Posts Tagged ‘fear of cycling’

Fear of Cycling: a summary

June 26, 2013

After presenting on ‘Fear of Cycling’ to the Velo-city Vienna conference recently, I was asked to summarise my talk for the post-conference magazine. It’s lost some nuance and complexity but I’ve got the argument down to 1,000 words, and post it below for anyone interested. I do so because Velo-city reminded me how ‘live’ is the issue of helmets, particularly – helmets look set to become mandatory in Spain, and already are in Australia – where next year’s Velo-city takes place, in Adelaide; so it seems not everyone yet knows how huge an impediment to mass cycling is helmet promotion, let alone compulsion.

Helmet promotion

Introduction

Cycling is so good, yet many people still don’t cycle. Why? We must start by recognising how cycling conditions remain so generally poor; to do otherwise is naïve. Most people simply don’t want to, and won’t, cycle along roads dominated by fast, motorised traffic; the thought of riding amongst or close to big, heavy vehicles is one they find very scary. Nobody wants to get hurt and, rightly or wrongly, people feel getting hurt is more likely if they move by bike.

For anyone who wants to see more cycling, the instinct here is to try to persuade people that cycling is actually, really safe. We might explain how cycling is:

  • objectively safe – the chances of a crash when cycling are very slim;
  • relatively safe – for example, there is more chance of being injured when cooking than when cycling;
  • much safer than not cycling – the health benefits of cycling, it’s said, outweigh the risks by 20:1.

Better still, we might try not only to encourage people to ride despite their fears, but meanwhile also push for substantial – radical – improvements to current conditions for cycling. But the question remains: why is cycling – something which perhaps gives us pleasure and benefit – in the minds of other people so worrying? Yes, people might overstate cycling’s risks. Yes, more must be done to make cycling (feel) safer. But might there also be cultural and political processes at work which make cycling seem dangerous, more dangerous than it is, and which produce fear of cycling? And if this was the case, and we identified those processes, couldn’t, shouldn’t we intervene, to stop them?

Emotions can be, and are, constructed. Cycling is not inherently dangerous and a fear of cycling is not inevitable. We need only look to the Netherlands to see that – cycling there is so normal that people barely even think about it. But across most of the world cycling is more problematic, with many people reluctant to cycle because they think it’s dangerous.

How is fear of cycling produced?

So let’s examine how fear of cycling is produced. There are three clear ways in which cycling is made to seem more dangerous than it is. Ironically they all purport to be responding to cycling’s danger and to be making cycling safer, but instead they produce cycling as a dangerous practice, and thus contribute to fear of cycling; they do, in other words, the opposite of what they intend.

1. Road safety education

Road safety education teaches everyone, but particularly children, that moving around is risky, roads are dangerous, and they ought to be very careful, especially when walking and cycling. You know the kind of thing – leaflets telling children to keep out the way of cars. Such ‘information’ reinforces driving as the normal means of moving around, and makes cycling seem difficult, awkward and dangerous; it usually puts responsibility for safety squarely on the (child) cyclist’s shoulders – it’s up to you to devise a quiet route (however long), to wear hi-viz clothes and (of course!) a helmet. Road safety education doesn’t make places safer; it makes driving more normal and cycling more dangerous; and it seems often deliberately designed to instil fear of cycling.

2. Helmet promotion

In a context marked by widespread fear of cycling, promoting helmets – or even making them mandatory – can seem like an easy, obvious, quick and sensible thing to do. Which is why it’s done. But this is no way to promote cycling, because promoting helmets depends on associating cycling with danger, and will therefore inevitably increase fear of cycling. Like road safety education, helmet promotion puts responsibility onto the wrong people; and instead of making streets safer, makes cycling more dangerous. To promote helmets is to promote car use and to repress cycling.

3. New (safe) spaces for cycling

If fear stops most people riding, an obvious solution is to change cycling’s place. And in the short to medium term this might be a necessary step to overcoming fear of cycling, getting more people riding, and building a mass culture of cycling. But can you see how the logic here remains similar to the previous two examples? We try to make cycling safer without tackling the root problem, the danger imposed by fast motorised traffic. And with similar results – the impulse to take cycling off the road inevitably increases people’s fear of cycling on the road, and also makes those who remain cycling on the road a bit more ‘strange’.

So all three attempts to make cycling safer actually make cycling (seem) more dangerous, and produce a fear of cycling whilst failing to change how most people, most of the time, move around (which across most of the world, is increasingly by car). And so cycling remains in the minority, and the cyclist remains strange.

Conclusion

But we’re trying to promote cycling aren’t we? Yes, apparently, and we shouldn’t be surprised if there’s discomfort about (even resentment and resistance towards) the push for cycling – because by inviting people to cycle we’re asking them to become different. However, cycling would be more successfully promoted if we stopped making it seem dangerous and difficult, and worked instead to make it the simplest, easiest thing in the world. The sooner we make cycling normal, the sooner people will stop feeling cycling is a strange thing to do.

So finally then, how do we combat fear of cycling and make cycling normal?

  • From the bottom-up – by grassroots empowerment, communicating cycling’s benefits, and helping people insert cycling more effectively into their lives. The more people cycle, the safer cycling becomes;
  • From the top-down – by explaining to our governing institutions how cycling remains much too difficult and dangerous, and requires radical political re-prioritisation. The more cycling is prioritised, the safer cycling becomes;
  • From everywhere – by shifting away from the misguided attempts to make cycling safer discussed here (with the caveat that high-quality dedicated cycling infrastructure is often now a necessary step to mainstreaming cycling), and concentrating instead on making motorised traffic less dangerous – by for example increasing restraints on driving, slowing speeds, and enforcing careful driving. The more we recognise the real danger to be driving, the safer cycling becomes.

Fear of cycling can be otherwise, but we must work to make it so.

Velo-city Vienna

June 19, 2013

Velo-city at Vienna City Hall

Last week I was in Vienna for Velo-city, the world’s biggest bicycle conference. I’d been asked to present my analysis of fear of cycling, which tries to explain how cycling is made dangerous by attempts to make it safe. (I think some people then want me to say (and some assume I do say) that cycling is not dangerous, which I refuse to do; one point of the paper is to crack rather than reinforce naïve understandings of cycling.) You can see photos of the plenary session I was part of here.

Helmets are a chief culprit in rendering cycling dangerous by attempting to make it safe. Helmet promotion tends inevitably to play on, to reproduce and to magnify an already extant fear of cycling. The helmet debate is unfortunately live in many countries. In Vienna I met Pablo León, a journalist of El Pais, who authors that newspaper’s bicycle blog, ‘I Love Bicis’, and Isabel Ramis who blogs about cycling in Madrid; they are currently battling mandatory national helmet laws. I also met Sue Abbott, a brave and impressive woman who maintains steadfast civil disobedience in the face of Australia’s mandatory helmet laws. Adelaide hosts next year’s Velo-city conference, and it’ll be interesting to see how the city deals with the arrival of hordes of cycling advocates, many of whom rightly see mandatory helmet use as totally anathema to cycling’s promotion.

This doesn’t mean I think cycling is entirely safe (I don’t), only that promoting helmets is no way of dealing with cycling’s lack of safety. It also doesn’t mean I refuse to wear a helmet – flying downhill into Lancaster at over 40 miles per hour earlier today, I wanted my helmet on; but pedalling more gently round town later, I don’t.

Cycling in Vienna

Vienna contraflow

Central city cycle circle

Between hearing the latest cycling stories from across the globe inside Vienna’s opulent City Hall, I explored the city outside by bike. Around 6 or 7% of trips in Vienna are made by bike, but 2013 is the Austrian capital’s ‘Year of Cycling’, and the aim is to reach 10% by 2015. These current and target modal shares for cycling reflect the city’s cycling environment, which feels better than Britain but still a long way from the Netherlands.

The showpiece of the city’s cycling infrastructure is the Ringstrasse, a dedicated loop for two-way cycling around the city centre– basically an inner ring-road for cycling. Ten years from now it could (and should) mark the perimeter of a virtually car-free central core. Inserting this cycling loop has clearly entailed reallocation of space away from the car and some re-prioritisation of traffic flow in cycling’s favour; it’s far from perfect but substantially better than anything in Britain.

But although there are many good bits of cycling infrastructure, elsewhere Vienna feels like a city which has been badly damaged by the car, and that damage goes on. And the impression you get, riding around, is that cycling is being squeezed in. Instead of using cycling to start fundamentally restructuring the city away from the car, cycling continues to be seen – and added – as an extra.

