Posts Tagged ‘pavement cycling’

Bicycle Bridge

February 12, 2013

Millennium Bridge

The struggle to make this thing happen, the fights fought, the controversies generated, are gone. In their place, testament to powerful visions and hard work, is a beautiful bridge, almost completely taken-for-granted by those who use it, its beauty unappreciated for the best reason – eclipsed by its practical value.

It has radically improved the quality of many people’s journeys; and it has imperceptibly but surely created many more, including those of my family and me.

Sue crossing the Millennium Bridge

It’s called the Millennium Bridge, although it didn’t open for use until February 2001.

The Millennium Bridge

How did it happen? Who was responsible? Perhaps in its early days those whose lives were changed by it asked such questions, but not any more; our local cycling and walking bridge has slipped gracefully into quotidian banality, becoming part of our ordinary travelling environment, forming the backdrop to our lives.

But that doesn’t make it any less revolutionary.

Millennium Bridge Signpost

Twelve years since its opening I can scarcely imagine the difficulties once involved in crossing the Lune by bike.

If you were strong and fearless you could carry your bike up and down concrete staircases and along the quiet, high, hemmed-in corridor running beside the west coast mainline.

Railway bridge

Or else you could use one of two road bridges: both carry large volumes of motorised traffic including many HGVs and buses; both are multi-lane and one-way.

Going against the flow forced you onto the pavement with equally beleaguered pedestrians. Even travelling in the same direction as the motorised traffic most cyclists would retreat to the pavement (and you can see from the photo below, still do).

A few rode on the road; at rush hour this involved making your way through fuming drivers stuck in slow-moving nose-to-tail traffic, at other times it entailed trying to hold a pace and space sufficient to prevent getting swallowed and squeezed.

Road bridge (northbound)

Pavement cycling

That’s all like a bad dream now.

We often cycle across the River Lune; a couple of days ago the four of us rode over to Salt Ayre Sports Centre for table tennis, and yesterday Bobby, Sue and I went across to do some training around the cycle track. Such trips are easy, obvious, convenient.

We don’t even think about how hard they would once have been. But when Sue and I first moved to Lancaster seventeen years ago cycling across the river was awkward and difficult even as committed, experienced cyclists without children.

A new normal has been created for us here. We need to create a new normal for everyone everywhere.

Bike on the bridge

Cyclist on the bridge

Riding across the bridge

I was privileged last week to give evidence to the current Parliamentary Inquiry into how we get Britain cycling. This process must lead to strengthened political commitment for cycling. The need for such commitment is obvious but not inevitable – we must keep pushing to make it happen. Getting Britain cycling requires bold vision and lots of money (not new money, merely money taken from elsewhere). We need to make cycling normal, and making cycling normal requires the kind of change the Millennium Bridge brought to some people’s patterns of mobility everywhere, for everyone.

Parliament

It’s crude but also obvious: let’s say 2% of transport spending for cycling will keep cycling at around 2% of all journeys. Is that what we want? Are we satisfied with continuing to reproduce cycling as a mode of mobility so marginal – something which few will do and most simply won’t contemplate? The Inquiry’s title, ‘Getting Britain Cycling’ sounds more ambitious than that to me; so how about, for starters, talking about 20% of all journeys by bike, and us as cycling’s advocates learning to demand 20% of total transport spending to match?

Would we cycle across the River Lune were the bridge not there?

As a family I doubt it. Riding together requires the sort of conditions which remain almost completely absent here, as elsewhere in urban Britain. The need to re-design our cities for group cycling was part of the written evidence I submitted to Wednesday’s Inquiry, and which Peter Walker published in that day’s Guardian.

But it’s a sign of how far we’ve still to go that demanding facilities conducive to group cycling is probably seen by most people as unreasonable or greedy; this despite our cities suffering so much under the volume and speed of so many cars, most of which have enough seats to embed car-based sociality as a principle and a right (even if most of those seats are usually empty).

We’ll have made solid progress towards cycle-friendly cities when the idea that a group of four people should be able to cycle comfortably together is seen as more legitimate than the idea of those people travelling together by car.

Dusk falls over the bridge

The Millennium Bridge gives a tantalising glimpse of this cycle-friendly future; indeed it enables a family riding together to embody, perform and so start to reproduce it. But as we found time and again on the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, because they inhabit a car-centric world most people (often far from voluntarily) continue to embody, perform and reproduce a car-centric perspective; this despite the benefits of cycling being increasingly recognised by both themselves and the politicians and policy-makers seeking to govern them.

