Where is the good cyclist?

Thanks to everyone who’s read my last post, and especially those who’ve taken time to respond – and broaden the discussion – so thoughtfully. It’s re-assuring to know there’s an appetite for thinking about cycling.

This post also uses data produced during the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, and includes direct quotes from some of the people we spoke to about cycling. But it’s more exploratory and tentative than the last – work-in-progress. I intend these ideas– hopefully improved by your input – to find their way into a formal publication, and so add to the evidence-base which forms an important resource in efforts to build cycling.

I’m interrogating what we mean by the ‘good cyclist’. To do so I want to look at different ways in which people cycle. I’m not looking at every aspect of how people cycle – that would take a book at least! There’s a great deal to be said about variations in speed, dress, machine, accessories and more; but here I’m exploring where people cycle.

I doubt I’m alone in having an expectation, when making a trip, of more or less continuous cycling; that is, I’ll get on my bike, and remain on my bike throughout my journey, until I reach my destination. Of course there’s variety in this experience – sometimes I ride faster, sometimes slower; sometimes I encounter lots of interruptions (buses, traffic signals, dogs …), sometimes few. But I rarely dismount. (Although I do dismount when negotiating ‘pedestrianized’ city centres at busy times.)

But such continuity is not everyone’s experience. Here’s how Richard, a man in his forties who only recently took up cycling, describes moving around Lancaster:

Richard: “This sounds quite cowardly, but at Scotforth traffic lights and down at Penny Street Bridge I’ll get off my bike and walk it through because I don’t like going through that amount of traffic. I’d much rather stay off the road and away from the traffic.

Me: “OK so when you get to that kind of busy, congested point you’ll effectively become a pedestrian?

Richard: “Yeah, push my bike.”

Richard dismounts as part of an everyday, utility cycling journey. But such a tactic is not unusual amongst people cycling for leisure. Here’s Claire in Worcester describing a family cycling day out:

“If we have to encounter main roads as a family, because of the girls I worry about them, we’ll all get off and push the bikes along.  If it’s just a quarter of a mile distance or whatever, we get off and we’ll just push the bikes … it’s just not worth it.  It’s too dangerous.  And then get back on and ride from there.”

They’re just two examples of how people cycle in spite of a hostile cycling environment; they ride along stretches they consider OK for cycling, but get off and push along others. People most commonly dismount to negotiate difficult and/or dangerous intersections, but some do so to avoid riding along relatively straight stretches of road.

Richard and Claire use their judgement, deciding when it’s sensible to cycle and when it’s more sensible not to. There’s clearly an interplay between ‘objective conditions’ and ‘subjective experience’ here, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that these people are ‘performing cycling correctly’; they’re adapting their behaviour according to the situation; they’re being ‘good cyclists’.

Refusal to cycle through conditions considered difficult and/or dangerous doesn’t necessarily transform the person temporarily into ‘a pedestrian’; it can also turn them into ‘a pavement cyclist’.

(To be clear, ‘pavement’ is the British term for ‘sidewalk’ or ‘footway’. In what follows I’ll use ‘sidewalk’ in an effort to avoid confusion for non-British readers, for whom ‘pavement’ can mean the road surface in general. (But for authenticity, when people we spoke to say ‘pavement’, I’ll leave it as that.) Also, people’s names are pseudonyms.)

Contrary to media myth, people who cycle on sidewalks tend to be conscious of what they’re doing, careful and considerate. They’re rationally responding to the situation they confront – trying to move through public space hostile to the bicycle, on a bicycle. (It’s interesting these people bother cycling at all, given how hostile the urban environment is to cycling.)

(There’s a (car-centric) politics to the production of ‘folk devils’ and ‘moral panics’ out of cycling on sidewalks; and (although it says nothing explicitly about cycling) I recommend Stan Cohen’s classic 1972 text, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, to anyone interested in exploring it more.)

For sure, there are more and less civil ways of using sidewalks as part of a cycling journey. Here’s Jen, an actively retired woman in Worcester:

“I’ve never not ridden a bike. I mean, I never stopped as a teenager, so that I’m used to riding a bike. I cycle into town … I’m afraid I use the pavements an awful lot when, you know, I mean obviously if there are people walking on the pavement then I just push, get off my bike and push it”.

The rationale for cycling on sidewalks is sometimes framed as ‘keeping out of the way of cars’; i.e. ‘roads are for cars and bikes do not properly belong there’, but it’s more frequently and explicitly framed in terms of safety. (Either framing points to the monopoly over road space of the car, and to the car’s oppression, suppression and repression of others’ rights to that space.) Here’s Zoe from Leeds:

“I think where I live is very cycle unfriendly … Strictly speaking cycling on the pavement is illegal, but my attitude now is – with cars dominating so much – I am being forced for safety purposes to ride on the pavements here.”

