Posts Tagged ‘fieldwork’

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.”

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 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)?

Building a British cycling culture: can Copenhagen show the way?

January 12, 2011

My thoughts following my recent trip to Copenhagen have been posted on the international, collaborative blog, On Our Own Two Wheels. But given I’m committted to those thoughts and the discussions which they provoke gaining maximum exposure and input, I’m also copying them here. Although I have not asked their permission I anticipate the co-operation of both Ezra Goldman at On Our Own Two Wheels and Richard Lewis, and thank them heartily for their contributions. So, what follows is, in order:

It makes for a rather long post, but you’ll see how it’s broken up into those three separate blog posts.

1. Experiences and thoughts on cycling in Copenhagen

I was in Copenhagen last week, for a meeting of the Danish research project, Bike-ability. Ezra, who works on the project, kindly sorted a bike for me to ride around Copenhagen the next day, so I could get a cyclist’s view of the city.

And what a beautiful day I had! Cold, sure – very cold (especially my feet, despite packing my best cold weather socks – woolie boolies), but blue sky and sunshine bathing the Danish capital in glorious light. I don’t usually ride this style of ‘sensible’ bike, but straightaway I liked how suited it felt to the ‘difficult’ conditions. It felt solid and chunky moving over the ice, and the step-through frame gave me confidence that, should I slip, I’d be able quickly to dismount.

A big difference between the UK and Copenhagen is the treatment of cycling infrastructure. In the UK, cycle routes are very rarely cleared of snow and ice. This means that, in conditions such as those we’ve been having recently, people who ordinarily cycle either stop cycling and find some other way of making their journeys, or they are pushed into using the main roads. It’s a different story in Copenhagen. Some of the back streets weren’t clear, but all of the main arterial cycle routes I rode were.

Apparently there were far fewer people cycling than would usually be the case, even in early December. But again, from an English perspective, huge numbers of people were riding bikes. I stopped often, to watch them flowing through junctions; a beautiful sight, graceful in its silence and wintery light.

People cycling in Copenhagen rarely use their bells! I’d be fascinated to know how this particular mass cycling (non-)behaviour has come about. Mixed with the cold and the drab colours (all the leaves are now gone), the silence gave the cycling procession a funereal quality, which I rather liked (though it also produced a melancholy which made me want to find a warm and cosy cafe and sip hot coffee whilst reading Kierkegaard, whereas my mission was to stay out in the cold and see as much of the city by bike as possible …)

But yes, the numbers of people cycling … very many. I knew it already, but participating in it is another thing – Copenhagen has developed a ‘mass cycling culture’. Cycling is ‘mainstream’ here. I’ve no doubt that the kinds of people you see cycling will vary according to the part of the city and the time of day and week. Where and when I was riding I seemed mainly to be surrounded by younger people, more women than men; many students, I assumed. I stayed behind and followed some, not as a stalker but as a sociologist! Others I overtook, many more overtook me.

It was partly because I was new in the city and unclear on where I was going, and partly due to riding an unfamiliar bike, but along the main arterial routes into and out of the central city I felt I was pedalling a treadmill (to mix a metaphor!). Once I was on one of these cycle lanes which aim flat and straight, it felt hard to get off again. The snow had narrowed them, and people overtake, coming past really quite close, which increased my sense of being ‘hemmed in’.

There are important and intersecting tensions here, between ‘freedom’ and ‘confinement’, and between ‘the mass’ and ‘the elite’. It is crucially important how we negotiate these tensions across the world, as we move towards producing cycling as a major means of urban mobility.

Personally, I don’t like feeling part of a mass, feeling so regulated and restricted in my cycling movements. I don’t like feeling I’m ‘merely’ playing my part in the rhythmic, quotidian reproduction of urban space in the name of the continuation of a neo-liberal capitalist economy. Rather, I like to explore and conquer the city through cycling, to be an urban rebel. (Sure, most people might think me a jerk, but when I’m drinking freedom on my bike I really don’t care …)

But my elitist orientation to cycling in the city is antagonistic to (my ambitions for) cycling as an ordinary practice – one we need huge numbers of people to embrace in order to move towards a planet on which human habitation is viable over the long-term.

So I am in conflict both with my self and with Copenhagen. Luckily for me, that’s an OK place to be. Though of course, I am slightly worried that through my academic work I’m arguing for the kinds of place (cities with high modal shares for cycling, such as Copenhagen) in which I personally wouldn’t want routinely to cycle. (Down with Kierkegaard, up with Nietzsche?)

I have two highlights from my day spent pedalling around Copenhagen. The first is that I spent a day pedalling around Copenhagen (which maybe makes it a longlight ..). The second is getting to visit Christiania, a place I’ve long wanted to go.

Christiania is of course the home of Christiania bikes. I love cycling and I love all those who work in creative ways towards alternative, progressive, socially and ecologically liberated futures. So this is my kind of place!

I’m also a sociologist, and although I recognise that I’m not always – or even often! – very good at it, I like to think critically. I am fond of Denmark and the Netherlands, I love cycling in both countries, and I love how useful and stimulating they are to thinking about cycling and cycling futures. Heaven help us if we didn’t have their shining examples.

But I’m sometimes puzzled how the Dutch and Danes seem resistant to opening up their cycling practices to critical scrutiny. Amongst many of the Dutch and the Danes whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting, cycling’s something people simply, unproblematically just do.

Sociology cracks open and scrutinizes such taken-for-granted, common-sense perspectives, not to reveal them as false but in order to understand better the complex processes through which they’re constructed, maintained and,  yes, routinised.

So what I most love about Christiania and its bikes is how as a concrete place it provides evidence, both ‘actually’ (materially, in the form of a factory) and symbolically (culturally, in the form of the production and reproduction of particular ethics, aesthetics, sensibilities) of how a cycling culture gets built.

