Posts Tagged ‘cycling’

How best to boost urban cycling?

November 26, 2013

I’ve run out of time to do the post I’d intended this week (tomorrow I travel to Bavaria to take part in what looks like a stimulating Active Mobility workshop), so will instead simply note that a debate between David Dansky, head of training and development at Cycle Training UK, and me is today published on the Mobile Lives Forum (a site well worth checking out in its own right). David and I discuss why urban cycling matters, how it can best be encouraged, and differences in encouraging cycling between urban and suburban areas. (We were given tight word limits, which is why our responses are so brief.) On the same site there’s a video-conference with the sociologist Rachel Aldred from Westminster University exploring London’s ‘bicycle revolution’, so if you feel so inclined you can get a real sociological cycling fix!

Read my discussion with David (who has consistently been among the most interested, thoughtful and respectful respondents to the (somewhat contentious) Understanding Walking and Cycling research with which I was involved) here.

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City Cycling – book review

November 21, 2013

I’m posting below the review of City Cycling, edited by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, I wrote earlier this year for the journal World Transport Policy and Practice. It’s long but hopefully of interest to those concerned about prospects for city cycling across the world; and the more people who read and think about, and then act on these issues, the better.

City Cycling book cover

A tricky balance must be struck in thinking about cycling’s prospects as an ordinary mode of urban transport. On the one hand, it’s good not to be all doom-and-gloom, but to offer hope that the urban world should and could make most of its daily trips beyond walking length by bicycle. But on the other hand it’s important to emphasize that cycling as a mass mode of planetary mobility isn’t inevitable and that making it happen requires ambition, commitment and work. Overall, this book gets that balance right. Sure, there’s easy talk of ‘cycling’s renaissance’ across cities such as London, Paris and New York, talk which seems premature, too uncritical and rather naïve. But then it’s more important to show things can change, even if they’re changing far too slowly, than to lose hope that cycling will ever effectively be centred in our political institutions, towns, cities, and everyday lives.

No one has done more than John Pucher and Ralph Buehler to popularise the cause and possibility of city cycling, using what is elsewhere to advocate what could be at home – in north America, but also Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Over the past decade and more, Pucher and Buehler have argued that the English-speaking world should follow the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany in becoming cycle-friendly; and they have investigated and shown how it can be done. City Cycling continues this project in an impressive way. It’s academic, drawing together an international, cross-disciplinary collection of researchers who set out what needs to change for cycling to become mainstream; but it’s unquestionably advocacy too. The case for cycling has already been made but it needs making again and again, and it is made persuasively here. It is glib but true to say that if every politician, policy-maker and practitioner with any responsibility for the organisation of urban life read and acted on this book, we could move rapidly and radically towards a socially and environmentally much brighter future.

Overall the book argues for cycling to be systematically embedded into global economy and society in the same way as driving a car has over the past half-century been systematically embedded within north American, Australian and much of European economy and society. Of course this ‘centering’ of cycling must be at the car’s expense, and here it sometimes feels like the ambition of City Cycling’s lead editor and chief contributor, Professor Pucher, is ahead of the book’s other contributors. For example, there is some but on the whole too little interrogation of the role of the car’s continuing dominance – ideologically, structurally, spatially – in impeding cycling. Cycling visions, strategies and actions never take place in a vacuum; they emerge from and are shaped by the context of car domination. Much current action in the name of cycling – because it is insufficient for the job of mainstreaming cycling – therefore risks merely perpetuating cycling as a marginal mode of mobility and cyclists as a sub-cultural ‘out-group’. Minor support for cycling reproduces cycling as a minority mode, and isn’t good enough. Only major resource re-allocation away from the car and towards the bicycle can break cycling out from its current marginalisation at the car’s expense. The better chapters here make clear that cycling thrives in places where driving is not just ‘civilised’ but more importantly deterred.

But there’s no ‘magic bullet’. City Cycling argues effectively that consistent, coherent support for cycling across all sectors of society is required in order to develop a bicycle system which makes cycling, not driving, the obvious mode of short-distance urban travel. Countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany are well advanced over north America and Australia in every important respect – from allocation of transport spending on cycling, to development of cycling infrastructure, to land use and planning rules, to driver awareness and cycling education.

Nevertheless and for good reason, issues of infrastructure loom large. It now seems evident to the point of obviousness that new city cycling cannot be produced without the provision of a dedicated network of cycling routes of a quality sufficient to appeal to everyone. Pucher and Buehler’s previous research demonstrates this as the key difference between countries with high and low levels of cycling. So whilst its message is undoubtedly broader, City Cycling’s biggest impact might be in pushing us closer to consensus (a consensus which is I think established across the scientific community, but lagging across advocacy) that the two main means of mainstreaming cycling are infrastructural; first, the taming of motorised traffic to speeds which make cycling plausible even for those (the vast majority of people) nervous about sharing space with it; and second, wherever that is not (for transient reasons of political will) done (most likely on bigger and busier roads) cycling’s separation from and prioritisation over motorised traffic.

Whilst the contrasts between cycle-friendly northern Europe and car-centric Anglophone countries seem to cry out for strong critique of the latter, the book is unfailingly polite in tone. Given its intended readership needs to be persuaded rather than offended, this is probably good diplomacy. It does sometimes feel, though, that the passion which surely animates advocacy of more cycling – and which helps explain that advocacy – has gone AWOL. So one cost of diplomacy is a certain tediousness in both description (“the Netherlands is like this, the US is like this …”) and analysis (“the Dutch prioritise cycling, but north Americans don’t …”). The book’s impetus to convince more than explain also leaves some questions unasked (“But why do the Dutch prioritise cycling, whilst north Americans don’t? What are the ideological and institutional blocks and barriers, and how might they be overcome?”). For similarly understandable reasons the book is generally upbeat (“look how cycling is growing, and look how easy it is to grow it faster!”), yet we know this is only one side of the story. There are certainly good news stories, but let us not be blind to the fact that across most of the world levels of cycling are either negligible and static, or else quite high but rapidly declining (and in those places cycling needs rescuing, not promoting).