Some positive change is happening, but a paradigm shift it ain’t (yet).

Vienna bike lane

Cycling in traffic, Vienna

Skinny wiggly Vienna bike lane

Vienna cyclist

Vienna’s current efforts to boost utility cycling are rooted in a solid recreational cycling base. One afternoon I rode in glorious sunshine along the cycle routes which parallel both the River Danube and the Danube Canal which leads from the central city to it. It helped me appreciate how much quality infrastructure for leisure cycling the city has. It felt like most of Vienna was out on its bike, enjoying the weather along what’s effectively a long and attractive city park. And these riverside routes are well integrated into the city’s wider (and higher) cycling network via some nifty cycling ramps.

By the River Danube

But the best vision of mass cycling came on the traditional Velo-city ride. The conference brings together a mix of people who probably disagree about many things even when it comes to cycling; politicians, administrators, consultants, representatives of the cycling industries, advocates, activists, researchers and students arrive from across the world – from places where cycling is normal to places where it’s almost extinct (it felt impossible to speak equally to everyone during my presentation; I suspect many Dutch participants, particularly, wondered what on earth I was talking about!). The host city also uses the conference to boost its cycling reputation and to promote cycling to its citizens. The big Velo-city ride, then, enables a brief but powerful demonstration of unity amongst conference delegates, and enables the city visibly to announce its support and ambition for cycling. Velo-city is worth it for this momentary but delicious vision of mass cycling alone.

Mass bike ride, Vienna

Mainroading Cycling

March 21, 2013

Below is a sequence of photos I took yesterday as I rode three miles south from Lancaster city centre along the A6 to Lancaster University. The journey took about ten minutes. I know they’re boring, but please indulge me. We need to discuss the future of cycling on main roads, yet such discussions – much like cycling on main roads itself – remain repressed. Cycling is still expected to take the long route, via back roads. This must change. It’s time to mainroad cycling.


The cycle lane ends

A6 southbound

What's going on here?

Is this good enough?

Worn away by cars

Enough space?

A good place to ride?

Plenty of space for who?

Adequate provision?

Pulling out?

Clear road

Leaving the city

Speeding up

Fast road

Still with me?

The joys of the open road?

Almost there

How much road do you want?

Lancaster University

Let’s look at this specific case, the A6 between Lancaster city centre and Lancaster University.

It’s a stretch I know well. It’s a key route linking two of the district’s biggest ‘trip attractors’. In the city centre are shops, businesses and key services, including the Royal Lancaster Infirmary and many schools. Lancaster University has over 12,000 students and 2,500 staff; it’s supposedly committed to reducing car use to its campus but for the 17 years my life has been connected to this institution it has struggled in half-hearted ways to encourage cycling.

For the first two miles of the three mile route, the A6 runs through residential areas – there are three shopping parades, several pubs, a primary school and a supermarket. Beyond them the speed limit increases from 30 to 40 mph. The road is straight and climbs gently over the first mile before flattening out until the University’s driveway.

As a cycling corridor the A6 has been generally ignored. Much more effort has gone into creating alternatives to it than in improving cycling conditions along it. Although it’s the most obvious route to make cycle-friendly, it’s not been seen that way (for reasons you might know, but which I’ll not explore here).

Dynamo, the local cycle campaign, recently decided to challenge this institutional indifference to cycling on the A6, and specifically to push for high-quality, continuous, dedicated cycling infrastructure along the entire stretch I rode yesterday. As cycling’s relevance becomes more widely understood and its profile rises, it’s time to mainroad – and so mainstream – cycling here.

Dynamo anticipated key individuals to be intransigent and require persuading, but not the County Council’s former Senior Cycling Officer and current Sustainable Travel Officer; he believes dedicated space for cycling along the A6 is impossible, because of lack of space (i.e. width) along some sections, and because residents would oppose the removal of on-road car parking along others. In other words consideration of improving conditions for cycling along the A6 is in danger of falling at the first hurdle due to a dismal (especially coming from the County Council’s Sustainable Travel office) failure of imagination (that the road can look otherwise) and will (that priorities can be changed).

The road clearly has room for dedicated cycling space along this entire stretch; and it’s equally obvious that cycling should trump residents’ car parking – what’s more important, a few parked cars or many moving bikes? So I find both excuses pathetic, and infuriating. I’m sure there are nooks and crannies in government offices everywhere similarly stubbornly resisting an enlightened approach to everyday travel, so I can’t be the only one who gets angry about this sort of thing, can I?

So, what’s it like to cycle these three miles?

For me as a fit and assertive cyclist, it’s OK. I’m used to the strange sensation of a stream of speeding traffic sweeping past my shoulder; and I’m generally trusting in other people’s good intentions and capabilities not to run me down. As we know, however (and this is probably a good thing!), I’m in a minority. And I’m not so daft that I can’t imagine, as I ride, what the experience would be like for others  less like me.

The cars, buses and trucks come thick, fast and often close. You are moving through an environment utterly dominated by motorised modes, with no protection whatsoever. The driver has a metal shell, the pedestrian has the pavement, but the cyclist is exposed and vulnerable. People don’t know this so much as feel it, if only vicariously. Of course they’re not going to cycle here.

Short stretches of red painted tarmac come and quickly go, but it’s not really clear what they’re for; certainly they offer no protection. They’re also very narrow, far too close to the kerb, and usually full of debris. Cyclists are given the option of coming off the road to negotiate a big roundabout just south of the city centre, which wrongly presupposes people would be happy riding on the road to begin with. The changes which have been made on the A6 have nothing to do with building a mass culture of ordinary cycling; they’re about providing enough to keep us quiet (even though these changes are often useless and/or dangerous).

With the hindsight afforded by the Understanding Walking and Cycling research, I was extremely naïve to once believe ordinary cycling might ever grow under such conditions. It’s an insanely hostile environment to cycling. That naivety was of course a (sub)cultural attribute and many cycling advocates have similarly swallowed and become deluded by their own rhetoric.

So people won’t cycle here. But we want people to cycle here. It is on the most direct, flattest routes, with the most services, that they’re most likely to cycle.

So what are we to do?

For this stretch of road, my own proposal is as radical as it is obvious and sensible. It entails twin changes. First, reduce the speed limit to 20 mph. This will civilise the road, returning it from cars to people, and ensuring it’s a fitting gateway to a fine city. Most important slower speeds enable motorised modes to be squeezed closer together; cycling has been squeezed long enough and it’s re-prioritisation time. This will facilitate the second change, of inserting a high-quality, continuous, dedicated cycling route. Because even with motorised modes limited to 20 mph most people won’t want to mix with the volume of traffic that’s likely to remain for the foreseeable future on this road. Also, unless cycling is allocated clear space of its own it’ll continue to be pushed around by transport’s heavyweights.

How do we get these changes?

By believing in them, sharing them, and arguing for them. The fulfilment of cycling’s potential to change our world depends on it.

 

Who should be squeezed?

Parked cars or moving bikes?

Cycling struggles, 4

November 8, 2012

Why don’t people cycle?

The last three posts showed how three different people cycle despite atrocious cycling conditions; this one shows how one person has decided not to cycle because of those conditions. Of course she’s not alone – indeed, this story was the one most frequently heard during the three years I spent understanding cycling.

It was a privilege to hear Holly’s story, and others like it; to listen to someone thoughtfully articulating their concerns about cycling. We need more people – and especially, of course, those with most power to implement change, to listen to stories such as these, and to hear the reasons why people don’t cycle, and what it will take to get them cycling.

4. Holly’s cycling story

For her everyday journeys, Holly either drives or walks. In recent years, partly out of environmental concerns, partly to stay fit and healthy, she has transferred more of her shorter trips from car to foot. She now walks almost all journeys of less than two miles. Utility walking makes sense for Holly. It provides training for the recreational walking she loves to do. A medical practitioner, she is also aware of the importance of walking to mental and physical health. And she knows how much money she’s saving, particularly in car parking costs.

But it could make more sense for Holly to cycle. As she says, “obviously in terms of time it would make sense to cycle the journeys that I do on foot.” And saving time is clearly important to her; she leads a busy life – juggling work, study, and an active social life.

And of course, not only could she save time by cycling some of her longer walking trips; its greater range means that cycling could replace more of her car trips – increasing her fitness, saving more money, and further reducing her environmental impact.

