Was it the venue – the prestigious University of Oxford?
Was it the marvellous organisation of Tim Jones?
Is it that research into cycling is really on the up?
Is it a reflection of cycling’s growing popularity?
Whatever the reasons, this year’s Cycling and Society Symposium, which took place earlier this week, was the biggest yet.
Far more paper abstracts were submitted than could possibly be squeezed into a one-day programme – which was the first sign that the event’s appeal had broadened. Tim invited me, along with Henrietta Sherwin from the University of the West of England and John Parkin (who I think we can call the UK’s first ‘Professor of Cycling’!) from London’s South Bank University, to help him review the abstracts. It was hard to turn down so many submissions, given that they all sounded interesting and covered important topics. But on the upside, I think we came up with a blistering programme, which included researchers at very different stages of their careers (including I think I’m right in saying our first ever presentation from an undergraduate – Samuel Johns’ excellent exploration of the fixie phenomenon), from varied backgrounds (with Andy Cope, head of Sustrans’ Research and Monitoring Unit, giving the day’s last paper – which I took as a call for us academics to try harder to make our research really count), from around the world (Jennifer Bonham is over from Australia, and Peter Pelzer came across from Amsterdam), and orienting to an eclectic mix of highly pertinent themes (interactions between cycling/cyclists and others; gender, and the lifecourse; cycling cultures and sub-cultures; theory into practice).
More people came than ever before too. Around 50 of us, crammed into a splendidly light and airy room at the University Club, overlooking the cricket pitch (I was last in this room for an advisory board meeting of the project I work on, which unfortunately coincided with the opening match of this year’s World Cup, between South Africa and Mexico – supporters of those teams had congregated to watch the match in the room below, and we upstairs valiantly struggled to make ourselves heard above the irrepressible cacophony of vuvuzelas). Although I am obviously favourably predisposed to say such a thing, I think the Cycling and Society Symposia have become – in my experience – among the more inclusive spaces within academia; cycle campaigners mix sit alongside university lecturers, local authority practitioners next to Masters and PhD students – and everyone seems to get along famously and to be able to make their voices heard. For a perspective from one first-time attendee, you can check out the account composed by Kevin Hickman, Chair of the Inclusive Cycling Forum, on the Sustainable Witney website.
Congratulations and thanks to Tim and his Oxford team for a really magnificent event. Here’s the lovely man himself – I can say that because we know each other pretty well, having first met at the event I organised in Lancaster back in 2004, having both stuck with research into cycling since then, and now finding ourselves working together on a ‘proper project’.
Although it’s far from cycle-friendly, Oxford is the most cycle-friendly city to so far host the Symposium (previous venues being Lancaster, Cardiff, Chester, Guildford, Bristol and Bolton), and I enjoyed pedalling between the train station, the Symposium venue and Tim’s house, where I stayed the night. It’s the second time I’ve cycled in and around Oxford this year, and I have two main, obvious and blunt observations.
First, the number of people on bikes is striking. Lancaster, where I live, is seen as a relatively good place to cycle, and it has been one of Cycling England’s ‘cycling (demonstration) towns’ for five years now; yet I never feel part of a steady stream of cyclists – and so I never feel ‘normal’ – in the way I do when riding around Oxford. The students aren’t back yet, but the number of people moving around by bike is staggeringly high relative to Lancaster. Of course, it could be much higher – all I want to note here is how the experience of cycling is so qualitatively different in such a place. I don’t feel out of place, I don’t feel like I’m trying to make a point. Much more than I ever do around Lancaster, I consciously feel like I’m simply riding a bike.
Second, the increased prevalence of cycling clearly translates into altered behaviour among drivers of motorised vehicles. I want to say much more about this in the context of our recent family cycle-touring holiday in south-west France when I get the chance, but … I think there’s a discernible difference in the way in which car drivers interact with cyclists between Oxford and Lancaster. I want to stress that it is a minor difference, but a minor difference which nonetheless translates into a major qualitative leap in my sense of cycling ease, comfort and security. Cycling in Oxford I was still vigilant; I still often felt hemmed in and threatened by cars; cycling with Tim two-abreast down a quiet and narrow one-way back street with a 20 mph limit, I still felt vaguely discomforted and harassed by cars approaching from behind – almost as if we were doing something wrong; I still felt cars had priority and that I was fitting in as best I could around the edges. But I also felt noticed; I felt that motorists recognised my presence; and I felt that motorists were prepared to – and did – alter their behaviour because of my presence. Of course motorists in Lancaster also do all these things, but sitting on my bike in Lancaster, it doesn’t feel like they do these things, whereas sitting on my bike in Oxford, it does feel like motorists there do. I suspect it comes down to very small changes – a few miles per hour knocked off the motorist’s speed as they approach you, a few extra centimetres clearance as they come past, a few extra seconds willingness to wait, rather than steer into your path - but, especially when they’re taken together, from the cyclist’s point-of-view these very small changes really matter.
I’m sure cyclists in Oxford take this extra little recognition and courtesy for granted, which of course they should. And they should also be expecting much, much more. But for me the lesson of this little comparative study between Lancaster and Oxford is clear, and it pretty much follows CTC’s Safety in Numbers campaign - our road environment can be civilised, and every little step we take in civilising our road environment will result in a noticeable improvement in the quality of the cycling experience. There’s a chicken-and-egg here; the number of cyclists in Oxford has over time altered the behaviours of motorists, but how do you alter the behaviours of motorists when you don’t have the cyclists to help? To me, it looks like we need a few more rules and regulations in advance, to legislate for the kinds of behaviours which have emerged more organically, more culturally in a place like Oxford. It could be a failure of my imagination, but I can’t how we can make the behaviour of motorists more generous and civilised towards cyclists without, for example, introducing urban wide speed limits of 20 mph, and without change liability rules to put greater responsibilities on motorists in the event of collisions with more vulnerable others. Introduce those things and I’m fairly confident we’d need the quantity of cycle parking in Lancaster which they currently enjoy in Oxford, and in Oxford they’d need the quantity of cycle parking which the citizens of Dutch cities currently enjoy; in other words, we’d see a step-change in levels of cycling across the UK.