City Cycling belongs to an emerging paradigm shift, from a paradigm that sees cities built for and around the car, towards one which sees cars as inappropriate and bicycles as far more appropriate vehicles for cities. There’s material useful to this transition here. It’s good to see Kristin Lovejoy and Susan Handy’s exploration of cycles and cycle accessories, for example. We know that many bicycles are not really fit for the purpose of city cycling, and it’s refreshing to see that recognised. Also good are three chapters exploring cycling in different sized cities – the small, medium and mega. Cycling is sometimes dismissed by critics as more appropriate to smaller than to bigger cities, whose populations (they say) should travel by transit not bike. So it’s a neat bit of advocacy as well as analysis to break cities down by size, and discuss prospects and strategies for cycling at each scale.

The most fascinating glimpse into cycling is provided by the penultimate chapter exploring cycling in four ‘mega cities’, London, New York, Paris and Tokyo. The first three have seen much pro-cycling hype (and sometimes hysteria) and large increases in cycling, albeit from very low bases. In contrast cycling in Tokyo seems prey to benign neglect, yet it’s by far the most successful ‘cycling mega city’, with relatively high modal share (16.5% of all trips we are told), demographically relatively evenly spread. This chapter correspondingly begs the more detailed kind of cultural investigation which is necessarily absent from the book, but which is nonetheless well worth pursuing. One of the book’s big policy pushes is towards dedicated cycling infrastructure, something now being pursued in London, Paris and New York but not Tokyo. So that using Tokyo as a model of best practice in this chapter might almost undermine the main advocacy push of the book as a whole. (It would be a shame, but unsurprising, if the case of Tokyo were used by opponents of dedicated cycling infrastructure.)

Tokyo’s apparent ‘success’ suggests the importance of closer study of how cycling is actually practised – how do people cycle there? How fast do they tend to go? We know quite a lot about cycling policy and practice in north America, Australia and Europe, but what about cycling policies and practices elsewhere, including Japan about which it seems we know too little? Furthermore the book is silent on the two countries which arguably matter most for the future both of city cycling and our planet – China and India. That’s fair enough –  City Cycling makes no claims to inclusivity or universality. But the more global perspective which the case of Tokyo provokes raises potentially disturbing questions; ‘just what is cycling?’; and ‘what do we want it to become?’.

City Cycling’s desire to persuade more than explain is both its biggest strength and its greatest shortcoming. Thus my hope is that it’ll be read more by people who need persuading of the case for cycling than those seeking to understand it. But even were that to be the case, I have some concerns. In its rush to show how cycling’s promotion is compatible with a range of bureaucratic policies, and how inserting cycling effectively into the city is mainly about technocratic expertise and practice, there’s an evacuation of politics from City Cycling. There are two elements to this evacuation of the political: first, it prevents the book asking some tough questions (to do with continuing neo-liberal capitalism) about why cycling continues to be so marginalised despite it making so much sense; and second, what disappears from most chapters is what I would assume is the authors’ beliefs in the bicycle’s capacity to make the world a better place.

To finish let’s look briefly at each of these in turn.

First, if cycling is so good, why aren’t we all cycling yet? If the arguments are so strong and persuasive, what’s stopping us? Answering such questions requires political, economic, social and cultural analyses both of continuing car (and oil) dependency and of cycling’s continuing marginality. Across the USA, Australia and UK it remains the case that the advocacy of cycling is tolerated, and demands for greater investments in cycling are granted, only so long as they don’t threaten the car’s centrality to everyday life and/or they fit with emergent neo-liberal discourses around livable (for the white, affluent, middle-classes) cities. So only outrageous, extraordinary demands for cycling – demands which test the limits of the car system – have hope of breaking us (even cycling’s advocates) out of unwittingly reproducing cycling’s marginality. Until we learn to do this, mass city cycling – cycling as the main vehicular means of urban transport – remains a pipe-dream.

Second, should cycling promotion become a technocratic exercise, simply about inserting more cycling into the city-as-it-is for the latest, most fashionable set of policy reasons? Is cycling’s main contribution to make our bodies, businesses, streets and economies more ‘effective’ and efficient? Is more cycling enough, or do we want something more? I don’t know about you, but I want something more. Cycling, and thus the bicycle, is not ‘merely’ a bureaucratic and technocratic insertion into the city as it is, with all its injustices and inequalities (to do with class, gender, race, age, ability, locality and so on). Cycling, and thus the bicycle, is also potentially, at least in part, a disruption to that city, and so something which enables the city to be re-made in more socially and ecologically just ways. So demands for city cycling should not only be ridiculously bold but also unapologetically critical. Who are we encouraging to cycle? White, male, middle-aged commuters? Not good enough! What about – for example – kids, people who need to ride wider-than-average machines specifically adapted to their needs, people travelling as a group (who’ve every right to travel as sociably as people within a car)? I think people advocate for cycling because they recognise its capacity to improve the world in a strong, qualitative way; I agree; and I think that we shouldn’t sell either ourselves or cycling short.

All this is perhaps less a criticism of the book than a critique of what cycling might become if left purely to the work of books such as this. This book is important, but it’s not enough. It can form only part of a broader struggle. City Cycling should push city cycling, and is to be very highly commended for that, but it raises more questions than it answers for future cycling research. This is no bad thing; cycling research, much like cycling advocacy, is part of the cycling system we need to establish and maintain in order to first make and then keep cycling normal.

Cycling advocacy and the global future

November 8, 2013

There is no global cycling policy and globally cycling’s future will emerge from multiple and intersecting trends, including: responses to big planetary challenges such as climate change, the end of cheap oil, and the growth in diseases induced by sedentary lifestyles; patterns of car ownership and use, especially across the world’s fastest-growing economies; changes in cycling’s profile, particularly in globally iconic cities; and the possibilities of new technologies (including e-bikes and public bike schemes) to re-define current meanings and practices of mobility. But cycling’s future and so also the globe’s will be importantly shaped by its advocates’ views of what cycling is for.

Why advocate cycling? Simply so it becomes easier for us as cyclists to move about by bike? Or is there a bigger vision of what everyone’s lives, relationships, places, and world should be and feel like? I think the latter – the bicycle is both symbolic of, and a pragmatic path to, another way of life, and this is why so many of us believe in cycling, and want to make it bigger.

The bicycle isn’t yet the iconic vehicle to and of a brighter world, but it could and should be – there’s an empty space in the global imagination awaiting it to fill. Though the idea of the bicycle achieving globally iconic status might seem ridiculous, a hundred years ago the same might have been said about the car, and the bicycle’s deeply loved by people everywhere.

