Here’s the second story from fieldwork conducted during the Understanding Walking and Cycling project. It’s a story demonstrating the significance of – and need for – a cycling system, in which the different aspects of everyday life complicit in someone choosing to drive or cycle all point in the cycling direction. I’ll return to the importance of seeing cycling systematically in my overall analysis of these case studies, at the end of the series. But it’s also a story which, like Rick’s (story 1), underlines the significance of quality cycling infrastructure within such a cycling system. You’ll see again, below, the lengths people are prepared to go to compensate for the failures of current cycling provision.
I really appreciate the excellent comments made in the light of Rick’s story. It’d be great if we continue to deliberatively and collaboratively figure out what, collectively, these stories mean about cycling in contemporary Britain. I’m extremely happy to hear what you think, and what you think will inform what I think.
2. Nadia’s cycling story
Nadia is in her late twenties, married and with three small children. Her family lives in a comfortable home on a recently built housing estate, close both to the children’s school and child-minder, and to her husband Dom’s workplace. Most of the household’s journeys are made either on foot or by car. In bad weather, Nadia generally persists in making short trips with her children on foot; but Dom is more likely to bundle them into the car.
Dom doesn’t cycle much, “He does have a bike and he does have best intentions … he did say to me, because I’ve been doing it more, that he would like to start doing it more too … I just wonder whether he’s going to be more of a fair weather cyclist though.”
Nadia loves cycling. “I must admit I’ve really got into the cycling bit.” However, there’s only one journey which she regularly makes by bike – to work. She’s a cycle commuter. After she’s dropped off her children, the youngest with the child-minder, the others at school, I ride her commuter journey with her. It’s a journey of around seven miles.
Nadia always takes the same route. The first few miles are along a bypass connecting the village where she lives with the town where she works. It’s an open, exposed stretch of road, which carries a lot of high-sided lorries, and which has a speed limit of 60 miles per hour. Soon after the bypass ends, Nadia joins an off-road shared-use path, which takes her another two miles. Leaving this, she rides the final mile to the office where she works as a secretary via a mix of deliberately designed (by the planning authorities) and cobbled together (by her) links. She rides a Halfords’ Carrera bike. It has no mudguards.
Usually when I discuss with someone accompanying them on one of their cycling journeys, any arrangements tend to be dependent on the weather. But not with Nadia, who cycles whatever the weather. Despite snow, ice, and a couple of falls, she rode through the previous winter, and is fully intending to do the same again this year. “I hate going in the car. I think because by the time I drop the children off it gets to just after nine o’clock, and as soon as I get to Asda it [the traffic] is backed right up and it’s the frustration of being sat in traffic. So I much prefer just shooting in the whole way on the bike really.”
Things haven’t always been like this. In fact, Nadia is relatively new to cycling. Like Rick (story 1), Nadia’s cycling was instigated by traffic congestion.
“I started by accident actually. I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me to have gone on a bike. It just wouldn’t have been my first choice of transport at all. But a wagon went over in town, near the town centre, and I’d only just started work, because I’ve taken four years out you see with the children. So I’ve only been back at this job for a year. And this friend rang me and said ‘you’ve no chance of getting in this morning’. And I was meant to be meeting someone, to have an induction. So of course panic, panic, panic! I got the kids to school and I borrowed a bike, and it was a man’s bike, so it wasn’t ideal but it was the only way I could think of getting to work quickly.
“And after I did it, number one it struck me how unfit I was and I’d always thought I was fairly fit but I wasn’t at all. And just, actually, how easy it was and I’d built it up to be this really big hard difficult thing that no way I could do, but then when I actually did it I thought ‘hey, I can do this!’. So it built up gradually. I do it every day – four times a week, because I work Monday to Thursday. So I do it every day now, but for the first two months I’d come in the car a little bit, go on the bike a little bit, and I’ve built up to doing it all the time. I can’t bear going in the car now!
“If I have to go to another office, which is not often, if I have to go in the car, it’s awful. It’s just more hassle. And I can do it faster on the bike in the morning than I can in the car … it takes me fifteen minutes to do the bypass and fifteen minutes then along the cycle track, so half an hour. It’s got a lot shorter – it used to take me nearer an hour at the beginning, so it has got a lot quicker.
“I had so many barriers I wouldn’t have considered it, you know. But then when I was forced to do it, it was a different story. So it was just really challenging those barriers that you think are so big that there’s no way over and round and under them, but then actually, ‘no, you can do it’.”
It was a specific disruption to motoring-as-usual which got Nadia cycling. She’d also only recently started a new job, so had yet to entrench car driving as her habitual way of commuting. But encouragement to cycling was also provided by both her local authority and her new employer.
