When ‘ordinary cycling’ meets a hill

cyclingI was in Bristol to take part in the City Council’s Inquiry into Cycling Safety last week. I’d been asked to give evidence from the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, into the question “what can the Council and its partners do to improve safety for cyclists in the city?” It’s great these kinds of question are now being asked in Britain’s city halls, and a privilege to be part of the process – we just need to work together to make sure they translate into bold and concrete actions which make cycling simultaneously bigger and safer.

It was great, too, to see so many people riding in Bristol. The parts of the city centre I rode felt relatively hospitable to cycling, and hugely better than here up north in Lancaster. I’d say that Bristol has done relatively well in re-making its central spaces away from cars and towards people. The section of dedicated cycling space in the photo above is directly outside the City Council’s offices on College Green where the Inquiry took place; I was told that this lovely green space was partially reclaimed from motorised traffic in the 1990s. I suspect – as is the case with most big cities which have enjoyed recent gains in cycling – the major challenges now lie elsewhere, further out from the city centre.

And out there be hills! Bristol is unquestionably a hilly city. Mmmm … I admit to feeling slightly awkward when hills are raised as a potential problem to creating a culture of cycling as ordinary. The discussion typically goes as it did at the Inquiry into Cycling Safety in Bristol: Jim Davis, Chair of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, gave a splendid overview of best-practice cycle provision, based mainly on the Netherlands. (It was wonderful to see the work which Jim and others have done – to promote a paradigm shift in thinking about British cycling – recognised by Bristol City Council. Like mine, I take his invitation to Bristol’s Council House as welcome – if tentative – evidence of a ‘turning-point’ in UK cycling policy, planning and provision.) Then came the typical question – ‘isn’t it the case that the Netherlands has a huge advantage, when it comes to getting people cycling, that it’s pan flat?’

Forget the superb provision for cycling – making it the easiest, most convenient and obvious way of moving around Dutch towns and cities – which Jim’s presentation had just evidenced; when it comes down to it, this line of thinking asks, isn’t the difference between a country with high levels of cycling and one without down to topography?

My awkwardness here reminds me of the awkwardness I feel when discussing whether or not cycling’s safe, whether or not people are inherently lazy (and so unlikely to get on bicycles), or whether segregation or integration is the way ahead for UK cycling. It’s an awkwardness based on awareness that both ‘sides’ have a point, but both are sometimes ill-prepared to hear the others’ (put philosophically, we forget to look for a synthesis of the thesis and its antithesis; put psychologically, we’re better at denial and repudiation than exploration and understanding).

As Jim did, I might point out that rates of cycling can be high in hilly places, such as Swiss cities; I might point out that the winds which often blow across the Netherlands are as hard to push against as many hills; I might (following Professor John Parkin) take the ‘engineer’s line’ that hills can usually be mitigated through sensitive planning of cycle routes (reducing gradient by increasing length, basically) or even (as in Trondheim, Norway) through ‘bike-lifts’; or they can be dealt with at the point-of-purchase through electric bikes; or I might suggest that much of Britain is flat (even most of the routes in a supposedly ‘hilly city’ such as my home town of Lancaster are actually surprisingly flat), and even if rates of cycling tend to be a bit higher across the flatter (and drier) eastern side of Britain, they remain far below typical Dutch rates of cycling.

In other words, we can and do make the case that we can successfully override topography through infrastructurally and/or culturally providing for cycling in ways likely to make it normal. But how persuasive is our case? And anyway, my awkwardness remains, a little niggling, nagging uneasiness. For reasons I find hard to identify, I still somehow feel I haven’t successfully answered the question. Perhaps, however well we answer the question, it’s hard (and even perhaps unwise) to evade a fundamental truth? Because we all know, don’t we, that it’s easier to cycle on the flat than in hills? (In much the same way, we all know, don’t we, that it’s actually more pleasurable to cycle in the absence than the presence of motorised traffic?) It may be less exciting, less fun and less interesting to cycle up hills than on the flat, but it’s certainly (all else being equal) easier.