2. Response from Richard Lewis

Very interesting post, David. I am struggling a little with the contrast between what you say here (in which you essentially like Copenhagen’s cycling culture even if it’s not for you) and what you infer in your five part article regarding the fear of cycling, published on

My questions are, (aside from your dislike of being ‘constrained’) do you on balance actually like Copenhagen type infrastructure or not, and if you do, then can you see it happening, albeit to a limited extent, in the UK–on condition of design excellence and other conditions as you see fit? From your professional perspective, can you see dedicated infrastructure (as opposed, for example, to networks of streets with ‘filtered permeability’ as in London) having a significant effect on levels of cycling? Do you think we have reached a stage where the fear of cycling in society, and indeed public and media ‘aggression’ towards cyclists as an ‘out group’ is now so embedded that only dedicated infrastructure can produce the ‘next wave’ and the ‘normalisation’ of cycling?

For my part, I was one of those people who was ‘anti-segregation’ for the reasons you’ve outlined until I visited Copenhagen, and now I’m unsure. I thought the approach taken in the Netherlands was somewhat ‘gold plated’ and therefore unlikely to be achieved in the UK. Copenhagen appears to demonstrate a highly achievable example: the design of infrastructure is simple and continuous, and features the repeated application of simple design principles. I particularly like the treatment at many junctions (share the right-turn lane with motors), which minimises conflict without adding extra signal phases. And I can see the system being implemented on selected major routes into and around Central London and outer London town centres, subject to some design improvements for pedestrians.

However, on the other hand, I also agree with the ‘Bikeability’ cycle training approach, which trains cyclists to ride in vehicular fashion, sharing the carriageway with motors, and to overcome their fear of motors (a fear that is highly embedded in our society). I’m unsure of the long-term benefits of this: certainly riders become more confident and it’s been shown that they ride in a wider variety of contexts (progressing from all off-road to riding on quieter streets, for example). But should they find themselves being intimidated or in a close shave once too often, might that confidence ebb again, especially if there is an intervening break in cycling?

My suggestion, which I would like you to consider, is that good infrastructure for cycling in the UK is a mix of all things: where cyclists ride the streets and roads with motors, then motor traffic speeds should be reduced, enabling fearless sharing; where direct arterial road routes provide the shortest link to key destinations (and the alternative routes are indirect, perceived as unsafe at night, or difficult to follow), then Copenhagen-style infrastructure should be provided where there is sufficient width and measures should be taken to increase the relative convenience of cycling compared with other modes, by introducing networks of ‘modal filters’ (road closures with gaps for cyclists) to maintain direct access for cyclists and reduce route options for drivers.

The key thing in any event, it seems to me, is good design of public spaces. I don’t think we should consider ‘cycling’ or indeed ‘walking’, ‘using public transport’ or ‘driving’ in isolation–movement is not an end in itself. I like the Copenhagen philosophy that actually ‘quality of life’ is what should drive policy development and decisions. It’s a holy grail, of course, since the problem we have in the UK is a cultural ‘silo’ mentality of ‘functionality of space’ and humans as the ‘units’ that ‘require mobility’. When the functions of planners, transport planners, designers, and so on are properly linked, by an enterprising political leader perhaps, as in Copenhagen, then perhaps you might agree real progress towards a cycling society can be achieved in Britain.

3. My response to Richard

Hi Richard

Thanks very much for such a thoughtful response to my observations of Copenhagen, and for so considered a set of questions.

I will try to respond directly to your three specific questions.

1) Do I like Copenhagen’s cycling infrastructure?

Not really, no. But whether or not I like it seems slightly irrelevant. My main consideration is whether or not it transforms – or has the potential to transform – the city. And here my response is ambivalent. Currently I do not think Copenhagen’s cycling infrastructure is transformative, and before talking to a range of experienced and knowledgeable people in Copenhagen I doubted the potential for the city’s approach to cycling infrastructure progressively to de-centre and displace the car. But now I am less sure of myself – precisely, I have more optimism that Copenhagen’s approach (the provision of segregated space for cycling, which means people are effectively pedalling down narrow urban corridors – in relative ‘safety’ but also in relative ‘confinement’) contains both the ambition and the capacity to move beyond the model of the corridor, and incrementally to re-colonise ever more urban space for people, and thus de-privatise it from the grip of parked and moving cars.

2) Would, in the UK context, dedicated cycling infrastructure increase cycling?

Yes, I think so. For the last year my colleagues and I have been doing extensive and intensive ethnographic fieldwork in four English cities, and we have talked to many, many people who say (and I believe them!) they would like to cycle but are too afraid to do so under currently dominant cycling conditions. The provision of dedicated, segregated cycling infrastructure is an obvious mechanism for helping such people cycle. But I would emphasise, it is only one such obvious mechanism. Such provision should be just one of the tools in our kit for getting Britain on its bike. Here I wholeheartedly agree with your suggestion that such provision makes most sense along wider, key arterial routes, and should comprise part of a cycling network which embraces the existing – but hugely civilised (through for example slower speed limits and changing cultural sensibilities and legal responsibilities across different mobility users) – road network.

3) Because of the precarious state of cycling, is dedicated infrastructure the only realistic way of triggering a step-change in cycling in the UK?

My response to this question depends on my capacity to imagine a set of British politicians prepared to bite the bullet, and instigate – and then survive – a broader and sweeping portfolio of progressive changes to Britain’s transport environment. Because if UK government is capable of civilising the car, then no, we do not need a comprehensive dedicated cycling infrastructure (there will always be a case for some, selective, such infrastructure) – Copenhagen has such infrastructure because it was not prepared so to civilise the car, although clearly it has managed to ameliorate some of the car’s worst effects.

