This might seem a strange question. Surely, cycling is for everyone? Well, after three years’ research for the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, my clear answer is that – in Britain today – it’s not. Our task of course is to make it so.
So who then, have we found cycling to be for? Primarily, for a hardy bunch of inadvertent elitists. People like me, perhaps like you, who ride despite the generally atrocious conditions which effectively discourage the big majority of people from doing likewise. Often we don’t notice conditions are atrocious because we’ve got used to them, and/or our skill levels have improved in order to deal with them.
We cycle, we take our capacity to cycle for granted, and we sometimes drift towards an expectation that other people should find it as easy, or almost as easy, as we do. We fail to understand how difficult other people find it.
The generally adverse conditions for cycling also explain, of course, why those of us who cycle are such a minority. We’re going against the grain. In a way, we’re doing what we’re not supposed to do. Not many people will successfully cycle in an ideological and infrastructural system which effectively designs cycling out, and makes car use sensible and ordinary.
But if a minority of us ride almost without thinking, a majority of people don’t. People who don’t cycle, and especially those who are thinking about it or who are considering the possibility of their loved ones cycling, can clearly see current conditions for cycling to be atrocious.
Extensive cycling around four English cities (Lancaster, Leeds, Leicester and Worcester) and many hours observing Britain on the move have convinced me that contemporary conditions for cycling are dire. So dire we might draw an analogy, perhaps too strong but which makes the point, between asking people to cycle and sending soldiers into war. Car fodder. It’s almost immoral to be telling people – and certainly children – to cycle when conditions for cycling remain generally so brutal.
Let’s spend less energy telling other people to cycle, and more striving harder to transform conditions so fundamentally that people will not only want to cycle –they’ll almost have no choice (like most people today feel they have little choice other than to go by car).
If you’ve followed this far, you’ll possibly be thinking I’m being melodramatic here; more people ride bicycles than just the hardy few. Yes, of course they do. Many people like cycling and will cycle. But we need to delve into the specific conditions under which this much greater number of people cycle.
The short and simple story is that people cycle when conditions are humane. You can think of your own examples of such places, depending on where you live; they’ll likely include parks, canal towpaths, seafront promenades, and disused railway lines which have been converted to walking and cycling routes. Such places are most popular on sunny summer Sundays, when people can take their time, unwind, relax.
Leisure cycling is relaxing, but urban utility cycling generally is not. So people will make occasional leisure journeys by bike whilst continuing – despite saying how much they enjoy cycling and wish they could do it more – to make most of their ordinary journeys by car.
But things are changing fast, aren’t they? Some places, such as the (now extinct) Cycling Demonstration Towns, have had additional support for cycling. In those places – my home town of Lancaster is one – small improvements to the (ahem) ‘cycling offer’ have encouraged some more people to give cycling a go. Other, bigger cities – Leicester, Sheffield, London – have experienced bigger jumps in cycling. Cycling in (some parts of) these cities has apparently doubled in the last decade, albeit from very low levels to (well) very low levels.
I’m not being cynical – such growth in cycling is good news, and promising. However, two problems bedevil UK cycling advocacy: first, the requirement to trumpet any and all gains, however minor or potentially imaginary, in order for us to legitimate and reproduce ourselves as advocates; second, the rush to interpret any sign of growth in cycling as both ‘good’ and a clear sign that investments in cycling are paying dividends. A more critical analysis might concur with neither.
Cycling is gaining popularity. However, the Understanding Walking and Cycling research demonstrates clearly how the vast majority of people, much as they like the idea of cycling and will sometimes cycle, will most definitely not cycle on urban roads, under current conditions, dominated by motorised traffic. This analysis applies to confident and competent ‘middle-aged’ adults; the situation is much worse if we focus analysis on children, younger adults, and people much beyond ‘middle-age’. (In other words, the kinds of people who form key utility cycling constituencies in the Netherlands are in urban Britain almost completely invisible.)
Cycling is more popular. More people are cycling. But let’s make no bones about it – at the same time cycling remains massively marginal, a minority practice which is both passively and more actively discriminated against, in multiple ways. More people are cycling, but for so long as the prevailing conditions for cycling remain inhospitable, both the number and the resilience of converts will tend to be limited.
And each time we celebrate a minor growth in cycling which has been achieved in spite of radically unfavourable conditions we embed the notion that radical re-structuring of those conditions is not a necessary pre-requisite to getting Britain on its bike. When it is. So there’s a danger in being optimistic rather than realistic – in talking up the current growth in cycling. The danger is we conspire with and strengthen the status quo, the provision of little changes here and there, little changes which effectively change nothing. And thus we risk becoming complicit in the continuous deferral of the radical changes really required to make cycling normal, a form of transport which is – genuinely – for (almost) everyone.
We have to start replacing the car system we have built with a bicycle system we are building. We need to reach the point where people using a car for short urban journeys are instantly assumed to have a very good reason – in other words, an excuse – for doing so. Most obviously, they are probably physically unable to walk or cycle. Towards such people we can feel compassion, not blame – if they could they would, like the rest of us, make their journeys on foot or by cycle. Because in this scenario, the one we should be striving to create, it is not driving which is the default – as now – but not driving. When we get to this point, we’ll have successfully produced the necessary inversions – from driving as normal to driving as abnormal; and from cycling as abnormal to cycling as normal.
How do we do this? A whole range of changes need to be made, and some are beginning to happen; for example, Lancashire – where I live – is moving towards making 20 miles per hour the default speed limit on residential roads, which is a big step in the right direction. But many necessary changes have yet to be made. You probably know what they are, so I won’t revise them all here, but I’d suggest probably the most important, if also most contentious, is the provision of quality, separated cycling routes along the (currently – not forever, nothing is forever …) biggest, busiest and fastest urban roads. I’d like to be convinced we can build a mainstream culture of cycling across urban Britain without such dedicated infrastructure, and some people have tried hard to convince me of this, but so far – I’m sorry to say – unsuccessfully.
Thus it’s my reluctant conclusion that only by providing such routes – high quality, continuous ones, which give cycling right-of-way and which wherever necessary boldly take space from parked and/or moving cars – can we begin to assemble a ‘bicycle system’ which can compete with – and then through its very success start to dismantle – the ‘car system’ which has been so effectively built over the last half-century.
The Understanding Walking and Cycling research has found that driving very short distances very often has, for almost everyone with access to a car, become ‘obvious’ or ‘common sense’, instead of ‘stupid’ or ‘daft’, which is what we need to make it become.
When it becomes much easier to move by cycle than it is to move by car – only then, when we ask “who is cycling for?”, will we genuinely be able to answer, “almost everyone”.