She can cycle.

I did my cycling proficiency at primary school, and I took a bike with me when I first went to University.”

But she is scared to cycle.

“I’m a complete coward when it comes to cycling on roads.”

She elaborates on her ‘cowardice’ (a word commonly used by people explaining their reasons for not cycling):

“Everybody I know who does a considerable amount of cycling at some point has been knocked off and hurt themselves in some way.

“As a driver, cyclists on the road just seem so vulnerable that I just don’t want to join them.”

Holly appreciates there are some off-road routes she could use for some of her ordinary journeys, but “even so you can’t avoid cycling on the road at some point, and if not cycling on the road then cycling on pavements which isn’t legal and does expose pedestrians to risk, which I can’t justify. So it’s just not something that I’d consider.”

Holly recognises there are more barriers to her cycling than fear of motorised traffic. She goes on:

“There are other factors as well, like what do you do with the bike when you get to wherever you’re going. If you can rely on somewhere safe to put it, then all well and good, but if you can’t then it’s something else you have to factor.

“You’ve got your cycle helmet, possibly reflective gear, which you’d have to then carry about with you. Or leave them with the bike, but for security reasons you wouldn’t do that either.”

But listen to what she says immediately after this:

“My ideal would be if it were possible, transport wise, for cycle paths to be absolutely physically removed from roads as in a proper kerb separating cyclists from traffic so that cyclists didn’t have to use the pavement but weren’t sharing the road with cars. Then cycling would definitely be an option and I’d find ways around the other inconveniences of cycling. But as it is, with cyclists having to mix with traffic, it just seems crazy.”

Some people might say that Holly is like many people, generally fearful. Indeed, I have in the past suggested that fear of cycling is just one manifestation of a broader, fearful culture. But Holly isn’t generally timid. She walks regularly and widely, including alone after dark along routes away from roads. When I ask directly if her walking is circumscribed, she responds: “I don’t really think about personal safety very much.”

Holly is fit, active, healthy, and environmentally concerned. She’s not afraid to walk. But she is afraid to cycle. Yet it’s clear to me that if conditions were different, she’d probably do so. And of course, she’s not alone. In fact, she’s in the majority, a big one.

Let’s look more closely at Holly’s idea of appropriate cycling infrastructure.

The current idea of cycling infrastructure, she tells me, “is to paint cycle paths on the road. But that’s just not going to do it, because there’s no physical barrier between the cyclists and the traffic.”

I mention some local examples of off-road infrastructure. “That’s ideal. That’s fine. That’s really good. If that could be extended it would be brilliant.

“But you still have to get there. At the moment it’s just not joined up. So it doesn’t work. It doesn’t help.”

This is something I heard time and again, across all four cities.

That’s the key message here – the big majority of people won’t cycle in an environment dominated by motorised traffic.

But there’s another issue my conversation with Holly brings up, which although it seems tangential is actually connected and worth mentioning. Although she’s uncomfortable telling me so, Holly has issues with the presence of cyclists on rural roads.

“It’s terrible, but in one respect, I actually feel that it’s not right that cyclists are on those roads.

 “But at the same time they’ve got just as much right to use those roads as car drivers.

“It doesn’t feel right in terms of my philosophy, about what’s right in terms of the environment and personal health and fitness, but just because of how dangerous [cycling on rural roads] is, I feel uncomfortable about it.

The presence of cyclists on rural roads upsets her, as a motorist.

“It’s country roads in general. It just, it makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like it. It’s not good.”

If you do much rural road riding you’ll probably have come across people who are incredulous that you do so. And you’ll almost certainly have come across drivers who treat you as if you don’t belong there, and have no right to be there. Holly’s perspective is a benevolent rather than malevolent form of this attitude, and I think it’s widespread.

I think her discomfort about the presence of cyclists on rural roads is connected to her discomfort about the idea of herself cycling on urban roads, and that both are based on a sense that cyclists are anomalous, because bicycles and cars don’t mix, and as cars so dominate road space, cyclists have no place – no obvious place, no safe place, anywhereexcept when they’re separated from those vehicles which can (and of course do) kill them.

Of course, we can say that cycling’s place is everywhere – I do say that, I do think that, and (unless I’m with my children) I do act that way. But the big majority of people simply don’t agree. We can say cycling’s place is everywhere until we’re blue in the face, but it won’t build a culture of mass cycling. We cyclists will continue to have the good bits of cycling infrastructure more or less to ourselves, and we’ll continue to survive/thrive in the hostile conditions which prevail in its more general absence. And Holly won’t cycle.

The solutions are as simple and radical as they are obvious. We must undermine motorists’ current monopolisation of road space. We must fundamentally challenge motorists’ sense of entitlement to that space. We must pursue a radical programme of civilising motorised traffic. And if/where we’re not as a society prepared to do those things, we must build separate space for cycling.

Cycling struggles, 3

October 26, 2012

This is the third case study in the ‘cycling struggles’ series. It pedals slightly different ground to the previous two – raising issues around identity; but it again shows the consequences at the individual level of ignoring cycling at the societal level; and it again demonstrates– in a striking way – the lengths people go to make cycling an ‘ordinary’ (for which, read ‘extraordinary’) part of their lives.

I’m heading off on holiday for a week, and will be off-line. Please comment, and it’d be great if you talked amongst yourselves! But that’s why I’ll not respond immediately.

3. Fabian’s cycling story

It’s really quite busy. It feels like a lot of motorists aren’t going to give you the benefit of the doubt on a night like tonight. This is the kind of road environment where I don’t really trust cars at all, and you have to be watching out all the time.

(Fieldnotes, audio-recorded whilst cycling into the city centre along an A road behind Fabian)

I know this description reflects the reality of urban commuting for many. But it’s remarkable given the cycling journey of the person I’m riding with, Fabian.

Fabian was off his bike for three and a half years – “it’s only been since March this year that I’ve actually got back on my bike and since then I’ve cycled every day”. There’s a story behind Fabian’s lengthy cycling hiatus: “I was knocked off twice by car drivers, three months apart, but the same sort of incident. One of the drivers left the scene, left me there crumpled in the road.

On both occasions a car overtook Fabian and then tried turning left in front of him.

“The first [motorist] claimed he was indicating and the police said [to Fabian] ‘you’d put yourself in a dangerous position by being at that point in the road’. But since then there’s now a cycle track and a red blob [advanced stop line] at the traffic lights to actually [encourage you to] go on the inside there.

“The second [motorist] was on a really wide road and I had, it wasn’t yellow, but a bright blue cycle jacket on, and they just passed me and turned. There’s not an awful lot you can do as you’re going downhill, if someone’s not seen you.”

Initially, this second motorist claimed “they hadn’t seen me. They didn’t believe the accident happened”.

Then “it was my fault because I was cycling on the inside of them as they were trying to turn. So again, I’d [apparently] put myself in a dangerous position out of their visibility – when clearly they had to have passed me to get into a position to turn”.

This motorist was convicted, but appealed. “But she then withdrew the appeal at the eleventh hour, as myself and three witnesses were waiting to go and give evidence.”

How did Fabian get back cycling, after these incidents?

“Whether I actually felt like I could ever get back on a bike again was a major issue.

“Whether I could actually be near bikes was also an issue.

“So part of the stuff that came back from the second accident, when they caught the driver, was therapy – getting the idea of being back on a bike, and making it happen. Because it wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it, it was just the fact that it made me feel sick to get near a bike.

“So it was quite a few sessions of just going into a bike shop and saying ‘hello’ to the guys who were in there, and saying ‘right I’m just going to stand with the bikes again’, spend fifteen, twenty minutes in a bike shop and then go again.

“And then it was like ‘right, can I just hold on to one of the bikes?’ – held on to one. Then, ‘right, can I sit on one of the bikes?’ Week –by-week building it up until it was a case of ‘right, I think I can do this’.

Fabian then borrowed a bike and went out with a group, “getting used to the fact that ‘yes, I could ride’ again. It wasn’t the fact that I physically couldn’t do it. It was the fact that I mentally had fear about being on the roads, about being near bikes.

“There were some hairy moments where we’d come off a cycle path, and I’d think ‘hold it, there are cars here, there are roads, we’ve got to negotiate a roundabout here, I am going to get off and walk’.”

You might wonder why Fabian was so committed to getting back on a bike.