However, adopting a (slightly!) more pragmatic perspective, then yes, I think the installation of very high quality segregated cycling infrastructure along key arterial routes within and between British cities, alongside a range of other measures, is perhaps the way most effectively and quickly to reach a tipping point for cycling, which can trigger its elevation to a qualitatively different level (in terms of both practice – say, 20% of all urban journeys across the UK by 2025 – and perception – so that cycling becomes a perfectly acceptable and unremarkable thing for anyone at all to do); i.e. the ‘normalisation’ of cycling. This range of other measures would include the implementation of slower speeds (30 km/hr) across the rest of the road network, and would be aligned with other changes; infrastructural (such as modal filters, as you suggest), legal (such as stricter liability rules), and cultural (such as the adoption of cycling amongst high-profile charismatic individuals, and the consignment – and commensurate stigmatisation – of ‘cyclist-baiting’ to the most reactionary fringes of the gutter press).

In general, I seem increasingly to be moving towards what I’d call a ‘messy vision’ for cycling in the UK. By this I mean that getting Britain moving by bike will require many different interventions, which produce multiple (and potentially unpredictable) synergies, which together ‘spin’ us into a qualitatively new transport culture. Relatedly, I seem also increasingly to be adopting a position marked less by fixed adherence to some model over another (which when it comes to debating ‘the proper place of cycling’ (on or off road; integration or segregation) in the UK might be seen as a hindrance to debate about progressive cycling futures), and more by recognition that a heterogeneous rather than homogeneous ‘cycling system’ might be the inevitable and best outcome of our current and future efforts.

But going back to the thrust of your questions, I think increased provision of specific and segregated cycling infrastructure might be key to getting the velorution rolling. The current and massive problem with otherwise wonderful initiatives such as Bikeability (a UK cycle training scheme, not to be confused with the Danish research project of the same name!) is that, given the existing cycling environment, we’re destined to lose the vast majority of those we train. However well we train them, only the hardy minority will stay on their bikes for long. We have strategically to crack, and then mine, the current dominance of car-based urban automobility, and the establishment of cycling corridors – a la Copenhagen and (in a fashion) London – on key, highly visible arterial routes seems one way of doing so.

Finally, can I alert you to an upcoming event designed to explore these kinds of question? ‘Building Cycling Culture/s’ is taking place at The Phoenix Digital Arts Centre in Leicester on Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th June 2011. I’m co-organising it with Rachel Aldred, who leads the ‘Cycling Cultures’ research project at the University of East London, Andy Salkeld of Leicester City Council, and John Coster of ‘Citizens’ Eye’. We’ll be announcing further details soon, but suffice to say our vision is both to recognise and celebrate the myriad ways in which many people are currently working for cycling, and also to explore and debate what now needs to be done to produce in the UK a broad and inclusive cycling culture.

They’re some thoughts pretty much off the top of my head – but I hope they clarify my views (though as I hope I’ve suggested, my views are always under construction and in formation ….), and that we have more debate over these and similar matters into the future.

All the very best


7th Cycling and Society Symposium, Oxford

September 10, 2010
  • Was it the venue – the prestigious University of Oxford?
  • Was it the marvellous organisation of Tim Jones?
  • Is it that research into cycling is really on the up?
  • Is it a reflection of cycling’s growing popularity?

Whatever the reasons, this year’s Cycling and Society Symposium, which took place earlier this week, was the biggest yet.

Far more paper abstracts were submitted than could possibly be squeezed into a one-day programme – which was the first sign that the event’s appeal had broadened. Tim invited me, along with Henrietta Sherwin from the University of the West of England and John Parkin (who I think we can call the UK’s first ‘Professor of Cycling’!) from London’s South Bank University, to help him review the abstracts. It was hard to turn down so many submissions, given that they all sounded interesting and covered important topics. But on the upside, I think we came up with a blistering programme, which included researchers at very different stages of their careers (including I think I’m right in saying our first ever presentation from an undergraduate – Samuel Johns’ excellent exploration of the fixie phenomenon), from varied backgrounds (with Andy Cope, head of Sustrans’ Research and Monitoring Unit, giving the day’s last paper – which I took as a call for us academics to try harder to make our research really count), from around the world (Jennifer Bonham is over from Australia, and Peter Pelzer came across from Amsterdam), and orienting to an eclectic mix of highly pertinent themes (interactions between cycling/cyclists and others; gender, and the lifecourse; cycling cultures and sub-cultures; theory into practice).

More people came than ever before too. Around 50 of us, crammed into a splendidly light and airy room at the University Club, overlooking the cricket pitch (I was last in this room for an advisory board meeting of the project I work on, which unfortunately coincided with the opening match of this year’s World Cup, between South Africa and Mexico – supporters of those teams had congregated to watch the match in the room below, and we upstairs valiantly struggled to make ourselves heard above the irrepressible cacophony of vuvuzelas). Although I am obviously favourably predisposed to say such a thing, I think the Cycling and Society Symposia have become – in my experience – among the more inclusive spaces within academia; cycle campaigners sit alongside university lecturers, local authority practitioners next to Masters and PhD students – and everyone seems to get along famously and to be able to make their voices heard. For a perspective from one first-time attendee, you can check out the account composed by Kevin Hickman, Chair of the Inclusive Cycling Forum, on the Sustainable Witney website.

Congratulations and thanks to Tim and his Oxford team for a really magnificent event. Here’s the lovely man himself – I can say that because we know each other pretty well, having first met at the event I organised in Lancaster back in 2004, having both stuck with research into cycling since then, and now finding ourselves working together on a ‘proper project’.