If we want a different world organised around the bicycle not the car, it’s our business to make it. Cycling’s global future depends partly on how successfully its advocates build and sell cycling as core to a better world; and for that we need bold and powerful visions. Yet in Britain at least, no cycling advocacy organisation obviously and proudly struts an alternative global vision (the small, grassroots, activist-initiated Bicycology perhaps comes closest). CTC – the national cycling charity – endured the time of the car, and has (understandably) found ways of co-existing with it, though its recent ‘Cycletopia initiative seemed a tentative step in a more visionary direction. Sustrans gives tantalising glimpses of cycling as a route to a better world in its publicity material, but doesn’t really deliver more. A new organisation, the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain is less constrained, more impatient and ambitious, but has yet to develop a really compelling and inspiring vision of why transport cycling is worth fighting for. And although it’s become more common, even acceptable, to aim not for 2 but 25% of journeys by bike, it’s still unclear why.

This absence of big and persuasive stories about why we want more cycling is a problem for two reasons.

First, it means the value of cycling gets colonised by institutional agendas and ambitions. Institutions embracing cycling is no bad thing, but is it generating a bland, pragmatic and in the long-run counter-productive view of cycling? Is the dominant trope becoming of cycling fitting this world, rather than creating a route out, towards a better one? In projecting the idea that cycling belongs to the same world as today’s driving one, institutionalised cycling promotion prevents our getting somewhere else, cycling’s potential sold short and stymied.

Second, it’s hard to motivate and inspire without a vision. As advocates we should help people cycling feel part of something big and transformative – a movement changing the world for good. Then they won’t be ‘merely’ cycling; they’ll be on a mission, and might get more involved. But the absence of global and national visions for cycling is felt locally – cycle campaigns everywhere struggle against a tide of indifference when they could and should be trail-blazing vibrant, radical and inspiring visions for their districts.

At this local level, in Britain and elsewhere two styles of cycling advocacy tend to co-exist, often uneasily. In one, advocates view themselves as ‘cycling’s representatives’ and make suggestions for things that ought to be done (usually by others, mainly local government) for cycling, and complain about schemes (so many!) that fail to value cycling. Here, cycling is done to us, by those we lobby and to whom we protest; however much we love cycling, it becomes something given us by others. With respect to everyone who engages in such work (and I’ve done my share), such advocacy gets cycling a few crumbs from transport’s table and achieves little beyond reproducing itself as marginal; it’s jaded, lacks vision and disempowers both ourselves and others. The other style of cycling advocacy is more obviously vision-led. Cycling is not done to us, we do cycling. Although it rarely finds its way into mainstream cycle campaigning this style of advocacy can be found in grassroots projects, often workers’ co-ops, across the world; and it’s one to learn, adopt and adapt more widely.

How? I’m not sure; the necessary work is neither obvious nor easy. But articulation of a global vision could start in our own backyards and involve two main tasks: the priority is to develop and strive to popularise a local vision based around the bicycle – we need to open to and convince not just others but also ourselves of a future where cycling is the practical, ethical and aesthetic glue joining things together; this could entail shifts to advocacy in artistic, literary and educational directions, to produce locally-pertinent and collectively-owned stories about cycling’s relevance to a fair and sustainable global future; the next step is to direct energies into projects making these locally-owned visions real. Like everything, the way to proceed is through practice, and to try to have fun! (Advocacy can be dreary, but it could be exciting, and so much more effective.)

Critical Mass

It’s time to reclaim cycling for a cause more noble than getting people to work on time, time for visions inspiring more people to ‘really get cycling’ (by which I mean not just doing cycling, but having reasons why, reasons dictated not by government policy priorities but real thirst for change). Cycling advocacy influences cycling’s future, and so too the globe’s, so we must be bold and visionary. Dream and demand too little and we’ll get less than cycling deserves – how depressing if more cycling doesn’t, when it so obviously could, change the world? So let’s work for a ‘cycling revolution’ which is no chimera, but real.

This post is based on a talk I gave on 23rd October 2013, at the AGM of Dynamo, Lancaster and District’s Cycling Campaign. Thanks to Dynamo for having me speak, and to those who attended for stimulating discussion. The art work is by Mona Caron – whilst I’m sure not alone, she’s the only artist I know of who has done work that embodies a clear vision of cycling-based futures.

Butter Tubs

October 9, 2013

The climb of Butter Tubs will be better known once the first stage of next year’s Tour de France passes over it. How hard the riders find it will depend a lot on the wind. Yesterday, damp and blustery with the wind at my back, I barely noticed it, the gradient never so steep as to force deep effort. But at over 500 metres, conditions towards the top can be dreadful; I’ve been brought almost to a standstill by head winds here, and felt my bike being blown beneath me by side winds.

The Butter Tubs themselves lie just over the pass from Wensleydale to Swaledale; this is limestone country and the Tubs are deep potholes set close to the road, used – legend has it – for keeping butter cool.

The Butter Tubs

From the little market town of Hawes in Wensleydale you can see the Butter Tubs road climbing north over the moor; disconcertingly, the road seems to be clinging to the fellside for dear life. Out of Hawes and across the River Ure, you wind up past the hamlet of Simonstone. Below you upland rain pummels down through Hardraw Force, England’s highest unbroken waterfall. There’s a short, steep section (where the biggest crowds, including me and my family, will gather on the first Saturday of next July) before the road relaxes its way across higher ground.

Getting steeper

Shallowing out

And this is a road, not a lane. I guess it was chosen partly because it stays so wide as it goes so high. Coming half-way through the stage, it’s unlikely to make much impact on the race – chances are a break (hopefully including a Brit, even a local, or two) will have formed, and the peloton will mind the gap before reeling it back for a bunch sprint to the Harrogate finish.

But what impact might the Tour’s passing through this part of the world have on cycling more generally? I love cycling’s continuing high profile. I try to keep it in perspective – for most people cycling continues to be mainly irrelevant – but after a lifetime spent loving something strange I’m starting to feel a bit more normal! Still, imagining we’re in the midst of ‘a cycling revolution’ is wishful thinking and for the Tour de France to have local impact on everyday life in the Yorkshire Dales – and so contribute to a nascent trend of ‘Britain embracing the bicycle’ – requires work. Revolutions never happen; they’re made.