He received compensation for his injuries. “I didn’t see the value in saying ‘oh well that will pay for a new car, that will pay for this, that and the other’.

Instead, Fabian wanted his compensation to do appropriate work. “I needed to make it show that there’s actually a benefit from it. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to change my lifestyle and it’s going to help me pay for that change in lifestyle; it’s going to help me get back into the lifestyle I had before, or as near as I could.

“My determination to get back on my bike was part of that. And the [therapist] said, ‘if you get back on a bike or not, at least you can be around them, you are not going to have sleepless nights, you are not going to be worried about driving near cyclists’, because I was.”

Getting knocked off twice in quick succession by cars didn’t – as might seem likely – make Fabian scared of cars. It made him scared of bikes.

“I’d have to give cyclists, when I was driving, a majorly wide berth.”

‘That’s good!’ you might think.

But Fabian’s sensitivity towards cyclists as a driver was – within an ideological and infrastructural environment governed by cars – paralysing. Our road system isn’t set up for motorists to give the level of consideration he wanted to give cyclists.

“It was a case of ‘hold it, I really can’t negotiate this’.

“I’d be driving behind a cyclist at an incredibly stupid speed until there was a place that I really could give them enough space. I was almost driving on the opposite side of the road to give them that space.

“And groups of cyclists were just terrifying.

“I was aware of where the cyclists were, how many cyclists had passed, what they were doing. I was really hypersensitive to people on bikes while I was driving.

“Part of the therapy was about not being too sensitive. Yes, you still need that awareness of where other people are on the road, but gone are the times when I count how many cyclists have passed, what they were doing, and the fact that they weren’t wearing helmets.”

“I probably am still quite sensitive, but not as bad as I was.”

It’s remarkable Fabian has returned to cycling; more so that – as we’ll see – he cycles on main roads through congested city centre streets at peak times, including after dark.

Of course, most people who have suffered what Fabian has suffered will ‘simply’ stop cycling. But Fabian’s tenacity in the face of bad experiences is (depressingly, or inspiringly?) common across the minority of long-time, ‘hardened’ ‘cyclists’. Indeed it’s via such experiences (often retold as ‘atrocity tales’) that one becomes a ‘cyclist’, although intriguingly Fabian doesn’t present a strong cycling identity; perhaps rather, by demonstrating commitment beyond what (‘ordinary’) others (in a car-centric society) might consider sensible, he inadvertently ‘earns’, or has foisted upon him (including potentially here, by me), such an identity.

Our treatment on the roads has become something we put up with, in order to keep cycling; part of the cycling background, an almost taken-for-granted part of ‘what cycling is’. Does, I wonder, the invisibility of the strategies we use to keep going play a part in the reproduction of the dominant transport order?

I ride Fabian’s evening commute with him, back home from work.

His bike’s parked in open stands close to his work place entrance; “it’s secure, just because of where it is [visible from the workplace reception]. But it’d be better if it was covered and lit because when I am putting the panniers on, or trying to unlock in the dark, it is through memory and touch rather than being able to see.”

Fabian covers his saddle with a plastic bag during the day, to keep it dry. (Or alternatively, if the saddle is already wet, he’ll put a plastic bag on to it before riding, to keep the seat of his trousers dry.) “It [the plastic bag] goes on and comes off. So tomorrow morning, if it’s been raining, I’ll put a dry plastic bag on the saddle.”

Fabian wears a helmet and a hi-viz jacket. (Although I personally tend to wear neither in the city, I always carry them with me when doing fieldwork and if someone with whom I’m riding puts them on, then I will too.) His bike has a rack and panniers. He uses clip-less pedals and cycling shoes.

We leave at 5pm to ride a couple of miles into the city’s centre, through it, and then out its other side; a journey of around four miles. It’s damp, cold, dark, and rush-hour.

Impatient traffic, main roads, lots of junctions; it’s a journey requiring constant vigilance. The conditions force me mainly to follow Fabian, rather than ride alongside him. He moves at a brisk pace, around 15 miles per hour.

We ride quickly towards the city centre. The traffic is heavy; it’s sometimes fast-moving, and some drivers come close. If you’re not used to this kind of rush-hour commuting, it’s disconcerting; if you are, it becomes second-nature, and it can even be exciting, though Fabian doesn’t find it so. When I ask him later if he enjoys this journey, he says:

“I don’t think I’ve quite got to that point yet, where I can enjoy it. I’m actually just glad to have got home on the bike safely. I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly pleasant journey, because you’re just going through a city commute.

“I’ve got to get to work for a certain time, and I just want to get home as soon as possible … There’s a purpose to that journey … and I think some of the enjoyable journeys don’t have a purpose – you’re just out there and enjoying being in the fresh air, or in the rain really.”

We’re sometimes squeezed. Some cyclists, mainly proponents of vehicular cycling, talk of adopting the ‘primary position’; they’d ‘take the lane’ on roads like these. Fabian doesn’t, and whilst I understand the concept of primary position and sometimes adopt it, nor would I here. Doing so would make me effectively a mobile, easily damaged, traffic-calming device. Riding primary requires boldness, and an unwavering conviction that you’ve a right to occupy the space; theoretically I agree we do, but practically I worry both personally, that I’ll get mown down, and more generally, that such a position poisons the hopes of cycling for all. We’re forced to move out and to take what’s left of the lane in order to pass a long line of parked cars, however; and when we do, the vehicles behind – which are anyway travelling not much faster than us – wait.

Approaching the city centre gyratory, Fabian sees traffic ahead is stalled. Rather than find his way through it, he nips up back streets to skirt it, much as a car driver might. Later, he tells me “I think I do cycle a lot like I drive, and sometimes I’ll end up cycling a route I drive, rather than thinking ‘I could actually have gone that way instead’”.

When we eventually find our way back to the gyratory, the newly marked (but not segregated) cycle lane enables us to move up the inside of stationary traffic. For Fabian, this is a clear improvement, making it less likely that his journey will be interrupted by congestion (though he notes how similar but longer-established cycle lanes he uses on his morning journey are frequently blocked by queuing vehicles – “I can’t get past them, although I do think about knocking on windows and pushing past”).

Fabian approves of good quality dedicated cycling infrastructure, seeing it as substantially enhancing his cycling journeys. But he wants it, and will only use it, on main roads enabling direct journeys; “I want a direct route, I want to get there and I want to get back safely.”

Arriving home, Fabian pushes his bike into his backyard, accessed via a passage directly from the front of the house. “I do need to get an outside light, it would make life a whole lot easier.” He locks it to a washing prop with a coil lock. “If they really wanted to nick it, they’d have to just lift it over the top.” He takes off his panniers, and enters his house by the backdoor.

Inside, he takes off his overshoes, cycling shoes, and over-trousers. He pulls wet gear from the morning’s commute out of his panniers and puts it straight into the washing machine. He keeps a dry set of clothes at work, but doesn’t shower there. “In the morning it’s all downhill; I have a shower when I get back from work, because I’m sweaty from cycling up those hills, and I’ve been a day at work.”

Fabian owns a car. So over a cup of tea, I ask why he doesn’t drive to work.

“Well traffic’s a nightmare, getting through town …  it takes as long to drive to work as it does to cycle and it can take longer to get back in the car because of the way traffic is. So it [cycling] is very practical.

“And before I’d had the accidents that set me off cycling I was doing a longer commute by bike, every day. It’s just better – whether it’s healthier or quicker or whatever, just a nicer way to travel, although I do like driving. [Laughing] I get a lot of enjoyment driving – just going through the city centre isn’t necessarily the nicest of things; I just want to get home.

“Parking’s a nightmare as well. If you get in after say twenty-five past eight you are hunting for a parking space. So you’ve got to be in before 8.15 really, to get a parking space in the car park. Then you’re on the side roads or the main road, and yet there’s hardly enough.”

Despite his setbacks, for Fabian the bike continues to make sense.

When we met in November he was hoping to keep riding through winter, but “I don’t know how icy it’s going to get in the winter. Anything that I can do to stop coming off again is a bonus.”

He has invested in cycling. He is committed to it. It makes sense. Still, “… I don’t know whether the next thing that happens is going to spook me again.”