Although it’s far from cycle-friendly, Oxford is the most cycle-friendly city to so far host the Symposium (previous venues being Lancaster, Cardiff, Chester, Guildford, Bristol and Bolton), and I enjoyed pedalling between the train station, the Symposium venue and Tim’s house, where I stayed the night. It’s the second time I’ve cycled in and around Oxford this year, and I have two main, obvious and blunt observations.

First, the number of people on bikes is striking. Lancaster, where I live, is seen as a relatively good place to cycle, and it has been one of Cycling England’s ‘cycling (demonstration) towns’ for five years now; yet I never feel part of a steady stream of cyclists – and so I never feel ‘normal’ – in the way I do when riding around Oxford. The students aren’t back yet, but the number of people moving around by bike is staggeringly high relative to Lancaster. Of course, it could be much higher – all I want to note here is how the experience of cycling is so qualitatively different in such a place. I don’t feel out of place, I don’t feel like I’m trying to make a point. Much more than I ever do around Lancaster, I consciously feel like I’m simply riding a bike.

Second, the increased prevalence of cycling clearly translates into altered behaviour among drivers of motorised vehicles. I want to say much more about this in the context of our recent family cycle-touring holiday in south-west France when I get the chance, but … I think there’s a discernible difference in the way in which car drivers interact with cyclists between Oxford and Lancaster. I want to stress that it is a minor difference, but a minor difference which nonetheless translates into a major qualitative leap in my sense of cycling ease, comfort and security. Cycling in Oxford I was still vigilant; I still often felt hemmed in and threatened by cars; cycling with Tim two-abreast down a quiet and narrow one-way back street with a 20 mph limit, I still felt vaguely discomforted and harassed by cars approaching from behind – almost as if we were doing something wrong; I still felt cars had priority and that I was fitting in as best I could around the edges. But I also felt noticed; I felt that motorists recognised my presence; and I felt that motorists were prepared to – and did – alter their behaviour because of my presence. Of course motorists in Lancaster also do all these things, but sitting on my bike in Lancaster, it doesn’t feel like they do these things, whereas sitting on my bike in Oxford, it does feel like motorists there do. I suspect it comes down to very small changes – a few miles per hour knocked off the motorist’s speed as they approach you, a few extra centimetres clearance as they come past, a few extra seconds willingness to wait, rather than steer into your path – but, especially when they’re taken together, from the cyclist’s point-of-view these very small changes really matter.

I’m sure cyclists in Oxford take this extra little recognition and courtesy for granted, which of course they should. And they should also be expecting much, much more. But for me the lesson of this little comparative study between Lancaster and Oxford is clear, and it pretty much follows CTC’s Safety in Numbers campaign – our road environment can be civilised, and every little step we take in civilising our road environment will result in a noticeable improvement in the quality of the cycling experience. There’s a chicken-and-egg here; the number of cyclists in Oxford has over time altered the behaviours of motorists, but how do you alter the behaviours of motorists when you don’t have the cyclists to help? To me, it looks like we need a few more rules and regulations in advance, to legislate for the kinds of behaviours which have emerged more organically, more culturally in a place like Oxford. It could be a failure of my imagination, but I can’t see how we can make the behaviour of motorists more generous and civilised towards cyclists without, for example, introducing urban wide speed limits of 20 mph, and without changing liability rules to put greater responsibilities on motorists in the event of collisions with more vulnerable others. Introduce those things and I’m fairly confident we’d need the quantity of cycle parking in Lancaster which they currently enjoy in Oxford, and in Oxford they’d need the quantity of cycle parking which the citizens of Dutch cities currently enjoy; in other words, we’d see a step-change in levels of cycling across the UK.

Thinking about cycling, in Dublin

May 17, 2010

(Shameless bit of self-publicity, but ….) I’m off to Dublin in a couple of days, to deliver Dublin Cycling Campaign’s Annual Cycling Research Lecture. As part of my preparation, I’ve been reading about the current state of cycling in Ireland’s capital city; it looks as though there have been some interesting, and encouraging, developments there recently. I hope I’ll have the opportunity to ride around the city whilst I’m there, and aim to find time to reflect on the experiences when I’m back in the UK. Next week feels like the first week in months when I have no plans to travel beyond Lancaster (except, of course, by bike), and I can hardly wait. Among my plans are to blog about some of the things which I’ve been doing and thinking about recently …

If you want to find out more about cycling in Dublin, the Dublin Cycling Campaign is probably the best place to start. We’ll have to wait and see whether they want to thank me for going across the Irish Sea to talk to them, but sincere thanks from me to them, and especially Damien o’Tuama, for inviting me over there.

Understanding cycling …?

April 14, 2010

I realised earlier today that we’ve just passed the half-way stage of the project on which I’m currently earning my living, Understanding Walking and Cycling. This prompted me to look back at a short piece I wrote for our local cycle campaign’s newsletter, at the start of the project, and to reflect a little on the extent to which the reality, 18 months into the project, matches my expectations back then. Here’s what I wrote, 18 months ago:

Tory leader David Cameron emerges from his house with his bike, and sets off on his cycle to work. Perhaps he wears a helmet, perhaps not. Perhaps a ministerial car takes his papers, perhaps he carries them himself. What’s clear is that he’s made a commitment to ride his bike, and is doing so.

But what conversations, discussions, negotiations and decisions have taken place behind the closed doors of the Cameron household to enable him to make that journey by bike? Does Mr Cameron make all such journeys by bike, or only some? If only some, why those rather than others?

It might surprise you to learn that we don’t know much about the specific processes which get people onto bikes and out riding. Similarly, although we know that the vast majority of people –famous and not-so-famous, young and old, men and women – do not ride bikes, we have little understanding of the processes which result in all these people not getting on their bikes, and moving around in other ways.