“I think the last time I rode a bike I was twelve! [The local council] did me a favour at the beginning you see. Because I was so clueless on cycling, and [the information and support provided by the council, and particularly a specific cycling officer] was basically how I got started – I didn’t know what equipment, what kind of bike, nothing. And so my confidence and my fitness levels were shot completely.”
Nadia regards her employer as supportive of cycling.
“They’re really trying to encourage cycling; obviously they’ve got a carbon footprint pledge they’ve got to try and work to, they’ve got targets. And they’ve got terrible parking so obviously the more people you get out of the car park the better for them as well, but yeah, they’re a very good employer when it comes to cyclists … They just spent out on a proper cover for the bike racks – it’s more of a shelter. That’s a positive thing.”
“They’ve got changing facilities, showers, lockers. I know they’re trying to get more lockers in place as well, because we’ve been short of those”. She has a shower at the end of her outward journey, at work; she doesn’t think she’d cycle to work without that provision, as she wouldn’t want to sit feeling dirty all day.
“I think that makes all the difference. If I was going to have to sit and feel festering all day I think that would make a huge difference. I’ve often thought about that actually, because I think that is a valid reason to not want to cycle, because you can feel all horrible and not want to sit next to anybody all day. My job’s fairly solitary as well because I’m a secretary so I’m just sat with a computer most of the day, but still, I still like to have a shower when I get in, just so I feel better, you know, better able to face people when they do come in. So I do think that makes a big difference. I wouldn’t be bothered if there were no lockers, I wouldn’t be bothered if there was no shelter, I’d always find somewhere to lock my bike up, but that [showers] is quite a big factor for me I think, yeah.”
Her employer also paid for Nadia to undergo cycle training. “That was fantastic.” Training is compulsory for anyone who wants to be able to use one of the two workplace pool bikes (one a standard bike, the other a folder); Nadia knew she’d be unlikely to use these, but registered her interest in order to access the free cycle training. “I thought it was too good a chance to pass up, to go on proper bike training. Then at least I knew I was keeping myself safe.”
Nadia’s relatively recent cycling conversion means that both she and the people around her are still getting used to her new status.
For Nadia herself, cycling to work has become a key part of her unfolding biography – “I love it … my confidence levels, my energy levels, they’re all much higher than they used to be. And I say to a lot of people ‘I do my best thinking on a bike in a morning’. And I can de-stress. You know, from me running around with the kids in a morning, this is just completely selfish time for me. It’s something I’ve not really had before, you know, with having children so close together. It’s always been really busy.” For Nadia, her cycle commute is a time during which she can prioritise her own needs. As part of this she uses her ride to work as an opportunity for a work-out; “I mean I’m not a gym person. I don’t have the staying power to go to a gym.”
Nadia’s children are proud of her cycling; and Nadia sees her story as demonstrating how, if they want to, they too can achieve things.
“They’re really proud of me in the playground, yeah they are. And that’s been really nice. I like to sort of show them that you can do anything, if you want to do something. You have to be really positive I think with them and just say ‘if you want to do that you can do it’. And they’ve not got to the stage where they’re embarrassed that mum stands there in bright yellow yet. I think that’s probably coming with [the eldest].”
Of course, not everyone is convinced:
“Everyone in the playground, this is how they usually see me – in my cycling stuff – and they’re all ‘why do you do it on the bike? How can you put up with it?’ And I say, ‘it’s really positive, I feel a lot better for cycling and if you just gave it a go, just built it up slowly like I did … Well it’s either your thing or it’s not’, I say. But I think unless you try something, you don’t know, do you, if it’s your thing?”
Nadia’s husband Dom is proud but worried. “He likes the fact that I’ve found something that I enjoy and will support me no matter what. But he does have reservations over the safety of it.”
Dom’s reservations provide an intriguing and important detail in Nadia’s commuting story, one which I think strikes to the heart of UK cycling provision, or lack thereof.
“If it’s particularly windy, if it’s blowing onto the carriageway … he throws the bike on the bike rack and drops me off at [start of off-road cycling route, about half-way from home to work] … It’s a kind of compromise because he’s not very happy with me on the bypass, whereas I’m quite happy with it now, you know, I don’t worry half as much as I used to. But I think he’s always a little bit concerned about just how busy that road is.”