This is what we want

So our bicycle bridge offers a vantage point onto a fresh perspective.

It helps us appreciate how atrocious and intolerable were conditions for cycling.

How did we put up with them for so long? Why did we put up with them for so long?

Those dreadful conditions have just here become redundant, but they persist and prevail elsewhere.

To talk of ‘getting Britain cycling’ against such a backdrop is simply deluded.

Looking back on the River Lune, it’s obvious that what’s happened here must happen everywhere. We need the equivalent of our bicycle bridge for everyone.

If we demand the impossible it’s just possible that a generation from now we’ll look back on cycling today and wonder how on earth we managed …

And we’ll look around and smile at the sight of Britain cycling.

Cycling struggles, 7

December 20, 2012

This is a post in defence of vulnerability. First, it defends the vulnerability many cyclists feel, and which sees them taking to the pavement. Second, it defends the vulnerability many pedestrians feel when confronted by the pavement cyclist.

Both directly and indirectly it’s also about disability. Directly, I examine how people with disabilities experience pavement cycling. Indirectly, I suggest we’ve all become disabled by the car.

DSC_0421

The last two posts examined the (intersecting) relevance of class and ethnicity to attitudes to and practices of cycling.

By doing so, we’ve thus moved away from the ‘dominant model’ of the cyclist. This model prevails across contemporary British cycling discourses, permeating much thinking, writing (including policy documents) and advocacy around cycling. It assumes the cyclist as middle-class, middle-aged, male, white, able-bodied, competitive, and fit. Within policy discourses especially, it also often assumes the cyclist travels alone, and is probably commuting.

One danger of this model’s dominance is that it begins to define what cycling is and can be. It can influence what we see, think, know, and even dream.

As we move away from the dominant conception of ‘the cyclist’ we become more likely to encounter the pavement cyclist. Whilst many British cyclists are – through force of circumstance – pavement cyclists from time to time, the most committed pavement cyclists tend not to fit the dominant model of ‘the cyclist’.

The male pavement cyclist is much more likely than the model cyclist to be working-class, young, and/or non-white; whether male or female, the pavement cyclist is less likely than the model cyclist to be competitive and fit; and the pavement cyclist might be accompanying children.

For the benefit of readers outside the UK, by ‘pavement’ I mean ‘sidewalk’ – space conventionally regarded in many (but by no means all) cultures as the preserve of pedestrians.

Pavement cycling

7. A pavement cycling story

This story comprises two stories.

It starts by examining why people cycle on pavements.

It then explores pavement cycling from a pedestrian perspective, looking specifically at the experiences of people with various disabilities.

Finally it offers some thoughts on a pro-cycling but anti-pavement cycling strategy.

Pavement cycling

A cyclist perspective

Cycling on pavements is a normal way for many people to cycle. This normality is obfuscated by a dominant representation of the urban cyclist as a white, middle-aged, male, geared-up, and competent commuter.

People cycle on the pavement when they feel unable to cycle on the road. If we want cycling on roads, we must make roads cycle-able. Or, if we want cycling off pavements, we either make roads cycle-able, and/or give cycling its own space.

Cycling on pavements isn’t restricted to novice cyclists. Even long-time, regular cyclists do it. But it’s perceived as ‘the wrong way to cycle’ because of the ideological and discursive dominance of ‘the model (if still highly problematic) cyclist’ and ‘the right way to cycle’.

The following quotes show how different people, all of whom would generally be considered respectable and respectful, talk about their pavement cycling.

Hazel’s in her fifties. Cycling is her main means of transport:

“I cycle everywhere! … I don’t like the main roads – far too dangerous … You can get most places by using side roads. Occasionally I resort to the pavements if they’re not too busy, but I think you have to be sensible about this. But I will go on the pavement.”

Dev’s a British Asian man in his forties, and a professional. He’s very enthusiastic about cycling, but rides only occasionally for health and pleasure, and to accompany his young daughter on trips to the park:

“I only choose routes where there are not many pedestrians. And if there’s a lot of people coming walking towards me I’ll get off my bike. I never go through little gaps or cause any distress to pedestrians.

“Nobody’s ever said anything … I don’t know whether they understand or not [why I’m riding on the pavement]. I hope they do.

