What kind of place is Morecambe prom?
And what does cycling on the prom say about cycling more generally?
Morecambe prom is between the local and the global, nature and culture; and cycling is a key actor here.
Until 2006 you weren’t meant to cycle the prom, though we did – a little defiantly (“how ridiculous! So much space!”) but uncomfortably too, with one ear listening for disapproving remarks. But now we can. I spoke to the City Council meeting which voted to change cycling’s status. I stressed the prom’s potential as a utility route – it lines the coastal edge of a linear town. But it was easier in this seaside place to insist on its relevance to tourism. Our prom, I said
“is a potentially very major tourist draw, and we should be able to sell it as such … Blackpool, Bournemouth, Brighton, Deal, Dover, Exmouth, Hartlepool, Hastings, Margate, Maryport, North Tyneside, Poole, Saltburn, South Shields, Sunderland, Swansea. All welcome cycling on their proms. All recognise cycling’s importance, not least to the local tourist economy.”
Riding the prom is to trace a boundary. The land to one side and bay to the other keep changing, but your place between them stays constant; you the cyclist the moving point between nature and culture. The low steady rumble of traffic is occasionally broken by high-pitched trills of seaside birds feeding on the shore. The wind blows you sideward within metres of buildings full of lives oblivious to the weather. Shoreline smells of salt and seaweed combine with those of buses, chips and bacon butties. You look out towards hills, mud, water and sky, and in towards playgrounds, pubs and streets full of cars.
Morecambe’s placed between two identities. Signs of the twin forces of dereliction and regeneration are everywhere. Two of the town’s landmarks are equally but contrastingly symbolic – the Polo Tower stands forlornly waiting for the return of excited kids and candy-floss, the Midland Hotel brings in suited conference delegates by day, and well-heeled migrants from far away for a night or two.
Resort towns must make something of themselves, persuade people they’re worth a visit. Morecambe developed from the railway. Among Yorkshire mill-workers it was ‘Bradford-on-Sea’. The town’s newspaper, The Visitor, aimed not at locals but holiday-makers; initially it was published only in summer. Back then everybody wanted a sea view and the town stretched out accommodatingly round the bay. But Britain’s urban industrial workforce melted, and these days people prefer aeroplanes to warmer climes above trains to here. Those who can have abandoned Morecambe for exotic elsewheres, whilst some of those who can’t have moved in, and become trapped.
Morecambe’s flat and poor, so shouldn’t cycling prosper here?
The town stretches round the bay. Bird life teems across the tidal reach. The views are amazing, sunsets spectacular. Optimistically seen still as a tourist town, regeneration projects aim to develop Morecambe’s ‘USP’, its vantage point, its prom.
The unfolding panorama afforded by traversing the long, smooth but otherwise marginal promenade makes the bicycle the obvious twenty-first century vehicle choice. Proms were made for walking but promenading’s a lost art, and these days the prom is made for cycling.
Nature and cycling are the regenerative forces for a middle-class culture. Though they ride the line between the two, people come here in cars to ride their bikes round a bay full of birds, not a town full of problems. Cyclists on the prom can enjoy the coast and bury their heads in the sand about the problems lying just inland.
The prom belongs to the cosmopolitans in whose hands the town’s hopes of regeneration mainly lie, not locals.
It’s easy to imagine and construct the prom as a leisure cycling route. So cycling stays a practice other people – people not from here – do. It’s not seen as something local people do or might do even though seeing it that way would contribute to a different, better, stronger, more sustainable regeneration.
That the prom is global more than local makes its current lack of integration with the town easier to overlook. But how likely is it that the prom could become an ‘ordinary route for ordinary people making ordinary journeys’? Clearly, the problem isn’t simply infrastructural. On the back streets of Morecambe you see people cycling. Most ride cheap bikes; they jump from them at the last minute before disappearing into shops, the back wheel still spinning on the pavement outside. But to ride a bike beyond necessity, you’ve got to:
- want to bike;
- get a bike;
- keep a bike;
- maintain a bike;
and if cycling’s not normal, these things are hard.
Lack of interest in cycling is inevitable consequence of a social, political, cultural and economic environment with neither cues nor props to cycle. In such an environment it will be mainly privileged people who choose to cycle, perhaps partly to communicate their privilege.
The problem of mass non-cycling is not simply infrastructural, but its solution must be infrastructure-led. People won’t cycle in numbers if they can’t cycle easily. Smooth and wide, the prom is a super novice-friendly cycle route but without a car it’s impossible to reach without riding on roads where cars rule. Along the prom sign-posts to other places are excellent, but road conditions in places from which people without cars must ride to the prom are dire.
Morecambe’s prom is a slim glimpse of the cycling facilities people want, but like cycling itself it lies on the margin, lining a coast to which birds flock but people don’t. Cycling’s been entertained here because space existed and re-making it for cycling brings tourists, not because it serves the local journeys of local people. Morecambe prom is a cycling bypass, of both the town and the lives of most of the people who live there. And that’s a pity.
Letting cycling onto the prom, it turns out, was only the start. The next chapter involves getting local people cycling here. Making Morecambe prom for local cycling would be to follow a bolder, more distinctive path to regeneration; and one which could help the town thrive without depending so much on the tourist potential of its natural setting. It’d involve re-making the whole town, not just its prom, for cycling.