Cycling struggles, 2

October 16, 2012

Here’s the second story from fieldwork conducted during the Understanding Walking and Cycling project. It’s a story demonstrating the significance of – and need for – a cycling system, in which the different aspects of everyday life complicit in someone choosing to drive or cycle all point in the cycling direction. I’ll return to the importance of seeing cycling systematically in my overall analysis of these case studies, at the end of the series. But it’s also a story which, like Rick’s (story 1), underlines the significance of quality cycling infrastructure within such a cycling system. You’ll see again, below, the lengths people are prepared to go to compensate for the failures of current cycling provision.

I really appreciate the excellent comments made in the light of Rick’s story. It’d be great if we continue to deliberatively and collaboratively figure out what, collectively, these stories mean about cycling in contemporary Britain. I’m extremely happy to hear what you think, and what you think will inform what I think.

2. Nadia’s cycling story

Nadia is in her late twenties, married and with three small children. Her family lives in a comfortable home on a recently built housing estate, close both to the children’s school and child-minder, and to her husband Dom’s workplace. Most of the household’s journeys are made either on foot or by car. In bad weather, Nadia generally persists in making short trips with her children on foot; but Dom is more likely to bundle them into the car.

Dom doesn’t cycle much, “He does have a bike and he does have best intentions … he did say to me, because I’ve been doing it more, that he would like to start doing it more too … I just wonder whether he’s going to be more of a fair weather cyclist though.”

Nadia loves cycling. “I must admit I’ve really got into the cycling bit.” However, there’s only one journey which she regularly makes by bike – to work. She’s a cycle commuter. After she’s dropped off her children, the youngest with the child-minder, the others at school, I ride her commuter journey with her. It’s a journey of around seven miles.

Nadia always takes the same route. The first few miles are along a bypass connecting the village where she lives with the town where she works. It’s an open, exposed stretch of road, which carries a lot of high-sided lorries, and which has a speed limit of 60 miles per hour. Soon after the bypass ends, Nadia joins an off-road shared-use path, which takes her another two miles. Leaving this, she rides the final mile to the office where she works as a secretary via a mix of deliberately designed (by the planning authorities) and cobbled together (by her) links. She rides a Halfords’ Carrera bike. It has no mudguards.

Usually when I discuss with someone accompanying them on one of their cycling journeys, any arrangements tend to be dependent on the weather. But not with Nadia, who cycles whatever the weather. Despite snow, ice, and a couple of falls, she rode through the previous winter, and is fully intending to do the same again this year. “I hate going in the car. I think because by the time I drop the children off it gets to just after nine o’clock, and as soon as I get to Asda it [the traffic] is backed right up and it’s the frustration of being sat in traffic. So I much prefer just shooting in the whole way on the bike really.”

Things haven’t always been like this. In fact, Nadia is relatively new to cycling. Like Rick (story 1), Nadia’s cycling was instigated by traffic congestion.

“I started by accident actually. I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me to have gone on a bike. It just wouldn’t have been my first choice of transport at all. But a wagon went over in town, near the town centre, and I’d only just started work, because I’ve taken four years out you see with the children. So I’ve only been back at this job for a year. And this friend rang me and said ‘you’ve no chance of getting in this morning’. And I was meant to be meeting someone, to have an induction. So of course panic, panic, panic! I got the kids to school and I borrowed a bike, and it was a man’s bike, so it wasn’t ideal but it was the only way I could think of getting to work quickly.

“And after I did it, number one it struck me how unfit I was and I’d always thought I was fairly fit but I wasn’t at all. And just, actually, how easy it was and I’d built it up to be this really big hard difficult thing that no way I could do, but then when I actually did it I thought ‘hey, I can do this!’. So it built up gradually. I do it every day – four times a week, because I work Monday to Thursday. So I do it every day now, but for the first two months I’d come in the car a little bit, go on the bike a little bit, and I’ve built up to doing it all the time. I can’t bear going in the car now!

“If I have to go to another office, which is not often, if I have to go in the car, it’s awful. It’s just more hassle. And I can do it faster on the bike in the morning than I can in the car … it takes me fifteen minutes to do the bypass and fifteen minutes then along the cycle track, so half an hour. It’s got a lot shorter –   it used to take me nearer an hour at the beginning, so it has got a lot quicker.

“I had so many barriers I wouldn’t have considered it, you know.  But then when I was forced to do it, it was a different story. So it was just really challenging those barriers that you think are so big that there’s no way over and round and under them, but then actually, ‘no, you can do it’.”

It was a specific disruption to motoring-as-usual which got Nadia cycling. She’d also only recently started a new job, so had yet to entrench car driving as her habitual way of commuting. But encouragement to cycling was also provided by both her local authority and her new employer.

“I think the last time I rode a bike I was twelve! [The local council] did me a favour at the beginning you see. Because I was so clueless on cycling, and [the information and support provided by the council, and particularly a specific cycling officer] was basically how I got started – I didn’t know what equipment, what kind of bike, nothing. And so my confidence and my fitness levels were shot completely.”

Nadia regards her employer as supportive of cycling.

“They’re really trying to encourage cycling; obviously they’ve got a carbon footprint pledge they’ve got to try and work to, they’ve got targets.  And they’ve got terrible parking so obviously the more people you get out of the car park the better for them as well, but yeah, they’re a very good employer when it comes to cyclists … They just spent out on a proper cover for the bike racks – it’s more of a shelter. That’s a positive thing.”

“They’ve got changing facilities, showers, lockers.  I know they’re trying to get more lockers in place as well, because we’ve been short of those”.  She has a shower at the end of her outward journey, at work; she doesn’t think she’d cycle to work without that provision, as she wouldn’t want to sit feeling dirty all day.

“I think that makes all the difference. If I was going to have to sit and feel festering all day I think that would make a huge difference. I’ve often thought about that actually, because I think that is a valid reason to not want to cycle, because you can feel all horrible and not want to sit next to anybody all day. My job’s fairly solitary as well because I’m a secretary so I’m just sat with a computer most of the day, but still, I still like to have a shower when I get in, just so I feel better, you know, better able to face people when they do come in. So I do think that makes a big difference.  I wouldn’t be bothered if there were no lockers, I wouldn’t be bothered if there was no shelter, I’d always find somewhere to lock my bike up, but that [showers] is quite a big factor for me I think, yeah.”

Her employer also paid for Nadia to undergo cycle training. “That was fantastic.” Training is compulsory for anyone who wants to be able to use one of the two workplace pool bikes (one a standard bike, the other a folder); Nadia knew she’d be unlikely to use these, but registered her interest in order to access the free cycle training. “I thought it was too good a chance to pass up, to go on proper bike training. Then at least I knew I was keeping myself safe.”

Nadia’s relatively recent cycling conversion means that both she and the people around her are still getting used to her new status.

For Nadia herself, cycling to work has become a key part of her unfolding biography – “I love it … my confidence levels, my energy levels, they’re all much higher than they used to be.  And I say to a lot of people ‘I do my best thinking on a bike in a morning’. And I can de-stress. You know, from me running around with the kids in a morning, this is just completely selfish time for me. It’s something I’ve not really had before, you know, with having children so close together. It’s always been really busy.” For Nadia, her cycle commute is a time during which she can prioritise her own needs. As part of this she uses her ride to work as an opportunity for a work-out; “I mean I’m not a gym person.  I don’t have the staying power to go to a gym.”

Nadia’s children are proud of her cycling; and Nadia sees her story as demonstrating how, if they want to, they too can achieve things.

“They’re really proud of me in the playground, yeah they are. And that’s been really nice. I like to sort of show them that you can do anything, if you want to do something. You have to be really positive I think with them and just say ‘if you want to do that you can do it’. And they’ve not got to the stage where they’re embarrassed that mum stands there in bright yellow yet. I think that’s probably coming with [the eldest].”

Of course, not everyone is convinced:

“Everyone in the playground, this is how they usually see me – in my cycling stuff – and they’re all ‘why do you do it on the bike? How can you put up with it?’ And I say, ‘it’s really positive, I feel a lot better for cycling and if you just gave it a go, just built it up slowly like I did … Well it’s either your thing or it’s not’, I say. But I think unless you try something, you don’t know, do you, if it’s your thing?”

Nadia’s husband Dom is proud but worried. “He likes the fact that I’ve found something that I enjoy and will support me no matter what. But he does have reservations over the safety of it.”

Dom’s reservations provide an intriguing and important detail in Nadia’s commuting story, one which I think strikes to the heart of UK cycling provision, or lack thereof.

