I’ve just OK’d the proofs of an article I’ve written with Professor John Parkin of London South Bank University. It’s the concluding chapter to Cycling and Sustainability, a collection of papers examining different aspects of cycling, written by an impressive set of authors from across the globe. John has been working for cycling both within and outside academia for a long time, and he’s done a magnificent job in making the book happen. (I’m sorry about the price – this is academic publishing. But please, if you think it looks interesting and/or useful but find the cost prohibitive, consider ordering it for your local library.)
Partly to announce the book, which will be published next month, and partly because I’m still thinking through our contribution to it, I’m here re-visiting and summarising just part of our conclusion, where we advocate for a global bicycle system. We argue that such a system is required for cycling to make a fundamental contribution to sustainability.
John will present a paper based on the chapter – so long as our abstract is accepted – at the ninth Cycling and Society Research Group Symposium at the University of East London in September; and I might end up talking about it at the second Building Cycling Cultures conference in Leicester in June (we’re having a planning meeting towards this event on Friday, so more details should be available soon).
Cycling remains massively marginal as a mode of everyday urban mobility across the globe but its low status is beginning to change, and even to result in actual gains. Some of the world’s most prestigious cities – for example, New York, Paris, Barcelona and London – are beginning slowly to be re-made away from the car and towards the bicycle, and in the process the everyday lives and travel practices of residents and visitors are being re-made too.
In particular, cycling is becoming established as a key marker of a middle-class inner-urban lifestyle. In societies which have become saturated with cars, where inner-city living has become de rigueur, and where health and fitness have become key indicators of ‘a good lifestyle’, cycling has new kudos. Cycling is becoming ‘cool’ and experiencing a ‘renaissance’, particularly amongst affluent, white, middle-class, inner-urban professionals.
There is hope here, that the bicycle is finally being re-made as a (potentially) global cosmopolitan icon of sustainable urban life.
Isn’t this ‘the moment’ we have been waiting for – the bicycle’s second, this time sustainable, coming?
Yes, but we must turn this trend – which might otherwise be ‘a fashion’ or ‘a fad’ – into something durable; we must take advantage of cycling’s current popularity. After all, who knows how long the car would have lasted – perhaps only a few decades – had we not re-designed and re-built our cities around it?
Also, how democratic is the current rise in cycling’s status?
At the end of the nineteenth century cycling was the preserve of the rich and leisured classes in northern Europe and north America. Bicycles only became accessible to those less affluent when the rich jumped from them, into cars. Rarely in the history of cycling have rich and poor ridden side-by-side, yet for the sake of sustainability this is what we now must do.
But whilst the rich might be returning to cycling, the poor – when they have any choice in the matter – are not.
Whether you are poor in the ‘rich world’ or the ‘poor world’, whether the bicycle is perceived mainly as a ‘toy’ or a ‘tool’, it tends – even if it can be afforded – not to be a vehicle which is sought after, but rather one which is enforced and/or to be left behind. So the bicycle’s potential as a tool to mend our broken cities and build globally more sustainable lives risks remaining unfulfilled.
The bicycle’s capacity to infer distinction on the middle classes of prestigious global cities also depends on its continued exclusivity. The new-found status of cycling among urban elites is thus antithetical to its democratisation – loss in exclusivity will erode its appeal. The elite abandoned cycling once and could do so again, as soon as its capacity to infer and communicate distinction declines.
The bicycle’s popularity amongst one elite (the hardcore minority who currently cycle) and its growing popularity amongst another elite (the inner-city middle classes who are turning to it) cannot be translated into mass cycling unless we remove the logic of choice at an individual level by creating structures which impose it at a collective level. That is, we make cycling not just for some, but for everyone.
Only a system can achieve this social solidarity in cycling, because only a system can structure and institute practices which are independent of – or at least reasonably resilient to – individual psychologies and whims, cultural fads and fashions.
The indisputable benefits to travelling by bicycle within a bicycle system would not only enable the democratisation of cycling beyond an intellectual middle class elite, but also reduce the risk of this elite’s abandonment of cycling once its status as a privileged practice has been lost.
