enable inhabitation of urban space in ways radically different to cars. Let’s not lose this difference. The bicycle shouldn’t simply be a substitute for the car, but a vehicle for re-working and re-shaping the city in broader sustainable ways; only then can the potential ethics (cycling’s contribution to the good life) and aesthetics (cycling’s contribution to pleasure) of the bicycle be fulfilled.

Finally, three questions:

1. On waiting: what do we want to do about bicycles and waiting? Should waiting be extinguished? Does it reflect lack of accommodation of the bicycle in the urban transport environment? Or is the rush to erase waiting a symptom of an impatient, accelerating society? Should cycling reclaim waiting? Does it matter where you’re waiting, for how long, and why?

2. On cycling experience: when you cycle, are you moving through empty space? Or (to polarise) are you making your place in the world? Are you sometimes doing more of one and less of the other, and if so, why? Is cycling a neutral means of making your way in the world, or by cycling are you creating something? If so, what?

3. On cycling’s potential: do we want more cycling? Do we want cycling to change the world? Are they the same question? If ‘yes’, why? If not, why not? Should institutional efforts to boost cycling always be applauded and/or supported? Of course there’s a relation between the two, but have we been seduced by quantity (increasing the number of cyclists) and risk losing sight of the importance of quality (cycling’s contribution to a better society)?

Cycling cultures, cycling politics: riding through the time of the car

August 1, 2011

A few people responded to my recent posts on the concepts of cycling culture/s and cycling politics. One was Dave Barker. After some shorter exchanges, Dave offered to put his thoughts down at greater length. He sent me these a week or so ago, and has kindly agreed to me publishing them here. I want to share them because Dave’s thoughts are so well written, rich and insightful. It’s a long post, but I’m sure many people out there will find it stimulating, and for probably different reasons; the main reason I like it so much is because of Dave’s careful elaboration of how cycling in general, and club cycling in particular, has weathered – by adapting to – the ‘storm of the car’ over the past half-century, and is hopefully emerging now into a new dawn.

For a while I’ve been interested in developing an oral history project around cycling. I’ve done the easy part, in dreaming up a working title – “Cycling lives: riding through the time of the car”; now ‘all’ I’ve got to do is find resources to put some meat on those bones! What I’d like is to hear from people who – like Dave – have ridden more-or-less continuously over the last half-century, to explore and understand with them the changes which cycling in general, and their own cycling in particular, have undergone during the historic phase of mass motorisation: partly to ensure such experiences are captured for the historical record; partly to ensure the historical record appropriately acknowledges and appreciates the roles and significance of cycling from the end of the Second World War into the present day; and partly because proper recognition of the battles which cycling and cyclists have survived in order to be with us still today can inform and perhaps aid the current rehabilitation of cycling.

Whilst I don’t want inappropriately to recruit Dave’s fine writing to this nascent project, I do want to advertise my interest in the reflections and analyses of any one else who may be willing to commit them to words. Cycling – including our own cycling – has not proceeded immune to the car; to the contrary, cycling – or, more appropriately, cyclings (in the plural) – has – have – been shaped (not only constrained, but also – as Dave himself notes in making reference to how cyclists today tend to drive rather than ride out to races – enabled) by the car. By drawing on his own biography, Dave Barker does a superb job of analysing some of these processes, and I can’t thank him enough for allowing me to publish his analysis here.

Whilst this is the first guest blog on Thinking About Cycling, I hope it won’t be the last.

But over to Dave …

What follows aims to be historical/dynamic, but at the same time is unashamedly autobiographical. It also operates on the assumption that cycling cultures and practices have to be seen in relation to other relevant cultures and practices, particularly those of car drivers. The main argument is that our present cycling cultures are the product of the interaction between historical changes and forces over which we have had little or no control and the adaptations we have, collectively, made to cope with these changes and forces.

Looking back, I now see a paradox at the heart of my experience of motorised road travel. On the one hand, as we now know, there were, relatively speaking, ‘no cars on the road’, so journeys ought to have been largely unaffected by the presence of other traffic. On the other hand my recollection of actual journeys (by coach in our case, since we didn’t have a car until my mid-teens) is that overall they were slow, leisurely affairs where rapid (?40 mph) progress on sections of open road were invariably punctuated by erratic movement, long snarl-ups and traffic jams in villages, towns and built up areas; so Birkenhead to London was an all-day (roughly 9 to 6) experience, which, of course, meant that there had to be built-in coffee/tea breaks, lunch stops etc to enable the punters to survive; Birkenhead to Llanfairfechan on the North Wales coast was pretty unpredictable, depending on how ‘bad’ things were in Conway and all the other bottlenecks along the North Wales coast, but I’m pretty certain that, even with an early-ish morning start, we could not expect to arrive until some time in the afternoon (60 miles). I can’t be certain, but I cannot imagine that doing the same journeys by car would have been hugely different. When we did, eventually, get a car, my Dad scarcely ever exceeded 35, and never on principle went over 40; yet I never remember long tailbacks behind us or the kind of furious reaction such driving would provoke today; so I infer that, while he was probably pretty slow by contemporary standards, he was not exceptionally or ‘pathologically’ slow.

