Almost everything I’m doing right now seems related to the idea of cycling culture/s. A group of us is working towards making a two-day event, Building Cycling Culture/s, as big and successful as possible. And meanwhile, I’m wading through an enormous pile of transcripts from interviews undertaken during our fieldwork across four English cities over the past year, as part of the Understanding Walking and Cycling project. Many of the things people have said to us strike me as profoundly significant to our current quest for a broad and inclusive British cycling culture.
Take, for example, a conversation between my anthropologist colleague, Griet Scheldeman and a long-time resident of one of our research sites, Lance. Lance is in his 80s, and has lived in Little London, Leeds for half a century.
Although he lives in one of the most car-oriented cities in England, although the sounds of urban motorways are audible from his tower-block home, and although he earned his living through repairing them, Lance has never really known routinised car ownership and use. He has cycled though.
When, Griet asks, did he stop cycling?
“Erm, 1965 I think. That’s a long time since isn’t it?”
“So”, Griet asks, “do you miss cycling?”
“Ooh, I wouldn’t have done it for pleasure.”
“You didn’t do it for pleasure?”
“No, I just went to work on it, that’s all.”
How much it says, this short exchange! With his perfunctory, almost dismissive attitude to the bicycle and cycling, Lance sounds like someone from Groningen or Copenhagen speaking today – you don’t think about the bike, you merely use it for getting around.
But Lance’s experience of cycling was not in some northern-European cycling oasis, but in post-Second World War inner-city Leeds, Yorkshire, England. Vestiges of Lance’s straightforward, no-nonsense approach to the bicycle remain, but they are just that, vestiges. Cycling has today become too difficult to be so easily taken-for-granted.
Here are cyclists negotiating Sheepscar, a notorious junction in the part of Leeds on which we concentrated our ethnographic gaze.
To confront these kinds of conditions, you have to be committed. Urban cycling in Britain today is mainly for the fearless. We’ve lost a culture which saw cycling as ordinary, and replaced it with one which is so dominated by cars that to cycle is … what? Heroic? Foolish? Unthinkable? Perhaps even irresponsible?
From cycling culture to car culture.
And back again?
Something which strikes me, reading back through the countless conversations we’ve had over the last year or two, is how so many people in so many ways are trying to escape car culture. It’s incredibly hard to escape from something which not only surrounds you, but also very importantly and profoundly structures you – the way your world is, the places you go, the distances you traverse, the psychologies of people with whom you live, work and interact, even your own psychology; that’s why we need a structural shift – a paradigm shift – in how we see, think about, talk about, decide on, design, plan for, use, understand and judge our various means of moving around.
Still, in the absence of concerted action (by government, corporations, universities …) to shift those structures, many people are doing it for themselves. For example, Donald and Penny are a retired couple who recently moved to Lancaster from a remote, rural location. They did so mainly to become more accessible to key services (shops, cinema, and, most especially, the train station – which makes the rest of the country more accessible to them, and them more accessible to people who might want to visit). And they sought this increased proximity to the train station and other services in order to reduce their dependence on the car. Today they have one car instead of two and make most journeys on foot, by bike, or by train. Their car is sometimes used, but not in the city – cities are no place for cars. Donald and Penny are British pioneers of the northern European way – it’s fine to have a car, but it makes no sense to use it in the city; save it for those rare trips hard to make by other means.
It’s not yet a tide, but it’s more than a trickle. People are actively giving up on car culture; and more would undoubtedly like to, but can see ‘no way out’.
By building cycling culture/s we can develop some of the routes out from car culture we so badly need, and which people want.
Today’s pervasive and poisonous car culture looks like a solid totality, but it was built incrementally and relatively slowly, over the ‘long century of the car’.
We dismantle it by slowly, incrementally, but surely building cycling culture/s to take its place.