This makes me think I should change tack, when asked such questions in future. First-of-all, up-front, fair-and-square, agree that ‘yes, it’s easier to cycle when it’s flat, and this almost certainly helps to explain why – when it comes to the ‘rich world’ – the Dutch and Danes are most likely to cycle’.

But then second, to insist that:

  1. places are often flatter than realised;
  2. that people often cycle even in hilly places;
  3. our task nonetheless remains – for all the very good reasons which we already know – to get many more people cycling in all places, including hilly ones; and
  4. what we mean by ‘cycling’ isn’t fixed, but can and will change.

When we spoke to people about cycling during the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, perhaps surprisingly, they expressed concerns about hills (and wet weather) much less than they did about heavy and fast-moving traffic. (And looking through the evidence it presented to Bristol City Council, I note that Bristol Cycling Campaign found a similar story when it surveyed rail commuters at the city’s Temple Quay station; over 70% of them identified ‘stressful cycling conditions’ as a reason for not cycling; far above hills and weather.)

People who did not cycle but who were required by our research questions to think about the prospects of their cycling did sometimes mention topography (especially any steep local hills they knew of) and weather (especially rain), as reasons why they’d be unlikely to do so. But our overall impression was that hills (and weather) are far from being the most important reason why people don’t cycle. In Lancaster, perhaps the hilliest (and wettest) of our case study towns, the profile of cycling is probably highest. Topography and weather might influence the amount of cycling undertaken, and the route chosen, but the effect of these fixed factors is much less than the impact of other variables over which we do have some control. That said, I do think that seeing motorised traffic as being more of a barrier to cycling than hills is a function of the cycling which most people currently do. Either they ride exclusively for leisure, in which case they find terrain (and weather conditions) to suit – that usually means flatter ground, alongside rivers, canals and coastlines, or along disused railways. Or else they are relatively ‘serious’ cyclists, for whom hills (and wet weather) aren’t really an issue – they’ve long since equipped themselves with the equipment (range of gears, waterproof clothing) and physical and mental competences to cope.

But in a place which is closer to building a culture of cycling as ordinary, such as Bristol, hills become more of an issue. These places are producing a new kind of cyclist – someone who doesn’t belong either to the ‘hardcore’ and ‘committed’ minority or to the much more sizeable ‘cycling only sociably on summer, sunny Sundays’ contingent. Bristol dubs itself ‘Britain’s first cycling city’. Partly funded by the now defunct Cycling England, it has in recent years enjoyed substantial support for cycling. There are far more cyclists on its streets than I’m used to seeing at home. I believe the current level of cycling is around 8% of all journeys; the target is 20% of all journeys by bike by 2025. That will require cycling to become ‘ordinary’, and given its topography, that will require cycling uphill to become ‘ordinary’.

cyclingSo how do people – including those who aren’t necessarily super-fit, who aren’t necessarily riding high-quality machines with a good range of gears, and who aren’t necessarily inclined to get sweaty – move around a hilly town successfully by bike?

Exploring the city once my work was done, I saw a pub with big plate glass windows at the top of Park Street – exactly the kind of place I like! I got a table in the window and spent a happy couple of hours watching people outside. I was struck by the numbers of people walking their bikes up Park Street, away from the city centre and towards the University.

Please excuse and indulge my naivety here, because I’ll admit to not having noticed so many people pushing their bicycles uphill in an urban environment before. I’m used to the idea of people sometimes pushing their machines up hills when cycle-touring, and occasionally here in Lancaster I’ll see someone get off to push, usually as they head over the canal into the city’s hilly eastern suburbs, or as they approach Lancaster University, which sits on higher ground to the city’s south. But, perhaps because I’ve never really stopped to notice (and stopping to notice is an important strategy when exploring and understanding urban cycling) I’ve never before seen so many people dismount to push their bikes up the same hill.