So my reconstruction of  motoring culture and practice at that time is that it was the product of widely shared experiences in which a ‘long’ journey (in terms of distance) would now be seen as a short romp; acceptable speeds were, by present standards, very low; how long the journey would take was very much in the lap of the gods (but it would make sense to err on the side of caution and build in allowances for enforced, unscheduled stops/delays and plan additional stops for food and drink, if the experience was to be bearable); and the attitude to things and people that got in your way was that there were so many of them anyway, that it would make no sense to single out one category (e.g. cyclists) for particular blame or criticism; and, of course, most drivers were or had been cyclists.

The Club and cycling culture into which I was socialised from 1958 reflected all this.  Any cyclist worthy of the name would get to know the local (say 30 miles radius) lanes like the back of his hand, because these were where you sampled the real delights of cycling, and this knowledge distinguished you from the lower breeds like motorists who couldn’t read maps and hadn’t a clue where they were or where they were going except by using road signs and main roads. But at the same time you used the main roads: to get to the area where you really wanted to go; to train; to get in big distances; to link up nice sections in the lanes. So Anfield Club runs regularly used the Chester-Whitchurch road, or the main road from the Wirral to Queensferry and into Wales; Seamons Cycling Club runs in the 70s invariably did Altrincham to Whitchurch on A roads via Middlewich and Nantwich. Club 25s turned in the road (A41) between Broxton and Whitchurch on a Saturday afternoon. My first ‘really’ long ride (160 miles) was getting home to Birkenhead from Oxford. All I needed was an Esso map to clarify which A or B road number I needed to follow. Long distance tours (e.g.100 milesa day for four days round Wales at Easter) were not exercises in the finer arts of navigation. Using the main roads was often less pleasant than using the lanes, but the contrast was not such that you felt the need to avoid them, nor did you infer from the behaviour of most users that, as far as they were concerned, you didn’t really belong there.

I started racing (1961) towards the end of the period when: most competitors rode out to the event (often carrying sprint wheels on sprint carriers); racing and club life were closely integrated, so that, for example, a club run would leave from event HQ when everyone had finished; off your local patch, you booked digs on a Saturday night, rode over on Saturday, raced, then back on Sunday (it was accepted that one of the responsibilities of an event secretary was to book accommodation for visiting riders who sent a deposit along with their entry form) (See, for example, the obituary of Johnny Helms, Cycling Weekly’s veteran and much-loved cartoonist). This gradually changed through the 60s: steadily increasing use of cars to get to events with knock-on effects on the rest of this social behaviour.

Commuting by bike was very similar in the use of main roads, in my case into Manchester from the south-west suburbs using either the A56 (main Chester Road) or the A5103 (Princess Parkway).

It has been interesting to me to find that this kind of experience was shared by top riders whose socialisation took place from the early fifties through to the early 80s (see e.g. autobiographies of Vin Denson and Graeme Obree).

(Obviously there was much more to this culture than routes, roads and navigation, but this is what I want to concentrate on here).

It is difficult to pinpoint how and when this changed, since we’re looking at something that was gradual and insidious, but I would say the late 70s and 80s were decisive. By the 90s things were very different.

Although I was aware in a very general and unsystematic way that our collective behaviour was changing, the contrast was brought home to me very starkly in (I think) 1993 when I tried to replicate what I had done in 1965 (Oxford to Birkenhead with an Esso map), this time to get back to Manchester from the Tour de France in Hampshire in two days via Great Malvern (for a variety of reasons I had not done this kind of riding since the 70s). The 1965 experience was wholly positive and, looking back, quite formative in my subsequent cycling career and identity (in this case becoming a ‘proper’ cyclist – particularly a long-distance one – rather as others became marijuana users or jazz musicians [editor’s note – a reference to the work of the US sociologist Howard Becker, who applied the concept of ‘career’ any identity which requires work and commitment to develop]). 1993 was not an experience I would want to repeat and I began to reflect on the ways in which my significant socialisation experiences were quite simply not available to bike-riders following on thirty years later.

The place to start is probably to consider how being a motorist has changed. The advent of the motorway system and upgraded dual carriageways revolutionised the way in which motorists both behaved and thought. Instead of being a major expedition of highly uncertain duration, the journey from the north-west of England (Merseyside or, where I now live, Manchester) to London became a reasonably predictable 2 ¾ to 3 hour drive; Manchester to Anglesey for a recent Club weekend (bike in back of car) was about one and a half hours (about 50 miles more than Birkenhead-Llanfairfechan, several hours less); indeed this has become the typical currency in which car journeys are discussed: ‘Manchester to Dover is four and a half hours’ etc etc

When the motorways were being built, I remember that some cyclists were optimistic about traffic being diverted off the rest of the road system. With a few possible exceptions (A6 in Lancashire and Cumbria, A50 in Cheshire where A road and motorway shadow each other for an appreciable distance), these hopes have not been fulfilled as traffic levels increased and, with them, average and normal speeds, no doubt heavily influenced by the kind of thinking induced/encouraged by motorway driving.

