What kind of place is Morecambe prom?
And what does cycling on the prom say about cycling more generally?
Morecambe prom is somewhere between the local and the global, nature and culture; and cycling is a key actor.
Until 2006 you weren’t meant to cycle along the prom, though we did – a little defiantly (“how ridiculous! So much space!”) but uncomfortably too, with one ear listening out for disapproving remarks.
But now we can. I spoke to the City Council meeting which voted to change cycling’s status. I stressed the prom’s potential as a utility route – it lines the coastal edge of a linear town. But it was easier in this seaside place to insist on its relevance to tourism. Our prom, I said
“is a potentially very major tourist draw, and we should be able to sell it as such.
“Blackpool, Bournemouth, Brighton, Deal, Dover, Exmouth, Hartlepool, Hastings, Margate, Maryport, North Tyneside, Poole, Saltburn, South Shields, Sunderland, Swansea. All welcome cycling on their proms. All recognise cycling’s importance, not least to the local tourist economy.”
To ride the prom is to trace a boundary. Both the land on one side and bay on the other are constantly changing, but your place between them is constant; almost as though you the cyclist mark the point between nature and culture.
Along one stretch the low, constant rumble of traffic is occasionally broken by the high-pitched trilling of seaside birds feeding on the shore. The wind can be blowing you sideward within metres of buildings full of life oblivious to the weather. Shoreline smells of salt and seaweed combine with those of buses, chips and bacon butties. You look out towards hills, mud, water and sky, and in towards playgrounds, pubs and streets full of cars.
Morecambe’s placed between two identities.
Signs of the twin forces of dereliction and regeneration are everywhere.
Two of the town’s most distinctive features seem equally but contrastingly symbolic – the Polo Tower stands waiting for the return of excitable kids and candy-floss, The Midland Hotel brings in suited conference delegates by day, and well-heeled migrants from further afield for a night or two.
Resort towns must make something of themselves, persuade people they’re worth a visit. Morecambe developed from the railway. Among Yorkshire mill-workers it was ‘Bradford-on-Sea’. The town’s newspaper, The Visitor, was aimed not at locals but holiday-makers; initially it was published only in summer. Back then everybody wanted a sea view and the town stretched out accommodatingly around the bay.
But Britain’s urban industrial labour force has shrunk, and people now prefer planes to warmer climes more than trains to here. Those who can have abandoned Morecambe for exotic elsewheres, whilst some of those who can’t have moved in, and become trapped.
Morecambe is remarkably flat and poor. Shouldn’t cycling prosper here?
The town stretches around the flat bay. Bird life teems across the enormous tidal reach. The views are gorgeous, the sunsets sometimes spectacular. Its standing is a tourist town and regenerative efforts play heavily on Morecambe’s ‘USP’, its vantage point, its prom.
The unfolding panorama afforded by traversing such a long, smooth but otherwise marginal promenade makes the bicycle the obvious twenty-first century vehicle choice. The prom is made for cycling.
Nature and cycling are the regenerative forces for a middle-class culture. Though they’ll ride the line between the two, people come in their cars to ride their bikes around a bay full of birds, not a town full of problems. On the prom the cyclist can enjoy the coast oblivious to and immune from what lurks inland.
The prom belongs more to the cosmopolitans in whose hands the town’s hopes of regeneration mainly lie, rather than to locals.
So it remains easier to imagine and construct the prom as a leisure rather than utility cycling route. Cycling is understood as a practice which other people – people not from here – do. Cycling is not seen as something which local people do or might do, even though seeing it that way would contribute to a different, and better, stronger, more sustainable, kind of regeneration.
That the prom is global more than local makes its current lack of integration with the town easier to overlook.
But how likely is it that the prom could become an ‘ordinary route for ordinary people making ordinary journeys’?
Clearly, the problem is not simply infrastructural. In the back streets of Morecambe you see people cycling. Most ride cheap bikes; they jump from them at the last minute before disappearing into shops, the back wheel still spinning on the pavement outside.
But to ride a bike beyond necessity, you’ve got to:
- want to bike;
- get a bike;
- keep a bike;
- maintain a bike;
and if cycling’s not normal, all these things are hard.
Lack of interest in cycling is an inevitable consequence of a social, political, cultural and economic environment with neither cues nor props to cycle. In such an environment it will be mainly privileged people who choose to cycle, and perhaps partly to communicate their privilege.
The problem of mass non-cycling might not be simply infrastructural, but its solution needs to be infrastructure-led. People won’t cycle in any numbers if they can’t cycle easily. The smooth, wide prom is a super novice-friendly cycle route but without a car it’s impossible to reach without riding on roads over which cars rule. Along the prom sign-posts to other places are excellent, but road conditions in places from which people without cars must travel to the prom are dire.
Morecambe’s prom is a slim glimpse of the cycling facility people want, but like cycling itself it exists on the margin, lining a coast to which birds flock but people don’t; it’s entertained here because space existed and re-making it for cycling would draw in tourists, not because it could serve local journeys of local people.
Morecambe prom is effectively a cycling bypass, both of the town and of the lives of the majority of people who live there. Which is a pity.
So seven years on, it turns out that letting cycling onto the prom was only the start of the story. The next chapter involves getting local people cycling here.
Doing what’s required to make Morecambe prom for local cycling would be to follow a bolder, more distinctive path to regeneration; and one which could help the town thrive without depending so much on the tourist potential of its natural setting.
It involves re-making the town, and not just its prom, for cycling.