There’s a very visible world of transport, and then there’s a massive invisible world underneath it, producing the visible. We can see people moving about, in cars, on bikes, in trains, on foot. What we can’t see is the processes which got them there.

A new research project based at Lancaster University aims to change that. It’s called ‘Understanding Walking and Cycling’. I’m working on the project over the next 3 years.

A sceptic might say that we don’t need to understand walking and cycling, we need actions to promote them. By funding research into walking and cycling, Government can defer such actions. So long as the Department for Transport is awaiting evidence of ‘what really works’ in getting people out walking and cycling, it can avoid doing some of those things we already know would get more people walking and cycling – widespread 20 mph speed limits, closing streets to cars, widening pavements, building high quality off-road routes.

Of course, spending a bit of money on thinking is an awful lot cheaper, and politically less difficult, than spending a lot of money on doing. But there is a sound logical basis to the project. We want to understand how different kinds of people make decisions about which mode of transport to use for short, local, urban journeys. These are journeys which we know could easily be made by bike or foot. Our task is to figure out the many, varied and complex reasons as to why different kinds of people do and don’t make such journeys by bike or on foot.

We’ll be finding out how people do things through actually getting involved in their lives, and attending to the details of their ordinary routines. We’ll be hanging out in their houses, accompanying them on journeys, discussing their reasons for doing this rather than that, probing their relationships to things (car keys, umbrellas, ‘sensible’ shoes, waterproofs, bikes, timetables, maps ….) which help or hinder them from moving in particular ways. Getting behind Mr Cameron’s front door, in other words. 


My immediate thoughts, re-reading this, are:

  • what I wrote back then still makes sense to me, which gives me some confidence that both I personally and the project more generally are at least being reasonably consistent … (which I don’t think is necessarily a good thing, but I’ve also been led to believe that ‘proper academic projects’ are supposed to deliver what they promised at the outset to deliver …)
  • but much more importantly, also that a suspicion I had back then has only grown stronger, actually much stronger – namely, that we cannot understand cycling only (or even mainly) by seeking to understand what goes on behind the ‘closed doors’ of households. There is something out there which – my sociological tongue-in-cheek – we might call ‘actually-existing realities’; and to understand cycling we need very consciously and explicitly to observe those realities, and critically to consider the ways in which they might be inhibiting or facilitating people’s decisions to cycle, or not to cycle. So as I mentioned in my recent post about our Worcester-based fieldwork, Griet and I have been paying much more ethnographic attention to conditions out there in the transport environment. Our (preliminary, non peer-reviewed) conclusions will not come as much of a surprise to you, indeed will strike most of you as statin’ the bleedin’ obvious (namely, those conditions for cycling absolutely suck). But I must confess to feeling very privileged to be a sociologist getting paid to stand on street corners (a la William Foote Whyte, one of my key sociological influences), from where I can pay very serious attention to actually-existing conditions for cycling, observe how people negotiate their ways through those conditions, and move slowly towards a position, perhaps a year from now, when Griet and I, along with our colleagues, will be reporting and discussing our findings, hopefully with multiple and diverse audiences. Half-way through the project, and half-way through our qualitative fieldwork, I’m feeling pretty confident that our calls for fundamental change to currently dominant conditions – if we’re serious about promoting walking and cycling (and how serious different ‘stakeholders’ really are about that does of course throw up a whole set of different questions …) – will have very firm bases in empirical realities.

Incidentally, please don’t take my use of David Cameron and his cycling here as some kind of indication that I support the Tories. For my own conscience, I feel the need to say: I have never voted Tory, and I have no intention of ever doing so. Should anyone be in the slightest bit interested, my vote on May 6th will be for Gina Dowding.

Worcester fieldwork

March 31, 2010

Griet and I are just back from two weeks of ethnographic fieldwork, exploring walking and cycling in Worcester. We stayed in a fantastic cottage in Lower Broadheath, a few miles west of the city centre. Called ‘Malvern View’, there was indeed a view of the Malvern Hills from the back windows and garden.

Beyond the city limits, we were right on top of some superb cycling lanes, which led to truly wonderful cycling country. So of course, I took advantage of the absence of many of the usual restrictions on my cycling, and got in a fair few miles, riding through Worcestershire and Herefordshire. I rode the climb of British Camp, onto the Malvern Hills, for the first time since I used to ride in this part of the world as a teenager, when I lived in south Birmingham and was a member of Shirley Roads Club. The tough climb of Ankerdine Hill was almost on our doorstep, so I got in a good few ascents of that. And I did my first century ride of the year, across to Broadway in the Cotswolds on a dry and sunny Sunday.

But of course, lest anyone should forget, we were there to work. We’d already made four or five shorter trips to Worcester. The main focus of our qualitative research is on the south-western part of the city, known as Lower Wick. We’ve used various methods to understand walking and cycling there – doing serious amounts of exploring on foot and by bike around Lower Wick, St John’s and Worcester ourselves; observing other people walking and cycling; travelling with people as they walk and cycle; and talking to as many people, and as many different kinds of people, as we can, about their experiences of and attitudes to walking and cycling.