But not every kind of driving/journey has become faster and more predictable; the most obvious exception has been the typical urban commute. It seems to me that Fred Hirsch’s (Social Limits to Growth) concept of positional goods is particularly useful here. A positional good is one which is consumed only in part because of the intrinsic satisfaction it provides; it is also, indeed it is perhaps primarily, consumed because of the advantages the consumer gains over those who don’t/can’t obtain access to that good. The problem (logically unavoidable as well as empirically predictable) is that these advantages fall away and disappear as more and more consumers strive to acquire this advantage – hence there are social limits to growth. So we want a car at least in part because it enables us to travel further and faster than other people. At first this works; but it works progressively less and less well as more and more people get cars until eventually we get urban gridlock.

Another important factor in the way that motorists have come to see themselves and behave has been the political context in which these changes have taken place. Until very recently (and it is debatable how far this has changed) much political discourse treated public transport as a residual service for unsuccessful losers; and it was widely assumed that those who walked or rode bikes did so because they couldn’t afford a car. The interests of motorists were prioritised in the way resources were distributed,  in the philosophy/ideology/practices of  traffic engineers and town-planners and in the legal system; and individualistic approaches to issues with political and social ramifications (like the decisions we make about whether and how to get from A to B) were celebrated as inherently superior to collective ones (although, as so often happens, while the benefits were enjoyed individually, the costs were socialised).

So: cyclists came to be seen more and more as hindrances which get in the way and slow down a journey which ‘everyone knows’ should take x hours or y minutes and which, on this basis, may well have been scheduled to do precisely this. To make matters worse, groups of cyclists out in the countryside are clearly misusing publicly provided and financed space; ‘everyone knows’ that roads are there for the serious business of getting from A to B and here are these groups chatting, laughing and blatantly enjoying themselves, thus using the roads we have paid for as if they were subsidised playgrounds, and this frivolity is what is holding us up and making us late. (No motorist I have met has actually said this, but many do behave as if this is what they think; and to me, one of the most important aspects of our cycling culture is precisely this radical challenge it lays down to accepted norms concerning the proper use of public space). In urban areas, particularly in the rush hour, cyclists became obvious scapegoats with the build-up of frustrations associated with owning a positional good that conferred fewer and fewer advantages. To make matters worse, in many situations cheap bikes deliver the satisfactions the consumer is seeking better than expensive cars.

The response of cyclists/potential cyclists to all this has varied: many have disappeared and many who would have appeared have not done so (how often have we heard some version of ‘I used to be a cyclist, but you wouldn’t get me out on a bike on these roads. It’s far too dangerous’?). The primary adaptive response of most leisure/club cyclists that I know has been to retreat almost completely from the main roads (except in the mountains) and take to the lanes and (more recently) sections of the National Cycle Network (NCN). One big bonus is that navigational skills have improved significantly. I think I am now a better navigator than my dad was, if only because the cost of getting it wrong is so much greater. (I went back to Oxfordshire a few years back, armed as I always am with an Ordnance Survey (OS) map; I behaved as I now always do and used the map to navigate the lanes; it was astonishing (and at first a bit upsetting) to find myself on routes and in places that I had never been on/to and didn’t know existed. How could I have missed such gems? Then I reflected that at 18 to 22 I had been a completely different sort of bike rider doing what was then my thing in an (almost) totally different world. As I said in an earlier post [editor’s note – see Dave’s comments, dated 26th June 2011, to my post ‘A cultural politics of cycling, part 2’], I didn’t choose to live through the era which forced these changes on us, but I am proud of the adaptations we have made to cope with them).

For many urban cyclists similar adaptations have been necessary on the commute as we have cobbled together safer, quieter, less stressful, and often much more ingenious and interesting routes to work and for other journeys round the urban areas. It is particularly gratifying to me that a crucial bit of contraflow on a pavement (where I was stopped by a policeman in the 80s) and a pedestrian-only bridge that many of us also used illegally are both now part ofManchester’s official cycle network. They all learn in the end, even councillors and traffic engineers.

Other adaptations involved collectively choosing to go with the flow. We can’t blame motorists for the fact that virtually no one now rides out to races; racing cyclists have taken full advantage of a road system on which higher speeds and shorter, more predictable journey times are pretty much guaranteed. And just as virtually no one rides out to race, so far fewer club riders go out on all-day club runs. (Johnny Helms racing on a Sunday morning, then going out all day with the Warrington Road Club and typically clocking up 120-150 miles for the day was a product of the 40s and 50s; he had fewer and fewer successors in the 60s; he and his like were probably extinct by the 70s) In my club 85/90% of the (hugely increased number of) riders going out on a Sunday morning are back home between 1 and 2pm. A casual glance at the club feature in Cycling Weekly indicates that this is now the norm.

I said earlier that potential cyclists who would have appeared did not appear. Another ‘crisis’ we had to deal with in the Clubs was the almost complete disappearance of junior recruits in the mid-80s. It seemed almost to be the case that one moment the club room and the club run was heaving with juniors, the next there were none to be seen (I was club chairman at the time and got quite a lot of stick from some senior members who seemed to think that it was us – or me – who were/was doing something wrong. Further scrutiny showed that this was a problem that affected all clubs and many other sports). In our case, however, membership numbers stayed high and even increased as we recruited ‘returners’ and others who have taken up the sport in their 20s and 30s (or later). In the last few years we have been getting juniors as well.