Can almost 200 of the world’s strongest male cyclists passing over Butter Tubs help get Yorkshire cycling? Can the spectacle be turned to participation? And the participation not just of cycling enthusiasts drawn to Yorkshire’s hills and dales, however good that might be for the tourist economy, but also of local people going about their daily business? Put differently, can carbon-heavy cycling – for Le Tour is certainly that – be converted to carbon-neutral cycling? Because only cycling which replaces rather than adds to carbon-based travel will help move us towards sustainability; and no matter how many good things bringing Le Tour here might achieve, that’s – surely – what matters most.

The other side

From Butter Tubs the road drops into Swaledale; it’s steep with some tight corners, but remains wide and is surprisingly well surfaced (although it’ll probably need re-doing after another Yorkshire winter); unless it’s particularly wet and windy, the Tour carnival will hurtle down without a second thought.

Heading into Swaledale

You can’t talk about Yorkshire cycling without mentioning hills, wind and rain. Cosy in a car, you’re immune to all three, but on a bicycle it’s a different story. So is cycling here only for the fit and adventurous riding just for fun, never for ‘ordinary people’ doing ‘ordinary stuff’? Will Le Tour’s legacy be more ‘outsiders’ coming to ride in Yorkshire, while locals stay stuck fast in their cars?

Hay barns dotted prettily across its floor, upper Swaledale is gorgeous. Here I turn left – my route takes me to the top of the valley and the Cumbrian border on the wild and windswept Birkdale Common, but all the riders and the fuss will turn the other way, through Muker and Reeth, before crossing back to Wensleydale down at Leyburn.

Road sign

Yorkshire is talking of Le Tour. For people here there’s no escape. So what to make of it? In a place like Hawes cars are everywhere, and the people you occasionally see on bikes look much like me. The car enables life here to continue to be lived as it’s come – if only in quite recent times – to be lived; everyday life without a car has quickly become unthinkable. Is, then, re-thinking the bicycle as able to do some of the work which the car currently does in places such as this too big a challenge? If so, would that be a failure of cycling, or of our imaginations?

Welcome to Hawes

Yorkshire’s landscapes and people will next year add colour and character to the world’s biggest bike race. But how will the race leave Yorkshire? Essentially unchanged beyond a momentary tourist boom and a contribution to re-making the region as a cycling destination? Or can it leave a longer-lasting and more locally-relevant legacy, developing the region not just as a destination for, but also an origin of, cycling?

Typical Dales' main street

We’re seeing some money to get people living in cities cycling, and also visitors to national parks. For sure we need new thinking and ideas to help make it happen, but we could also now do with some money to help people who actually live and work in places like Yorkshire’s Dales cycle too. The 2014 Tour won’t by itself make much difference; but we can make it make a difference. So I suggest we find ways to use the Tour’s Yorkshire passing as an impetus to develop a rural cycling which doesn’t disappear once the race is gone, but survives locally and contributes to sustainability.

Wide Open Road

October 4, 2013

There are parts of England, never mind Britain, where it’s possible to do a long day’s ride almost entirely on A and B roads (for those who live elsewhere, that’s big roads) yet rarely see a truck or car (though tractors, quad bikes and post vans are a bit more common).

Along the Ingleton to Hawes road

I’d been invited to the Department for Transport’s Cycle Stakeholder Forum which took place on Monday in London. Although on paper I’m a ‘member’ of this Forum, I’ve yet to attend a meeting. Frankly, the continuing ‘taking cycling seriously’ waffle, whilst so little’s being done to make cycling easy, makes me nauseous, and whilst I know it’s not a particularly rational political strategy (and even ‘immature’), I increasingly want nothing to do with it. To be honest I’m still not sure whether ‘men (and it is mainly men) in suits (pretending to) take cycling seriously’ is a good thing: it’s probably an inevitable and necessary stage in the process of making cycling mainstream, something I’ve long hoped to see; but – and this is where the nausea comes in – I hate seeing cycling instrumentalised, reduced and bureaucratised, all so it makes sense within worlds which – at least for me – are antithetical to what cycling is and should be.

So rather than go to London I promised myself a long ride instead. Then I’d save the £90 train fare, and likely spend and end the day energised and elated, rather than dejected and deflated. Some days all I want to do, really, is sit on the bike and ride; spend the day thoughtlessly pedalling. On those days I tend to devise a relatively flat route along relatively big roads (and I almost always ride anti-clockwise, a habit I developed long ago – I think through riding with people who saw right turns as making rides unnecessarily complicated).

A684, west of Hawes

With so much talk of ‘Getting Britain Cycling’, it’s odd that I can leave home at 9 am on a Monday morning, ride 85 miles along big roads remarkably free of motorised traffic and passing through some of England’s finest countryside, yet barely see another person on a bicycle. We might be getting more serious about more effectively inserting cycling into the ‘straight’ world, but what I’d like to see is the ‘straight’ world get a bit less, well, ‘straight’ through its embrace of cycling, so that the Monday-Friday, 9-5 grind starts to lose its allure. ‘Yes’, cycling could make us ‘more efficient workers’ (one of the few reasons many politicians could probably be persuaded to like it), but really, who wants to be a more efficient worker?! Instead, sell the car, get a bike, and use the money saved to drop hours spent working and go cycling instead! That way lies more health benefits than ‘merely’ pedalling the commute could ever bring; and a tangible sense of freedom to boot.

Rides such as this one, involving big loops north-east of Lancaster, don’t feel they’ve quite started until I reach Ingleton, 18 miles from home. I think that’s because only then do I reach roads that are wide, open and quiet; until then bigger roads are busy, while quieter ones are lanes that tend to feel intimate, not expansive. I love riding through the gentle mid-morning ‘bustle’ of Ingleton village (I often pop my first banana or energy bar on my way through), because then the ‘niggly bit’ is over and the long, straight roads of the western Dales begin. The B6255 road to Hawes climbs steeply at first before flattening as it strikes a course north-east, Whernside to one side, Ingleborough the other. Riding this road I always feel a deep privilege to being on a bike.

The valley narrows towards Chapel-le-Dale and the exposed limestone creeps closer, then Ribblehead Viaduct strikes its clear, fine line across the moor ahead. You swoop fast down beneath it and then, immediately after the Horton turn which follows the Settle-Carlisle south, there’s a lovely curve to the road which lets you keep your speed ahead of the next rise, as you pass the motorists huddled in their cars.