And Anju from Leicester:

“I find cycling easier on the pavement … On the road you have to watch out for cars. I can’t ride with one hand, so even if I want to signal I have to stop the bike and then put my hand out so it’s better if we just like ride on the pavement, I think …. If you want to be really safe and that then you have to ride on the pavement”.

To cycle on sidewalks the rider must overcome a double prejudice; the first against cycling in general, the second against cycling through pedestrian space. (Admittedly there’s growing confusion about this in Britain as cycling is in some places being officially re-directed onto former sidewalks. This move typically results in substandard infrastructure for both cycling and walking, whilst of course leaving automobility’s current dominance intact.)

Sidewalk cyclists, then, are really beating the odds; their resilience, first in the face of a society which makes no unambiguous place for cycling, and then in the face of a society (including some cycling advocates) that demonises their sidewalk cycling, is extraordinary. In cycling despite this double discrimination, in cobbling together coherent cycling journeys out of radically incoherent and inadequate provision, are they, then, really ‘good cyclists’?

Most people lack such tenacity. They completely disappear from routes central to motorised everyday urban journeys. Most completely disappear from cycling, becoming cycling’s lost millions; but not all, some find other ways through by bike. Here’s Amy:

“I wouldn’t cycle in traffic. I would never cycle round Lancaster in traffic, I’m just not confident. But with all these cycle routes, we like going cycling don’t we?”

And Fiona in Worcester:

“I think if we couldn’t use the back roads and Pitchcroft we probably wouldn’t cycle into town … I wouldn’t cycle into town on the main road … I mean cycling on the main road is just impossible. It really is too dangerous.”

Here the ‘good cyclist’ starts to look like the ‘invisible cyclist’; cycling works best when you find the spaces and routes no one else wants to, or is able to, go. These ‘good cyclists’ are the least stressed cyclists. They tend to ride only when and where they feel welcome, and not when and where they don’t. They’re a powerful argument for high quality separated, dedicated infrastructure in the hearts of our cities, if that’s where we want people to ride.

Pushing my logic further, it might seem almost as though the ‘good cyclist’, or at least the ‘good urban cyclist’, is actually the ‘non-cyclist’. In her mid-30s, Helen lives in Lancaster:

“Yeah, I did my cycling proficiency at primary school and I took a bike with me when I first went to University but I’m a complete coward when it comes to cycling on roads …  everybody I know who does a considerable amount of cycling at some point has been knocked off and hurt themselves in some way and, as a driver, cyclists on the road just seem so vulnerable that I just don’t want to join them, and although the cycle path to the University is really good as far as it goes, even so you can’t avoid cycling on the road at some point in my journey and if not cycling on the road then cycling on the pavement which isn’t legal and does expose pedestrians to risk, which I can’t justify. So you know it’s just not something I’d consider”.

Helen does not cycle because she perceives there to be no place for cycling. If all cycling is out-of-place, and thus in some way deviant, her position is sensible. In her 50s, Anita also lives in Lancaster:

Me: “Have you ever cycled?”

Anita: “Yes”, (hesitantly) “I am not a happy cyclist”.

Me: “Do you have a bike now?”

Anita: “No. I gave it to someone else who was really going to use it. I think it’s about road sense and stuff, I’m not comfortable in traffic so the kind of bike riding I prefer to do would be away from traffic completely … I know we have the lovely cycle paths and I could go all the way to Morecambe and then even along the prom but I would have to get there on the bike and I couldn’t face that”.

For children, adults make decisions on their behalf. Here’s one Lancaster mother, Lucy, talking about the (unlikely) prospect of letting her daughter cycle the mile or so to school or town:

“I wouldn’t be keen on her cycling down that hill. It’s fairly dangerous really … on a morning it’s really quite busy and there are lorries and that”.

Are these people, then, the really ‘good cyclists’?

Finally let’s return to the ways in which I – and perhaps you, too – tend to cycle. I ride places most other people fear to pedal. Here for example is a fieldnote from one of my typical urban journeys:

Up ahead, there’s a big roundabout (‘traffic island’). I approach by riding confidently up the outside of a long and slow-moving queue of cars, trucks and buses; at the end of the lane, with the roundabout ahead, I see a gap in the circulating traffic and accelerate into it. I continuously find and take the space I need – flowing with the vehicles around me – until my exit.

Prepared and able to do this kind of manoeuvre, am I a ‘good cyclist’? The orthodox answer is  ‘yes’. I clearly know how to cycle.

But under current conditions is ‘the good cyclist’ really ‘the bad cyclist’, because they make the almost impossible look possible, and – through their own experiences – forge a belief that the almost impossible is possible?