“If it’s particularly windy, if it’s blowing onto the carriageway … he throws the bike on the bike rack and drops me off at [start of off-road cycling route, about half-way from home to work] … It’s a kind of compromise because he’s not very happy with me on the bypass, whereas I’m quite happy with it now, you know, I don’t worry half as much as I used to. But I think he’s always a little bit concerned about just how busy that road is.”

This doesn’t happen every day. As Nadia says, it depends on the wind, and also on her husband’s shift patterns. “It’s alright when the wind’s behind me. And I mean if Dom’s at work obviously I cycle no matter what.” But it applies equally to her return journey, from work to home, too:

“Because he doesn’t like me on the bypass, if he’s around – like he’s done his ‘early’, say it’s three o’clock or two o’clock – and I’ve finished work, he’d prefer to pick me up at [same point as outward journey] so that I don’t have to do the bypass bit. I don’t mind it [riding the bypass] now. But I think it’s a compromise.”

“It’s more Dom’s preference to be honest. He worries about the speed of the road. I think it’s generally for his peace of mind; then he knows at least he’s cutting down the amount of time I spend on the bypass.”

But you can see the ambivalence which Dom’s concerns produce in Nadia. On the one hand, “these last few mornings, when it’s been really gusting, I’ve been quite happy to put it [the bike] on the back of the car and get dropped at the end, you know?” On the other hand, “I do like the bypass because it’s so green round and about. When there are no cars around you, it’s very peaceful. It’s very solitary in a way.”

So let’s look at Nadia’s journey to work. We’ll start by getting on to the bypass.

To start with, the speed limit is 50 miles per hour. It goes up to 60 once the built-up area is left behind. There’s no specific provision for cycling.

“On the whole I find wagon drivers tend to be a lot better than car drivers on the bypass. They tend to be a bit more considerate – now whether that’s because of the higher seating position and seeing me a lot earlier.”

“It tends to be car drivers. In fact I wrote a letter in to the [local newspaper] which I’d not done before but it was just really because I was that shocked at how many people buzzed me on the way past and got that close that it was a bit nerve-racking.”

“On this road, car drivers and some wagon drivers seem to think this white line is a brick wall. And they can come as close to it as they like because it’s not going to affect you because you’re on the other side of it. They seem to have this feeling like, you know, you’re untouchable if you’re on this side of the line. And some people come so close you know. They’ve made me wobble enough to think ‘oh blimey!’ You know, I thought their wing mirror was going to hit me.”

Nadia is not alone in riding this road. It’s a key route linking two of the district’s biggest settlements. It’s also the kind of road which cycling advocates can easily overlook – the carriageway is wide, so that cars and trucks overtaking cyclists can generally leave a big gap. It might be easy, therefore, to think ‘there’s no big problem here; let’s concentrate elsewhere’. But the speed of that overtaking traffic, together with its proximity, is a massive barrier to making cycling ordinary.

At one point riding along the bypass, a car blasts its horn at us. Nadia responds by telling me “That’s what you have to put up with, unfortunately. They don’t seem to like cyclists on this stretch.”

Nadia has some suggestions as to how things could be improved. She has raised these ideas recurrently with local council officers. “I’ve said ‘there’s a nice level verge on here, which is kerb sided. And I know a lot more people would feel happier, even if they could just sort of level out one side. I know it’s a huge budget commitment and that but, [given increased attention to cycling both nationally and locally] it’s never been a better time for something like this’. And I said, ‘even if it was cyclists just using the one side, you didn’t have to do both’.  I said ‘it would just give a much safer feel to the cycle in of a morning for a lot of people’.”

At the end of the bypass, Nadia ‘cobbles’ her way past two traffic islands, and onto some segregated provision which is shared with (few) pedestrians.

In order to turn right, she crosses the road before the roundabout. “I won’t go round the roundabout because people  have just come off a 50 limit, you take your life in your hands to go round that one.”

And then goes ‘the wrong way’ for a short stretch.

Half-way through her journey, Nadia reaches an off-road route which is dedicated to cycling and walking. “It’s just nice once you get off here. This is the most enjoyable part. Once I’m on the pavement and I’m away, I’m much happier.”

“I said [to the local council] ‘can you not do a park and cycle scheme from here?’ Because from my point of view, the bit from here is really easy, it’s the easiest part of my journey. And so I just think for a lot of people who maybe don’t have road confidence, or women cyclists who just don’t want to go on the road, or whatever, if they could park up here, pull the bike off or even loan a bike, then you know, you’re encouraging people to at least try it. And then it builds from there, hopefully.”

The last stretch of Nadia’s journey to work is quite ‘messy’, but by using various bits of (often very good) cycling infrastructure she manages to stay away from the busy town centre roads, and to wend her way through some back streets, across a car park and to her final destination.

Among other things, Nadia’s story shows how the ‘decision’ to cycle is never simply a personal one; it is embedded in webs of social relations, and significant others form part of the ‘decision-making’ apparatus. Less prosaically, I think Nadia’s story shows how it’s less that people don’t cycle because they’re scared, and more that people don’t cycle because they’re loved. And until cycling advocates get their heads around that, they’ll continue to be by turns puzzled by and patronising towards many people’s reluctance to go by bike.

Cycling struggles, 1

October 2, 2012

This is the first in a series of short case studies examining how different people do and don’t move around English cities by cycle. (With luck and a tailwind, I aim to do about ten between now and Christmas.) Like those which will follow, it comes from fieldwork I conducted as part of the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, which ran between 2008 and 2011.

People’s own words are always within speech marks and italicised. I’ll sometimes add words in […], [like this], in an attempt to clarify potentially unclear meaning. I have changed people’s names, and am not drawing direct attention to locations (partly in a bid to make it harder to identify people, and partly because I believe the issues I’m trying to raise are not specific to place, but are much more general – certainly across urban Britain, and I think further afield too).

Most of the data I’m using comes from either a sit-down interview (which usually took place in people’s own homes); or from conversations and observations undertaken before, during and after riding alongside (and/or behind) people making one of their usual journeys by bike.

1. Rick’s cycling story

Rick is in his forties. He lives with his wife and dog in a modest but comfortable terraced house about a mile out of the city centre. He and his wife have a car and a bike each. Rick works as a peripatetic care worker, moving between the homes of disabled clients, who – with his help – live independently. Although he uses a car for many of his other journeys, and walks extensively, Rick has recently switched from driving to cycling as his main way of getting around at work.

“For the last two months I’ve been going round by bike. I got sick to death of the traffic, absolutely sick to death, especially with the road works when they were doing them. It drove me crazy. I just got sick to death of it; you’re stuck in traffic and you can’t get round quick enough. And now it’s actually quicker.”

His decision to start cycling for work can be dated: “6th October I made the decision. Stuck in traffic for an hour. Gridlock. I was just angry and also, you can’t get to people; I’m going to see diabetics who need regular feeding, regular insulin and regular tablets; if you are late for them it’s dangerous.”

His employer has been “quite supportive”, allowing him to shift his workload towards a set of clients within an area small enough to be cycled. He carries stuff in a ruck-sack (he has considered, but decided against, at least for now, panniers).

A big problem is finding somewhere to park his bike outside clients’ homes – “it’s not a posh bike, it’s not worth a tenner, but that is a problem”. (At home he stores his bike in the backyard; his wife’s bike, stored in the cellar, “doesn’t get used very much at all.”)

Nonetheless, he does feel a certain stigma. “There is a down side to it though. People do think you are somehow poor – ‘you’ve not come in a car?’, ‘you’ve not driven?’ As though it’s a little bit weird … Certainly for some people in the office it’s a bit of an odd thing to do, to choose to do it, because you are also given a [car] mileage allowance.”

There’s no mileage allowance for cycling journeys; only those made by car. This allowance normalises car use amongst his colleagues, and renders his choice to cycle less ‘logical’. Perhaps strangely, Rick doesn’t mind not getting a cycling allowance: “Fair do’s I suppose; there’s no cost to it, it’s the bike that I actually had when I came [to this town] so it’s 15 years old. What’s a helmet and a few batteries?”.

Rick cycled more regularly in the past, but for ten years until recently he’d become an occasional leisure cyclist – he’d go on a ride, perhaps with his wife, on a sunny summer’s day. As he says, it was local traffic congestion which got him more regularly back in the saddle, but he’s also aware that cycling is saving him money and could help combat growing middle-aged spread:

“I have felt a lot better, an awful lot better this last couple of months … I actually feel a lot healthier, I’ve lost 6 pounds which is bound to go on over Christmas, but it’s best to lose it then put it on again, rather than have it on all the time; I’ve felt a lot younger actually strangely enough and I’ve had a warm self-satisfied ‘I’m doing my bit’ glow to myself. So it’s worked quite well”.