This doesn’t happen every day. As Nadia says, it depends on the wind, and also on her husband’s shift patterns. “It’s alright when the wind’s behind me. And I mean if Dom’s at work obviously I cycle no matter what.” But it applies equally to her return journey, from work to home, too:
“Because he doesn’t like me on the bypass, if he’s around – like he’s done his ‘early’, say it’s three o’clock or two o’clock – and I’ve finished work, he’d prefer to pick me up at [same point as outward journey] so that I don’t have to do the bypass bit. I don’t mind it [riding the bypass] now. But I think it’s a compromise.”
“It’s more Dom’s preference to be honest. He worries about the speed of the road. I think it’s generally for his peace of mind; then he knows at least he’s cutting down the amount of time I spend on the bypass.”
But you can see the ambivalence which Dom’s concerns produce in Nadia. On the one hand, “these last few mornings, when it’s been really gusting, I’ve been quite happy to put it [the bike] on the back of the car and get dropped at the end, you know?” On the other hand, “I do like the bypass because it’s so green round and about. When there are no cars around you, it’s very peaceful. It’s very solitary in a way.”
So let’s look at Nadia’s journey to work. We’ll start by getting on to the bypass.
To start with, the speed limit is 50 miles per hour. It goes up to 60 once the built-up area is left behind. There’s no specific provision for cycling.
“On the whole I find wagon drivers tend to be a lot better than car drivers on the bypass. They tend to be a bit more considerate – now whether that’s because of the higher seating position and seeing me a lot earlier.”
“It tends to be car drivers. In fact I wrote a letter in to the [local newspaper] which I’d not done before but it was just really because I was that shocked at how many people buzzed me on the way past and got that close that it was a bit nerve-racking.”
“On this road, car drivers and some wagon drivers seem to think this white line is a brick wall. And they can come as close to it as they like because it’s not going to affect you because you’re on the other side of it. They seem to have this feeling like, you know, you’re untouchable if you’re on this side of the line. And some people come so close you know. They’ve made me wobble enough to think ‘oh blimey!’ You know, I thought their wing mirror was going to hit me.”
Nadia is not alone in riding this road. It’s a key route linking two of the district’s biggest settlements. It’s also the kind of road which cycling advocates can easily overlook – the carriageway is wide, so that cars and trucks overtaking cyclists can generally leave a big gap. It might be easy, therefore, to think ‘there’s no big problem here; let’s concentrate elsewhere’. But the speed of that overtaking traffic, together with its proximity, is a massive barrier to making cycling ordinary.
At one point riding along the bypass, a car blasts its horn at us. Nadia responds by telling me “That’s what you have to put up with, unfortunately. They don’t seem to like cyclists on this stretch.”
Nadia has some suggestions as to how things could be improved. She has raised these ideas recurrently with local council officers. “I’ve said ‘there’s a nice level verge on here, which is kerb sided. And I know a lot more people would feel happier, even if they could just sort of level out one side. I know it’s a huge budget commitment and that but, [given increased attention to cycling both nationally and locally] it’s never been a better time for something like this’. And I said, ‘even if it was cyclists just using the one side, you didn’t have to do both’. I said ‘it would just give a much safer feel to the cycle in of a morning for a lot of people’.”
At the end of the bypass, Nadia ‘cobbles’ her way past two traffic islands, and onto some segregated provision which is shared with (few) pedestrians.
In order to turn right, she crosses the road before the roundabout. “I won’t go round the roundabout because people have just come off a 50 limit, you take your life in your hands to go round that one.”
And then goes ‘the wrong way’ for a short stretch.
Half-way through her journey, Nadia reaches an off-road route which is dedicated to cycling and walking. “It’s just nice once you get off here. This is the most enjoyable part. Once I’m on the pavement and I’m away, I’m much happier.”
“I said [to the local council] ‘can you not do a park and cycle scheme from here?’ Because from my point of view, the bit from here is really easy, it’s the easiest part of my journey. And so I just think for a lot of people who maybe don’t have road confidence, or women cyclists who just don’t want to go on the road, or whatever, if they could park up here, pull the bike off or even loan a bike, then you know, you’re encouraging people to at least try it. And then it builds from there, hopefully.”
The last stretch of Nadia’s journey to work is quite ‘messy’, but by using various bits of (often very good) cycling infrastructure she manages to stay away from the busy town centre roads, and to wend her way through some back streets, across a car park and to her final destination.
Among other things, Nadia’s story shows how the ‘decision’ to cycle is never simply a personal one; it is embedded in webs of social relations, and significant others form part of the ‘decision-making’ apparatus. Less prosaically, I think Nadia’s story shows how it’s less that people don’t cycle because they’re scared, and more that people don’t cycle because they’re loved. And until cycling advocates get their heads around that, they’ll continue to be by turns puzzled by and patronising towards many people’s reluctance to go by bike.