Isn’t our collective task to produce a kind of urban cycling quite unlike the urban cycling which I myself tend to practice? Then whether or not I’m a good cyclist, I’m certainly the wrong cyclist. If the job is to mend our broken cities through cycling, promoting my style of cycling is like trying to use a spanner to turn a screw – the wrong tool for the job.

I become ‘a good cyclist’ for riding in ways which – in a democratic cycling culture – would become perhaps impossible. Meanwhile, people who don’t cycle because they’re not unwilling to contemplate riding through the sorts of conditions through which I ride, are perhaps precisely the ‘good cyclists’ of that future democratic cycling culture.

Experienced cyclists often think they understand what needs to change in order to produce the kind of environment through which many more people will cycle. Without doubt, they have much to contribute. But we must take care not to base our proposals solely on our own experiences and capacities, because if we do so the danger is that those proposals won’t go far enough. Here again is Helen from Lancaster, someone who doesn’t cycle but says she’d do so under different conditions:

“My ideal would be if it were possible, transport wise, for cycle paths to be absolutely physically removed from roads as in a proper kerb separating cyclists from traffic, so that cyclists didn’t have to use the pavement but weren’t sharing the road with cars. Then cycling would definitely be an option and I’d find ways around the other inconveniences of cycling. But as I say, with cyclists having to mix with traffic it just seems crazy.”

As people who want mass cycling, we need to talk about Helen. What do we do about her? Do we ignore her? Do we belittle her? Or do we believe her? And build for her?

If we want ‘normal people’ riding ‘normal bikes’, then we need to create the ‘normal conditions’ under which they can do so. My answer to the question ‘where is the good cyclist?’, then, is ‘in the future’. Together, let’s get there as quickly as we can.

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10 Responses to “Where is the good cyclist?”

  1. AJ Says:

    Very good post. The power comes from the quotes, which are persuasive.

    I’m not sure about the good/bad cyclist bit but I couldn’t agree more with the overall message.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Andrew. Yes, reading back through it, and talking to Sue, my partner, last night, I’m not quite sure the ‘good cyclist’ aspect conveys what I’m trying to say. Sue thought it was a bit opaque; i.e. it’s not entirely clear what I mean by ‘good cyclist’. So I’ll have a think about that. (I always see writing as an unfinished process, so have no problem at all with it being (as it therefore always is) imperfect!) But I agree with you about the quotes – that’s actually people, with real experiences. And also the photos, no? (For which I have to thank my long-suffering anthropological colleague on the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, Dr Griet Scheldeman.) There’s a huge amount of data to keep trying to make sense of, so I hope very much you’ll read more words direct from people’s mouths here, over subsequent months.
      Cheers for reading, and best wishes, Dave

  2. Anthony Cartmell Says:

    Thought-provoking stuff.

    The masses of the general population are, by definition, not experts in any particular field.

    Cycle campaigning to date has mostly been done by expert cyclists, who have lots of experience and knowledge because they’re cycling “nerds”. This is good, but they have an understandable tendency to campaign for things that experts “know” are best, and they take real risk much more seriously than perceived risk: much effort is made to persuade people that “cycling is safe, honest” (which, statistically-speaking, it is). They focus on “cost-effective” potential solutions, because they’re a minority and so only ever expect minimal funding. Specialist training is given a high priority, in the hope that the ranks of the cycling experts can be increased. Logic rules in these campaigns, and they almost entirely males doing the campaigning. Sadly these campaigners are quite easily ignored by politicians. The general population don’t understand these people, and see them as being eccentric and rather too happy to take risks.

    Where the Dutch changed things was when ordinary people started to campaign for better cycling conditions. These ordinary people are not expert or experienced cyclists, and often it’s children wanting to cycle (children seem to have a natural instinct that cycling is “good” and “cool”) that set the agenda: the least experienced people you can find. I would tentatively suggest that this sort of campaign might often lead by mothers. These people tend to campaign for things that the experts know aren’t optimal, or for things that are “not cost-effective”. Logic and statistics take a back seat to “gut feelings” about safety, but in fact this is exactly what’s needed if we’re to make the general population feel that cycling is a sensible and safe mode of transport. When ordinary people start to say things in large numbers, the politicians have to take notice: there are votes in this. But more importantly, the campaign message is not technical or nerdy, or difficult to believe: everyone can see, it’s obvious, that cycling is too dangerous now, and needs better conditions. Ask anyone.

    I think we are hitting this tipping point in the UK at this very moment. Ordinary people are really starting to get interested in cycling, and in asking for better conditions, just as the Dutch did 30 years ago. The benefit we have is that the Dutch have already had 30 years of experience in what works, and what doesn’t work. We can skip that learning curve and implement high-quality cycling infrastructure straight away. I predict an avalanche of cycling for transport in the next decade!