He enjoys cycling “big time, but I’m not evangelical about it.”

The weather hadn’t put him off thus far. He started cycling regularly in October, which “was nice wasn’t it? … I got into it. And then the rain came in November. I thought ‘oh well, I’m hard, I used to be hard, it didn’t used to bother me. Just do it’.”

Talking to Rick about how he connects his clients’ homes by bike, I’m struck by how skilled is his route planning; “Well I walk the dog so I use the same routes as for walking, walking the dog”.

A new walking and cycling link through the hospital and over the canal is “a boon to me, because you can go from here to [another area] without going on the main road … and it’s flat and it’s safe and it’s doable for me.”

Rick’s figured out how best to keep off the main roads. He knows all the quietest routes; he utilises bridleways (“mud’s nothing to me”). Some of his methods are ingenious; “When I’m around [particular suburb], instead of using the main road there are lots of alley ways; although they are cobbled it keeps you off the road and that’s the one thing I am really worried about.”

But of course, Rick’s routes aren’t always coherent; they can’t always get him where he needs to go. So, what happens then?

“I don’t like going on the road, particularly [name of road, very close to his home], which I find the most dangerous, frightening experience, especially the pinch points round by the post office and the fish shop because you get the traffic there, the narrow lanes, you get parking either side, you get the wagons [trucks] which have been sent through town.”

“The buses and wagons thunder past, and the number of times I’ve had to pull in off the road on to the pavement because they don’t seem to give a monkey’s.”

So Rick avoids riding on these bigger local roads. But he’s not a pavement cyclist. When he’s forced onto the pavement, he dismounts and pushes his bike.

He also pushes his bike up the sharper short hills in the district – “you do use the gradient; it works”.

Rick avoids this traffic island (photo below) too (although since talking to him, it has undergone changes in an effort to make it more legible and welcoming to cyclists unwilling to negotiate it by road); “I’ve had a couple of run-ins there … I’m frightened in that respect.”

His basic position is clear, and something he reiterates at various points during our conversation: “I don’t feel safe. Cars and bikes don’t always mix. Particularly, it’s the big wagons and the big buses. I don’t want to get killed or knocked off”. At his age, he says,you do think about it, you don’t have the same blasé attitude to it.”

But still, he rides …

There’s a deep – and I think very revealing – irony to Rick’s story. The ‘final straw’ which got him cycling was road-works at a key local junction, which for a while caused serious congestion, and made it difficult for him to make his usual journeys by car. These road-works were aimed at re-designing the junction in cycle-friendly ways. The works represented a big and high-profile investment in cycling.

Yet Rick still won’t cycle through this junction.

“This sounds quite cowardly but at [name of junction] I’ll get off my bike and walk it through because I don’t like going through that amount of traffic. I’d much rather stay off the road and away from the vehicular traffic.”

Have the recent changes not improved things?

“I don’t see any difference at all. I really don’t, because having the red bits at traffic lights in front of cars, I don’t feel confident enough and I don’t think many people do, to go out in there. You want to be at the side, cyclists generally tend to do that. It seems they’ve spent an awful lot of money and there’s been absolutely no improvement for anybody. I’d rather go under the canal or get off and walk there.

Rick gets off and walks his bicycle across other junctions, such as the one below, which has also been rendered ‘cycle-friendly’. (You can see that Rick is not alone in taking to the pavement here, though some riders don’t dismount.)

What would Rick like to see?

“Proper cycle paths – separate or on the quiet roads. There are little bits of red and it’s no good having them, because as soon as you come to the difficult points and the pinch points where the cars are parked, you have to go out … these little stop, start ones – stop, start, stop, start.”

“Separate cycle tracks, they’re the big thing, because you feel a lot more safe.”

Talking about fear of cycling …

February 26, 2010

If you want to hear me spouting the concise version (at least as it struck me on that particular day) of my article Fear of Cycling you can head over to BikeLove and download the podcast of a recent interview with Jo from BikeLove. The key arguments are there, expertly and relatively painlessly extracted by Jo, and all in eight (long?) minutes. I must admit, they sound rather clumsy and crude to me, without all the garnish which normally accompanies academic argument in a ‘proper’ written paper. But if arguments don’t work ‘naked’, it doesn’t matter how dressed up you make them, they still won’t work … anyway, I’ll let you, if you’re so inclined, be the judge …

BikeLove comes from Sydney, Australia – hence the contrast between Jo’s lovely (and to me, during this British winter, exotic-sounding) Ozzie accent and my dul(cet) Brummie tones (to non-UK readers, ‘Brummie’ is a term for people originating from Birmingham, England). It was great to be asked to contribute to the show. I am very fond of Australia, even if ‘they’ do (try to) make cyclists wear helmets (although see the story of the remarkable Sue Abbott, also on BikeLove).

My partner Sue and I lived in the hills above Adelaide for a couple of years back in the early 1990s, and I can trace the birth of an explicit commitment to work on behalf of cycling back to our time there. Specifically, I publicly vowed to work towards a cycle-friendly future during the conclusion to a series of workshops on human-scale development in which I took part; the workshops coincided with the visit, and loosely followed the ideas, of the Chilean economist and environmentalist Manfred Max-Neef, and they formed a key part of my (ongoing) political education.

Snow and ice

January 5, 2010

Our street, today – 5th January 2010

Happy New Year! This is the street on which, with my family, I live. I’ve just a moment ago stepped outside to take the picture. As you can see, it’s been snowing.

I might leave my house through the front door, and go north along this stretch of road, if I’m walking somewhere. The only time I leave by bike this way is when one of my riding partners, Jon Barry, calls – he always comes to the front of the house and so then I go out the same way, on my road bike, which is stored indoors.

I mainly leave the house out the back. Like many people living in older housing in urban north England, we live in a terrace with a back alley.

Our back alley, today – 5th January 2010

Most of our household’s bikes, including my day bike, are stored in one of two sheds in our back yard. So this is the way I generally leave the house by bike. And unless Jon has called for me, I leave this way on my less regularly ridden road bike too. I also tend to go this way if I’m walking. You can see the tyre tracks of one of our neighbour’s cars in the snow, but Ray – ‘the culprit’ – is the only person with a car parked on this side of the terrace, so the back alley forms a virtually car-free start to any journey.

As a sociologist with a keen interest in how everyday lives get organised and reproduced, I’m fascinated by different routes into and out of houses, and the consequences of these ‘household permeabilities’. But that’s not my intended topic today, so let’s get back to the weather, and specifically the snow and ice, which was the reason why I took these photos just now.

Now I’m sure that for any Canadians and Scandinavians out there, this is just a smattering of snow, nothing to write a blog post about … But I’m writing from a UK perspective, and snow in Lancaster is not that common. And anyway we’ve not just had snow, we’ve had almost a month of very cold weather, which has resulted in lots of ice. And whilst particular societies and different individuals within those societies will cope with snow and ice in specific ways, it’s undoubtedly the case that snow and ice has a significant impact on many people’s desires and abilities to cycle.

It seems fairly safe to say that if the weather was always like this, we’d see less cycling. Snow and, especially, ice make cycling a more hazardous, scary prospect. But that said, snow and ice make any mode of mobility more hazardous and scary, except perhaps skiing, tobogganing and such like. So perhaps what we should instead say is that weather like this, in the absence of any attempts – whether individual (e.g. appropriate equipment, such as spiked tyres) or collective (e.g. gritting of cycling routes) – to deal with it effectively, will produce less cycling. But that situation is not inevitable. Indeed, if a society is serious about promoting cycling, it will continue to promote cycling even during such weather and road conditions. So that, actually, it’s perfectly conceivable that cycling could become more rather than less attractive at such times.

For myself, I’ve become very reluctant to get on my bike this past month. I did a beautiful 80 mile ride through the Yorkshire Dales with two friends, Will and Jim, on the 11th December. We left early, and just 5 miles out of Lancaster – at Caton – our wheels slipped slightly beneath us, so that we thought carefully about the wisdom of continuing. We did, and it was a beautiful day – full of sunshine, scenery and comradeship. Nonetheless, a vague but nagging nervousness accompanied me all day, to do with the ice and the potential to come a cropper. I’ve not done a proper ride since then.