From the pass at Newby Head it’s downhill almost all the way to Hawes. The road is wide and its gradient gradual, so you can hold a good speed, with on Monday a strong head wind saving me the effort of braking.

From Hawes the wind is mostly at my back, and I plain sail west up valley to the Moorcock Inn, just shy of the Wensleydale/Garsdale watershed, turning north there down a valley for which, if I’ve not ridden it in more than a month or two, I develop serious cravings – Mallerstang.

B6259, north of Moorcock Inn

Why do I love Mallerstang? The gradients are gentle (you can see why the Settle-Carlisle railway took this valley), and – in this direction – after a short climb you’ve a long downhill that’s fast and fluid. The surrounding fells (Wild Boar is perhaps best known) are little visited, while their long edges and gentle slopes form a perfect fit with road cycling. And though you’re moving fast across smooth tarmac, you feel here that you’ve left the world behind.

I usually stay along this Eden Valley into Kirkby Stephen because, 50 miles from home, I need food; but today – progress slowed by the wind – I’ve already eaten in Hawes. So at Pendragon Castle a few miles short of Kirkby I take the little lane west (the railway tunnelled below) to the next empty A road, the 683. A super road, going south it aims straight at the Howgills before hugging tight their eastern flank. (You re-enter the Yorkshire Dales National Park where Cautley Spout tumbles from the fells behind The Cross Keys Temperance Inn.) Like Mallerstang, heading this way the gradient’s in your favour and it’s another straight, fast run all the way to Sedbergh. Through the town I keep to the A683 along the Lune’s east side to Kirkby Lonsdale, switching there via Devil’s Bridge to the Lune’s west side for the last stretch, along the B6254, for home.

A683, south of Kirkby Stephen

Cycling wide open roads lifts not just my spirits but also my horizons. It makes me ambitious for cycling in ways not encouraged by the Department for Transport, ambitious not just quantitatively but also qualitatively. ‘Yes’ to more bums on saddles, but I want cycling to lead those bums – both individually and collectively – towards better things. Why ‘Get Britain Cycling’? To get its bodies and its cities primed for the next wave of neo-liberal, corporate, consumer capitalist incursions, aimed at making Britain more economically ‘efficient’ and profitable? Not in my name, thanks. I want Britain to ‘Get Cycling’ so more people might ride their bike to ride their bike and take ‘a cycling perspective’, one that gets them closer to home, closer to themselves, closer to a world in which no one need wear a suit.

Cycling Speed

August 1, 2013

I have multiple cycling speeds that I can’t rank ‘better’ and ‘worse’. 10 mph enables me to ride with kids and potter about town. 15 mph feels comfortable for longer rides out in the countryside. 20 mph I’m either going downhill or training. And then there’s 25 mph.

How fast?

25 mph is the speed of performance cycling. Road races typically average around this speed, and time trialling at 25 mph makes you half-decent – that’s something I set out to do this year, to ride 25 miles in under the hour, and 10 miles in under 24 minutes. The other night presented probably this season’s best chance of a sub-24 minute 10 mile ride; a warm, dry and calm evening – perfect conditions, on one of the fastest courses in the country, up and down the A590 near Levens in the south Lakes. My mate Jon also rode, similarly intent on breaking the 24 minute barrier. We make good training partners because we’re about the same level, which creates healthy competition between us and means we push each other to go faster.

Warming up

Time trialling emerged as a clandestine activity at the end of the nineteenth century in response to a ban on road-based bunch-racing. Darkly-dressed riders set off at regular intervals around dawn, to ‘test’ themselves over a secret course. Nowadays it’s almost the opposite – signs are erected around and along the course warning motorists an event is taking place, with riders encouraged to make themselves conspicuous through fitting a powerful rear light to their machine.

It might seem one of cycling’s conservative enclaves – most riders come by car (as a teenager my mates and I would cycle long distances to race, but these days Jon and I are unusual in cycling so far as twenty miles to Levens, and back, to take part) to pedal fast through intensely motorised space, using specific and costly bikes and equipment to enhance performance. Yet there’s politics amidst this personalised search for cycling speed.

Like the more overtly political Critical Mass, road time trialling claims increasingly motorised space for cycling, but instead of collectively claiming urban road space it (alone, I think) maintains cycling’s precarious presence (at one minute intervals) on big, busy and fast roads through the countryside. Only such fast cycling as this has hope of survival here; almost as if technological progress has enabled time trial speeds to keep up with broader accelerations in societal speed.

Perhaps less like Critical Mass, time trialling doesn’t seek to subvert the logic of these speeding corridors of automobility – the draughts produced by big vehicles passing close by help you ride faster! – so much as break the near monopoly which motorised movement imposes on them, by insisting cycling (and play, actually) is possible even here. If that seems a dangerous game, think how cycling’s almost lost its right to these roads – roads hugely important to cycling futures – and how without time trialling they’d become motorways in all but name. (What we really need on roads such as these is high-quality dedicated space for cycling, of whatever speed, along either side.)

Warming up at Levens

I set off one minute after Jon, by which time he’s disappeared into the distance. With five straight miles until the big Meathop roundabout, I concentrate on sustaining maximum power whilst keeping my cadence smooth (the graceful blend of immense effort and relaxed poise, neither of which I have, is what makes a great time triallist.) I know immediately I’m going fast, but more surprisingly, it seems a speed I can sustain.

Riding hard along a road which seems made for speeding cars, trucks, and vans with trailers is a strange experience. I have an abstract awareness of my flimsy and fragile exposure to other vehicles’ bulk and speed, yet my physical effort renders me almost oblivious to the specifics of their presence, unless they get uncomfortably close, in which case I use their proximity to boost my speed, accelerating as they pass; a rare bonus from less courteous driving.

Perched on the front of my saddle, tucked aerodynamically in, I gobble up the road. (I fit aero bars to my road bike ahead of a time trial, enabling a more ‘tucked’, streamlined position.) My fear as I approach the roundabout to return the other way is I’ve had a tail wind out and will hit a head wind back, but the second leg feels harder only because of the effort I’ve so far made. Although I refuse to believe it until my ride is over, it seems increasingly likely I’ll beat my target by a good margin.

Heading home

Jon does too, and we ride home happy, both knowing we’ve ridden 10 miles faster than we’ve ever done before. From a serious cycling perspective our times remain unimpressive (we finish 22nd and 23rd of 44 finishers), but they’ll do for us for now.