  3. Khal Spencer Says:

    Interesting read and as usual, I’m scanning it over coffee and will have to come back later for a full understanding.

    I’m also one of those riders who will accelerate into traffic to take my rightful place in the roundabout (near my house) or ride confidently on what equates to your A roads, but am increasingly convinced that if we want to expand cycling from the few percent found in the States, we need to democratize the infrastructure, i.e., design it for the person who will ride a bike rather than design for the cyclist, who has self-identified as being part of that elite.

    Over Here, that is the debate in cycling circles. Do we keep separate from those who would not think to join our small fraternity (i.e., bike education courses, John Forester, etc.), or do we redefine what we mean by cycling? I think that is context-sensitive. We are not Amsterdam or Bremen. But for those places where such solutions work, we should definitely implement them. Elsewhere, we need to reclaim a common humanity so we are not constantly worried about the hazards we impose by not taking enough responsibility for our actions and caring enough for others. My brother in law lives in a quiet corner of Upstate New York. Farmers in pickup trucks safely coexist with farmers in Amish buggies. They remember the Golden Rule.

  4. snibgo Says:

    A good slave bows before its master.

    A good cyclist bows before the masterful motorcar. A good cyclist knows its place, which isn’t anywhere near the cars. A good cyclist is tucked away, out of sight, not clogging up the important traffic. A good cyclist doesn’t even ride a bike because separate bike places haven’t been built yet.

    Hmm. If I were a good cyclist, I’d never cycle anywhere. Which is perhaps your point, but then I’d rather be a bad cyclist.

    On Sunday I encountered a mum cycling with small boy on the rear pannier. She rode on the narrow pavement (=sidewalk) which was covered with snow, slush and ice, rather than the entirely clear (and largely traffic-free) road. She was undoubtedly a more skillful cyclist than me — I would fear falling off.

  5. Steve A Says:

    To some degree, all cyclists make such choices, even those that never ride on pavement or turn pedestrian. Motorists also trade off speed versus other factors.

  6. samsaundersbristol Says:

    Splendid piece. Many thanks, I’m glad I found it.

    I have been remembering, just lately, some research suggested by my students when I was teaching sociology a long time ago. Our Sixth Form College had a dying library – very few used it. So we did lots of (qualitative and quantitative) research on the people who never used it. We found a series of ways of letting them tell us things. We took the ideas to senior management and the new Library was planned entirely around their perspectives and their suggestions. In some cases against our better judgements.

    Surprisingly the whole thing was a rattling success – a wide range of students started using the Library for lots of sound educational (and a few less sound) reasons. Even the solitary scholarly ones were happier.

    Perhaps we rationalist and confident cyclists need to take a step back and make sure the more trustworthy multitudes (the would-be-good-if-only-they-could-be-cyclists) can be heard. And I don’t see “heard” as a slogan, I see it as a very serious social research question, with heavy theoretical connotations and genuine ethical responsibilities.

    Sadly the tenor of political management just now is to gloss all research and trivialise methodology, data and analysis. Anecdote and rhetoric are the rocks that are thrown to and fro, gradually crumbling to sand in the process.

  7. Mark Skrzypczyk (@bassjunkieuk) Says:

    Very interesting post, reading over it I definitely fall into the “bad” cyclists group. I think they way you have described it is the word I’ve been trying to find for ages – I thrive on the sort of roads that I’m certain scare the all but the most battle hardened cyclists. Even to the point that when I’m commuting on quieter roads I get a feeling of boredom from the lack of stimulation!

    I do agree however that to be seen as normal cycling must be something anyone can feel safe doing. Whilst I’m happy to let my children cycle around outside the house, being at the top end of a Close with many other children on, the thought of letting my eldest potentially ride the mile or so to one of her choices for secondary school fills me with a sense of dread!

  8. markbikeslondon Says:

    Superb post. For me, Helen in Lancater’s experience really resonates. As you ask, what is to be done about her, are we to exclude her feelings? Bellittle her or just imagine that she is not trying hard enough. As cycle campaigners we must all of us look long and hard at ourselvs and think about our approach and the way in which we speak about people like Helen.

    Thought provoking as always, do keep up the great work!

  9. snibgo Says:

    Let’s take Helen at her word. She needs a segregated cycle path all the way from home to university, separated from both motorists and pedestrians. I’m not aware of anywhere in the world that delivers segregated cycle paths to everyone’s home, but let’s suppose it is possible. Would that be enough? No. In her words: “Then cycling would definitely be an option and I’d find ways around the other inconveniences of cycling.”

    I take that to mean, “Driving would still be more convenient than cycling.” Perhaps this includes journey time. So we still need to inconvenience the motorist (decrease permeability etc) before Helen will cycle.

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