There is too much talk about giving people the ‘choice’ to cycle. This rhetoric of ‘choice’ constrains cycling; it gives the illusion that we can ‘nudge’ people towards cycling, when what’s actually required is much more wide-ranging and fundamental.
Modal choices aren’t chosen so much as structured, and they exist in systems which structure them. That’s why in a society such as the UK, so many more people drive than cycle, even when “it makes no sense to drive so short a distance”, and “it’s a journey which could so easily be made by bike”.
Most people in societies such as the UK and USA do not choose to drive a car. Over the last half century modal ‘choice’ has been eliminated as the car has become increasingly structured into people’s everyday lives as the ‘normal’, ‘default’ option. People drive because they’re part of a car system.
The dominance of this car system also explains why so few people in the UK and USA cycle. Many more people cycle in China and The Netherlands than in the UK or USA because the Chinese and Dutch have installed better bicycle systems, which embed cycling as a routine, everyday practice.
To embed cycling globally, then, we need a global bicycle system.
Overriding the capacity for individual choice, a bicycle system can convert what might be a current undemocratic ‘fashion’ into durable collective cycling practice. It can make, at least for short urban journeys, cycling the default; whilst driving becomes the deliberative, active, more difficult ‘choice’, the option requiring people to ‘be hardcore’ and ‘go against the grain’.
The tentative elite embrace of ‘ordinary’ cycling in some of the world’s most prestigious cities is a geographically and historically specific ‘moment’, one which provides us with an unprecedented opportunity – for the sake of both cycling and sustainability – to institute, and so make more democratic and sustainable, this minority turn to cycling – to make a ‘revolution’ from what might otherwise be a ‘fashion’.
Two quick points about the worldwide institutionalisation of cycling via a global bicycle system:
First, a bicycle system includes very many things – just like the ‘object’ of the bicycle itself. Such multiplicity is the fundamental and most important characteristic of a system. Any thing in isolation will have minimal, if any, effect; changes must be systematic. Within a system, no one thing is made to do too much work; there is no ‘silver bullet’. Rather all the components of the system work synergistically, together, to create a sum in excess of its parts. Building such a system takes time; it is an incremental project, but also a principled and a collective one;
Second, more incidentally, but something which is very much a ‘live’ issue in the UK – the question of whether we should adopt an ‘integrationist’ or ‘segregationist’ perspective when building for cycling loses much of its significance under the more encompassing task of building a global bicycle system. Of course, this larger task still requires us to consider, decide and lobby, in context-specific ways, for cycling’s ‘proper place’, but that ‘proper place’ becomes part of a far bigger picture, with the objective of getting everyone eventually moving by bicycle. Different places will devise and install different solutions – with different life-spans – in the process of incrementally building cycling’s centrality into the urban mobility system.
The development of a global bicycle system is a major collective project in which we all can, indeed must – even if only by riding a bicycle – be involved. (If you’re reading this blog post I’m sure you already are.) For anyone who loves cycling, these then should be exciting times.
Everywhere there is so much work to be done, for the sake of human viability on our planet, to contribute to a bicycle system. The ‘push for cycling’ must be broad, confident and powerful. We need new cycling infrastructure; new cycling stories; new cycling thinking; new cycle shops, new cycle repair services, and cycle hire services; new cycling-oriented maps, guides and websites; new cycle parking; more cycle-friendly schools, colleges and workplaces; new cycling-oriented cafes, restaurants and hotels; better integration of cycling and other modes of mobility, especially buses, trams and trains; stronger connections between cycling and other spheres of life, including business, politics, television, film, music and other media. We need people to cycle, and people to help, support and encourage others to cycle. Whoever and wherever we are, whatever we do, we can contribute to the new bicycle system required to build a broader and better culture of sustainability.
In this bicycle system the ‘choice’ to cycle is not an individual choice, it’s a social choice – it’s been made elsewhere, by complex, overlapping systems making it the sensible – logical, rational, enjoyable – way of moving around.
We need such a system to make the bicycle the global vehicle of urban mobility, a vehicle not only of and for a new global elite, but irrespective of where someone lives, their social position, and their attitude towards sustainability.
We need such a system to make cycling democratic and sustainable
We need such a system for cycling to fulfil its massive potential contribution to urban sustainability.