(Yes, Jon’s helmet is on backwards; it’s just the kind of thing he does, riding home from a time trial – during which he wears it the right way round.)

Heading home 2

At a personal or cultural level there’s nothing wrong with the search for speed; it’s part of a rich and varied cycling life. But I worry that, although cycling has variable speeds, it seems more generally to be speeding up, just when we need it to be slowing down. Cycling promotion seems often to want to speed cycling up, to make it better fit a fast society; the quicker we can make cycling, the more ‘competitive’ it becomes: inter-modal competitions regularly pit the bicycle against the car to prove cycling’s superiority through urban space; Copenhagen’s ‘Green Wave’ speeds cycling up by giving it priority through junctions; and high-profile British success in cycle sport continues cycling’s acceleration, displaying cycling as something best done fast, not slow. Speed becomes everything.

But making cycling fast makes it less democratic. Cycling is most popular in places where it’s slow, because slow cycling requires less effort. And isn’t life already too fast, and cycling better used to slow it down? A slower life is fairer, greener, and probably more enjoyable. There’s no single cycling speed; all speeds matter if cycling is to play the fullest role in society. But for most people most of the time cycling is best done slowly, and unless we create places where people can ride slowly the British cycling experience will continue to resemble a race amidst speeding traffic – an environment where a few might test themselves but most simply dare not pedal.

Cycling’s Helpers

July 16, 2013

Attending to cycling

It’s tempting to treat events as somehow ‘natural’ – they just happen and we simply show up, to watch or participate. But that’s the easy bit, consumption. What about production? Because events never just happen, they’re made to happen, they’re produced. This includes cycling events – and if you want more cycling you might sooner or later want to get involved. At this time of year cycling events abound even in a small place like Lancaster. There’s something happening (or rather, being made to happen!) most evenings, and at weekends too.

Helping hand

For example, every Thursday from early April until late August Lancaster Cycling Club organises an evening time trial at Salt Ayre cycle track. I participate regularly, and help out occasionally. A gorgeous warm and sunny evening, 68 people rode last week’s event: 15 (mainly younger children) at two miles; 19 (children and adults) at six miles; and 34 (mainly adults) at ten miles. Between them those 68 rides reflect enormous work on the part of the riders, in training beforehand and the race itself. But those 68 rides also require huge work from others.

Signing on

Much of that work takes place elsewhere. Cycling’s unsung heroes, its hidden helpers, are busy all year; meeting, planning and preparing even in the darkest depths of winter. But it’s likely these same people who on a Thursday evening during the racing season are down at the track before the first riders arrive, still there after the last riders have gone, and – when back at home the tidying up and paperwork are finally done – back again next week to do it all again. For its helpers, cycling is often less about riding than about making the riding of others happen. People often say they’re ‘giving something back’ to cycling, but these people don’t just ‘give something back’, they keep cycling going. And their lives are shaped by the help they give cycling.

Pushing off

Much work is out of sight, but on any evening at the track there’s plenty still to do: someone must put signs around the track to let other people (especially dog-walkers) know cycle racing is taking place; the track might need sweeping, dog mess clearing up; there are tables and chairs to get out, and – if it looks like rain – gazebos to erect. At the signing-on desk people help riders register, collect race fees, and issue numbers. At the start line, riders are pushed off at the appropriate time (one minute intervals). Near the finish line someone spots and shouts numbers to the time-keepers, who monitor riders’ progress (each lap is 0.8 miles, so 10 mile riders must complete 12.5 laps) and ensure everyone gets their finishing time. Back on the other side of the track, someone sorts refreshments – drinks and biscuits that keep people hanging around and turn the event into an important social as well as sporting occasion.

Salt Ayre time-keepers

When the racing’s over and the riders gone, everything’s quietly and carefully tidied away again, and cycling’s helpers head home to do the paperwork, process and distribute the results, clean kit, check equipment, and circulate details of the next event.

Lancaster's time-keeping crew

That’s Thursday, time trial night. Tuesday and Wednesday evenings see bunch racing, which requires more helpers – including commissaires, marshals, and gear checkers. Racing also takes place at weekends. Then there are training sessions on Saturday mornings, and other evenings. And this is just what happens in one small place, Salt Ayre. But if there weren’t people prepared to organise all this, it simply wouldn’t happen. And a similar story is of course repeated, with local variation, elsewhere. So thanks to cycling’s helpers everywhere.

Refreshments

It’s easy to become a cycling helper. Besides the key organisers, every event requires a bunch of people simply willing to lend a hand – stand with a flag, note down numbers, make some cakes or pour the tea. ‘Doing a turn’ is a basic ethic of how we ride, and applies off the bike too. Because we’re good at taking turns cycling’s calendar is crowded with events. If we’re able, we willingly do our bit. And this is the way to make a more bike-friendly world – if cycling matters to us, by working together, contributing to events, we can help make it matter more to others. Cycling’s profile and popularity will rise as more people commit to doing this kind of work; it would fall were it not for the countless people who already devote a chunk of their lives to help cycling.

Cycling doesn’t just happen; it’s always being made to happen – by people, people like you and me. There are countless ways to help cycling. The cycling world is full of clubs and associations which, between them, contribute to cycling culture and keep cycling going. I’ve focussed here on cycle sport but we can choose any cycling focus. The point is that nothing ‘just happens’; the Berlin Wall didn’t fall by itself, South African apartheid didn’t end by itself; and a cycling-friendly world will not come about by itself – it will be made by people such as those you see here, people like you and me.

Hard to see

This post is dedicated to Bob Muir, who is on the far right of the above photo – it is he who, more than anyone, makes Thursday nights at Salt Ayre so reliably and so successfully happen. Thank you Bob!

Fear of Cycling: a summary

June 26, 2013

After presenting on ‘Fear of Cycling’ to the Velo-city Vienna conference recently, I was asked to summarise my talk for the post-conference magazine. It’s lost some nuance and complexity but I’ve got the argument down to 1,000 words, and post it below for anyone interested. I do so because Velo-city reminded me how ‘live’ is the issue of helmets, particularly – helmets look set to become mandatory in Spain, and already are in Australia – where next year’s Velo-city takes place, in Adelaide; so it seems not everyone yet knows how huge an impediment to mass cycling is helmet promotion, let alone compulsion.