“I see a lot of people riding on the pavements, a lot. They are riding on the pavements for the same reason, they are conscious of the safety issues.

“I think there should probably be a proper lane for cyclists .. Sometimes I do go on the roads, provided it’s quiet and there are not many cars. But I would definitely not ride on [the local main road]; any road like that is no good – the cars come too close and you’ve got to get out of the way. It’s a bit risky.”

Dick is in his fifties. He rides mainly for pleasure, particularly in summertime after a day’s work which involves a lot of driving:

“Some roads I’m comfortable riding on, yeah. But others, you know, with the speed of the traffic and the state of some of the driving I wouldn’t be happy riding on some roads. I wouldn’t … I do have a tendency to ride on the pavement I must admit, but what I do is, you’ve got to understand, I’ll be very polite, people let me by and I say ‘thank you very much’.”

Ruby is an experienced cyclist in her late forties. She’s ridden all her life and cycles to work every day:

“I ride probably 60% on the road, 40% on the pavement. It depends on the time of day. Before 7 in the morning there’s very little traffic so I’m quite happy on the road, because I can be in the middle of the road and I’m not holding up the traffic. When I come home at 3:30pm then I’m more likely to be on the pavement because the traffic just gets too cross and silly.“

“I think it probably is fear of the traffic [which explains my pavement cycling] because people don’t seem to take any account of the fact that you’re going to wobble around a pothole. And I would say I’m a fairly confident cyclist. I kind of think ‘well sorry, you’ve got to wait for me, I’m here, I’m a road user’, you know, ‘tough’ kind of thing. But some drivers are not very happy with that point of view. I wouldn’t ever be bolshie about that, but some drivers don’t seem to like the fact that cyclists are on the road. On the other hand of course they don’t like the fact that cyclists are on the pavement either. You can’t win, can you? It doesn’t matter where you are, someone is going to moan about it.”

Ruby goes on to talk about her sons’ cycling:

“I suspect they all ride on the pavement rather more than I do. I think our youngest, certainly, rides on the pavement – probably 90% of the time … I’m pretty sure he’s on the pavement more than he is on the roads. I do tell him that he needs to make allowances for pedestrians. And when I’m a pedestrian I don’t like cyclists whizzing by, because you kind of jump don’t you? So as a cyclist I try to, you know, you’re kind of working out which way is the pedestrian going, and I’m aware that I’m on the pavement and I didn’t really ought to be.”

I’ve spoken to many people who ride on the pavement because they feel they’ve no choice, if they’re to keep cycling. It’s strange that people see pavement cycling as so reprehensible when it’s also so clearly comprehensible. But that’s not to say it’s unproblematic.

Pavement cycling

A pedestrian perspective

Pavement cycling has consequences.

Its consequences for cycling are dire. Most people don’t want to cycle on pavements but they don’t want to ride on roads either, so they just don’t cycle. Those that do cycle are individually stigmatised and vilified for doing so, and cycling as a whole is constructed as a problematic, anti-social practice. As someone who passionately believes quite the opposite, I find this very hard to swallow.

But what about pavement cycling’s consequences for pedestrians?

Pavement cycling jeopardises the independent mobility of the most vulnerable people.

Evan is blind. He says simply, “pavement cycling is the main problem for blind people. Well, for most disabled people”.

People with disabilities struggle to move around cities more than most. The conversation below takes place amongst a group of people with various disabilities. Fred is profoundly deaf (and communicates with the rest of the group via a British Sign Language interpreter); Sheila has balance problems; both Tony and Janet are partially sighted.

Fred: “I don’t really understand why people cycle on the pavements because it’s really dangerous, especially for deaf people as obviously we can’t hear them.”

Sheila: “This is a big issue. I was actually knocked over yesterday. I’ve got a balance problem … [Pavement cycling] impacts on where you can go and how you feel about walking. It becomes less of a pleasure. [Pavement cycling] is certainly a major problem.”

Tony: “I’m blind in one eye and partially sighted in the other. Cyclists for me on a pavement suddenly appear on my blind side. I find that difficult.”

Janet: “There’s just a few of us [here], but we have got so many friends that have been knocked over and then told ‘why didn’t you look where you were walking?’ And they’ve got things like this [waving her cane], ‘oh a cane! Does that not indicate that there is a problem?’ But we are at wrong. And [incensed] we’re not at wrong! We’re walking perfectly sensible, because we have to. And then we get told we’re in the wrong. But it’s the cyclists that are in the wrong when they do create problems.”

