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

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 Copenhagenize.com.

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

Dave

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One Response to “Building a British cycling culture: can Copenhagen show the way?”

  1. Labann Says:

    The phrase “Vehicular Cycling” is way off base. A bicycle is not a vehicle; it is a conveyance, more akin to running apparel you wear than polluting automobiles which runs themselves to benefit Big Oil. Most certainly, streets are public thoroughfares for biking, driving and walking alike, but only motor vehicles need be controlled by enforcement of laws due to their damaging momentum. Applying for an operator license means to assume responsibility for avoiding accidents no matter what or who is in road. In nearly all countries, neither bicycling nor walking require licenses; expecting children, construction workers, or pets to accommodate impatient drivers is insane. They cringe in fear as motorists ply the labor saving device. Statistically, ~60% of all deaths each year are comprehensively linked somehow to motoring, and globally 1.3 million directly as a result of collisions. To tie something as life affirming as bicycling to death dealing “vehicles” is gross negligence.

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