Helmet promotion

Introduction

Cycling is so good, yet many people still don’t cycle. Why? We must start by recognising how cycling conditions remain so generally poor; to do otherwise is naïve. Most people simply don’t want to, and won’t, cycle along roads dominated by fast, motorised traffic; the thought of riding amongst or close to big, heavy vehicles is one they find very scary. Nobody wants to get hurt and, rightly or wrongly, people feel getting hurt is more likely if they move by bike.

For anyone who wants to see more cycling, the instinct here is to try to persuade people that cycling is actually, really safe. We might explain how cycling is:

  • objectively safe – the chances of a crash when cycling are very slim;
  • relatively safe – for example, there is more chance of being injured when cooking than when cycling;
  • much safer than not cycling – the health benefits of cycling, it’s said, outweigh the risks by 20:1.

Better still, we might try not only to encourage people to ride despite their fears, but meanwhile also push for substantial – radical – improvements to current conditions for cycling. But the question remains: why is cycling – something which perhaps gives us pleasure and benefit – in the minds of other people so worrying? Yes, people might overstate cycling’s risks. Yes, more must be done to make cycling (feel) safer. But might there also be cultural and political processes at work which make cycling seem dangerous, more dangerous than it is, and which produce fear of cycling? And if this was the case, and we identified those processes, couldn’t, shouldn’t we intervene, to stop them?

Emotions can be, and are, constructed. Cycling is not inherently dangerous and a fear of cycling is not inevitable. We need only look to the Netherlands to see that – cycling there is so normal that people barely even think about it. But across most of the world cycling is more problematic, with many people reluctant to cycle because they think it’s dangerous.

How is fear of cycling produced?

So let’s examine how fear of cycling is produced. There are three clear ways in which cycling is made to seem more dangerous than it is. Ironically they all purport to be responding to cycling’s danger and to be making cycling safer, but instead they produce cycling as a dangerous practice, and thus contribute to fear of cycling; they do, in other words, the opposite of what they intend.

1. Road safety education

Road safety education teaches everyone, but particularly children, that moving around is risky, roads are dangerous, and they ought to be very careful, especially when walking and cycling. You know the kind of thing – leaflets telling children to keep out the way of cars. Such ‘information’ reinforces driving as the normal means of moving around, and makes cycling seem difficult, awkward and dangerous; it usually puts responsibility for safety squarely on the (child) cyclist’s shoulders – it’s up to you to devise a quiet route (however long), to wear hi-viz clothes and (of course!) a helmet. Road safety education doesn’t make places safer; it makes driving more normal and cycling more dangerous; and it seems often deliberately designed to instil fear of cycling.

2. Helmet promotion

In a context marked by widespread fear of cycling, promoting helmets – or even making them mandatory – can seem like an easy, obvious, quick and sensible thing to do. Which is why it’s done. But this is no way to promote cycling, because promoting helmets depends on associating cycling with danger, and will therefore inevitably increase fear of cycling. Like road safety education, helmet promotion puts responsibility onto the wrong people; and instead of making streets safer, makes cycling more dangerous. To promote helmets is to promote car use and to repress cycling.

3. New (safe) spaces for cycling

If fear stops most people riding, an obvious solution is to change cycling’s place. And in the short to medium term this might be a necessary step to overcoming fear of cycling, getting more people riding, and building a mass culture of cycling. But can you see how the logic here remains similar to the previous two examples? We try to make cycling safer without tackling the root problem, the danger imposed by fast motorised traffic. And with similar results – the impulse to take cycling off the road inevitably increases people’s fear of cycling on the road, and also makes those who remain cycling on the road a bit more ‘strange’.

So all three attempts to make cycling safer actually make cycling (seem) more dangerous, and produce a fear of cycling whilst failing to change how most people, most of the time, move around (which across most of the world, is increasingly by car). And so cycling remains in the minority, and the cyclist remains strange.

Conclusion

But we’re trying to promote cycling aren’t we? Yes, apparently, and we shouldn’t be surprised if there’s discomfort about (even resentment and resistance towards) the push for cycling – because by inviting people to cycle we’re asking them to become different. However, cycling would be more successfully promoted if we stopped making it seem dangerous and difficult, and worked instead to make it the simplest, easiest thing in the world. The sooner we make cycling normal, the sooner people will stop feeling cycling is a strange thing to do.

So finally then, how do we combat fear of cycling and make cycling normal?

  • From the bottom-up – by grassroots empowerment, communicating cycling’s benefits, and helping people insert cycling more effectively into their lives. The more people cycle, the safer cycling becomes;
  • From the top-down – by explaining to our governing institutions how cycling remains much too difficult and dangerous, and requires radical political re-prioritisation. The more cycling is prioritised, the safer cycling becomes;
  • From everywhere – by shifting away from the misguided attempts to make cycling safer discussed here (with the caveat that high-quality dedicated cycling infrastructure is often now a necessary step to mainstreaming cycling), and concentrating instead on making motorised traffic less dangerous – by for example increasing restraints on driving, slowing speeds, and enforcing careful driving. The more we recognise the real danger to be driving, the safer cycling becomes.

Fear of cycling can be otherwise, but we must work to make it so.

Longest Day

June 24, 2013

Longest Day

We’ve had the year’s longest day. It seemed, during the long, hard winter, to be taking ages for spring to arrive. And now, so suddenly it seems, the summer solstice has been and gone and we’ve started the slow slip down the year’s other side. The best of days hopefully remain ahead, but it’s certainly time to make the most of them, to get out and ride. In the northern hemisphere this is the apex of the cycling year – opportunities for daylight cycling peak as the sun stays longest in our sky.

Flo spent the shortest night at a friend’s house. Bobby, after racing two evenings on the trot, craved rest. But I couldn’t let summer’s solstice pass without a ride, especially when a cloudy day made way for evening sun. Sue agreed, so together we rode nine miles out to The Redwell Inn for our tea. We’d raced the night before too, so rode gently; it was good to feel tiredness and tightness clearing from our legs.

Longest Day

We rode up river to the Crook o’Lune, and from there began the steady climb north-east towards the pub. This is a favourite stretch of road. The Lune’s valley drops away to one side and the Keer’s to the other as you climb, and as you rise there appears before you the most spectacular panorama of England’s highest ground: farthest away, to your left across Morecambe Bay, stretches a saw-like line of Cumbrian fells, which give way to the Howgill’s unmistakeable humps; then straight ahead, like you’re aiming at them, rise Yorkshire’s Dales, and finally – to your right – squat Lancashire’s moors. You feel you’ve got England’s finest scenery completely to yourself, and sometimes I think how to ride the road once would be worth the price of my bike; yet I’m lucky enough to ride it often.

