Cycling and the politics of time

Cycling and the politics of timeSomething that struck me time and again, talking to people during the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, was the interconnections between cycling and time. I’ll begin with two observations about how the availability (including lack) of time influences people’s cycling.

First, people who typically feel busy sometimes cycle as a way of reclaiming time for themselves; so for example, I met a middle-aged chap in Leicester who spent far more of his time than he’d like driving all over the country by car, but who relaxed once he got home by taking to his bike for a leisurely evening ride, to unwind from the stresses of the day. Many people described cycling in such ways – as about quality ‘off-time’; in fact, based on our fieldwork I’d argue that this ‘leisurely cycling’ is the dominant experience of cycling in Britain today. In other words, if you’re ‘time poor’ cycling represents quality down-time, in which to relax and be restored.

Cycling and the politics of timeThen second, people who have more leisurely lifestyles find it easier to integrate cycling as part of their ordinary, everyday lives; so for example, an older semi-retired couple in Worcester cycled for many of their local journeys. They felt able to do so because they never felt in a rush, and could schedule their lives as they liked, rather than having to fit into the demands of others. In other words, if you’re ‘time rich’ cycling can work as a way of organising and connecting different aspects of your everyday life.

There’s a contradiction here, between how cycling works for most people today, and how transport policy would like cycling to work. On the one hand, our research suggests cycling might be encouraged by making life in general more leisurely and relaxed. This would also probably promote sustainability, by making life slower and more locally-rooted (and, I’d argue, more enjoyable and convivial).

Yet on the other hand, cycling’s increasingly promoted through attempts to speed it up. This trend is clearest in initiatives such as Copenhagen’s ‘green wave’, whereby traffic signals on the popular arterial cycling route of Nørrebrogade are synchronised to enable continuous movement for people riding at 20 kilometres per hour.

Cycling and the politics of timeCopenhagen is the city of efficient cycling par excellence, and there at least, judging by its high and rising modal share, ‘efficient cycling’ seems popular. Understandably, if also problematically, we’re speeding cycling up to fit the world-as-it-is, rather than attempting to slow the world down, so cycling-as-it-is fits into it better. My main question here is: do we want cycling to be made efficient?

My reason for asking this question: what happens to cycling in the drive towards making it more efficient? Speeding up cycling makes it more competitive, and thus potentially more attractive, vis-à-vis other modes. But what’s lost by these gains in time?

I’m not disputing that cycling can be fast and efficient, and that’s sometimes why we ride. If I want to get from home to Lancaster University, 4 miles away, cycling is – for me – much quicker than any other means of getting there. But that’s not the only reason I choose to cycle, and to ‘sell’ cycling because of its speed is, I think, overly to instrumentalise it.

The instrumentalisation of cycling risks killing its inherent value. Writing of the emergence of train travel in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, published in 1849, the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin said:

“The whole system of railroad travelling is addressed to people who, being in a hurry, are therefore, for the time being, miserable.”

Ruskin goes on:

“No one would travel in that manner who could help it – who had the time to go leisurely over hills and between hedges instead of through tunnels and between banks … The railroad is in all its relations a matter of earnest business, to be got through as soon as possible. It transmutes a man [sic] from a traveller into a living parcel.”

Cycling and the politics of timeI invoke Ruskin to suggest there’s a trade-off: incorporating ever more efficient cycling into an ever more efficient society probably takes some of the sheen off it; it risks turning cycling from freedom to chore. As cycling becomes more integral to the world-as-it-is, it becomes less able to transform that world for the better.

Instrumentalisation of cycling in the name of efficiency is everywhere: using cycling to make cities less congested and polluted; using cycling to make people’s bodies more healthy and less obese; using cycling to bring tourist cash into the local economy; using cycling to announce our city as a truly ‘progressive’ place.

Cycling and the politics of timeWe should be wary of attempts to encourage people to cycle because cycling is good for something else. For starters, I’m not sure it works. But also, cycling becomes something else to be marketed and sold, often by people who are selling and marketing it not because they love it, but because it’s their job.

A couple of years ago, sitting in a Copenhagen café during a winter’s day spent exploring the city by bike, I made these field notes:

“I’ve ridden here, there and everywhere, breathing in and drinking up the city. It might have a lot to do with the time of year and the freezing conditions, but I’m struck by how utilitarian cycling in Copenhagen feels. Everyone rides as if they’re going somewhere, which of course they are. I’d like to return to ride in summer, to see how it differs, but what’s missing in my early December experience is the slow, lazy, loitering style of cycling which might actually build solidarities, communities and social capital.

Cycling and the politics of time“It feels ironic that this is the city where Gehl Architects are located. Through work such as Life Between Buildings and Cities for People Jan Gehl helped teach me the significance of walking and cycling to civilising cities, challenging and transforming the dominant rhythmicities of cities. Yet here in his city of Copenhagen, people ride bikes like automatons. Often, I feel as though I’m on a conveyor belt I can’t get off. Everyone seems to know where they’re going, and they’re going there. They’re taking no prisoners, they’re not slowing down.