The other most obvious feature of  cycling culture in the last 20 years has been its growing heterogeneity, with the mountain bike explosion, triathlons, orienteering-type events, families on the NCN/Sustrans network, sportives etc etc. One of the problems confronting anyone wanting to analyse it is to get a grip on what is going on (and this is just the sport/leisure side).

Cycle forums, cycle campaigning, the green movement and other forms of activism are also arenas in which bike-riders who maybe 30 years ago would have behaved pretty much as atomised individuals are now starting to act collectively and politically. When I taught Social Policy courses, one of the areas we used to discuss was the way in which politically conscious disability groups began to challenge the view that handicap, disadvantage, exclusion etc are inherently and inevitably part and parcel of having, say, a visual or a mobility impairment; rather it is the environment which the rest of us (the able-bodied) create (on the assumption that everyone is able-bodied like us) that disadvantages and discriminates against those who are, in these respects, not like us. To my embarrassment, it was fully 15/20 years after I had started presenting this kind of analysis, that I began to appreciate that it could be adapted and applied much closer to home. Environments are created to suit the interests of powerful, dominant groups (motorists), ignoring the interests of less powerful, subordinate groups (cyclists and pedestrians). And rather as the disabled were invisible because they had to stay at home, so cyclists and pedestrians became more than invisible; quite simply people stopped cycling and walking. What we are now seeing are early signs of raised consciousness and resistance.

When my mates and I started serious cycling as teenagers, one of our ambitions was to be treated and accepted as proper cyclists, which obviously and necessarily included being thought worthy of a wave and an ‘aye, aye’ when we passed those who were clearly ‘proper cyclists’. Because we wore jeans and started off on relatively grotty bikes we didn’t always pass the test and were often ignored; we found that this was much less likely to happen (in fact it virtually never happened) once we acquired better bikes, a pair of Ossie Dover’s plus-twos and garish diamond-patterned knee-length socks (Ossie was Liverpool’s famous tricycling tailor). And then it was our turn to ignore the plebs (after all we had been through, why should we dispense our favours any more liberally?). I have to confess that I remained an arrogant, elitist, condescending prat right through the 60s, 70s and into the 80s. It is hard now to recall when, how and why I started to change, but I am pretty certain that it was as I started to appreciate that, where cyclists are concerned – unlike Britain in 2010/11 –  we really were ‘all in this together’. Now greeting and chatting with a far greater range of people on bikes is a way of expressing solidarity, camaraderie and shared experiences and interests.

This has been a long-winded way of saying that the cycling culture which I grew up in on Merseyside in the late 50s and 60s has undergone fundamental changes, many of which were forced on us by what might loosely be called the motoring culture; I have argued that we have resisted and adapted; and it may well be that what is emerging is stronger, if only because, in rough and ready Darwinian terms, it now contains far greater variability.

This is basically why I view the possible emergence of mass cycling (and a mass cycling culture, whatever that might look like) with a combination of equanimity and enthusiasm. Enthusiasm because this can only be good for public health, the planet, my grandchildren, urban life, and civility and sociability; equanimity because I cannot readily conceive of ways in which lots more people riding bikes in urban areas can have serious detrimental effects on our various cycling subcultures. I take this view mainly because in places where there is mass cycling, this has happened (as far as I can see) pretty well independently of the kind of leisure/sporting/competitive cycling cultures which exist in those cities/countries. My analogy would be that if we also get mass walking/pedestrianism or whatever we might call it, there is really no reason to believe that this will have much effect on the diverse cultures of rambling clubs, athletics clubs, fell-running clubs, long distance walking clubs etc etc. But I also take this view because, compared with what we have been through since the 50s/60s, coping with the consequences of mass cycling will, in all probability, be a bit of a breeze. In the end it will be up to us, or rather you, how we/you adapt to these (and any other, possibly far more momentous) changes which take place over the next, say, 50 years.

Dave Barker on the Galibier, 2003 (by John Pardoe)

Dave Barker is 68; he was lucky to have a bike-riding Dad who guided him into club cycling on Merseyside when he was 15. He got involved in most aspects of the sport and was an above-average time-triallist (high spot: British Students 100 champion, low spot: personal best of 1.00.02 for a 25!). He commuted by bike to Manchester University (room smelled like a race HQ). Member of the 300,000 miles Club and did London-Edinburgh –London in 2001. Now President of Seamons Cycling Club, Altrincham; involved in cycling campaigning and a volunteer on the Sustrans National Cycle Network. Into jazz and grandchildren when not on a bike.

The state of cycling in England

June 15, 2011

I wrote an article for BikeHub a few days ago, based on the preliminary findings of the Understanding Walking and Cycling project on which I work, and the presentation I made at the recent Building Cycling Cultures event in Leicester. I’m linking to it here, because otherwise some of you won’t find it.

It was quite ‘painful’ to write. I made myself write quickly, so I could send it off to Carlton Reid, BikeHub’s editor, before I had second thoughts. (My thanks to Carlton for giving my analysis greater publicity than it would otherwise have got.) It represents a shift in my thinking, which has come about because of the fieldwork across four English cities I’ve been doing these last couple of years. I’m currently wading through the data that fieldwork has produced, and trying to make sense of it all; the BikeHub article is part of that sense-making activity.