However, I think this is less about the hill than it is about the place; the main issue to do with ‘ordinary cycling’ and its approach. In Lancaster we’ve not reached ‘ordinary cycling’; people ride mainly for leisure and tend to avoid hills (and – as much as possible – roads), or else they belong to the ‘hardcore’ minority who (almost unthinkingly?) pedal up the hills. Bristol, in contrast, is building a culture of ‘ordinary cycling’. This ordinary cycling will meet hills, and I’m interested to know what happens when it does. The ‘established’ cultures of ordinary cycling developed by the Dutch and Danes haven’t had to tackle this. We can follow them in providing for cycling in most other respects, but not necessarily when the road rises. We’re entering another dimension …

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So next morning I abandoned my plans for a long ride around Bristol and set off to the foot of Park Street instead. The road rises from the docks and heads out of the city towards Bristol University. As it runs adjacent to College Green and the Council House, there’s a dedicated cycle lane. A bit further, and this gives out, near the bottom of the hill.

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It’s (deliberately?) ambiguous, what you do here. Riding alone, I would take to the road. Riding with my kids, I’d stick to the (shared space?) pavement (or sidewalk). But as you continue up Park Street, it’s increasingly obvious that cycling’s ‘proper place’ is on the road. And though the pavement remains wide, most people I saw were indeed cycling on the road.

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I imagine that it’s about now that you clearly feel you’re on a climb. The gradient ratchets up a notch, you can see the road stretching ahead of you, and you know you’re in for a work-out.

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A bit further along, the pavement narrows again, and it’s become obvious by now that cycling should be on the road. As the gradient kicks in, hitting (I’m guessing) around 10%, people respond in different ways.

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Some rise out the saddle, but on the whole I was surprised by how many people don’t. There is obviously more stuff to say about types of bikes and ranges of gears here, but I’m not going to (I’ve rambled on enough already) … I will note, though, that I saw a few guys (only guys, and two of them were I think messengers) riding fixed-gear up Park Street (no photos, I’m afraid), but none riding down – did I miss them, or do they descend via a different route?

Researching this piece, I find there’s been a hill climb on this section of road in the last couple of years, though one which doesn’t take place at the traditional ‘roadies’ hill climb time of year, which is autumn, but in February. Riders use different kinds of machine to tackle a 250 metre stretch of the hill – it looks an ace evening’s entertainment!

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I’m sorry to generalise in such ugly sociological fashion, but my guess is that different ‘types of people’ ride the hill at different times of day. The previous evening, sat in the pub at the top, more people seemed to be pushing their bikes, and looked to be returning home from work. In the morning, I’d guess many riders to be students and/or lecturers, and a higher proportion of them – in fact, the majority – rode. Indeed, most people seemed to be riding up quite comfortably.

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A few people rode Bromptons. Unsurprisingly, given they don’t have the same range of gears as more ‘standard’ bikes, most of their riders were pushing rather than pedalling, though here’s an exception …

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The line of riders going up was fairly continuous. Some rode faster, some slower.

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The photo below gives a sense of the climb’s length. Certainly, it’s not a climb you can bludgeon your way over – it lasts long enough that you must decide how you’re going to engage with it, the attitude you’re going to take. You can see there’s no specific provision for cycling; the carriageway is sufficiently wide, and cycling speeds sufficiently low, that this didn’t seem to cause any problems. (I’d expect inter-modal conflict to be more common, and more a problem, going down.)

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But it would be surprising if everyone rode up this hill, and of course they don’t. A lot of people get off and push. I saw some people do this almost from the foot of the hill, but more often people rode until the hill ramped up, and dismounted there, at the steepest section.

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Following people as they pushed their bicycles up the hill, it struck me that here is a simple, rational and straightforward way of tackling ‘the problem’ of hills. The people I saw didn’t look tired, stressed or embarrassed by their ‘decision’ to dismount; they walked uphill with their bikes in a composed way, as if it was entirely normal, which of course it is. So perhaps their strategy doesn’t recognise ‘a problem’ at all? Pushing is something you simply do when you don’t want to ride. (There are questions arising from this preliminary observational work which could only be tackled through stopping to talk with people – how do they experience the act of stopping pedalling and starting to push?)