I’ve become so frustrated with not getting out that a couple of days ago I did something I’d not even have contemplated a year or two ago, though it’s true that back then I was less preoccupied with being fit and going fast than I am now – I ordered a turbo trainer, so that I can ride indoors, and start to build my fitness for the coming season in spite of my fear of all this snow and ice.

The process of buying a turbo trainer has really illuminated to me how cycling is about so very much more than getting from A to B. It is that; it’s my main mode of daily transport – the way I get to the shops, to work, and to a whole bagful of destinations in the Lancaster and Morecambe district. But it’s so very much more than that too – it’s my exercise, my freedom, my sanity, my re-creation, a big part of my social life, my key way of spending time outdoors and in the countryside. Last year I rode 5,500 miles, but only 250 of them were ridden during December and during the second half of December I did not ride at all. I feel claustrophobic and flabby; the bike is my cure … I need to get out, on my bike …

Not everyone is so cowardly as I currently am. The Monday nighters’ plan for the Solstice was to ride 100 miles. What better way to celebrate – or is it perhaps to try to beat – the year’s shortest day? I had planned to go, but I saw the forecast (very cold and lots of snow) and bailed out. The others – more committed, braver – gave it a go. The snow made riding 100 miles impossible. But, despite the difficulties, they managed a ride, and – by switching to mountain bikes, except John who is now riding with spiked tyres and so didn’t need to – they still made it to the pub, the hard way.

With two young children and a fortnight’s Christmas holiday, the snow and ice have actually been wonderful – we’ve had some truly magical winter day’s out – walking, sledging, sliding and snowballing around Silverdale, Arnside and Windermere. Here’s my son Bobby on Orrest Head, above England’s longest lake, looking for all the world like he has that world at his feet.

But what effects do snow and ice have on mobility? Some of our elderly neighbours are struggling, both with getting out and with the social isolation which results from not getting out. Today in Lancaster, in many places we have fresh snow covering a layer of sheet ice. Conditions are potentially treacherous for everyone, and fewer journeys are undoubtedly being made by all modes. But what worries and angers me most is it’s the sustainable modes – walking and cycling – which are hardest hit, and who can say that journeys on foot or by bike are any less ‘essential’ than journeys by motorised modes?

Around here the bigger the road the more likely it is to get gritted. But of course, the bigger the road the less likely people are to want to cycle – let alone walk – on it (for even on the biggest roads the pavements lie untouched by the gritter’s mechanical hand). The pavements, like the off-road cycle routes, are ignored. Cycling and walking – these modes of mobility do not matter, people travelling on foot or by bike do not count. It’s that simple, that blatant, that unjust …

So people walking either stick to (or rather, don’t stick to, but slide along) the pavements and risk a fall, or walk in the road (where it’s astonishing to see a small minority of drivers, as if incensed by the pedestrians’ ‘intrusion’ into ‘their’ space, showing them not courtesy but contempt). Many people, of course, ‘simply’ stop walking – which might be fine for them if they’ve got a car. But it’s rubbish for them if they haven’t, and it’s rubbish for society either way.

Many people stop cycling.  Last winter I cycled the 4 miles into work and back every day, whatever the weather. I often got angry that, on icy roads, cars came past me as fast and as close as they might ordinarily do, seemingly oblivious to the extra risk which I viscerally felt. On such icy days I was forced into riding on the car-dominated A6 because the main cycling routes in this district are not designated by our Highways Authority, Lancashire County Council, as ‘essential’, and so they are not gritted and they become, as they have over the last few days, virtually impassable.

We have here a magnificent Millennium Bridge over the river Lune – it’s for people travelling either on foot or by bike, and it is immensely useful and extremely popular. Every year, when it gets icy people struggle to walk and to ride across it. Every year people fall from their bikes and people complain that it needs to be gritted. We are a cycling demonstration town, supposedly promoting cycling. Yet I suspect that most people need only to fall from a bike once to be seriously put off cycling, perhaps for life. You have to ask, exactly what kind of cycling promotion is it that fails to grit key routes on which people ride?

You can do as I tend to do, and ride on the main roads. But given most people would not dare to do that under ordinary circumstances, they’re unlikely to start doing so when it’s icy, slushy, dark and the roads are full of motorists who lack the skills and equipment to negotiate the tricky conditions effectively. Watching the cars skating over the ice, an Icelandic friend of ours today expressed serious concern at the lack of driving skills on display; another friend, having seen cars careering out of control on a patch of black ice at the junction outside his house, stood outside for two hours, warning motorists to take especial care.

Of course, I recognise that cold, snow and ice make life difficult for everyone. People are struggling either to maintain movement-as-usual, or else to cope with being unable to move as they usually do (which is something we’re all going to need to become better at, as our lives get re-shaped by the realities of a world transformed by climatic changes). I understand that to some extent we all need somehow ‘just to get on with it’. But I know that I’m not alone in finding the current situation, in which routes for cars and trucks are so clearly prioritised over routes for walking and cycling, really quite disgraceful.

For a while I’ve been thinking very vaguely about the notion of  ‘mobility inversion’. It’s an intuitive concept which I want to develop, not for its own sake, but because  it just might – in ways I do not and quite probably cannot know – be somehow useful. You just don’t know where ideas will go until you try …

UK towns and cities remain centrally designed around the car. Even now, well into the twenty-first century, the car gets the centre of the road, walking and cycling the margins. Routes for cars get priority, and walking and cycling routes are pushed into having to find their ways around them, having to negotiate the city of the car. When it comes to mobility, our towns and cities, in other words, are quite simply the wrong way round.

I’ll return to this example at another time, but it’s less than a kilometre, maybe half a mile, between our house and Lancaster city centre. Lancaster’s train station is about half way along this route. It’s an incredibly busy walking route, but I’d guess that motorised vehicles currently get about 90% of the available space and almost all of the priority whilst pedestrians must make do with rubbish pavements, limited space, and drivers who have been taught that they have the right of way. With no facilities to help them at all, cyclists simply have to survive – dodging the potholes. It’s atrocious and it’s where we live, but similar and worse situations are everywhere.

We need mobility inversion here. If motorised vehicles are allowed, they ought to make way for people on foot and on bikes. People on bikes and on their feet should not have to stop to make way for trucks and cars, the cars and trucks should make way for them. There should anyway be only minimal space for trucks and cars, and lots more space for people walking, cycling and simply hanging out chatting to their friends, acquaintances and neighbours.

In the current context – thinking about moving around during periods of snow and ice – the concept of mobility inversion can be applied equally simply. It’s so obvious that I can hardly believe it’s not already being done. Grit the cycling routes and grit the pavements, but don’t grit the roads – rather than encouraging people who normally walk and cycle either to jump into cars or not to move at all, we can then encourage people who normally travel in cars to walk or cycle, or else to not move at all … and isn’t that exactly what we want?

Fear of cycling: article

November 27, 2009

I’ve just added my paper, Fear of Cycling, to the ‘Longer articles’ section of this blog. It’s a pre-publication version, so as not to cause copyright issues with Ashgate, who published a chapter of the same name in the book Cycling and Society, which I edited with Paul Rosen and Peter Cox (2007, Ashgate: Aldershot). I’m putting it up here because quite a few people have been asking after it, which suggests there might be a few more people out there who are struggling to get hold of it and who might quite like to read it in its entirety. (The book from which it comes, I feel duty bound to say, is still in print and available via Ashgate’s website, though I do know that its cost is prohibitive to many.)

There’s been a surge of interest in the paper following its five part serialisation (in edited form) on Copenhagenize.com. For that I would wholeheartedly like to thank both Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize.com, and Marie Kastrup, who is organising Velo-city Global 2010 in Copenhagen, who I met at the last Cycling and Society Research Group symposium in Bolton in September, and who informed Mikael of both my and the paper’s existence. I feel that I ought to say that I regard this paper, like everything I’ve ever written I think, as very much work-in-progress. I wrote it a few years back now, and if I were to write it today (which I can’t imagine doing – time and inclination move on …), I’ve no doubt it’d turn out different. That’s not to say I’m unhappy with it, nor to try to absolve myself of responsibility for having written it – merely to flag up its imperfection, and to invite you – should you feel the urge – to contribute to the development and/or critique of the ideas which it contains ….


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