Some conclusions of our research contradict what I previously thought. So part of the analytical process has entailed, for me personally, thinking carefully about my responsibilities as an academic, and also about what matters most, both to me and the world. I’m convinced we need to step up our ambitions for cycling, to fundamentally re-make our cities around the bicycle.

A cultural politics of cycling, 2

May 29, 2011

For more than half a century cycling has been marginalised. Marginalised practices tend to produce marginalised identities. To be a cyclist puts you on the edge.

And we develop attachments to, and build cultures around, our marginalised identities. We own and cherish them. But at our forthcoming event in Leicester, Building Cycling Cultures, these identities become stakes in the struggle to push cycling into the heart of future sustainable cities.

How do we simultaneously preserve what’s important about our cycling identities, practices and cultures, which are to some extent currently marginal and discriminated against, at the same time as attempting to extend those identities, practices and cultures so they become less marginal, less discriminated against?

How in other words, do we negotiate the tension between a gain for cycling (becoming more mainstream) and a potential loss for ourselves and the identities, practices and cultures which we’ve over the past half-century developed, and developed in part as strategies to enable cycling to survive?

Must we sacrifice the cyclings we’ve built and which we love at the altar of a vision for mass cycling?

No doubt other sub-cultures have faced this dilemma – of how you democratise a desired practice without jeopardising the identities which have been co-produced alongside that practice, and which – like all identities – now form a crucial component of individual subjectivities; you can’t strip someone of an identity without doing violence to their self; you can’t challenge an identity without potentially destabilising the person’s (always to some degree precarious) sense of self.

This dilemma was evident during the research I conducted towards my PhD, over a decade ago now. There I explored the everyday lives of environmental activists, myself and Sue (my partner) included.

Through a range of ‘ordinary’ practices (shopping, cooking and eating habits, recycling, ‘work’/’leisure’ practices, transport …) environmental activists contribute to a radically transformed (relatively ‘local’, remarkably ‘low consumption’ and ‘green’) everyday life which could – when aggregated – help build a culture of sustainability. But the re-orienting work (away from ‘unsustainable’ practices of the dominant culture and towards an alternative range of sub-cultural and ‘sustainable’ practices) required to develop such a ‘green’ everyday life tends simultaneously to build cultural identities which are marginal, elite (at least from an ‘outside’ perspective, which tends also to view such cultural identities as ‘self-righteous’), and difficult to popularise.

It’s a terrible dilemma – you want other people to do something you do, but the road which you’ve made to get to there looks, to those who you want to follow you, full of obstacles.

We also develop attachments to our marginal identities, and the urge to democratise those identities must struggle with an opposite urge, to preserve their exclusiveness. This tension, between the urge to proselytize your privileged practice on the one hand, and to preserve its exclusiveness on the other, exists in cycling today. As people who love cycling we’re initiates, part of a small, select club. Together we produce distinctive cultures, and like all cultures these cycling cultures value particular ways of being, talking, doing and dressing more than others.

There’s nothing wrong in this. It’s what people always and inevitably do. But we should recognise that the knowledge, skills, competencies and tastes we’ve acquired through participation in cycling have been earned gradually, over time. And at the collective level our continuous investments in cycling have produced cultures which can then appear to ‘outsiders’ to be difficult to penetrate, or worse, ‘elite’.

All cultures and sub-cultures produce, distribute and value what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘cultural capital’. The various cycling cultures we have built all have their own distinctive forms of cultural capital. (Which partly explains why I wear a helmet when out with fellow ‘roadies’ but not when cycling in town, or cycle-touring anywhere; or why my cycling campaigner chums aren’t particularly interested in my 10 mile time trial times, whilst some of my fellow racers aren’t perhaps too bothered about the introduction of specific ‘cycle-friendly’ facilities in town, or the social and/or ecological impacts of some of their own cycling practices.)

Cultures and sub-cultures tend to develop strategies for dealing dismissively with those trying to take short-cuts to accrue the kinds of capital on which they trade. The ‘nouveau riche’ provoke disdain amongst those who consider themselves ‘properly monied’ and more ‘culturally sophisticated’. Similar strategies go on in cycling, and I leave you to think of examples based on your own experiences. My point is that, if we want to democratise our practice rather than build barriers to it, we’d do well to reflect critically on our own attitudes and practices here. Because if cultures (and particularly sub-cultures) inevitably create boundaries to ‘outsiders’ during the continuous process of their production and re-production, they can also develop strategies to facilitate and enable others – ‘outsiders’ – to become involved. And if we want to popularise cycling, this is something we must do.

Now I think both cycling in general and individual cyclists in particular already do this very well. We do try to encourage and embrace outsiders. (Though one potential danger is that we leave it for paid cycling professionals to encourage and embrace ‘hard to reach’ ‘outsiders’ whose involvement in cycling over the medium to longer term may prove less durable than the people who we ‘ordinary’ cyclists can influence, encourage and enthuse as a small but significant contribution to cycling as part of our own everyday lives …)

Should you have read this far you might (quite fairly) think I’m being overly earnest about all this. I’d respond by asking you to take a look outside.

If where you live and work is anything like where I do, you’ll see many cars – both parked and moving – but few, if any, bicycles.

How great is our task depends on how seriously we take the need to turn this situation around. Or, to use the terms I’ve been using thus far, the extent to which we’d like to make the dominant mobility (the car) sub-cultural, and the sub-cultural mobility (the bicycle) dominant.