(Incidentally, the call – which I’d never really understood – for registration of bicycles arises here; it’s based on a desire to be able to report and identify people whose cycling causes harm to others, in much the same way as I want, as a cyclist, to be able to identify and report bad driving.)

Pavement cycling is problematic not only because of the proximity between pedestrian and cyclist, but also because of the cyclists’ unpredictability. Because the cyclist is out of place there are no rules for his or her correct behaviour. Pedestrians can’t guess what he or she will do next.

This unpredictability of movement also makes ‘shared space’ problematic.

Talking about her city’s centre which works on the principle of shared space, Sheila says:

“Now, when you get bicycles coming down there, it’s such a wide area and they’re going anywhere and you’ve no idea where they’re going. Even if you can see them coming towards you, you don’t know whether they’re going to the left of you, the right of you. And that’s what I find impossible. I’ve just stopped using it” [my emphasis].

Although people with disabilities have real problems with cars parking on pavements, they tend generally to see bicycles as more problematic than cars. Why?

First, it’s true that many people with disabilities are hugely car dependent. So maybe they have an ideological blind-spot. But of course, they’re partly so car dependent because walking and cycling are currently so difficult for them, even more so than for other people, to do.

But second, as Fred says, “you know where the cars are … it’s having unexpected things happen that’s such a problem, and that’s why cyclists are a problem”.

If people with disabilities seem overly concerned about relatively ‘minor’ incidents such as a collision with a cyclist consider that the impact of a fall varies according to who you are. If you’re already frail, both the risks and consequences of falling are greater, so fear of falling will be greater too. For someone who’s already vulnerable, a fall (or fear of a fall) can spell the beginning of being house-bound.

We can try to relativize these risks and fears by comparing them to the risks imposed on pedestrians (and cyclists) by motorised traffic, but doing so won’t make the problems go away, and nor – by failing to empathise – will it win cycling friends.

Sharing space responsibly

The difficulty of responsible cycling

How do you know how much space to give someone if you don’t know what their tolerances are? How loudly do you ring your bell for the person who’s deaf? How much time to move do you give the person who can’t see? How slow is slow enough? Tony, who’s partially sighted, provides a sense of the potential for difference in perspective between pedestrian and cyclist:

“I crossed over from one side of the road to the other, and two cyclists were coming along and I had to jump out of the way. And the gentleman in front is going ‘ha, ha’, you know, all very jolly. But it wasn’t so jolly to me.”

‘Responsible cycling’ to us could be ‘irresponsible cycling’ to others, and good citizenship requires such recognition.

When I’m cycling on roads, some motorists give me insufficient space to feel safe. How can I justify, then, imposing the emotional discomfort I feel about that onto others when I’m cycling and they’re walking? Based on my own experiences shouldn’t I be empathising with them, rather than (mindlessly?) repeating the discomfort I experience at the hands of others?

There are structural reasons why considerate cycling’s hard to do. I don’t want to excuse cyclists completely, but it’d be just as wrong to expect cyclists to behave in ways which are very difficult to achieve.

The currently dominant transport order almost enforces styles of cycling which are antithetical to the calm, unhurried orientation towards pedestrians which would in a civilised society be normal. To survive, city cyclists often need to hurry. I doubt I’m alone in sometimes feeling almost primed to fight by my experience of city cycling. A refusal to engage in such ‘fighting’ is of course one of the reasons people take to cycling on pavements; but the fight remains, only the terrain and actors change.

Cycling’s in a fix. Mixing with cars pushes us to ‘hurry up’; mixing with pedestrians compels us to ‘slow down’. There’s work to do here; and in making cities fit for cycling we must also ensure cycling becomes fit for cities.

Sharing space responsibly

Towards a pro-cycling but anti-pavement cycling strategy

A big majority of people who cycle, as well as the (very, very many) people who don’t currently cycle, and most pedestrians (but especially pedestrians with disabilities of various kinds) need the same thing – much more dedicated space for cycling. This is mainly the case along busy main roads where pavement cycling is concentrated; these roads feel difficult and dangerous to ride, so many cyclists get pushed onto pavements which are often narrow and crowded with pedestrians (as well as street furniture and other ‘obstacles’).

