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.