If you’re anything like me, the drive (?!) to promote cycling is almost an instinct, by which I mean something which feels right to do and which happens almost automatically, of its own volition. I rarely if ever stop to think why I want more cycling. After all, couldn’t it equally be the case that – much like driving – by democratising it you simultaneously start to erode some of the benefits it currently provides?

So what’s behind the impulse to popularise cycling? What happens if we seek to prise open, in order to examine and explain, this democratising instinct?

  • It might be because we believe the consequences of anthropogenic climate change to be catastrophic;
  • Or because we believe oil to be running out;
  • Or perhaps we find the dominance of our streets, neighbourhoods, towns and cities by dangerous metal objects quite irrational and/or unbearable;
  • Or we might refuse to implicitly condone the generally taken-for-granted and so submerged (from the popular conscience) damage and destruction which motorised vehicles wreak.

Whatever our reasons for seeking change, as people who (I’m assuming) cycle and love cycling, we have an additional and important vantage point – we have direct personal experience of a vehicle that is an obvious but more perfect substitute to the car. We know the bicycle can replace the car, because much of our own everyday lives demonstrates that fact.

If there’s an urgency to getting people out of cars and onto bikes, to effect a necessary and dramatic change in the world, then a set of questions potentially emerges:

  1. What’s our specific role, as people who love cycling?
  2. Do we have a privileged position, in effecting change?
  3. What do our experiences as cyclists tell us needs to change?
  4. In effecting change what’s the significance and value, if any, of our skills, competencies, knowledge, enthusiasms, energies, convictions, imaginations and visions?

These are some of the questions we might think about as we attempt to move cycling from a minor to a major mode of mobility. They’re questions which have to do with not just practice, identity and culture, but also with politics, social change and transformation.

Cycling is cultural, and there’s a cultural politics of cycling. I think it’s worth sketching the contours of this cultural politics of cycling because, if we know the terrain better, it might help us articulate a more powerful and persuasive politics of cycling.

So the questions above are the sort which I hope we’ll explore at Building Cycling Cultures next weekend in Leicester. They’re certainly questions which I think are important to think about as we – and by ‘we’ I mean mainly those of us already passionate about and in various ways involved – continue and develop a project of building out from a range of vibrant but still small cycling sub-cultures towards an equally vibrant but qualitatively different and really massive cycling culture.

A cultural politics of cycling, 1

May 20, 2011

Over the next week or so, and ahead of the Building Cycling Cultures event I’m helping organise in Leicester next month, I’m assembling a few still sketchy thoughts with the hope of developing a cultural politics of cycling. Here’s the first part, with at least one more to follow …

There’s a real tension in the concept of building cycling culture/s. I think that such a tension is good, because it can be productive, but only if we work with and on  it ….

Britain undoubtedly has a myriad of variously well established cycling cultures, from the recent (re)turn to fixed-gear urban riding, to club-oriented cycle-tourists, to competitive cycle sport, to cycle campaigners, to BMX …. you get the picture.

I’m not especially well embedded in any, but I flirt with and love them all. I also think we should celebrate such cycling cultures – after all, they have, perhaps more than anything else, kept the idea of cycling in Britain alive across the past half century which has otherwise been steadfastly and furiously committed to stifling the desire to cycle, and extinguishing cycling’s existence completely.

It’s as if from sometime during the 1950s, cycling was forced underground, and what was once a cultural practice became a range of sub-cultural practices. (There remains a rich language waiting to be unearthed here, both in order to explore and understand cycling’s descent into the abyss and in order to build a cultural politics of cycling which can help bring it back again – I’m mining one set of metaphors, but others have to do with edges and margins, still others with conquest and colony, or with oppression, discrimination and resistance …)

But now, just perhaps, there are signs of the aggressive and increasingly institutionalised repression of cycling finally lifting. Cycling is coming up for air. And we lovers of cycling can look around, not just over our shoulders but also ahead. For the first time in almost a century we can broaden our gaze, we can look beyond the horizon in the knowledge we’ll be pedalling all the way. We can simultaneously sigh with relief and dig in, thinking about the way forward for cycling now that it’s no longer quite so clearly something to be simply trashed.

So whilst we still might whisper it, one day soon I hope it’ll feel safe to declare – loudly and to anyone at anytime and anywhere – oneself to be a cyclist. We have survived the storm and although another one (climate change) is coming we can pedal towards it safe in the knowledge that at least our vehicle is right.

Given cycling’s potential resuscitation it seems obvious that we should now work hard to promote these existing cycling cultures, to make them bigger than they already are. So that more and more people discover the pleasures of commuter cycling, or cycle-touring, or cycle-racing, or BMX, or mountain biking …. This is what those of us who love cycling, myself of course included, tend to do. And I think we’re right to do so.

But although I perhaps would like to, I can’t deny a dilemma here. I guess at heart I’m not just a lover of cycling, but also a sociologist committed to what I see as ‘the public good’. So there’s a set of questions which trouble me, and which I feel ought to be asked:

1. Do existing and often remarkably resilient cycling cultures represent the seeds from which mass cycling will grow?

Can we harness the undoubted enthusiasms, energies, commitments and imaginations of people who are currently if in different ways passionate about cycling, in order to broaden cycling’s cultural appeal, and transform it back from a range of sub-cultures to an important and normal part of the dominant culture? And if so, how do we do so?

