This is the first in a series of short case studies examining how different people do and don’t move around English cities by cycle. (With luck and a tailwind, I aim to do about ten between now and Christmas.) Like those which will follow, it comes from fieldwork I conducted as part of the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, which ran between 2008 and 2011.
People’s own words are always within speech marks and italicised. I’ll sometimes add words in [...], [like this], in an attempt to clarify potentially unclear meaning. I have changed people’s names, and am not drawing direct attention to locations (partly in a bid to make it harder to identify people, and partly because I believe the issues I’m trying to raise are not specific to place, but are much more general – certainly across urban Britain, and I think further afield too).
Most of the data I’m using comes from either a sit-down interview (which usually took place in people’s own homes); or from conversations and observations undertaken before, during and after riding alongside (and/or behind) people making one of their usual journeys by bike.
1. Rick’s cycling story
Rick is in his forties. He lives with his wife and dog in a modest but comfortable terraced house about a mile out of the city centre. He and his wife have a car and a bike each.
Rick works as a peripatetic care worker, moving between the homes of disabled clients, who – with his help – live independently.
Although he uses a car for many of his other journeys, and walks extensively, Rick has recently switched from driving to cycling as his main way of getting around at work.
“For the last two months I’ve been going round by bike. I got sick to death of the traffic, absolutely sick to death, especially with the road works when they were doing them. It drove me crazy. I just got sick to death of it; you’re stuck in traffic and you can’t get round quick enough. And now it’s actually quicker.”
His decision to start cycling for work can be dated: “6th October I made the decision. Stuck in traffic for an hour. Gridlock. I was just angry and also, you can’t get to people; I’m going to see diabetics who need regular feeding, regular insulin and regular tablets; if you are late for them it’s dangerous.”
His employer has been “quite supportive”, allowing him to shift his workload towards a set of clients within an area small enough to be cycled. He carries stuff in a ruck-sack (he has considered, but decided against, at least for now, panniers).
A big problem is finding somewhere to park his bike outside clients’ homes – “it’s not a posh bike, it’s not worth a tenner, but that is a problem”. (At home he stores his bike in the backyard; his wife’s bike, stored in the cellar, “doesn’t get used very much at all.”)
Nonetheless, he does feel a certain stigma. “There is a down side to it though. People do think you are somehow poor – ‘you’ve not come in a car?’, ‘you’ve not driven?’ As though it’s a little bit weird … Certainly for some people in the office it’s a bit of an odd thing to do, to choose to do it, because you are also given a [car] mileage allowance.”
There’s no mileage allowance for cycling journeys; only those made by car. This allowance normalises car use amongst his colleagues, and renders his choice to cycle less ‘logical’. Perhaps strangely, Rick doesn’t mind not getting a cycling allowance: “Fair do’s I suppose; there’s no cost to it, it’s the bike that I actually had when I came [to this town] so it’s 15 years old. What’s a helmet and a few batteries?”.
Rick cycled more regularly in the past, but for ten years until recently he’d become an occasional leisure cyclist – he’d go on a ride, perhaps with his wife, on a sunny summer’s day. As he says, it was local traffic congestion which got him more regularly back in the saddle, but he’s also aware that cycling is saving him money and could help combat growing middle-aged spread:
“I have felt a lot better, an awful lot better this last couple of months … I actually feel a lot healthier, I’ve lost 6 pounds which is bound to go on over Christmas, but it’s best to lose it then put it on again, rather than have it on all the time; I’ve felt a lot younger actually strangely enough and I’ve had a warm self-satisfied ‘I’m doing my bit’ glow to myself. So it’s worked quite well”.
He enjoys cycling “big time, but I’m not evangelical about it.”
The weather hadn’t put him off thus far. He started cycling regularly in October, which “was nice wasn’t it? … I got into it. And then the rain came in November. I thought ‘oh well, I’m hard, I used to be hard, it didn’t used to bother me. Just do it’.”
Talking to Rick about how he connects his clients’ homes by bike, I’m struck by how skilled is his route planning; “Well I walk the dog so I use the same routes as for walking, walking the dog”.
A new walking and cycling link through the hospital and over the canal is “a boon to me, because you can go from here to [another area] without going on the main road … and it’s flat and it’s safe and it’s doable for me.”
Rick’s figured out how best to keep off the main roads. He knows all the quietest routes; he utilises bridleways (“mud’s nothing to me”). Some of his methods are ingenious; “When I’m around [particular suburb], instead of using the main road there are lots of alley ways; although they are cobbled it keeps you off the road and that’s the one thing I am really worried about.”
But of course, Rick’s routes aren’t always coherent; they can’t always get him where he needs to go. So, what happens then?
“I don’t like going on the road, particularly [name of road, very close to his home], which I find the most dangerous, frightening experience, especially the pinch points round by the post office and the fish shop because you get the traffic there, the narrow lanes, you get parking either side, you get the wagons [trucks] which have been sent through town.”
“The buses and wagons thunder past, and the number of times I’ve had to pull in off the road on to the pavement because they don’t seem to give a monkey’s.”
So Rick avoids riding on these bigger local roads. But he’s not a pavement cyclist. When he’s forced onto the pavement, he dismounts and pushes his bike.
He also pushes his bike up the sharper short hills in the district – “you do use the gradient; it works”.
Rick avoids this traffic island (photo below) too (although since talking to him, it has undergone changes in an effort to make it more legible and welcoming to cyclists unwilling to negotiate it by road); “I’ve had a couple of run-ins there … I’m frightened in that respect.”
His basic position is clear, and something he reiterates at various points during our conversation: “I don’t feel safe. Cars and bikes don’t always mix. Particularly, it’s the big wagons and the big buses. I don’t want to get killed or knocked off”. At his age, he says, “you do think about it, you don’t have the same blasé attitude to it.”
But still, he rides …
There’s a deep – and I think very revealing – irony to Rick’s story. The ‘final straw’ which got him cycling was road-works at a key local junction, which for a while caused serious congestion, and made it difficult for him to make his usual journeys by car. These road-works were aimed at re-designing the junction in cycle-friendly ways. The works represented a big and high-profile investment in cycling.
Yet Rick still won’t cycle through this junction.
“This sounds quite cowardly but at [name of junction] I’ll get off my bike and walk it through because I don’t like going through that amount of traffic. I’d much rather stay off the road and away from the vehicular traffic.”
Have the recent changes not improved things?
“I don’t see any difference at all. I really don’t, because having the red bits at traffic lights in front of cars, I don’t feel confident enough and I don’t think many people do, to go out in there. You want to be at the side, cyclists generally tend to do that. It seems they’ve spent an awful lot of money and there’s been absolutely no improvement for anybody. I’d rather go under the canal or get off and walk there.
Rick gets off and walks his bicycle across other junctions, such as the one below, which has also been rendered ‘cycle-friendly’. (You can see that Rick is not alone in taking to the pavement here, though some riders don’t dismount.)
What would Rick like to see?
“Proper cycle paths – separate or on the quiet roads. There are little bits of red and it’s no good having them, because as soon as you come to the difficult points and the pinch points where the cars are parked, you have to go out … these little stop, start ones – stop, start, stop, start.”
“Separate cycle tracks, they’re the big thing, because you feel a lot more safe.”