Rather than feel uncomfortable and guilty about what they’re doing, people who ride on pavements should voice demands for the sort of space through which they’d actually like to ride;

Rather than suffer in silence or demonise the pavement cyclist, pedestrians should voice demands for cycling to have its own space off their pavements;

Rather than simply not ride in cities, non-cyclists and sometime-cyclists should stand up for their right to city cycling, and voice demands for the kind of urban space they require in order to ride;

Disputes between pedestrians and cyclists result from deep and continuing institutional discrimination against both modes. Rather than us their advocates facing towards each other and bickering amongst ourselves, we must learn to face outwards in solidarity against the monster still devouring far too much urban space, the car.

And rather than – whether deliberately or inadvertently – continuing to throw cycling and walking together, those people most responsible for ordering and re-ordering our cities should start mainstreaming these sustainable modes whilst marginalising the car.

Pavement cycling

Sharing space

A couple of final points to ponder, particularly for advocates of cycling.

First, completely pure space for either walking or cycling is of course unrealistic and undesirable. Cycling and walking sometimes have to mix. A good society is about brushing up against each other in respectful and tolerant ways more than it is about pretending other kinds of people and modes of mobility don’t exist by separating ourselves from them altogether.

Second, following from the first, cycling needs to change. If the world is starting to move around cycling, so too – inevitably and necessarily – must cycling move.

Here’s a suggestion for how people with cycles might move, from members of the group whose views we heard earlier.

Fred: “One idea would be, if it’s a pedestrianized area, then for people to actually get off their bike and walk it through the street instead of dodging in and out between people and knocking people down. I think if a cyclist actually got off their bike and walked with their bike … it’s only for a little time. And then they get back on their bike and cycle away … when there are not so many pedestrians, then get back on your bike and cycle.”

Paul: “I think on that last point, teaching people to push a bike should be part of cyclist training. Because lots of cyclists find it very difficult to push a bike.”

Fred is articulating a common sense strategy which we all probably use. But does he perhaps sound a bit extreme, a bit ‘anti-cyclist’? My instinct, at least, is to react against what he says, perhaps partly because I’m accustomed to defending a generally beleaguered cycling, and partly because I see myself as responsible and best able to judge when and where to dismount and remount – ‘I don’t need to be told’.

But in a sense, cycling moves below us, and we can’t afford to be fixed in what cycling means, whether that’s our own cycling, ‘good cycling’, or cycling in general. To be radically pro-cycling today is to know that cycling must change, and be part of that change. Our cycling repertoires need to broaden.

Challenges lie ahead for people who’ve kept riding through the time of the car. Speaking for myself, I’ve become used to riding fast and assertively, but such riding will become less and less appropriate. I need to broaden my repertoire of styles of riding in the city, learning to enjoy slow and sedate as much as fast and furious!

At the individual level the requirement is for ‘flexible cyclists’ able to cycle slowly, or even get off and push, when conditions (and not simply our own reading of those conditions) require it. At the societal level, new forms of governance of cycling must inevitably emerge, and – although of course we’ll negotiate them – we must be careful not automatically to oppose them.

Too fixed an idea of what cycling means is antithetical to a healthy future for cycling. To become established and better integrated into the fabric of the city, to become normal and democratic, cycling must change.

New opportunities for the governance of cycling will emerge. So going back to Fred’s suggestion, for example, it should become possible for city centre pedestrian flows to be measured in real time, and signs indicating the appropriate behaviour of cyclists (to ride below a certain speed, or to dismount and push) to be adjusted accordingly.

A paradigm shift requires everyone to think differently, everyone’s behaviour to change; those of us who cycle now aren’t immune, and if we think we are, I fear we become part of the problem, rather than its solution.

Heroes of British cycling: Bradley Wiggins and the pavement cyclist

July 23, 2012

I loved Bradley Wiggins’ victory punch as he crossed the line on Saturday’s final time trial. To launch his fist like that, from an incredibly fast-moving and twitchy machine, having just ridden it all out for 64 minutes and 13 seconds, was no mean feat. But then nor was winning the Tour de France …

The clenched fist is a potent symbol, perhaps because it’s ambiguous. Triumphant? Defiant? Both? Wiggins’ powerful finishing pose reminded me of the work of the Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, through whose hands the human hand is made to mean so much.

Perhaps the power of Siqueiros’ hand is most obvious when it’s closed into a fist and packed into a punch. This is a self-portrait …

Images are open to interpretation, but Wiggins’ closed and punching fist seems to express defiance as well as triumph. He wasn’t ‘just’ winning the Tour; he was also achieving – executing – his potential; and he was answering his critics and responding to nay-sayers too. As seems so often to be the case with Wiggins, the celebration seemed real and honest precisely because there was a touch of anger about it.