2. Or instead, are existing cycling cultures obstacles, in the way and to be left behind as we attempt to push cycling into a new golden age?

This attitude appears to be on the rise. It’s certainly apparent amongst many champions of ‘ordinary’, ‘everyday’ cycling who tend to see strong cycling sub-cultures as an impediment to cycling becoming regarded as ‘normal’, a practice which just anyone can do. I’m suspicious of this antagonism towards certain sorts of cycling/cyclists amongst people who profess to like cycling. I also resent it. We’re now in the position to resuscitate cycling only because it has been kept alive and meaningful for many groups of people in many different ways. Why on earth should those of us who love cycling, who have cycled all our lives, and who might sometimes wear lycra or like to ride fast, or do things which most people would consider difficult if not impossible, why should we be sacrificial lambs to the slaughter at the altar of mass cycling? The suggestion that wearing lycra is bad for cycling is preposterous and I think belies a disturbing way of thinking.

However, this defence of cycling cultures shouldn’t stop us from asking important questions. Does, for example, the current dominance of cycling by people who are clearly fit and committed somehow prevent it from being embraced by those who are neither? And if so how, and what might we do about it? What strategies might be adopted in seeking to transform the sub-cultural into the mainstream?

3. Finally, is there a synthesis? Can the old cycling sub-cultures and the new culture of mass cycling co-exist and co-evolve, each feeding the other?

This is obviously the ideal outcome, so I desperately want the answer to be ‘yes’. And what I have said up until now I hope suggests that, with appropriate thought and strategising, the answer can be ‘yes’. Existing cycling cultures can inform and boost attempts to build a broader, more inclusive, mass culture of cycling in Britain.

An important test here might be whether we can detect democratising impulses within the sensibilities and practices of actually-existing cycling sub-cultures. So can we? I think we can. I see this democratising impulse every Thursday evening, when with my family I ride out to Salt Ayre cycle track, half way between Lancaster and Morecambe. Lancaster Cycling Club has come together with the local children’s cycling club, Salt Ayre Cog Set, to put on time trials which cater for everyone. My daughter Flo is 7 and rides a 2 mile time trial. My son Bobby is 9 and rides 6 miles, whilst my partner Sue and I ride the 10 mile version. Both clubs are extending themselves, in a bid to make cycling more accessible to all.

Another example is provided by the bike co-ops emerging across Britain. To give just one example, Oxford Cycle Workshop is committed to enabling more people to take up cycling. Through recycling bikes, providing people with the skills they need to maintain and build bikes, and through nurturing an inclusive space which welcomes everyone, Oxford Cycle Workshop and similar enterprises are committed to building a mass cycling culture. Such enterprises form an essential part of the bike system which we’re now developing as a replacement to the increasingly defunct car system.

And the same democratic, inclusive impulse is at work in the Building Cycling Cultures event. We want to recognise and celebrate what we already have, whilst working together to get more. Inevitably, as gains are made in terms of bums on saddles, some losses will also be incurred – some of what we currently hold dear might have to go. Some of what makes cycling special will for all of us have to change. (How many times, as I pedal peacefully along an empty cycle track through a special place, have I questioned why I spend my life working to get many more people riding alongside me through such personally precious places?)

But for me anyway, this is one of the main things which our forthcoming Leicester event is about. By bringing together a broad range of people with different involvements in cycling, we can discuss and develop strategies for how best to push cycling towards the next level – everyday, popular, mass cycling.

Building Cycling Culture/s – programme

April 15, 2011

How big can cycling get, and how do we get there? How might the size of cycling affect what cycling looks like?

As we work to make cycling bigger and better than it currently is, Building Cycling Culture/s aims to

  • celebrate cycling
  • explain and explore findings from two big recent research projects into cycling
  • invite reflection and discussion about how big cycling in Britain can get, what that cycling might look like, and how we can best get from here to there

On Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th June, Building Cycling Culture/s takes over Leicester’s Phoenix Square Media Centre for talk, debate, film, artwork, bike rides, children’s activities, networking and ideas for change.  The venue has all facilities including café, bar, and loads of meeting space

Whether you come for the day or choose to make a weekend of it, please join the urgent business of building cycling culture/s …

Pre-conference events

Saturday 4th June, 5pm ‘til late: Launch Event and Party

Join us for an evening of events, including relaxed discussion regarding progress towards building cycling culture/s on both sides of the Atlantic

  • In conversation – with special guests Jon Orcutt (New York Department of Transportation) and Karen Overton (Recycle-a-bicycle, New York)
  • Along with bike films, live music, bike photography exhibition & community media hub

Sunday 5th June, 9am to 12noon: Breakfast & Bike Rides

Including – Bike Recycling Projects Tour, Cycle-friendly Pedestrian Zone, Western Park MTB Trails & Connect2 Watermead Park Project