(For those – probably the majority – of you who don’t know it, Worcester is cut in half, north to south, by the River Severn. Worcester city centre is to the east of the River, and the smaller centre of St John’s is to the west, with the largely residential area of Lower Wick directly to the south of St John’s. Although there is one bridge (and there are soon to be two, see below) specifically for walking and cycling across the River, there is only one bridge for motorised traffic, which leads to some, errrm, issues … – some would say ‘problems’, others ‘opportunities’ …)

Our aim with this longer visit was finally and really to get to grips with walking and cycling in Worcester, to finish our fieldwork there feeling like we’d got a good ethnographic understanding of how these sustainable modes of mobility variously figure (and don’t figure) in different people’s lives. I’ll write more about our experiences over on our research blog later. I’m off on holiday tomorrow, so it won’t be for a while (and straight after Easter, we’re jumping back into the field, this time to Leicester, and specifically Belgrave, which is the part of the city where the Hindu population is most concentrated). But I’m hoping that a week’s relaxation (on the little Scottish island of Colonsay, along with 50-odd other Lancastrians – an English invasion!) will be conducive to – amongst other things – slowing down and digesting our ethnographic experiences so far.

For now, there are just a couple of things I feel especially driven to mention …

The first thing which struck me in Worcester was how widespread is cycling on the pavement there. In my view all of this is entirely understandable and legitimate, although some of it is sanctioned by the authorities and some isn’t … One part of the city on which we have really focused, because it’s so clearly problematic for both walking and cycling, is St John’s centre. Nowhere in St John’s, to the best of my knowledge, is cycling officially permitted on pavements, but I’d guess (we’re qualitative, not quantitative social scientists, so when it comes to numbers guessing is what I do best …!) that perhaps 2 out of every 3 cyclists take to the pavement at some stage of their journey when moving through St John’s centre. (Some people continue to ride their bike on the pavement, others get off and push.) When you look at images such as this one, you might begin to see why ….

A second thing which struck me, during our time in Worcester, is how people tend to take-for-granted, and to accept, the conditions which – moving by bike or on foot – they ordinarily, every day, negotiate. This is in no way intended as a criticism. We all learn to live with the world-as-it-is, and it is to people’s great credit that they find ways of continuing to cycle – of making cycling work for them – when the world-as-it-is seems so thoroughly, utterly hostile to cycling. Pavement cycling is just one strategy which people use in order to make cycling work for them, in very adverse conditions which have determined that the vast majority of people have stopped cycling and/or can’t even begin to contemplate starting it.

For five years until recently, Worcester was a Sustainable Travel Town. Locally, the project was known (by those who know about it, at least) as – wait for it – Choose How You Move. As you can see, they’ve got some nice signage as a result.

But you know what? After two weeks in Worcester, I’m left thinking that those people who manage to walk and cycle there are like an endangered species, hanging on by the skin of their teeth.  I get the very strong feeling not that cycling and walking are being promoted (though of course I know that they are, to some degree), but that only the committed, the brave or the desperate walk and cycle, and that these people who do walk and cycle develop all kinds of strategies – including pavement cycling – which enable them to maintain these practices in the face of a callous indifference towards them.

In general, my strong sense is that these two most sustainable modes of mobility are still in the process of being driven off the streets of Worcester and St John’s (if not of Lower Wick, which by comparison is a backwater beacon of peace, quiet, conviviality and sustainability – though also, of course, home to many of the cars which cause many of the problems …).

In general, I try to be optimistic about the prospects for cycling. But sometimes I’m, shall we say, challenged …

On paper, promoting cycling in Worcester should be an absolute cinch – remarkably flat, relatively dry, reasonably contained, plenty of ‘easy-to-reach’ target groups. With the political will and the right policies, 50% of all urban journeys by bike within the next decade could easily be achieved. Oh, but the practice – well, as we know so well, that’s a very different story .. if also a depressingly familiar one.

Anyway, I won’t go on about our Worcester fieldwork here. If you want more detail and/or more nuance, pay a visit at a later date to Griet and my research site, which is bookmarked somewhere over on the right there …

But to finish on a brighter note, work on the Diglis Bridge seems to be coming along nicely. One of Sustrans’ Connect2 sites, when it’s complete (due date, June 2010) the Bridge will connect Lower Wick with parts of south Worcester to the east of the River Severn, and should also provide a very attractive walking and cycling route into the city centre. So, the revolution might just have begun, at least on summer Sundays when the sun is shining …

Ethnographies of Cycling

February 19, 2010

Here are three of the UK’s foremost cycling thinkers – Dr Justin Spinney from the University of Surrey, Dr Katrina Brown from the Macaulay Institute in Aberdeen, and Dr Ben Fincham from the University of Sussex. They’re pictured during the Ethnographies of Cycling workshop which we ran here at Lancaster University just before Christmas.

My colleague Griet Scheldeman and I weren’t at all sure how the day would go. CeMoRe (the Centre for Mobilities Research) here at Lancaster asked whether we wanted to organise an event around cycling, so – not ones to look a gift horse in the mouth – Griet put on her anthropological hat and I put on my cycling cap, and we tried to conceive an event which would both speak to our current qualitative research into cycling (and non-cycling), and have wider resonance, appeal and value.

It struck us that, over the last few years, quite a few people have started to investigate cycling from social and cultural perspectives, and – more specifically – to explore cycling ethnographically. Put very simply, ethnography is a scientific research method, aimed at understanding people’s ordinary (and extraordinary) practices, using whatever means make sense, but generally involving ‘hanging out’ with those people whose lives and practices you are seeking to understand. If you’re curious to know more, the wikipedia entry on ethnography is probably as good a place to start as any.

Griet is an anthropologist, and ethnography is the anthropological method. I’m a sociologist who favours the ethnographic method, mainly because I love hanging out with people, seeing how things are for them, and simply dwelling in everyday life. So we’re both fans of the method, and we felt we could help to consolidate what ethnographic research into cycling has so far taken place in the UK by pulling people together to discuss ethnographies of cycling.

We also knew we wanted to run the event as a workshop – designed to share, collectively think about, and produce knowledge – rather than have a largely passive audience trying to stay awake long enough to soak up the knowledge of a few active ‘experts’.