Will anger and defiance now broaden, as many more people feel inspired to get onto bikes in the wake of British cycle sport’s success?

I think it might, as people who have until now shown little interest in cycling sit up and notice Bradley Wiggins and the Tour de France, and look forward to seeing more cycling at the Olympics. I think it might, more importantly, as they pull bicycles from sheds, fix them ready to ride, and think about where to go.

This is the hope, isn’t it? That the phenomenal success of British professional cycle racers will translate into more people climbing onto bikes. Chris Boardman – a man whose cycling exploits certainly inspired me – made this explicit connection during post-Tour analysis and comment on ITV4 this past weekend.

During Wimbledon, tennis courts across Britain are suddenly in demand. Following the London Marathon, more people get out running. But cycling is different, because the majority of the environment in which cycling occurs has other things in it – and roads are especially full of cars.

Thrilled by Bradley’s success? Moved to ride? Then get outside and … and confront (and perhaps truly notice for the very first time, because now it matters to you, personally) the brute reality of roads full of speeding cars and trucks, a fair proportion of whose drivers act as if they have very little – if any – concern for your well-being.

Compared to tennis or running, then, there is for cycling a more complicated translation from inspiration to action. You might have seen the Tour, you might have been inspired, you might feel ready to ride. But where do you go?

We must beware the gap here, which only critical thinking can fill. It’s great that we’ve got a buzz around cycling, and we must certainly seek to capitalise on it. But it’s just naive to imagine that euphoria around cycling will automatically convert to a big boom in everyday cycling journeys. For that to happen, other things need to change, or rather be changed.

Velodromes and sportive riding away from the city can to some extent cater for people keen to try cycle sport. Canal towpaths, sea-front promenades and converted railway lines can cater for those wanting to experience the cycling buzz in a leisurely and rural way. But I’m also wondering whether the pavements of our towns and cities will start to teem with cyclists, trying their best simply to get around using the machine about which there is – quite rightly – currently such a hubbub.

Pavement cyclists aren’t seen as heroes, but perhaps they should be. (To be clear here, by ‘pavement’ I mean what in other countries is called the ‘sidewalk’; a space which is traditionally considered the preserve of the pedestrian (although there’s a longer story to be told there). So in Britain we are taught that pavement cycling is a problem and that it’s wrong; though in truth it is neither.) Today, Bradley Wiggins is the great hero of British cycling, and I hope he enjoys all the adulation he richly deserves. But in the meantime, the great unsung heroes of British cycling –  pavement cyclists – bravely pedal on, or try to any which way they can. They are not celebrated; they are seen as deviant, and are demonised.

Because the vast majority of people feel there is nowhere safe to ride, everyday cycling across the UK is being very effectively and very systematically blocked. Much premature talk of ‘a cycling revolution’ conveniently ignores the fact that a big majority of people are afraid to cycle, and will not start anytime soon unless something fundamentally changes. In the meantime, in most places most of the people who do ride a bicycle do so (either always or mainly) on the pavements. They ride either because they have no alternative – for example, needing to get to shift work (rendering public transport infeasible) at a location beyond walking distance – or because they actually like cycling but they just don’t like cycling in roads full of cars, trucks and buses.

I have no figures to back this up (I don’t think any exist), but I’m sure that pavement cycling is also subject to a huge amount of what transport researchers call ‘churn’, which means the life of a pavement cyclist tends to be brief. This is because to pedal through the disapproving and hostile gazes of society is difficult to do. People who want or need to cycle but who have nowhere safe to go are made to feel guilty. And cycling guiltily is no way to make cycling stick, or big, or inclusive, or aspirational. For cycling to be embraced big-time, the cyclist needs to feel welcomed, not apologetic. (The resilient cyclists – those who do stick with cycling over the longer-term – are those, like me and perhaps like you, who ride on the road, but we form a very small proportion of all cyclists, and an absolutely tiny proportion of the whole population.)

But even though pavement cycling demonstrates a huge repressed demand for cycling, it is seen as a problem rather than a potential.

We badly need to invert the standard moral tale here. According to that tale, people who ride on pavements are committing a crime.