The one pre-requisite, you’ll perhaps notice, for this pushing strategy to work is a broad pavement (or sidewalk), which Park Street has.

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These people demonstrate how hills aren’t a barrier to cycling; they’re only a barrier to a particular, and rather fixed, conception of cycling. ‘Ordinary cycling’ can adapt to hills in different ways, and perhaps in the process challenge and change our understandings of what it means to move around cities by cycle.

To see people dismount to push their machines through junctions or along stretches of road which have effectively ‘designed-out’ cycling is one thing; it is to see evidence of active discrimination against cycling on the part of politicians, transport planners and engineers. I have talked to many people who push rather than ride their machines through difficult junctions and along busy roads, and they do so because they are terrified by the thought of pedalling through those hostile conditions. But this doesn’t mean that any time people are ‘forced’ to dismount there’s a problem. And to see people dismount in order to negotiate a hill which they consider too steep to ride is a different matter. People push their machines for many reasons: to accompany friends on foot; to negotiate pedestrian-dominated space; to browse from shop-to-shop along a high street. The bicycle’s size and easy manoeuvrability gives its user a flexibility unavailable to people travelling by car.

We should I think then celebrate, rather than unduly concern ourselves with, the fact that here is a machine which – if ever the ground rises too sharply and the going gets too tough for our liking – can be pushed as well as pedalled. Where we should concern ourselves is first, with ensuring pavements are sufficiently wide to accommodate not only pedestrians but also those who choose to dismount, and second, with ensuring an openness and tolerance towards different styles of cycling sufficient to ensure no-one feels maligned and marginalised.

As ‘ordinary cycling’ grows the visibility of the current ‘hardcore’ who tend to ride hills come-what-may will steadily diminish. Their (our) way of cycling will gradually become just one possible way of cycling. And that’s good. We want cycling to be ‘ordinary’ (easy, convenient and obvious) not only in flat places, but in hilly places too. And that is perfectly possible. There’s no ‘failure’ in walking a bike up a hill; only ‘success’ in another person making another journey by/with bicycle.

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My happy morning of sociological fieldwork took a turn for the even better whilst I mooched around near the top of Park Street, where who should I bump into? The most straightforward – and I think perhaps the best – sociologist I’ve ever known, Dr Ben Fincham, also on a short visit to the city and caught here in the act of parking his bike. Ben’s doctoral work comprised a fascinating (almost ruthlessly unromantic) ethnography of bicycle messengers, and he is one of the founders of the Cycling and Society Research Group. Whenever we talk – which is alas too little – I am always bowled over by his ability to cut through stultifying academic convention and speak honestly but still sociologically from the heart. It was fantastic to so unexpectedly bump into him, and spend a couple of hours drinking coffee in his company.

Back on Park Street, I had a train to catch, and headed down to the city centre. Yet of course, I’ve told only half the story, the uphill half (and only a small part of that, based as it is solely on observation. Any Bristol-based sociology or cultural geography students out there, looking for a research project?). I watched riders fly down Park Street at 30 mph or more. A couple of times I flinched. With motorised traffic, including HGVs (heavy goods vehicles) and buses, many parked cars and a fair few side streets, this is an ‘interesting’ environment to be riding so fast, and the other side of the ‘hilly coin’. For starters I’d suggest hilly cities are not only more demanding of people’s physical capacities going up, but also of their psychological capacities going down. But how ‘ordinary cycling’ might adapt to them, and they to it, are questions for another day (unless there are people out there (and I’m sure there are) who can already tell us something about ‘ordinary’ downhill riding in hilly cities?).

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Finally, apologies for the blurriness of my photos – I’m technically inept and, Sue tells me, had the camera set up for portraits. Whoops!