Conference schedule

Sunday 5th June

12noon to 12.30pm: Registration & buffet lunch

12.30pm to 1.30pm: Welcome & keynote speeches

  • Andy Salkeld (Leicester City Council)
  • Kevin Mayne (Chief Executive, CTC)
  • Dr Rachel Aldred (UniversityofEast London): Key findings from the Cycling Cultures project
  • Dr Dave Horton (Lancaster University): Key findings from the Understanding Walking & Cycling project
  • Jon Orcutt (New York Department of Transportation): Building Cycling Culture/s – Tales from New York

1.30pm to 2:15pm: Break for browsing and talking

  • A chance to look around stalls including: Bicycology, Bike It, Cyclemagic, Bikes 4 All, Future Cycles, Leicester Cycle Challenge, Bike Film Festival, and others to be confirmed (among them Bikeability, Cycle-Derby’s Scootability Project, Leicester Critical Mass, Beech Holme Tandem Club (Hull), Cambridge Cycling Campaign (Cambridge), and Bristol Bike Project)
  • A chance to participate in events taking place in and around the Phoenix: bike try-outs and much more …

2.15pm to 3.15pm: Workshops round 1

3.30pm to 4.30pm: Workshop round 2

Choose 2 from the following workshops:

A – ‘Recycling Communities’

Karen Overton (Recycle-a-bicycle – Bikes, Art & Social Enterprise): From bike recycling to bike art, sustainable environmental education, training and jobs

B – ‘Inclusive Cycling’

Elizabeth Barner (CTC Cycling Champions Project) & STA Bikes Hackney (tbc): How cycling cultures might address issues of inequality and exclusion

C – ‘Re-cycling Peak Car Cities’

Iain Jaques (Photofinale & Leicester Architecture Festival ): Re-imaging cities and neighbourhoods for walking, cycling and sustainable transport

D – ‘Cycling Networks & New Media’

Ian Nutt and Rob Martin (Leicester Forest Cycling Club & Critical Mass) & Cambridge Cycling Campaign (tbc): Using social media to build social cycling networks

E – ‘Building Cycling Culture/s – where do we put the car?’

Bicycology: Exploring the difficulties of tackling car culture head on

F – ‘Cycling Cultures’

Dr Rachel Aldred and Dr Kat Jungnickel (University of East London): Discussing and debating the project’s key findings

G – ‘Understanding Cycling’

Dr Dave Horton and Dr Griet Scheldeman (Lancaster University): What needs to change to get Britain on its bike? Discussing and debating the project’s key findings

H – ‘Bike Hire Schemes’

Jon Orcutt (New York Department of Transport): The future for ‘bike sharing as public transport’ in New York and elsewhere

4.30pm to 5:30pm: Question Time

5:30: Conference close

Practicalities

Phoenix Square is fully accessible for all abilities, see  http://phoenix.org.uk/

Children welcome; a crèche is available

The cost is £10, including food. Prior registration is essential. To do so, please visit: www.buildingcyclingcultures.org.uk/

This event is being generously supported by CTC, Leicester City Council, Citizens’ Eye, the University of East London and Lancaster University

Building cycling culture/s – registration now open

March 2, 2011

Progress continues towards what I hope will be one of this year’s most exciting events for those of us concerned with making cycling an ordinary means of moving around, Building Cycling Culture/s. I’ve blogged about the event already; here I want to mention a couple of developments, and point anyone interested in registering for the event in the right direction – here.

There are many diverse energies contributing to the event, and I hope that will be one of its strengths. I assume like Rachel from the Cycling Cultures project, I want to talk about my current research, and particularly to discuss its main findings, and what those findings tell us about the task of building a broad and inclusive British cycling culture. But I also want the event to be a coming together of the many different constituencies with an interest in building such a cycling culture, and a joyous celebration of our shared love for cycling. I’d love for activists, academics, campaigners, students, policy-makers, local authority practitioners, cycling enthusiasts and anyone else to feel that there’s something for them, and to add their energies, convictions, insights and voices to the mix.

As locals to Leicester, Andy and John are especially committed to making the event appeal to individuals and groups from across the city. We hope that by holding it on a weekend, and putting on a range of activities, we’ll make it accessible to anyone who’d like to come along. I guess we’re all, albeit in slightly different ways, committed to Building Cycling Culture/s embodying our visions of the cycling culture/s we’re trying to build – in my case that’s big and broad, welcoming and inclusive, vibrant and tolerant, and loads of fun.

The event’s going to have much more than local appeal – Andy has managed to get two brilliant speakers from across the Atlantic. Jon Orcutt is the Director of Policy for New York City Department of Transportation, and so at the centre of exciting recent transport developments in the city. Karen Overton is the Director of Recycle-a-Bicycle, New York’s bike re-cycling project. Both will I’m sure have interesting and inspiring takes on the task of building cycling culture/s on both sides of the Atlantic.

There’ll be workshops, stalls, activities, rides – lots of stuff, something for everyone. And the venue is just great. Phoenix Square is big and bright, new and classy, and in the city’s centre. There are large spaces for the main talks, and lots of smaller spaces for workshops. There’s a cafe and bar – the food I’ve had there is delicious. I’m back there on Monday, for lunch and our next planning meeting. With just three months to go to the event itself, it’s probably about time we finalised the programme. Look out for details soon.

And if you’re thinking of coming, don’t forget to register. Although we’re aiming big, there’s a limit on numbers, and it’s only a tenner, food included.


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