No, no, no. These people are heroes. Any crime is in endorsing cycling but then providing nowhere for people to ride. Any crime is showing how magnificent is cycling, inspiring people to give it a go, but then dashing their opportunities to do so under half-way decent conditions – conditions which the ‘average person’ regards as acceptably safe, comfortable and enjoyable.

I hope and expect that right now, at the start of the summer holidays, there are thousands upon thousands of children across Britain who have noticed and been touched by British cycle sport’s current success. But what a travesty that the very big majority will be unable simply to jump on bikes and discover the delights of riding for themselves? Long days of summer spent exploring their neighbourhoods, let alone further afield, have been closed off to them by an increasingly car-centric society. To taste the joys of cycling, they’ll have to wait until they’re somewhere their parents deem it’s acceptable to ride. And they’ll probably be taken there by car.

There’s something deeply sad about this, isn’t there? We have rafts of policy and pronouncements in favour of cycling. And to add to this we now have a superb and historically unprecedented collection of role models – led by Bradley Wiggins, but including many other remarkable men and women – inspiring people to give cycling a go. And then we have towns and cities which are so dominated by speeding motorised vehicles that we’ve eliminated people’s ordinary habitat as a place to ride.

If we’ve got the ‘crime’ wrong, so also the punishment.

Instead of scolding and/or fining people for riding bicycles on pavements, we should be congratulating and rewarding them for giving cycling a go at all. Meanwhile, this Government should take the lead on making the changes required for people to cycle safely from their front doors, and punish any local authority which fails to adopt those changes quickly enough. Such changes include reducing the amount of urban space devoted to parked and moving cars, radically slowing down the cars which remain, and building top-quality cycling infrastructure where for whatever reason cycling needs (for the time being, at least) to co-exist with other (whether faster or slower) modes of mobility.

The Tour and Olympics combined should encourage many more people onto bikes, before realising there’s really nowhere safe to go.

Rather than giving up before they’ve even got started, which is what tends to happen, we must hope that many will find ways to cope with currently atrocious cycling conditions and – like many of the people I saw cycling during three years of research towards the Understanding Walking and Cycling project –  at least sometimes take to the pavements. (The danger is that because cycling on pavements is hard to do, most people who are inspired to cycle will not do so – they might cycle ‘invisibly’ on a Sunday morning somewhere safe, but their cycling – and more importantly their desire to cycle – will be easy to miss; their invisibility can then be used as evidence by Government that “there’s no demand for cycling, so we cannot justify spending money on it”.)

There are obvious ways to make our cities fit for cycling, but they are not being done. London journalists might believe things are changing fast, but they should get on a bike in Leeds or Worcester or Lancaster or pretty much anywhere outside of the capital. In most of these places, what we have is a huge gulf between rhetoric and reality. I’ve recently been trawling through transport policy documents produced at different levels of UK Government. Reading these, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a sustainable transport revolution – in which walking and cycling dominate our towns and cities and short journeys by car become practically obsolete – is just around the corner, about to happen.

The (excellent) aspiration of one local authority, for example, is “to make it easy to get from any part of the city to any other part of the city without using a car. Pivotal to achieving this is making sure that, when any plans are considered, pedestrians and cyclists are considered first”. But this kind of progress at the discursive level is, so far, completely unmatched with any notable changes on the ground, the place where we actually live out our day-to-day, intensely mobile, lives. We’ve had decades of empty rhetoric about sustainable urban transport, yet politicians remain intent on driving a massive, new and hugely unsustainable road through my home town.

Hordes of people suddenly cycling on Britain’s pavements might be the most effective route to building the pressure to get something done, to create safe space for cycling. If British cycling’s sporting success brings this massive tension – created by encouraging something which it is so hard to do – to a climax, we’ll have its stars and orchestrators to thank. But from where I’m currently sat, that’s a big ‘if’.

I think what’s most likely to happen is lots of fine words, rhetorical flourish, and vague and vacuous pronouncements of ‘a cycling revolution’, accompanied by very little change in the ideological and material structures which currently underpin and reproduce our society in car-centric ways. We need to do what we can to prevent this from happening, and instead make these potentially pivotal moments stick, whether it’s out of respect for cycling, respect for the health of ourselves and our neighbourhoods, respect for our towns and cities, or respect for our planetary home, the one which cycling rather than driving helps make viable.

As a tribute to Bradley Wiggins and Mod I’ll finish with the words of Mod revivalists Secret Affair, “this is the time, this is the time for action”.


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