But we didn’t know how popular the idea would be. So we were really pleased that, so soon before Christmas (though, luckily for us, before the really icy weather which disabled so many people’s travel plans), well over 40 people made the trip to Lancaster. Perhaps more pleasing was the mix of people who made the effort to participate – not only academics from across the UK (everywhere from Aberdeen to Plymouth, Edinburgh to Sussex) and further afield (Damien O’Tuama made the trip over from Dublin), but also Local Authority Cycling Officers, cycle campaigners, independent consultants and people from British Cycling.

As you can see, we organised the room in a way designed to encourage people to talk, and to get to know one another. Doing this can be risky, but what I love about cycling, and this includes thinking about cycling, is how people always so want to talk about it. I don’t know if it’s because people who are interested in cycling tend to be natural participants, or if there’s something specifically about cycling which promotes participation, but in my experience when cycling’s on the menu it’s very rarely quiet!

The morning comprised the best set of presentations I’ve ever seen and heard anywhere. OK, I might be a little biased, but we asked all the speakers to give particular attention to the methodological aspects of their research, and – in very different ways – they all did a really marvellous job at that. Ben Fincham started the day brilliantly, speaking with real verve, energy and incisiveness of his ethnographic fieldwork with cycle messengers. Robin Parker gave us a great (graphic!) and entertaining insight into his ethnography of a naked bike ride. Katrina Brown presented a carefully crafted analysis of some of the issues and difficulties involved in doing video-based fieldwork among mountain bikers. Justin Spinney gave us a bold and authoritative conceptual argument, calling for ethnographic work which contextualises bicycles and cycling as aspects of complex everyday lives. And Rachel Aldred presented a massively compelling series of sociological insights arising in connection with her ongoing investigations into cycling cultures in English cities.

Impressed is an understatement. We are very fortunate, at present in the UK, to have so many brilliant people applying themselves to thinking about cycling. I’m both incredibly glad and rather amazed to suggest that the new dawn for cycling studies which Paul Rosen, Peter Cox and I called for in our Introduction to Cycling and Society in 2007 seems to be breaking! That’s not to say I’m satisfied – I won’t, personally, be satisfied until more than half of all urban journeys in Britain are made by bike, and I believe that sociology – similarly to most other disciplines – has an important part to play in achieving such a vision.

Not only was the content of the presentations absolutely first class, but all the presenters were so damn good at sticking to time that I had no opportunity to ding my bike bell – my time-keeper’s device – at them! Here I am, finally getting the chance to bring order out of chaos via my little black bell later in the day …

Before a super lunch, Elizabeth Shove, Professor of Sociology here at Lancaster and someone with a strong theoretical and empirical interest in practices (and of course, although it is also and always much else, cycling is very clearly a practice, or set of practices), gave her thoughts on the morning, which – I think it’s fair to say – ruffled a few feathers. I’d like to think that was a good thing – Elizabeth’s comments and criticisms certainly gave many of us something to talk about, and – speaking only for myself now – will I hope prod me into being both more strident and more rigorous in arguing the value of ethnographic research into cycling.

We were very fortunate to have Jo Vergunst, an anthropologist from Aberdeen University, come down to run the afternoon’s ethnographic exercises with Griet. Here’s Jo, later in the day, getting to grips with a Brompton – the anthropologists in particular seemed to find the Brompton a very fascinating thing. What to many of us has become an ‘ordinary’ machine was to them a whole world waiting to be explored, folded, unfolded and understood … I know that Griet’s explorations are ongoing …

We planned the afternoon as a break out of the office. We wanted everyone to have a go at ‘doing ethnographies of cycling’, no matter how contrived and limited – in so short a space of time – that would inevitably be. Although it wasn’t compulsory, we were keen for people to go outside, out – so to speak – ‘into the field’. First, Jo and Griet provided a quick overview of ethnography, and some top tips and suggestions. Then, we split into groups and headed out to get our hand’s dirty – people needed no prompting, seizing the initiative and tackling the exercise with gusto. As you can see, some people headed straight for the bike sheds …

Many people commented on the amount of stuff which people in Lancaster leave on their bikes when parked. Panniers, lights, pumps – all these kinds of things are often left with the bike – it’s normal to do so here. It’s a basic observation, but one which goes to show that you can never take things for granted, and even within the UK there’ll be significant variations in how people cycle, use bikes, park bikes, talk about bikes … you get the idea. Other groups wandered over to the main entrance to the University campus, looking for people on bikes. Alas, the weather was a bit miserable and all the students and lots of staff had already packed up for Christmas, so conditions were far from fertile for really fruitful ethnography. But hopefully everyone got the basic idea, that by really looking, concentrating on looking, you get to see all kinds of things which would otherwise probably pass you by.

With few bikes around, one group focussed on ‘traces’ of bikes and cycling – D-locks left attached to railings, cycling logos painted on the ground … Another group explored the potential meanings of cycling’s absence (weather, time of year, time of day, lack of infrastructure, lack of cultural messages announcing cycling as ‘normal’ and expected …). Another lot jumped in a car, to explore car users’ perspectives on cycling at Lancaster University (and among other things concluded, I think importantly, that there’s nothing to suggest to those inside cars that they should watch out for, or expect to negotiate space with, people cycling, let alone that they might actually be interacting with a ‘cycling environment’). One group observed a traffic island, and thought about – and with a Brompton experimented with – the different cycling lines it’s possible to take around such a piece of infrastructure, and why and how different people might take different lines, and with what consequences. Perhaps Andy Salkeld and Peter Cox had the best idea – proving that you don’t need to look for bikes or cyclists to do ethnography of cycling, they headed straight to the nearest bar! I don’t think they were motivated purely by the prospect of a pint, and certainly they garnered some good insights into experiences and perceptions of cycling from those they met.