Longest Day 3

Is there a finer drink than that earned from cycling, enjoyed outdoors as the sun slips slowly out the sky?

The Redwell Inn

By cycling we put ourselves into nature. We appreciate the countryside because we pedal through it. The roads belong to us because we assert our right to ride them. The land is ours because we ride across it. Cycling is potentially open to everyone, and so too the countryside. These roads and this land, my roads and my land, could be everyone’s road, everyone’s land.

From a car, speeding fast past through it, nature might seem not quite real, almost like a construct. Cars separate us from our world. But from a bike we know our place much better, that we’re fully of the world. There’s no screen to protect us, and we move quickly upon a skinny frame of metal attached to remarkably spinning wheels. We’re knocked by wind, beaten by rain, shone by sun. We snake along lanes, beneath trees, below hedges, under changing skies. When cycling there’s a permanent privilege to being so close that you become part of this precious living world. Of course it’s not all roses and birdsong: we’re sometimes hit by insects (poor things!), or offended by the sight and smell of creatures killed by cars; and love it or loathe it, we’re forced bodily to respond to what from a car remain vague and abstract topographies. Cycling we greet the world as it is, warts and all.

As a sociologist I seek to explore and understand the world, as an activist to critique and change it, but by bike I confront it up close and accept it as it is. Investigation and judgement take a back-seat – when cycling we dwell in pure, elemental place. And so by riding we come to appreciate the world more fully. Riding is raw, truthful and above all, real.

Heading home

We returned to Lancaster the way we’d come, though it felt different now – not only were we going the other way, but the sun had dipped below the horizon, the temperature dropped. The longest day was drawing to a close, and the twilight wove midsummer magic, casting us under its spell.

One year it’d be good to ride continuously from sunrise to sundown on the longest day, or another to ride through the shortest night. They’re adventures for the future, to add to the reassuringly long – more than a good life-time’s long – rides-still-to-do list.

Velo-city Vienna

June 19, 2013

Velo-city at Vienna City Hall

Last week I was in Vienna for Velo-city, the world’s biggest bicycle conference. I’d been asked to present my analysis of fear of cycling, which tries to explain how cycling is made dangerous by attempts to make it safe. (I think some people then want me to say (and some assume I do say) that cycling is not dangerous, which I refuse to do; one point of the paper is to crack rather than reinforce naïve understandings of cycling.) You can see photos of the plenary session I was part of here.

Helmets are a chief culprit in rendering cycling dangerous by attempting to make it safe. Helmet promotion tends inevitably to play on, to reproduce and to magnify an already extant fear of cycling. The helmet debate is unfortunately live in many countries. In Vienna I met Pablo León, a journalist of El Pais, who authors that newspaper’s bicycle blog, ‘I Love Bicis’, and Isabel Ramis who blogs about cycling in Madrid; they are currently battling mandatory national helmet laws. I also met Sue Abbott, a brave and impressive woman who maintains steadfast civil disobedience in the face of Australia’s mandatory helmet laws. Adelaide hosts next year’s Velo-city conference, and it’ll be interesting to see how the city deals with the arrival of hordes of cycling advocates, many of whom rightly see mandatory helmet use as totally anathema to cycling’s promotion.

This doesn’t mean I think cycling is entirely safe (I don’t), only that promoting helmets is no way of dealing with cycling’s lack of safety. It also doesn’t mean I refuse to wear a helmet – flying downhill into Lancaster at over 40 miles per hour earlier today, I wanted my helmet on; but pedalling more gently round town later, I don’t.

Cycling in Vienna

Vienna contraflow

Central city cycle circle

Between hearing the latest cycling stories from across the globe inside Vienna’s opulent City Hall, I explored the city outside by bike. Around 6 or 7% of trips in Vienna are made by bike, but 2013 is the Austrian capital’s ‘Year of Cycling’, and the aim is to reach 10% by 2015. These current and target modal shares for cycling reflect the city’s cycling environment, which feels better than Britain but still a long way from the Netherlands.

The showpiece of the city’s cycling infrastructure is the Ringstrasse, a dedicated loop for two-way cycling around the city centre– basically an inner ring-road for cycling. Ten years from now it could (and should) mark the perimeter of a virtually car-free central core. Inserting this cycling loop has clearly entailed reallocation of space away from the car and some re-prioritisation of traffic flow in cycling’s favour; it’s far from perfect but substantially better than anything in Britain.

But although there are many good bits of cycling infrastructure, elsewhere Vienna feels like a city which has been badly damaged by the car, and that damage goes on. And the impression you get, riding around, is that cycling is being squeezed in. Instead of using cycling to start fundamentally restructuring the city away from the car, cycling continues to be seen – and added – as an extra.

Some positive change is happening, but a paradigm shift it ain’t (yet).

Vienna bike lane

Cycling in traffic, Vienna

Skinny wiggly Vienna bike lane

Vienna cyclist

Vienna’s current efforts to boost utility cycling are rooted in a solid recreational cycling base. One afternoon I rode in glorious sunshine along the cycle routes which parallel both the River Danube and the Danube Canal which leads from the central city to it. It helped me appreciate how much quality infrastructure for leisure cycling the city has. It felt like most of Vienna was out on its bike, enjoying the weather along what’s effectively a long and attractive city park. And these riverside routes are well integrated into the city’s wider (and higher) cycling network via some nifty cycling ramps.

By the River Danube

But the best vision of mass cycling came on the traditional Velo-city ride. The conference brings together a mix of people who probably disagree about many things even when it comes to cycling; politicians, administrators, consultants, representatives of the cycling industries, advocates, activists, researchers and students arrive from across the world – from places where cycling is normal to places where it’s almost extinct (it felt impossible to speak equally to everyone during my presentation; I suspect many Dutch participants, particularly, wondered what on earth I was talking about!). The host city also uses the conference to boost its cycling reputation and to promote cycling to its citizens. The big Velo-city ride, then, enables a brief but powerful demonstration of unity amongst conference delegates, and enables the city visibly to announce its support and ambition for cycling. Velo-city is worth it for this momentary but delicious vision of mass cycling alone.

Mass bike ride, Vienna