“It’s the opposite of the cycling city as the relaxed, unhurried, people-centred city; this is the cycling city as the functional, efficient city, keeping the cogs of capitalism whirring round. I feel as though I’m on a capitalist treadmill; the bicycle keeps this city going, and it’s a capitalist city. Cycling here is about efficiency. It makes me want to rebel.

Cycling and the politics of time“And they ride so fast! Maybe they’re trying to warm themselves up. OK, I don’t know where I’m going and I’m not used to riding such a clunker, but I’m not accustomed to being so regularly overtaken, and to overtaking so little. There’s no dilly-dallying here. And they come so close! The cycle lanes already feel narrow, perhaps because the snow and ice have encroached. But when a faster cyclist approaches from behind, there’s little room for manoeuvre. A few times I brush shoulders with an overtaking cyclist. After a while it feels less alarming, almost normal.

“And I’m so hemmed in. (It feels like) there’s no escape. Cyclists are so numerous, yet so constrained. Strange …

“I’ve also fulfilled a dream, to visit Christiania … and here I leave the fast, one-track efficient city and move into the slower, multi-tracked and more textured city, Gehl’s city. Suddenly there’s room to loiter, to look up (or rather, to look over my shoulder behind me, to see there are no cyclists approaching fast, and I can relax, breathe deep, find my own pace, take my own line, and simply ride ….).”

Cycling and the politics of timeCopenhagen embodies the dilemmas of contemporary cycling – particularly what it’s for. I’ve returned since, continue to find it stimulating, and continue to worry about the possibility of slow cycling. What happens to the slow cyclist – perhaps the older person pottering on her or his bicycle, or the idler, going nowhere in particular – in the rush to get more people to school, college and work more quickly? What happens to cycling as a ‘political’ tool of resistance to the society we’ve got, once the society we’ve got learns to use the bicycle to more effectively reproduce itself?

I don’t want fast cycling eliminated. We need multiple rhythms of cycling in the sustainable city; not one monotonous cycling speed. Unlike cars, bikes are skinny, so there’s sufficient space within urban environments to cater for and cope with them travelling at multiple speeds.

Cycling and the politics of timeThe Understanding Walking and Cycling project found that in the UK cycle lanes are needed to enable people who don’t want to ride fast and furiously (on ‘faster’ bikes) to instead ride slowly (on ‘slower’ bikes) along big and busy roads. Meanwhile, in Copenhagen cycle lanes seem oriented to making people ride not slower, but faster. This throws up questions about what dedicated cycle lanes are for, and why.

In both the UK and Copenhagen it’s ridiculously hard to cycle sociably. In both places cycling conditions forcibly reduce the cyclist to the individual level, and reproduce cycling as a strictly utilitarian practice. This must change. Sociable cycling challenges instrumentalising logic, showing cycling can be more than getting from A to B as fast as possible. A civilised city would enable people to talk as they cycle alongside one another; a sustainable city would see it as unjust if people can do this when travelling by car, but not by bike.

Cycling and the politics of timeEverywhere there’s cycling (and cycling is almost everywhere) we should resist imposition of single speed solitary cycling; single speed solitary cycling is – effectively – what we’ve created in the UK and it stops many people cycling. And the instrumental logic behind cycling’s promotion in Copenhagen irons out and renders less and less visible any difference, and imposes single speed solitary cycling there. Only resistance – in the name of multiple speed, sociable cycling – will enable cycling to be democratised across differences of age, fitness, gender, and motive.

Cycling and the politics of timeGreater incorporation of cycling into urban space, at the car’s expense, potentially but not inevitably alters the character of that space. To see bicycles as no more than ‘skinny green cars’ is to reproduce the city much as it already is, and to miss cycling’s radical potential to change the world fundamentally for the better. Bicycles enable inhabitation of urban space in ways radically different to cars. Let’s not lose this difference. The bicycle shouldn’t simply be a substitute for the car, but a vehicle for re-working and re-shaping the city in broader sustainable ways; only then can the potential ethics (cycling’s contribution to the good life) and aesthetics (cycling’s contribution to pleasure) of the bicycle be fulfilled.

Finally, three questions:

  1. On waiting: what do we want to do about bicycles and waiting? Should waiting be extinguished? Does it reflect lack of accommodation of the bicycle in the urban transport environment? Or is the rush to erase waiting a symptom of an impatient, accelerating society? Should cycling reclaim waiting? Does it matter where you’re waiting, for how long, and why?
  2. On cycling experience: when you cycle, are you moving through empty space? Or (to polarise) are you making your place in the world? Are you sometimes doing more of one and less of the other, and if so, why? Is cycling a neutral means of making your way in the world, or by cycling are you creating something? If so, what?
  3. On cycling’s potential: do we want more cycling? Do we want cycling to change the world? Are they the same question? If ‘yes’, why? If not, why not? Should institutional efforts to boost cycling always be applauded and/or supported? Of course there’s a relation between the two, but have we been seduced by quantity (increasing the number of cyclists) and risk losing sight of the importance of quality (cycling’s contribution to a better society)?