And we even managed to see how many ethnographers it takes to unfold a Brompton …

There was an ‘expert’ in there somewhere …!

Huge thanks to everyone for coming along and making such an enjoyable and stimulating day. I hope the workshop helped to sustain the energies of people already involved in research into cycling, encouraged a few more, perhaps initiated a few new friendships, created a few more conversations, and generally acted as another small step on the road to thinking cycling into a place of greater centrality, both inside and outside of higher education. People tend to say nice things (to your face, at least!) about a workshop they know you’ve been involved in organising, but I really hope that all those who made the effort to come along got something from the day.

And how great, until late into the night, to catch up and share a few beers with some of the people I first met back in 2004, at the Cycling and the Social Sciences Symposium, also hosted by CeMoRe and held here at Lancaster. There are more parents among us now than there were back then, but it was great to see that we still know how to party, and that we’ve gained quite a few more friends along the way!

With thanks to CeMoRe and the Understanding Walking and Cycling project for hosting and financially supporting the event, and particularly to the Project’s administrator Sheila Constantine for organising it all so efficiently, and ensuring the day itself went off so smoothly, and to our boss, Professor Colin Pooley, for letting Griet and I get on with it but then showing up on the day and being a model participant. And special thanks to my long-suffering colleague Griet Scheldeman, who not only organised the workshop with me, but is once again letting me nick her quality photos for my own questionable ends …

Sociology by bike

October 15, 2009

As part of my paid work, on the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, I’m undertaking what are called ‘go-alongs’ with people as they walk or cycle around their local area. Going-along with someone is one way of exploring and gaining greater understanding of how they experience their journey.

In the past, I’ve followed my own cycling journeys, talking into a digital voice recorder as I ride. I find that this really helps, later, in recalling those journeys, and it is a particularly powerful way of capturing the kinds of detail which might seem trivial, but which when assembled actually constitute the cycling experience.

It’s by really attending to the minutiae of a cycling journey that you realise how much actually goes on. I don’t want to risk boring you with all of those details here, not all in one go, anyway! But it’s fair to say that I am interested in quite gradually and carefully unpicking the taken-for-granted status of assorted cycling journeys, and in getting-more-to-grips with some of the complexities which they contain. (There’s a lot to say about this, but to  give some simple examples of initiating questions, so that you might get the gist of it – why when I ride do I sometimes feel the compulsion to go faster/slower; why sometimes the desire to go faster/slower? What happens to the discourses which attempt to legitimate, govern and structure my subjective experiences as ‘a cyclist’ (‘I am being green’, ‘I am being healthy’) when I’m actually engaged in different practices of cycling? – I mention this now mainly because it struck me, on my ride into work this morning, how my commute is supposedly good for my employer; it supposedly makes me a better, more productive, healthier worker; but actually, cycling to work often makes me want to bunk off work, because the idea of going into the office when I can just keep riding seems – sometimes and to be honest – faintly ludicrous!)

I’m also interested in using the specifics of cycling journeys as an empirical base from which to make little, slightly more analytical, observations. Analysis requires data, and data requires attention to detail.

Sociologist use various techniques for pulling mundane details out from their ordinary moorings in the quotidian, to hold them up to greater scrutiny and analysis. But I admit, it can be difficult to see the value of attending to the humdrum, the kinds of things we do without really noticing we do them. It can seem sort of, well, insignificant …

On the other hand, unless you do it, you will never know. And whilst I’m not in general a huge fan of what we might call micro-sociologies, the kinds of sociology which seek to understand the world by very close attention to the ordinary, I admit to finding the work of some sociologists in this vein to be really quite, well, extraordinary. To give one example, in his analyses of ordinary conversations, the American sociologist Harvey Sacks could make one ‘hmmmm …’ speak a thousand words. Considering the banal content of his empirical base, Sacks’ analyses were extraordinarily powerful, insightful.

As with Sacks’ conversations, and as with everything else in everyday life, every bike ride is structured, and in multiple ways. My bike rides are structured, your bike rides are structured. We can explore, understand and (if we feel the need) critique these underlying structures to our bike rides. Most of us already do so, to some extent. So for example, when we see a pinch point on the road up ahead, we know it can spell trouble, and we become hyper-alert or take remedial action, such as moving into a more central position on the carriageway, in an effort to deter traffic from behind from overtaking.

Similarly, we understand – bodily if not entirely consciously (in other words, our bodies sometimes understand better than do our minds) – that going up hill is harder and slows us down, going down hill is easier and speeds us up. Hills are pretty obdurate physical structures. Or again, we ride some times more than others, some places more than others, for a whole host of reasons (and these reasons are importantly temporally, geographically and socially structured). Sometimes we like ‘cycling structures’; for example, I’m a fan of cycling clubs (organisational structures) and many cycle lanes (spatial structures). Sometimes we might ignore or rebel against them; think of traffic lights or ‘cyclists dismount’ signs (structures which we might consider as hostile, or discriminatory, to cycling).

So I think there is much more analysis of bike rides potentially to be done, for anyone so inclined … how such rides are structured, organised and subverted; the different rhythms of cycling; the specific ways in which specific groups experience ‘what-it-is-to-cycle’. As a sociologist, I’m obviously a bit that way inclined myself, and my current job is making me that bit more so … so, over the next few months I’m planning, at least sometimes when I go for a bike ride, to leave home also with my researcher’s hat on (with, in other words, a digital audio recorder to hand, and a digital camera in the rear pocket of my jersey or pannier).

It’s only by trying these methods and techniques (‘piloting’, we call it), that you find out what they can produce, whether or not they’re worth doing, and how they might be improved …

So, watch out for some sociology from a bike, coming here soon …!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 391 other followers